One morning in April, when the wind ruffled feathers of the pigeons that scrabbled for tiny bits of food on Baltimore sidewalks, Nora Ryan walked to the law office where she was an associate. After law school, she intended to work for a non-profit—helping the homeless, defending immigrants like her Irish grandparents, or suing greedy bankers who’d duped people into mortgages they couldn’t afford. But to pay off her nagging law school debt, she had to take a job—and grateful to get it—with a small litigation firm that for the most part represented hard driving businessmen, landlords and other clients whose chief interest was making money and avoiding taxes. At least she’d get some good trial experience, she thought, and later, after she made partner, she could do some serious pro-bono work.
She and another three-year associate named Jake, who wore suspenders with little alligators on them and had an obnoxious way of calling her “babe,” were competing to see who would make it, or at least she felt like they were. She asked to be involved in some trials, but all they gave her were minor traffic court cases and domestic disputes the firm took as a courtesy to its business clients. The rest of the time she spent in the library doing research or writing memos, which she was good at, but left her feeling out of the firm’s mainstream. Jake, on the other hand, was representing his uncle’s junkyard in a criminal pollution case and mouthing off to everyone about how adeptly he was handling the direct and cross-examination of the State’s witnesses, had the prosecutor on the run.
The firm occupied a single floor in a tall concrete building with steel poles that ran down its sides. She took the elevator to the fourteenth floor, greeted the gray-haired receptionist behind the desk, then walked down a carpeted hallway to her small box-like office. The walls were decorated with her college and law school degrees, a certificate of membership in the Order of the Coif, and a framed print of Monet’s water lilies. A large potted plant spread its oily leaves in one corner.
She dumped her bag, sat down at her desk and turned on the computer.
E-mails flashed up. The usual junk—Nigerian needs help recovering large inheritance, low rate mortgage opportunities, revolutionary breast enhancement system…Then a message from Brad Carlson, the partner she worked for. “Nora, important business client named Julian Walker coming in this morning with a legal problem. Meet him and give him whatever help he needs.” She sat back and chewed her lip. This was good—Brad trusting her to handle a business client. Or was it? Her face felt clammy. She didn’t know squat about businesses. Have to bluff it through. But whatever, don’t let Jake get his greasy paws on it. For a second she thought about checking out the breast enhancement ad.
She knocked and entered the small conference room where the client was seated. A stack of yellow pads and a row of sharpened pencils were neatly arranged at the center of an oblong oak table. Prints of ancient naval battles hung on the walls. A balding rotund man, who looked to be in his sixties, sat on the far side of the table.
“Mr. Walker,” she said brightly. “I’m Nora Ryan, a lawyer in the firm. Brad Carlson asked me to give you whatever help you needed.” She sat down and reached across the table to shake his hand. He brought his up slowly. It felt soft and flabby.
“Is Brad joining us?”
“I’m afraid he’s tied up.”
“No offense, Ms. Ryan, but this case will probably require litigation. Do you have trial experience?”
“Well, uh, yes, I’ve been involved in some trials.”
“I’ve got nothing against women,” he said. “I have a daughter myself…”
She sat back. Why did men always think she was a choirgirl? Was it her freckles or wearing her hair straight down to her shoulders?
“But given the situation involved here…maybe, er, you could team up with a male lawyer or…?”
For an instant she thought about calling Brad. But she feared what that might mean. Nora’s a fine researcher, good writer…but lacks confidence. Put Jake on it.
“Brad asked me to handle the case,” she said in a firm voice. “If you don’t want me to represent you, you should go to another firm.” Did she say that?
“All right, all right,” he said, backing off. “Lets forget about that for the moment. I’ll tell you the problem, you tell me what you can do about it.”
“Okay.” She pulled a pad up to take notes and gave him her “I’m ready to get-down-to-business” face.
“My mother’s eighty-seven and crazy as a loon,” Walker said. “She lives in a big house and has taken up with a forty-five year old school teacher from Boston named Joseph Dolan.”
