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For years, I was an excellent lawyer, as honest and effective as you could ever want, and I’m a decent enough person, and despite my mistakes, which—I concede—were hellacious, I deserve better than this misery.
It’s the middle of June, hot and stagnant, especially behind the counter here in the restaurant, a Subway knockoff called SUBstitution, and the heat will soon become worse because Luther, the owner, insists that we switch on the old oven at noon and then again at six, as if we were really baking fresh bread. Twice daily, when the big lunch and dinner crowds are waiting in line, I cover my hand with a mitt and slowly slide the store-bought decoys out of the oven, a sham show that allows a two-hundred-degree belch to escape and loiter and clot the air. Sometimes, to entertain myself, I quick-drop the lukewarm silver tray, pull off the mitt and shake and blow on my fingers. The few minutes of fake-bake dries and hardens the prop rolls, but I’m able to stash them in the refrigerator and use them over and over for weeks, until the first greenish-gray mold spots appear.
Today, the first customer through the door is a Sutphin girl from the apartments down the street. She’s wearing flannel pajama bottoms, the fabric pilled and grimy. Her hair’s a mess, straight, dirty and brown. She’s hardscrabble bony, pasty white, braless under a T-shirt and covered in tats, none of them worth a damn, amateur ink that some dolt applied with a safety pin and a cigarette lighter. This is exactly how she looked when she went to bed on a floor mattress last night, exactly how she’ll look the entire day, exactly how she’ll look tomorrow.
She’s brought along a kid, and the poor little toddler is shoeless, and, of course, why bother with any kind of shirt or shorts when a disposable diaper will do just fine. A scrawny boyfriend is also with her. He’s high and slit- eyed at eleven in the morning, and he’s mumbling dopey slang and jibber- jabber into an iPhone. His tennis shoes are new and untied and at least a size too large. His half- ass Afro is uneven, way out of whack on one side. A gauze bandage is taped across his wrist. He flops into the booth closest to the door, the phone against his ear. I’d speculate that the child is his, given the lad’s beautifully blended skin and their matching eyes and mouths.
“Good morning and welcome to SUBstitution.” Kevin M is felt- tipped on my white plastic name tag. My khakis are dotted with faint mustard stains, but the pants are laundered and ironed and presentable.
The Sutphin girl looks at the wall menu behind me. “I want a twelve- inch steak- and cheese with double meat. Regular bread. Toasted.”
I nod at the kid. “And for the young man?”
“He’ll be okay,” she says dismissively. “I’ll pinch him off some of mine.” She glances down at the child. “He’s done had cereal and a Little Debbie.”
I shake the meat from four cardboard tubs onto a sub roll, add cheese slices and put the sandwich in a toaster oven. I smile at the boy, and bless his heart, he grins big back at me.
“What would you like on it?” I ask his mama.
“Tomatoes and extra, extra, extra mayonnaise.”
I hover the squirt bottle filled with Lowes generic mayo over the length of the sandwich, strangling the plastic with both hands so the dressing coils onto the cheese dense and thick.
“More! Extra means you can’t see no yellow under it.”
“New rule for me,” I say. “Guess I need to read our manual again.”
I hear Blaine come in behind me through the rear entrance. He’s been working at the restaurant since he was a junior in high school, and he’s twenty now, smart as hell and a pleasure to have around. When I check over my shoulder, he’s leaning against the wall next to the oven. He’s a sizable man, over six feet tall and a weight lifter. “Hey,” he says to the girl, “we’re not the food bank. It’s already Deepwater Horizon on your sandwich. Leave Lawyer Kevin alone.”
“Screw you, Blaine,” she snaps. “I’m reportin’ you.”
“To who?” Blaine snorts. “God forbid Luther demote me to assistant assistant manager.”
I slapdash squirt another line of mayo, step sideways and land the tray and food beside the register. “Anything else? A drink? Chips or cookies?” Unlike Subway, we keep the sodas behind the counter so people can’t steal them.
“Mountain Dew Code Red,” she announces.
We’re in Stuart, Virginia—the county seat, though only fourteen hundred people live here—so we have plenty in the cooler, the large size, twenty ounces. Luther hauls it to the restaurant from a Sam’s Club in Greensboro. I set the red bottle on the tray. “Okay—your twelve-inch, double-meat sandwich with complimentary extra mayo and the large Code Red will be eleven dollars and fifty-six cents.”
