White Man's Grave - continued

"Go ahead, Tom," Randall said into his speakerphone, adjusting the volume so the other lawyers in attendance could hear, while Tom Bilksteen yammered over the speaker, his voice sounding like the Minotaur calling on a cellular phone from the bowels of the Cretan labyrinth.

"Wait a second!" barked Randall. "Who's in there with you?"

"What do you mean?" said Bilksteen. "Nobody's with me. I'm in my office alone and the door is shut."

"Then pick up, you piece of shit," yelled Randall, his belligerence belied by the grin he showed his associates. "You're not putting me on speaker just because you're too damn lazy to lift the receiver. Pick up, goddamnit!"

Mack sat in the preferred chair at Randall's right hand, wrote a message on his legal pad, and held it up, showing Randall a scrawl that said: "Should we tell him?

Randall shook his head, slowly and definitely, another grin spreading the width of his face. He tore off the page and fed it to his bear.

"Touchy, touchy," said Bilksteen, picking up his phone, his voice surfacing from the nether regions.

One associate was never enough for any matter entrusted to Randall Killigan, and two associates who took seats in the hard-back chairs in front of Randall's desk neatly personified his mixed feelings about female attorneys. Liza Spoontoon was single, brilliant, and homely, all of which in Randall's book would earn her a ride on the bus, if she had the fare. But she was also a succinct and combative legal writer and turned in billable hours that made the firm accountants whistle softly into their computer screens. She was in Randall's office be cause she was the best legal draftsman in the firm and had authored a memorandum in support of a lift-stay motion that was going to end the career of the lawyer at the other end of the line.

The other female attorney was Marissa Whitlow Carbuncle-an initially appealing, highly intelligent redhead with a nervous, unhappy smile, whose good looks were promptly ruined for Randall when he learned she was a feminist. Her husband was a thoracic surgeon, and she had two small children, meaning she had taken three months of maternity leave at full pay, not once, but twice. She was in Randall's office because he had sent for her, so he could try once more to make her life so miserable she would quit the firm before she became eligible for partnership consideration.

In Randall's book, both women should be voted down for partner because neither one of them had ever brought in a single new piece of business. If Randall had his way, he would give Spontoon a 20 percent pay raise and make her a permanent associate, and he would sent Whitlow home to raise her kids, or off to California, where she could join one of those politically correct, multicultural law firms with enlightened attitudes about working for a living. The people on the compensation and partnership committees annually and shrilly accused Killigan of chauvinism and sex discrimination.

"I'm not a chauvinist," he had objected. "All I want is for everyone to be treated equally. I'll stay home for three months and look after my family if you guys send me the same draw I make billing sixty hours a week down here."

Randall had struggled with his conscience. He wanted to understand. "Let me get this straight," he had pleaded with the management committee. "We are supposed to pay Whitlow good money for not working, right? You and I, we'll stay down here on Saturday afternoons billing time, and Whitlow will be home knitting booties, right? Three months at full salary for no work, is that it? Why stop there? Let's make her a fucking dairy farmer so we can pay her for not producing milk too!"

Randall made no secret of his opinion of Ms. Whitlow's chances for partnership and his avid search for the most mundane, time-consuming work he could possibly find to assign her, via E-mail, on Friday evenings at six o'clock. She in turn made no secret of her sudden interest in the law of sex discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace, specifically a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case called Hopkins v. Price Waterhouse, in which a female accountant sued and won after being denied partnership in an international accounting firm. Whitlow also told Randall that she believed his use of foul and obscene language in the workplace constituted an oppressive environment within the meaning of Title VII. Randall marveled at the way she drew him a map, with diagrams and a big red arrow, and a legend that said: This is my hot button. Push it if you want to make me absolutely miserable.

Threatening Randall with litigation was like sending him two free tickets to a Chicago Bulls game at the Hoosier Dome, center court and six rows up. Just the rumor of a sex discrimination suit had Randall salivating and humming to himself: visions of Whitlow on the witness stand with a bloody nose; Whitlow thrown out on her ass by a directed verdict after her own evidence showed she had the lowest billable hours in the entire firm; Whitlow trying to explain how she had to stay home for three months and earn twenty thousand dollars plus benefits to a jury of slack-jawed minimum-wagers who could not believe they were listening to a woman who made eighty thousand dollars a year complain about hearing a bankruptcy lawyer use the F-word. Please sue me, Randall pleaded in his daydreams, and don't forget, I like it hard and fast.