So not a business case. A family mess—the kind most men in the office wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. What a relief. “When you say your mother has taken up with this school teacher, what do you mean?” She imaged a hairy-chested guy humping this old lady in a large four-poster bed covered with a velvet canopy. She had an ecstatic look on her face.
“I mean he comes down here every weekend. Lives in my mother’s house, runs her life. I’m her only child. Won’t talk to me. Slams the phone down when I call.”
“That’s terrible,” she said warily. “How long has it been going on?”
“Three or four months.” He said the schoolteacher met his mother on a Caribbean cruise. “They probably sat side by side in deck chairs. She babbled on about her wonderful art collection. He fell all over himself telling her how interested he was. Before you knew it, she’d invited him to come down to her house to look at it. That’s all it took.”
Walker said that before his father died, his parents traveled abroad collecting things—native paintings, sculpture, pottery, all kinds of knick-knacks displayed in the rooms of her house. “There’s a lot of odd items—antique dolls, German toys, African masks, glass paintings, crafts from all over the world. Mostly junk as far as I’m concerned. She thinks it’s priceless—stuff museums would die for.”
“But other than coming down and staying with your mother, has he done anything wrong?”
“He’s done this.” He pulled a piece of paper from his inside coat pocket and slid it across the table. She scanned it quickly. It was a copy of a power of attorney giving Joseph A. Dolan full and complete authority to manage the property and affairs of Evelyn Walker. Her spidery signature was scrawled across the bottom of the page.
“How did you get this?”
“He sent it to me. I guess he wanted to let me know he was in the saddle now.”
“That’s outrageous,” she said, mustering as much anger as she could. It wasn’t easy to warm up to Walker. There was something a bit creepy about him. “What else does your mother own?”
“A run-down Victorian house I don’t give a damn about. But she has $10 million in stocks and bonds in a bank custody account I care a lot about.”
She glanced at a print on the wall—old Ironsides blasting away at some British ship.
“So what can you do about it?” He plumped his hands on the table.
“Well, uh, are you sure your mother doesn’t know what she’s doing?”
“She’s been slipping for years. I tried to get a psychiatrist to examine her, but she wouldn’t let him in the house and called Dolan. He called the psychiatrist and told him he’d have to get a court order.”
“Well, in that case,” she said, thinking fast. “Here’s what I’d do.” She said she’d file a motion to have his mother examined by a psychiatrist, along with a petition reciting Mrs. Walker’s age, property she owned and stating she was incompetent to handle her affairs and being preyed upon by a forty-five year old man who had induced her to sign a power of attorney, which should be rescinded.
“Okay,” he said. “But have me appointed guardian of her property.”
“I don’t know…that might create the impression you’re just after her money.”
“Nonsense. I’m entitled to her money.” He slapped the table. “And get an order barring Dolan from the house on the grounds of alienation of affections, improper influence or whatever.”
“That may be difficult.”
“Look, Ms. Ryan, if you’re not up to this…”
Nora raised her hands. “I’m completely up to it, Mr. Walker. It’s just that we’ll have to show he’s a harmful influence.”
“He is. He’s turned my mother against me.”
She wondered…deal with that later. She asked Walker what he knew about Dolan. He said he’d hired a detective who learned he came from a large Catholic family in Boston and taught art at a parochial school. He was going to law school at night. Brother was a priest.
So Dolan was a New England Irish Catholic. She knew something about that animal. “Why don’t I try to meet with him,” she said. “Maybe I can get him to back off. Save you some legal fees.” And herself from a client who would probably claim she was incompetent if she lost the trial. That prospect she could hardy bear.
“You won’t get anywhere,” Walker said getting up. “But go ahead and try.”
After he left, she called the detective, got Dolan’s phone number and called. He answered on the first ring. She said she was an attorney representing Julian Walker. “I expected to hear from someone like you,” he said in a gnarled voice. “I told Evelyn her greedy son would try to drag us into court. Well, go ahead and do your best, lady.”
“Wait a second, Mr. Dolan.” She hadn’t expected such an immediate damn-your-eyes response. “I’d like to come up and talk to you, see if we could resolve this without going to court.”