She dips into the T-shirt’s breast pocket and hands me a credit card, but as soon as I take it, I notice it’s an EBT card. “We don’t accept food stamps,” I tell her.
“Because we don’t. It’s not allowed. I’m pretty certain you know as much.”
“There’s nearly twenty left on it,” the girl claims. “I could sell it to you for what I owe, then you can pay Luther and keep the rest.”
“Which would be illegal,” I inform her.
“Drop the legal juju on her, Lord Mansfield.” Blaine is smiling. He waves and wiggles his fingers at her as if casting a spell. “Behold the majesty of the law, citizens.”
“Either of you have any money?” I pull the tray away from her.
“We could pay next month, after the third,” she offers.
“No,” I inform her. “Are you seriously trying to use this welfare card? Really?”
“So you ain’t goin’ to give me my sandwich?” she demands. The child has heard this tone of voice before and understands nothing good is coming. He starts to cry—not a bawl or an outburst, just steady tears with his miniature arms flat against his rib cage and his eyes fixed on his mother.
I frown at her. “I’ll gladly sell you the food if you can pay for it. Simple as that.”
The boy reaches up for his mom, who ignores him. “Kiss my ass, Kevin. Least I ain’t no loser fixin’ sandwiches for Luther Foley.” She makes a splashy, oh-snap gesture with her index finger, air-writes an angry S to emphasize the insult. “You ain’t even from here,” she idiotically adds.
“Adiós,” I say. “See you again when you have twelve dollars cash to your name.”
“Kiss my ass,” she repeats. She snatches her son’s hand. “Shut up, LaDarius. Quit cryin’.”
“In your case, Malik,” Blaine says, addressing the spindly boyfriend in the booth, “you’ll need to show up with an extra fifty, right? You’re already runnin’ a tab, aren’t you?”
“Whatcha talkin’ bout, bro?” Malik replies. “You trippin’, Blaine.”
Weary as I am, I feel sorry for the sobbing child. I’d planned to slip him a cookie or an apple, but his pissed-off mother is fussing and glowering and dragging him out the door by the wrist. Malik hesitates at the exit and half-turns toward us. “Later, bitches,” he says, the words clipped and high-pitched.
The sandwich is wasted, a loss. I jot a few lines explaining the incident in the spiral-bound notebook we keep in the junk drawer, and Blaine and I flip a quarter to see who gets to take the steak-and-cheese home. I win the coin toss and begin scraping away the mayo with a plastic spoon and a paper towel. “Malik’s into you for fifty bucks?” I ask Blaine. “Viper account?”
“Yeah,” Blaine answers. “He’s a worthless piece of shit. Trifling. So is she. I went to high school with both of ’em. Every fuckin’ week my eight-fifty-an-hour check is docked for taxes so I can subsidize their blunts and flavored vodka and meth jones and protect their right to never hold an honest job.”
Blaine’s one of three kids. His employed parents can’t afford college expenses, despite the significant scholarships a nearly perfect SAT earned him, so he’s living at home and saving thousands by attending Patrick Henry Community College. He’ll transfer to Virginia Tech as a junior and cut his education bill in half. A genius with computers and math, he’s self-deprecating about his schooling, refers to himself as a “super-senior” and jokes about mastering the “fourteenth grade.”
“I thought you were a better businessman,” I tell him. “In your trade, credit’s a poor idea.” Blaine sells pot, and heck, more power to him. Truth be told, I’ve done what I could to help with legal precautions, sat him down in a corner booth and gave him quality advice several months ago: Never sell dope to the out-of-town “biker” with a long beard and Harley do-rag who’s introduced to you by some marginal friend. He’s an undercover cop, and the friend bringing him around is being squeezed by the police. Never sell more than a half-ounce and risk a felony conviction. Never keep the goods on you or in your car or your house. Always wear gloves; you don’t need your prints on any baggies. And, finally, understand that pot sales can’t be a career choice in a rural community—sooner or later, word will reach the sheriff’s department.
“True enough,” Blaine answers. “Lesson learned. Not a debt I can really enforce, huh? You’d think, though, the shitheel wouldn’t just swagger in here.”
The door alert tones, a two-beat, electronic ding and dong, and I check to see who’s there. A stranger is standing on the frayed entrance mat, a chubby fellow with nicely groomed, chemically white hair. Albino Platinum Ice would have to be the color on the Clairol box. He’s wearing a lumpy black suit and a dull necktie. There’s a red carnation pinned to his lapel, so I wonder if he’s been to a funeral. He scans the restaurant, looks at every booth, then settles on me. He smiles. I lay my hand on the .38 under the counter, the pistol right below the cash register.