All three associates were avidly taking notes of the attorney's voice coming over the speakerphone (all probably taking the same notes, Randall guessed), not that the voice was saying anything of consequence. Note taking was something Randall noticed most associates did, because they were being billed out at over $125 an hour and wanted to justify the expense by looking busy. In time, they would be nourished along their career paths and weaned of their legal pads, given Dictaphones and speakerphones, until they achieved the serene self-confidence of senior partners, who never touched writing utensils, and charged over $200 an hour just for thinking about legal problems.

The voice on the speakerphone-still yammering-belonged to Tom Bilksteen, the attorney for a limited partnership that owned a hundred-unit condominium complex called Beach Cove. Randall's client, Comco Banks, had lent the Beach Cove partners fifteen million dollars in secured loans to build suburban paradise around a man-made lake, which was to be advertised as "only twenty-five minutes from downtown Indianapolis." Then the bond issue to build the spur connecting Beach Cove to Interstate 70 was voted down, leaving ninety empty Beach Cove condominium units and ten gullible souls who sat in traffic listening to drive-time talk shows, behind cars waiting to make left turns off of congested two-lane suburban thoroughfares, and then made it downtown in a little over an hour, on Sunday mornings.

The Beach Cove partners defaulted on their loan; Randall and Comco moved in to foreclose; and Bilksteen put Beach Cove into Chapter 11. Now Bilksteen was taunting Randall over the speakerphone, safe in the knowledge that the U.S. Bankruptcy Code explicitly provided for something called an "automatic stay" of all creditor attempts to collect from the debtor or seize the debtor's property, which meant that Randall and Comco could not foreclose on Beach Cove or get any of the bank's money back out of the project for at least a year, probably longer. Although Randall and his people had filed a motion to lift the automatic stay, Bilksteen and every other bankruptcy lawyer knew that lift-stay motions-though almost always filed-were almost always denied.

Bilksteen was savoring this minor triumph, jerking Randall's chain, telling him that Comco would be lucky to get ten cents on the dollar for the fifteen million it had lent to the Beach Cove partners and that if Randall did not cooperate with him, he would keep the property tied up in bankruptcy court for three years.

"Three years with all that money earning no interest," Bilksteen said. "I don't know, Randall. I'd be wanting to deal if I were Comco."

What Bilksteen did not know was that Randall's protege, Mack, had played softball just last night with U.S. bankruptcy judge Richard Foote's law clerk, a classmate of Mack at Northwestern. After a few cold frosties, the clerk had let slip that Judge Foote, Randall's favorite bankruptcy judge, was going to grant Randall's motion to lift the stay on the Beach Cove properties and allow Randall's client Comco to foreclose on the complex immediately. A lift-stay order from Judge Foote would mortally wound Beach Cove, would legally annihilate the Beach Cove partners, and would publicly humiliate Bilksteen, who would be the laughingstock of the bankruptcy bar as soon as the word got out that he could not even protect his clients by filing a simple single-asset bankruptcy.

By Randall's reckoning, Judge Foote would probably issue the lift-stay order after he got back from lunch, meaning that in another hour or so the court clerk would be calling Bilksteen with the news, and Bilksteen would be turning a bluish gray, rummaging through his desk drawers looking for his nitroglycerin tablets.

"You know, Killigan," said Bilksteen, "sooner or later you and the other creditors are going to have to come to the table and give the condo people a deal they can live with."

Randall decided it was time to use the mute button on the speakerphone. When pressed, the button cut off voice transmission from Killigan's end of the line without affecting reception, allowing those in attendance to both listen to the caller and carry on private conversations, while the party at the other end of the line remained oblivious that Killigan and his crew were doing anything but listening attentively.

Bilksteen blustered over the speakerphone about how Randall and Comco would be forced to accept an unfavorable plan of reorganization, how moths would eat the bound pleadings in the case before Comco saw a penny of its money. Killigan grinned at Whitlow, then fetched a Halloween broadsword he used for a letter opener and kept in a plastic scabbard at the console. He grasped the hilt daggerstyle and stabbed the speakerphone, depressing the mute button with the plastic point of the toy sword.

"You pathetic village idiot," Killigan said over Bilksteen's legal patter. "You can use your goddamned plan of reorganization as insulation in your shithouse, boy. I am going to cut your fucking head off and mount it on a pike in the middle of your front lawn, understand?"

