Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Short Story by The Lawyer: Felis Catus Canonicus Officium (The Law Office Cat)

I would like to tell you that what follows really happened. The problem is, if it did really happen, and the subjects involved were real people, breathing, walking and scratching among us, I could very well get sued for defamation. For that reason, what follows did not really happen.
My client and I stood, separated by the countertop and Miss Demeanor, our one-eyed, tortoiseshell cat, who was busy engulfing a bowl of Friskies. For short, we called her Missy. While petting Missy, I explained to Jeff the particular mission of the deposition that we were taking of Wilkes, his ex-father-in-law, that afternoon.
Jeff, having made and lost a few fortunes over his forty-year tenure as a venture capitalist, had hired us to sue his ex-father-in-law. Wilkes, an irascible, and wildly egotistical millionaire, never for a brief moment of his life doubted his superiority over other living creatures, human and not. Years earlier Wilkes had hit a homerun in the stock market betting on a little company called International Business Machines and had more money than God. He made Jeff a loan, when Jeff was still married to Wilkes’s daughter. The loan was for the purpose of funding Jeff’s business brokering insurance policies to oil and gas ventures. To secure the hefty sum, Jeff granted Wilkes a lien on all of his earthly possessions, including his suburban mansion that he miraculously was able to keep after a brutal four year long divorce proceeding, in which our firm had represented Jeff. Jeff, by his calculations, had paid the loan off. Wilkes, by his calculations, had not received the total amount to pay off the loan, and refused to release the liens on everything, “down to his underwear,” as he worded it in mediation a few months earlier.

The real issue was that these two men hated each other’s guts for a variety of reasons. They both were inflicted with the notion that no one gets away with screwing with them, and anyone who dared to do so was going to get squashed and sued out of existence. What neither of them was willing, or able, to realize was that they were in the process of suing each other out of financial existence, and the only winners at the end of the day, with the final order filed with the court clerk and appeals exhausted, were the lawyers.

No such prospect would deter either from their quest to ruin the other—a hubris that seemed particularly engrained in people that make their fortunes buying and selling air, and backing politicians that talk God out of one side of their mouths, and tax cuts for the wealthy out the other.

“You’re a cat person?” Jeff asked me, raising a coffee mug to his mouth, starring at me suspiciously. Jeff had always made it clear that he doubted my manhood, and I knew where he was going with his question.

“I like cats and dogs.” That stopped him in his thoughts. The idea that something was not either/or was a baffling. “You see, Jeff, I prefer cats. They are calm and relaxed, and mostly take care of themselves. I don’t have much need for loud, stinky, ill-tempered, ignorant creatures around me. I have children to fill that void.”

“I have two German Shepherds.”

“That’s great,” I responded, lifting my mug to my lips, starring at him suspiciously.

“So what do you think our chances are of winning this?” The case was at that point, a few months young, green and barely able to walk. He had, by that time, asked me that question half a dozen times. It is the question that every client asks their lawyer. And all lawyers, except young and na├»ve ones that have not been around long enough to have had the gut-wrenching experience of losing big, notwithstanding all the facts and law seemed to stand in favor of their case, have no idea how to answer it.

“Oh, I’d say you have about a sixty-eight, point three percent chance of prevailing.” Another raising of coffee mugs and a suspicious stare was exchanged by both of us to the other. Jeff had finally caught that he had received the same answer to the same question about seven times and finally figured out I was screwing with his head.

We walked into the conference room that used to be a porch a half a century before. Wilkes glared at us with his arms crossed, confident, smelling victory in the air. His lawyer, M. Bradford Jeffries, of the two-hundred lawyer firm called something like, Wheirling, Dervish, Mayhem, Spitwhittle, Goodard & Bonkem, looked up at me from the reams of paper before him. “Mr. Pickleton,” he said in salutation to me, not revealing a hint of human depth. “Nice office,” he said smirking.

“Sorry that you have be slumming around in our humble office, M.,” I said.

M., as I had started referring to him, was a deep-carpet, tall-building, silk-stocking, over-worked, big-firm associate that seemed to take too much pleasure in his professional endeavors. I recognized him from his mug shot that appeared, periodically, in the Bar Journal at the end of lengthy, footnote drenched articles with titles like, “The Tenth Circuit and the Doctrine of Forum Non Conveniens,” or, “Res Ipsa Loquitor in Light of Casey v. Jiffy-Mart.”

Every phone conversation that M. and I had had to that point was tedious and unproductive. The most recent phone conversation, the day before, was like all the others.

“Any chance we might be able to work towards a settlement on this, M.?” I asked. A long pause ensued. If I had asked, “You are not potty-trained yet, are you M.?” or, “Who do you think is going to win the national championship this year, M?” the result would be the same—a long irritating-as-fuck pause. At the time, I had no idea what these eternally long pauses were supposed to signify, if anything. I believed that lawyers that wielded this silent rhetorical devise were silently conveying the point that it killed them deep inside to have to suffer a fool like the one they were giving the “pause” to.