“Morning,” he says cheerfully. He dips his head slightly, ratchets the smile tighter so it’s all lips and no teeth.
“Good morning,” I reply. “Welcome to SUBstitution.”
“You’re Mr. Kevin Moore?” he asks, still chipper.
“Yep. I am.”
“Any chance I could have a minute or two with you?”
“No offense, sir, but whatever you’re selling, I’m in no position to buy it.” I say this nicely, with no barb. I appreciate that the guy’s just doing his job. I don’t want to waste his time.
“Understood. No worries. I’m not a salesman.”
“Oh, okay.” I’ve finished scraping mayo off the steak-and-cheese and close the roll. “You from probation?” I ask. I’m tending to the sandwich, my eyes lowered.
“No sir. My news is actually very positive.”
“I’ll hold the fort,” Blaine offers, then shrugs. “Who knows? Not a salesman, not a probation officer. Me, I’d want to see what’s behind the curtain.”
I focus on the lapel flower, and—bingo—it hits me: He’s a preacher or tract-pusher wanting a donation, or to post a flyer for some revival or gospel singing or youth rally. Luther’s all for hanging the flyers, but he has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to charity dollars. “Thanks,” I say to Blaine.
“How about a quick turkey-and-cheese to go, six-inch, plain, no dressings, no toppings, wheat bread, and I’ll meet you over there,” the man says, gesturing toward a booth.
He stands and waits while I make his sandwich, wrap it in clear plastic and fit it in a white bag, and then I follow him to the table underneath the stereo speakers. We have to play 104 FM, a dreadful contemporary-country station that loops mostly lift-kit odes and three-chord tales of how we small-towners live to blow our stunted paychecks on liquor drinks at the local roadhouse. I sit so I’m facing the entrance, and he jams in across from me, has to swivel and butt-hop a couple times because he’s heavy through the middle. His belt buckle scrapes the Formica. I hear change bounce in his pocket.
“I’m Caleb,” he says.
“Nice to meet you.” I push his sandwich bag toward him. The order is so basic I assume he’s just being polite, same as buying a pack of gum when you take a leak at the filling station.
“Likewise.” He props his elbows on the table and joins his hands together. “Thanks for seeing me. I’ll try not to take too much of your time or keep you from your job.”
“Fine,” I say noncommittally.
“I’m here on business. A chance for you to perhaps put everything behind you. Not that there’s anything wrong with working here. I’m certainly not demeaning you or your job.” His speech is crisp, assured. His hands stay locked in front of his face while he talks.
He adjusts the red flower on his jacket, then clasps his hands again. “You deserve better than this. It’s time for you to get back on track. Move home to Roanoke. You’ve paid enough dues. Half of 2016’s gone already. You’ve served more than a fair punishment.”
“No kidding,” I answer, the words coming almost automatically, on their own.
“I’d like to include you in a business project. A chance for some solid cash and, more important, perhaps, an opportunity to see your law license reinstated.”
“Who exactly are you? You seem to know a lot about me and my circumstances. What kind of business?”
“Am I correct that you’d like to earn more than your current restaurant wages? How much could that possibly be?”
I stiffen across my shoulders. “I make what I make. I also have a second job.”
“A shame,” he says sympathetically. “Forty hours should be enough.”
Instead of responding, I pull a paper napkin from the holder and fold it in half.
“My team and I invest in distressed situations. We make your negative situation positive.”
“What’s your last name, Caleb?” I ask. “Where’re you from?” I fold the napkin again and tuck it into my shirt pocket.
He drops his hands. He smiles, but it’s stern, mostly a scold. “Today, right now, my last name is Opportunity. I’m from elsewhere.”
“So listen, Caleb Opportunity, I’m on probation, with a felony conviction waiting for me if I screw up. I’m already feeling a con or scam. Or some kind of test from the state, though this seems too sophisticated for the apparatchiks in Richmond. They’d still be having meetings and filing memos on the color of your flower and which billing code to use with the florist.”
“The loss of your attorney’s income would have to be a real blow. I want to correct that.”
“Well,” I tell him, “I’m planning to play by the rules for a year, keep my nose clean and hope for the best.”