Mack smirked. Spontoon covered her mouth and giggled. Whitlow's face flushed and then drained, leaving a livid mask dotted with freckles. She thought about leaving, until Bilksteen said something about exchanging discovery, which was her responsibility, according to the E-mail message Randall had issued when he summoned her to his royal chambers.

Killigan released the mute button. "Sure," said Killigan, wagging slightly in his recliner and cleaning a thumbnail with the point of the broadsword. "Sure, Tom, we'll get you that discovery this afternoon, right after we get Judge Foote's order on the lift-stay motion." Killigan again poked the mute button with the toy sword. "And after I cut your head off, I'm going to pull your guts out and feed them to the family dog."

"Yeah," said Bilksteen. "I can't believe you guys bill your clients for those ridiculous lift- stay motions. I mean, when was the last time a bankruptcy judge granted one?"

Mack all but swallowed his tongue in stifling a belly laugh.

"Gee," Randall said without a wrinkle. "You know, you've got me there, Tom. It's been a while since Judge Foote granted a lift-stay motion in a case as big as this one. You know, I've always admired your horse sense about these things. You didn't go to Michigan like I did, and you're not sitting on top of the biggest firm in town like I am, but you are one smart lawyer, Mr. Bilksteen." The sword stabbed the mute button. "You pig's ass. Get yourself all hog-dressed and go waddle into Judge Foote's court, because you are going to come out a six-foot fucking sausage!"

"Shucks," Bilksteen said, "I just try and do my job."

Killigan released the mute button.

"You won't tell Comco how we've been wasting their money on a lift-stay motion, will you?" Randall asked, sliding Mack a look that said: What do other people do for fun?

"Your secret's safe with me," Bilksteen said with a benevolent chuckle. "Long as you give me a break on down the ways."

"You bet," Randall said, then stabbed the mute button. "Break your neck for you in an act of mercy maybe. At least I'll put your clients out of their misery."

"So you'll be sending somebody over with discovery this afternoon?"

"That's right," Randall said. "Right after we get the order from Judge Foote on the lift- stay motion. I'll talk to you then."

Randall was having the time of his life, but he had phone calls to make. And he saw a message from his stockbroker flash in white letters across the sea-blue screen of his desktop computer: "Merck up 4 1/2 on big volume. You are a very wealthy man."

Let the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation; Randall was busy leading one of riotous exaltation. Let timid, cowardly investors follow the prevailing wisdom of the balanced portfolio; Randall dumped all the money he could get his hands on into Merck, a year ago, when it was trading down around sixty bucks a share. These days it was bouncing up from a floor of 160, while the rest of the market was comatose.

"OK, Whitlow," said Randall after he hung up the phone. "You heard the man. Mr. Bilksteen needs his discovery this afternoon."

"I thought Judge Foote was issuing a lift-stay order?" Whitlow said, glancing at her watch with a look that said lunch plans. "If we get a lift-stay order, the discovery on the condominium properties will be moot."

"Do we have a lift-stay order?" asked Randall.

"No," said Whitlow, "but . . ."

"Well? Until we do, we will comply with the rules of the court and prepare to provide our adversary with the discovery he has requested. If you have our responses to the interrogatories and the requests for production of documents as well as the documents themselves on my desk by two o'clock, I can look them over before my two-thirty conference call from New York."

He dismissed the associates with a backhanded flip of the broadsword and looked once more at the black egg in its nest of newspapers. Maybe there's a shrunken head inside, he thought. Maybe he should have someone call his wife and ask her if Michael had said anything about sending a package from West Africa. This would take time and might lead to a conversation with his wife, which would take even more time because her conversations typically wandered all over the map of pointless and irrelevant topics, none of them having a thing to do with bankruptcy or advancing his career. She was one of those innocents who thought she could call one of the most powerful bankruptcy attorneys in the Seventh Circuit--who was billed out at over $300 an hour, a third higher than any other partner in the firm--and just kind of meander along in aimless conversation.

Other people do not live this way, he often realized. They could never handle the incessant pressure, the competition, the dizzying heights, the long way down if there was just one slipup. To the rabble, self-discipline meant trying to watch less TV or lose weight. They could never live in mortal combat for months on end, litigating eight hours a day, then going back to the office and spending another eight hours preparing for the next day's campaign. He could say it, couldn't he? They were his inferiors. What were all those postal employees and factory workers doing while he was in law school reading law books twelve hours a day? They were putting in their six-and-a-half-hour shifts with two fifteen-minute breaks and an hour for lunch. Then they went home and sat on the couch with a bag of chips, a liter of diet soda, and The Brady Bunch. And how did society reward him? By taxing him.