I timed him once. “What is your client hoping to achieve out of all of this? You and I know this whole thing is really about hurt feelings and revenge.”

M. embarked upon an unnerving pause that lasted for twenty-three seconds. It felt like an eternity trapped in a pitch-black void of unperceived dimensions. I could not endure another second of silence, and broke it. “It’s your turn M. This is the part where you get to say something—anything. Go.”

M. sighed, and paused some more, about five seconds. “Mr. Pickleton, your client can bring this matter to an end by paying what he owes my client and my attorney fees. You do know this is an attorney fee case?”

I decided this would be a good time to give him a rich, silent dose of his own medicine. I gave him the “pause” right back in his ear hole. In contested civil matters, lawyers are fond of reminding their adversaries, as a subtle intimidation tactic, that, “this is an attorney fee case, you know.”

There is the British Rule and the American Rule regarding attorney fees. The British Rule is much more efficient. Every case is an attorney fee case. The American Rule says that all parties are responsible for their own attorney fees. To that rule there are fifty-thousand exceptions, the end result being more like the British Rule, but taking a tremendous amount of words to articulate it.

After twenty-five seconds (a record) I responded, “Really?” The fifteen second pause that proceeded was broken by asking, “Are you still there M.?”


“I’m going to hang up now and go to lunch.”

Five more irretrievable seconds passed in utter silence. “Very well, Mr. Pickleton.”

“Bye-bye, M.” I hung up.

On the occasion of taking Wilkes’ deposition was the first time I had met M. in the flesh. “M.,” I said, extending my hand. He did not stand up, and offered a limp, unenthusiastic hand shake. At that point, I wished that I could say that M. was a man of profound depth—a genuine, three-dimensional character with a rich, and sometimes conflicting, inner life of love, passion and remorse; if there was only something interesting about him. It would have set my mind at ease if I could have reported that in addition to having graduated at the top of his class in law school, he kept a cardboard box of Barbie dolls in his bedroom closet that he liked to do gross things with, or that he had an unbridled passion for collecting Nazi memorabilia, but I could not. To me, he was nothing more than a smart slab of meat, with no other mission in life but to make partner at his firm, and be the best damned lawyer to have ever been born from a mother’s womb.

Although this was not a court appearance, and tie and jacket were optional, his stiff collar was buttoned and synched tight by a regimental tie. Even though it was July and hot as hell outside, he donned a dark suit and showed no intentions of removing his jacket. His coif was in perfect order.

“Are we ready?” I asked surveying everyone present.

M. muttered, “Yes,” without looking up from his file and legal pad.

“Reserve objections?” I asked. Everyone agreed, so there would be no need to object to any questions that would be asked by me of Wilkes.

I nodded to the court reporter, her fingers poised above the keys of the stenotype with a look of intent seriousness that only another court reporter, a concert pianist, or a defecating cat is capable of replicating.

I was barely able to announce, “we are on the record,” before Wilkes bolted backwards in his chair, his eyes fluttering, mouth contorting like the gills of an amphibian out of water, and jolted forward spraying a thunderous sneeze. His eyes went red, and watered profusely.

“Excuse me,” blubbered Wilkes, and poured a glass of water from the pitcher that had been placed on the table in advance of the deposition. Before he could take another drink, he was seized with another round of sneezing. Everyone ducked for cover under the conference table, except for the dutiful court reporter, squinted eyes, riding out the storm, and poised to capture any testimony that might be forthcoming.

“Are you okay?” asked M. in a rare exhibition of being concerned with another’s well-being.

“Yes, yes,”—cough—“I’m fine,” said Wilkes grabbing blindly for tissues that I pushed down the table towards him.

Appearing to have recovered, I continued. “Would you please state your name for the record, sir?”

“You know who I am,” said the stubborn bastard.

“Yes,” I said. “I know who you are, but that thing that lady,” I said pointing to the court reporter, “has no idea who you are. State your name—all of it.”

Wilkes looked at M. M. nodded to Wilkes. “Fredrick Kilpatrick Wilkes the Third,” he responded frowning at me with his arms crossed.

“Are you the same Fredrick Kilpatrick Wilkes the Third named as a defendant in this matter?” He contorted. At first I thought it was out of disgust that I would be so bold as to ask another obvious question for the record, until I realized he was winding up to let blast another spasmodic convulsion of snot and sneezing.

“Oh God!” he exclaimed, grabbing desperately for another hand full of tissues.