“Let me give you an overview. You can just listen. No crime or probation violation there.” I start to speak, but he waves an open hand in my direction. “My partners and I search for various professionals who have complications. You fit the bill. We also strive to discover people who’ve recovered from their problems and are once again reliable citizens. We do not want to partner with junkies, flakes or layabouts.”
“A speaking gig?” I ask sarcastically. “Self-help, motivation kind of deal? Bringing my inspirational story and unique brand of encouragement to hotel conference rooms throughout the South?”
“Self-help for sure,” he says.
The door chimes, and we both watch a lady head to the counter, where Blaine greets her. It’s difficult to hear their conversation from our corner, especially with the radio noise.
“I’m not interested,” I tell him and slide to my left, ready to stand. “Good luck, sir.”
“Do you recall a client from a while ago, a Miss Melanie Culp?”
I stop where I am, still sitting, but at the end of the bench, my trunk twisted away from Caleb, my palm flat on the table’s edge, ready to push off. “I couldn’t say,” I answer.
“She visited you for legal advice at your Roanoke office during, uh . . . your troubles.”
“If she did, that would be confidential.” I do remember her. I have a remarkable memory. A routine appointment about a real-estate purchase on the parkway. “I won’t be discussing any of my legal business with you. It would be unethical.”
He nods at me. “Understood. That kind of judgment and professionalism is why we want you on our team. I wouldn’t expect you to break a client’s confidence.”
“I’m already on the SUBstitution team. I’m the manager here, king of the condiments and cold cuts. And I’m also a member of the commonwealth’s probation team. I can’t imagine me signing up for any other teams.” I stand but stay close to the table. “Sorry. If you’re from the state bar or the justice system, I hope you’ll report that I’m walking the straight and narrow. And if you’re a real hustler, you need to hit the bricks.”
Caleb doesn’t seem upset or rattled. “It’s not so simple.” He sounds calm, amicable. “We’ve already invested in you and this project. We have limited resources, and we’d hate to see this come to naught.”
“What the hell is it that you want?”
“Well, as much as it pains Miss Culp to press the issue, you committed malpractice when you handled her case. Because of your negligence, she lost millions of dollars.”
“Bullshit.” I glare at Caleb. “Are you a lawyer floating some bogus claim? Because—”
“Oh, no,” he interrupts, leaning toward me. “But we can and will make this a profitable situation for us all. We’re allies, not adversaries.”
“If I’ve truly wronged a client, I want to address it and make it right. But I haven’t.”
“Miss Culp scheduled an appointment with you in July of 2015,” Caleb notes. “The morning of the thirtieth.” His voice stays measured, his features and posture relaxed. “I’m sure there’s a file in your former office. She has a receipt signed by your secretary proving her payment to you on that day. One hundred dollars for a basic consultation. A very fair charge.”
“She had an option contract to buy 173 acres in Meadows of Dan, adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Also near the much-celebrated, five-star Primland resort.”
“Okay.” I’m still standing. I’m tapping my foot.
“You were to evaluate the option, contact the seller and execute the deal. Those were her clear instructions to you.”
“You’re making up crap as you go.” I raise my voice. “I can’t get into the specifics with you, but that never happened.” I sit again, balanced on the edge of the bench seat. “Are you this lady’s relative? Husband, maybe? Brother?”
“Despite her precise instructions,” he continues, “you, because of personal distractions, failed to timely exercise the option, and she lost her opportunity to purchase this valuable piece of land. It was soon sold to another buyer for millions of dollars.”
Caleb sounds so confident that I run through Melanie Culp’s visit in my mind: She was a scheduled appointment, she asked me to review an option to buy a piece of property, I read the document while she waited and told her it was legal and valid. I’d done cocaine—a lot—the night before but was steady enough to interpret a basic three-page option. End of story. There was absolutely no mention of closing the deal or notifying the seller. “Untrue,” I say forcefully. “At least the part about my being instructed to contact the seller and set a closing.”
“Miss Culp had an option to buy the land for $975,000. You didn’t do your job, Mr. Moore. You let the purchase deadline pass. Thereafter, the local owner, a Mr. Eugene Harris, sold to a company named MAB Incorporated, for the same $975,000. A few months later, MAB was approached by a development company, FirstRate LLC, which bought the tract for six million. In sum, your negligence cost Miss Culp five million dollars and change.”
“And let me guess, Caleb, you want me to admit my error and not contest the claim when she sues me.”
“Exactly,” he says, fiddling with the flower for a second. “Exactly, my friend.”