"What are you doing now?" Mack asked his boss, watching Randall rummage through a red jacket pouch from the DropCo case.

"What am I doing now?" Randall repeated, opening several spreadsheets, which described the assets of DropCo Steel Inc. "I'm sitting here hoping a Democrat gets elected President."

"But you're a Republican," Mack said.

"I am a Republican."

"Then why are you hoping for a Democratic President?"

"Because," said Randall, "if a Democrat gets elected they'll raise my taxes. I make five hundred thousand dollars a year, and right now I only pay two hundred thousand in taxes. The Democrats will be wanting to make me pay at least three hundred thousand dollars a year in taxes."

"You're hoping for that?"

"I'm hoping for instant retirement," Randall said, "which is what will happen as soon as some fucking politician raises my taxes. My father told me never, never work more than two days a week for the government. I'll quit first. And do you know what happens then?"


"Twenty lawyers, ten paralegals, fifteen secretaries, and five ancillary personnel will lose their jobs. Poof! Is it jobs these shoppingmall sheep are bleating about every day on the front page of the paper? I create jobs, but only if I'm working, and like I said, I ain't gonna work more than two days a week for the government. Go ahead," he hollered, brandishing the toy broadsword. "Tax me! Fifty employees and their families will lose their salary, their health, life, and dental insurance, their self-esteem, and the money they pay to their cable TV companies and the IRS. If you know any of those people who are thinking about voting for people who will raise my taxes, you might mention to them that it will cost them their jobs! Go ahead! Tax me just once more, and I'll show them exactly how it works! I'll put a full-page open letter in the fucking newspaper explaining why I shut down!"

His computer beeped, a purple window opened at the top, and white letters streamed onto the screen: "Wife. Line two. Urgent!!!!"

Randall waved Mack away with the broadsword and punched line two.


"You'd better come home, Randy."

His wife's voice was calm, almost formal, which told him something was terribly wrong, and she didn't want to tell him on the phone, because she was afraid he would lean out of the clouds on Olympus and throw lightening bolts at her.

"You wrecked the car," he said, knowing it was worse than that, because in his twenty- five years of practice she had never called him at work and told him to come home.

"They can't find Michael, Randy. He's missing from his village," she said in the same strange controlled tone. "They just called me on the phone from Washington."

Randall's stomach tightened, and nausea crawled up the back of his throat, but he remained calm and organized his thinking--if nothing else, he had been trained to think clearly in the face of the worst possible tragedies.

"Is this by way of the State Department or the Peace Corps?" he asked.

"Both," she said.

"It's probably nothing," he said tersely, searching his memory for other instances in which the ineptitude of the United States government had manifested itself in a false alarm of this magnitude.

"No," she said. "It's something. He's been missing for almost two weeks. They can't find him!"

The furniture and equipment in his office were suddenly drained of mass and significance. The accustomed feel of his chair, the pale blood color of his carpeting, the prints hanging on his walls, all of them became the sensations and possessions of some other, formerly powerful bankruptcy attorney. His heart skipped one beat, then raced to catch up.

"Maybe he left early to go traveling with the Westfall kid," said Randall. "They were supposed to meet in Paris, weren't they?"

"Yes, they were supposed to meet in Paris," she said quietly. "But neither the Peace Corps nor the American Embassy has any record of Michael leaving Sierra Leone. There are forms and customs, immigration people he would have to see . . . He's just gone. And the Peace Corps Director says there's some kind of political unrest, a rebellion going on over there."

"He's off on some lark in the bush," Randall said with a catch in his voice, as his eyes landed on the black bundle of rags and the red spout in the box on the floor.

"There are guerrillas crossing the borders from Liberia into Sierra Leone," she said. "It's even on the news."

Randall had trouble breathing, unwilling to grasp the dimensions of the anxiety that was descending on him like nightfall in a blackout: never knowing if his son was dying, already dead, held in a compound somewhere by fanatics or rebels with no respect for human life. My only son! he screamed inside. But he carefully controlled his voice, because he knew he had to be strong for his wife.

"I actually considered not telling you about it," she said, "because . . . Your heart . . . You won't be able to sleep. I know what this is going to do to you, Randy."