No sooner had I spotted her lurking about under the table than I realized what the cause of Wilkes’ distress was. He was allergic to Missy. I tried to reach out with my leg as far as possible to kick Missy in the hopes of giving her some pointed encouragement to get out of the room, but couldn’t connect. I scooted down in my chair as far as possible without being obvious about it, and gave one more forceful swing of the foot. Instead of catching cat fur, I missed my mark. As my foot connected squarely with Wilkes’ left shin, Missy bounded onto Wilkes lap and onto the table in front of him.

“Aaaaaaaaaaah!” Wilkes screeched, part in pain from having his shin kicked hard, and part from recognition that before him was a genus and species of mammal that he was deathly allergic to. “What the fuck!” he yelled and sneezed.

“What do you say we go off the record?” I asked the court reporter and M., who by this point was looking lost and bewildered.

Wilkes demanded, “Get that thing away from me,” as he desperately pushed himself away from the conference table, as the sneezing fits escalated in intensity and frequency.

M. rose from his seat and pounded the conference table with his clenched fist. “Absolutely unacceptable Mr. Pickleton. You knew my client is allergic to cats, didn’t you?”

“What?” I asked perplexed as to why M. would think I had any knowledge of Wilkes’ physiological predisposition to cats. “Are you insinuating that I purposefully arranged to have our cat here to torture your client?”

“I couldn’t have said it better myself.”

“You’re crazy.”

Wilkes gasped, “I have got to get out of here.” He stumbled, his arms out to help feel his way, for the back door that led from the conference room to the parking lot behind the house.

“I guess we should reconvene?” I asked M.

"That would be wise, Mr. Pickleton. Tomorrow, same time, AT MY OFFICE.”

“Good enough,” I said. Wheezing, Wilkes fell out the backdoor not bothering to close it behind him. M. gathered up his tomes of documents, placed it in his brief case, and followed behind his client.

M. paused, half in and half out of the back door. “Mr. Pickleton,” he said in away that made skin crawl. “Be advised that I intend to prepare a rule eleven motion for sanctions against you, personally, for intentionally compromising the health of my client, and for seeking to delay and hinder the proceedings in this matter, thereby.” With that parting salvo, he shut the door firmly behind him, causing the windows to reverberate and shutter, along with my guts.

My client, the court reporter and I sat looking at each other in wonderment. Again, as in too many cases before, I found myself in the nerve racking situation of being targeted by opposing counsel, seeking to wrench from me the few hard earned dollars that I did not have to spare. Being a lawyer and getting sued is an occupational hazard, after all.

Jeff broke the silence by bursting out in laughter. He stood, still guffawing like an idiot, and slapped me on the back. “You are one hell of a lawyer,” he said. “How did you know that old bastard is allergic to cats?”

“I didn’t, dammit.”

"Woo, you’re good. Ha! I like your style.”

My butt firmly planted in my executive chair behind my desk, I spent the rest of the afternoon sifting through piles of papers and files on my desk, vacillating from anger to boredom to deflation, in an effort to keep up with the pressing needs of my other clients. At five o’clock I rubbed my eyes, bleary and exhausted from scouring over a plethora of minutia. I blinked and scanned my office with the sudden realization that I had not seen Missy that whole afternoon.

There should have been at least one scampering of cat paws down the hallway to my office, followed by an acrobatic spectacle of a blur of fur spring boarding from my client chair to the top of a book shelf that occupied a corner. There should have been the long nap in the other client chair the daily beginning of which you could set your watch to.

I rang my secretary, who was trying to leave for the day, and whose voice registered irritation at being stopped. I asked if she had seen Missy that afternoon. The answer was, she had not. I checked every room, in all of the closets, and in the crawl space in the basement.

After an hour of rummaging through the shrubbery outside the office, and walking around the block, crying out, “Here Kitty-kitty-kitty,” and feeling foolish, I seated myself in a chair I pulled out of the conference room and put in the middle of the parking lot out back. I would sit up straight with hope at the slightest hint of movement and sound, only to find myself duped by the wind, squirrels and pigeons. I was growing tired, scared, and pissed.

The sun was setting, and I was about to give up. But how could I? Our office was close to the river. Raccoons and foxes would be out soon, and Missy might end up being another animal’s meal that night. I couldn’t forgive myself if everyone showed up the next morning to find nothing but Missy’s furry carcass, gall bladder, back bone, and name tag scattered about the parking lot, or her corpse smeared and smudged in the street, the remains being fed upon by crows.

I was awakened from my remorse by the sound of the phone ringing inside, coming from my secretary’s office. Half hopeful that someone had found Missy and called the number on the tag, I ran inside struggling to pick up the phone before it passed to voicemail. Picking it up, I panted, “Law office.”

“Hey, Calvin?”

“Yes, this is him. Who is this?”

“It’s me, Brad—Brad Jeffries. I got your cat.”

To be continued...

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