“Talk is cheap,” he said, but agreed to meet her between classes.
She flew to Logan and took a cab through a run-down section of Boston—crumbling sidewalks, kids lounging on street corners, three-decker tenements with porches that jutted out like rows of wooden teeth—the kind of house she’d grown up in Hartford with her brothers and parents. Her mother was always complaining about how she was used to better things, what a bum her father was, how lucky they were her aunt and dentist husband let them live-rent free in part of their house. She was on her day and night. “Nora, stop hunching your shoulders, wear that nice flared skirt, you look so well in the blue jumper, those earrings are trashy, no you’re not ready to mix the batter yet, you’ve got to learn the basics.” After a while, she realized there was no end to learning the basics and no end to her mother’s complaining, so she pretty much tuned out.
The cab jolted to a stop in front of a gray building that occupied most of one side of a block. It was surrounded by row houses, liquor stores with wire grates, fast-food places, low-lying warehouses, non-descript commercial buildings. She paid the cab driver and walked up stone steps cupped with wear, then opened a heavy door into a reception area where a nun in a black and white habit and wire-rimmed glasses sat behind a small desk.
She said she had an appointment to see Mr. Dolan. The nun’s robes rustled as she lifted an arm and pointed a finger in the direction of a hallway. She walked down the hall to a frosted glass door with the name Joseph Dolan painted on it in black letters, knocked and heard a muffled “come in.” She entered a small room that had the faint smell of almonds. A crucifix hung on one wall and sketches and watercolors on the other. She supposed they were the work of his students. He sat behind a plain wooden table with a single chair in front. Sunlight streamed through the wire mesh of the only window in the room, leaving small rectangles of light on the floor.
He had black hair, a square handsome face and sat rigidly like a soldier at attention. He reminded her of someone she couldn’t quite place. The top of the table was clean except for a tape recorder.
“Mr. Dolan, thanks so much for seeing me,” she said. She figured the best approach was to be non-confrontational, find out where he was coming from, see if they could negotiate.
She sat down. He pushed a button on the tape recorder.
“Is that necessary?”
“I want a record of everything said between us,” he said. “I’m going to law school, but you know that. You’ve had a detective snooping around asking questions about me and my family.”
She was about to say the detective wasn’t her idea, but thought better of it. “I’m here to talk about the power of attorney Mrs. Walker signed over to you,” she said, pulling her smile down a bit.
“What about it?”
“It’s unusual, a stranger intruding in the affairs of an elderly woman like that.”
“What do you mean unusual?” he said. She could see his shoulders beginning to shake.
“For one thing, there’s the age gap.”
“So that’s it, you think I’m having sex with her?” He slammed his fist on the table, rattling the tape recorder.
She blinked, but came back, looking straight into his furious eyes. “I didn’t say that. What I’m telling you is that I’m here to see if we can keep from dragging everybody through the courts.” She had a fix on him now. Parents shouting at each other, kids scared to death, the yelling, sound of flesh slapped, front door slamming, hair-trigger tempers touched off by some imagined slight. She remembered it all.
“He’s not going to get away with it,” he said in a calm voice, storm passing quick as it came.
“Get away with what?”
“Putting Evelyn in an insane asylum.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Two weeks ago, she called me, scared out of her wits, said her son had sent a psychiatrist to interview her.” He tilted his head back and looked at her as though to say stop playing with me. “I told her not to say a word, got him on the phone and told him to get a court order.”
“Her son is concerned about her mental capacity.”
“Are you a Catholic?”
“What does that have to do with it?”
“If you were a good Catholic, you’d understand why I want to help under- privileged kids learn about the arts, see the world in new ways so they won’t be stuck in the same old ruts their parents are in.”
“I applaud you for that,” she said, feeling a small needle of guilt. “But it has nothing to do with why I’m here.”
“It has everything to do with it.” He leaned forward with a fervid intensity. “Evelyn and I are going to use her money to set up a foundation for a children’s museum in her house where her art collection can be seen and appreciated by poor kids from the inner city —the antique dolls, the sculpture, the pottery, the aboriginal art, all of it.”