He let her go on whistling in the dark and pretending that she was the strong one. She had her strengths, but an appreciation of his intellectual prowess was not one of them. She failed to realize his fits of anxiety and his intense physical complaints were just the idiosyncrasies of an exceptionally gifted attorney, a high-strung racehorse with special physical needs.

"Where's the Westfall kid?" he snapped. "Has anybody talked to him?"

"He's in Paris and can't be reached by phone. I'm sending him a letter by two-day air to the American Express office in Paris. His mother said he gets mail there every other day or so."

"Let me make some calls," he said, steadying his voice, "and I'll come right home, hear me?"

"I'll call your mother," she said quietly. "Please don't wreck the car again," she added.

This was typical. She would now indulge in absolutely useless behaviors which had nothing to do with the problem at hand. What possible good could come from calling his mom? And the car thing? Why bring that up at a time like this? It was typical of her total inability to prioritize problems.

As soon as she hung up, blood surged into Randall's face and he pushed a button on his intercom. "Cancel everything and don't let anybody in here," he said. He pushed a speed-dial button on his phone and gritted his teeth through four rings.

"Good afternoon. Senator Swanson's office. This is Amanda, may I help you?" a voice said.

"I need to talk to him right away," Randall said.

"May I ask who's calling?" the voice said diffidently.

"Yeah, Randall said. "Tell him it's Mr. PAC and it's extremely important."

"Mr. Pac," the woman repeated. "Forgive me, but could you spell that for me?"

"Political Action Committee," Randall shouted. "Dollar signs. Money. Checks. Big ones. Tell him it's Randall Killigan on the line with a problem that needs his attention right now!"

The Senator could not be reached on his car phone, so Randall was shunted to an administrative assistant, who was hiding under her desk by the time Randall finished screaming into the phone.

He hung up and paced the floor of his office, biting his thumb and feeling pretrial heart arrhythmias erupting in his chest.

After an eternity spanning less than twenty minutes, the intercom beeped, and his secretary announced: "Mr. Warren Holmes, State Department, calling at the request of Senator Swanson."

"Mr. Killigan, I spoke with your wife earlier today, and I got off the phone with Senator Swanson just a few minutes ago . . ."

"Are you in touch with people in Africa?" asked Randall. "Are these embassy people, or what? I want to know what's happened to my son."

"I have been on the phone all afternoon with Ambassador Walsh and his political officer in Freetown," said Holmes succinctly. "Let me tell you what we have. Liberia and Sierra Leone are both unstable at this time. In fact, almost all of West Africa is unstable. We have three reports, two of them anonymous, which confirm the fact that your son has disappeared. The particulars differ. Normally, I would not even pass these along, because they range from unreliable to simply reliable. Nothing confirmed, you understand. But Senator Swanson said this was VIP priority and that I should pass information straight on to you . . ."

"What are the report?" interrupted Randall.

"The accounts from all three sources agree that there was an attack of some kind on your son's village, and after it was over, no one could find him. One witness claims she heard the attackers speaking Liberian Krio, which could mean that Michael has been abducted by Liberian rebels controlled by the infamous Charles Taylor, who essentially has started his own country in the middle of Liberia. Another villager swears the attackers spoke Sierra Leonean Krio, meaning Michael might still be in-country and held be Sierra Leonean rebels, loose allies of Taylor's men across the border."

"What was the third report?" said Randall.

"The third report is . . . ah . . . probably not reliable. It's from a boy, an adolescent, a villager. Very unreliable."

"Who said what?" Randall asked.

"I don't know how much you know about indigenous Africans, Mr. Killigan," said Holmes. Let me just say that, once you get outside the capital cities, the belief in the supernatural is pretty well entrenched in the culture."

"What did he say?" Randall said.

"This was a Krio boy who apparently reported to one of the Red Cross stations in Pujehun. The boy said he was in Michael Killigan's village attending a funeral at the time of the raid. The Red Cross people say the boy's account of the conflict was so fraught with superstitious hallucinations that they couldn't get much hard information out of him. But they did ask him if Michael Killigan was safe."

"Are you a lawyer?" asked Randall. "I said, what the fuck did the kid say?" He kicked a button on the floor operating the electromagnetic device that held his door open, and it swung quietly closed.

"He said . . ." Holmes paused to the sound of flipping pages. "I'll read it to you straight from the advisory: 'Michael Killigan now roams that paths at night in the shape of a bush devil hungry for the souls of the witchmen who killed him.'"

Go to beginning of Chapter 1