“Don’t you think her son, her only child, should have something to say about it?”
“He’ll just use the money to feed his disgusting habit.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The sex trips to Thailand. Evelyn told me.”
“That’s ridiculous.” She couldn’t imagine Walker having sex with anyone. The man was old and obese. “Look,” she said in her stern voice. “I came here as a courtesy to see if we could work something out. Here you are bad-mouthing Mr. Walker while you’ve moved in and are spending the money of a rich widow forty plus years older than you. What are the brothers who run this school going to think when they find out what kind of extra-curricular activities you’ve been up to?”
He stood up. “If you think you can scare me, forget it.”
“Give up the power of attorney. I’ll recommend you get paid for travel expenses and a per diem for time spent helping Mrs. Walker with her collection.” Walker wouldn’t like this, but it was going to be tough getting an injunction to get rid of Dolan.
He dropped back in his chair. “So you’re suggesting I tear up the power of attorney, Julian Walker will pay my expenses, a per diem, maybe hire me as a consultant, is that it?”
“I’ll have to talk to Mr. Walker, but I’d recommend it.”
“You’ve heard about the English landlords who starved the Irish during the potato famine, sent them here in floating coffins?”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“Some Irish threw in with those landlords, did their dirty work for them.”
“What’s your answer to my offer?”
“You go back and tell your English master it’ll be a cold day in hell before Joe Dolan takes a bribe from the likes of him.”
“Bribe?” She opened her mouth, almost laughed in his face. Was she dealing with a total nutcase here? What would she tell Walker? She got up and left without a further word.
Back in the office, she called Walker and told him she’d gotten nowhere with Dolan. No surprise to him. Then she told Brad, half hoping he’d get into the case. He said he was up to his eyeballs in another trial. He also said Walker had called and wanted him to take over, but he told him he had complete confidence Nora could handle it. She was grateful for that but upset to learn Walker still didn’t trust her. The next day she filed the papers, and a week later received a notice of a hearing before Judge Melvin Parsons on the motion to have Mrs. Walker examined by a psychiatrist. Brad told her Parsons was finicky, hated to make a decision, and would try to get the parties to settle to avoid the risk of being reversed on appeal.
The morning of the hearing she met Walker outside the ancient ornate courthouse. It had electric wires strung along the upper walls to keep pigeons from staining the façade. Every once in a while the current zapped a bird and pieces of feathers floated down. A deputy sheriff with a sagging jaw herded them through a metal detector at the entrance. They walked down a dimly lit linoleum hallway to an elevator. She pushed a button, a metal door clanked open, they entered and grinded up to the fifth floor.
The courtroom was empty. They took seats at one of two trial tables in front of the judge’s bench. A few minutes later Dolan came in with a small white-haired woman on his arm wearing a black silk dress with lace at the neck and cuffs. She had china blue eyes that moved swiftly over Nora and her son. Dolan wore a navy pinstriped suit, starched white shirt and black tie. He carried an attaché case in his free hand. The two of them took seats at the other table. Dolan pulled out his tape recorder and put it on top.
The bailiff called “all rise” and Judge Parsons came in from a small door at the back of the room and took a seat in a high-backed leather chair behind the bench. His small darting eyes honed in on the recorder. “What is that?” he said, in a precise, almost dainty voice.
Dolan stood up. “It’s a tape recorder.”
“Who are you?” the judge said. His nose wrinkled as though he’d smelled a slightly unpleasant odor.
Dolan gave him his name and address and explained he was a second year student at a night law school in Boston and was helping Mrs. Walker’s to represent herself.
Parsons looked down at a file on his desk. “I have a motion before me on behalf of Julian Walker to have his mother, Mrs. Evelyn Walker, examined by a psychiatrist. Mr. Walker is represented by a Ms. Nora Ryan, an associate with a firm known to the court.” He gave a cursory glance in Nora’s direction. “Mrs. Walker,” he said, leaning over the bench and speaking in a soft voice as though trying to communicate privately. “This is a serious matter that may affect your civil rights. I think you should be represented by counsel.”
“Oh no,” she said in an urgent voice, grabbing Dolan’s arm. “Joe’s my legal adviser. He’s the only one I want to help me.”
The judge looked at Nora with a pained expression. “We have no objection, your honor,” she said getting up and shrugging her shoulders as though to say, I don’t like it either but what can we do?
“All right,” he said, “But Mr. Dolan, this proceeding will be taken down by the court stenographer and I don’t allow other recordings. Please turn your machine over to the bailiff immediately.”
Nora saw Dolan stiffen. She knew what he was thinking. It’s a conspiracy. They’re all in it together. Then he relaxed. “Very well,” he said, handing the machine over to the clerk.
The judge rustled through the file and said he noted the motion was connected with a petition for the voiding of a power of attorney, appointment of a property guardian, and an order prohibiting Mr. Dolan from seeing Mrs. Walker. He sat back and pressed a finger against his nose. Nora could almost hear the thought messy case running through his head. “Since all the parties involved in the petition proceeding are here,” he said finally, peering over the top of his glasses, “I think it would be a good idea to discuss the matter in my chambers before I rule on the motion.”
They filed into the judge’s office, a walnut-paneled room with a glass-covered bookcase on one side and a grandfather clock on the other. The clock had a shiny brass pendulum that swung slowly back and forth making a quiet ticking sound.
The judge took a seat behind a desk that came up to the middle of his chest. The other four sat in front of him. “Now I want to see if there isn’t some way this case can be resolved without a court trial,” he said with a little sniff. “Not good to have this kind of matter spread on the record, not good at all. Do you agree?”
“Your honor,” Nora said. “My client is extremely upset about the way Mr. Dolan has intruded into this family situation and taken advantage of Mrs. Walker. I can’t commit him…”
“All right, all right, Ms. Ryan,” the judge said, raising his hands as though to say don’t bother going through the dumb show with me. “I’m going to take the bull by horns here and propose the following. The parties will agree to a court order rescinding the power of attorney granted to Mr. Dolan and appointing the bank as guardian of Mrs. Walker’s property. The order will further provide for payment of Mr. Dolan’s reasonable travel and other expenses so he could continue to act, as he has apparently done so to date, as a companion and helpmate to Mrs. Walker.” He smiled at Dolan. “The motion for a psychiatric examination of Mrs. Walker will be dismissed. He wagged his head back and forth and looked at each of them as if to say doesn’t this make eminent good sense. “Why don’t you go out to separate rooms and consider this, then come back and let me know what you think.”
Nora took Walker went out to a corner of the courtroom. He didn’t like the proposal. “Dolan’ll be down here night and day. They’ll get the foundation set up, then petition the court to have the bank fund it. No good, no good at all, Ms. Ryan.”
“Wait a second,” Nora said, putting a hand on his arm. “I think we should agree to the proposal. If I know Dolan, he’ll reject it out of hand and piss off the judge while doing it. That’ll help us in any future trial.”
“I want to talk to Brad.”
“Brad’s unavailable.” The man was a real pain in the ass.
His mouth tightened. “Okay, but I hope you know what you’re doing.”
They went back to the judge’s chambers and joined Dolan and Mrs. Walker. The judge asked if everyone had considered his proposal. Nora said her client was agreeable to an order with the terms outlined by the court, provided a cap was put on the time Dolan would spend with Mrs. Walker and the amount of expenses paid him.
“Mr. Dolan,” the judge said looking in his direction. “Is that a satisfactory resolution?”
Dolan stood up, but before he could say anything, a high wailing voice reverberated in the room. “Oh no, we can’t do that,” Evelyn Walker cried. She struggled to get out of her chair. “He just wants to destroy my museum.”
The judge looked baffled. “Mrs. Walker, this has nothing to do with a museum, it’s just a way to ensure that…”
Dolan helped her to stand, then turned and faced the judge. “This man,” he said, pointing a finger at Walker, “is evil and you’re helping him. All he’s interested in is money for himself. Doesn’t give a damn about the poor kids.”
The judge pursed his lips, then rattled the papers on his desk. “You understand my proposal was just a suggestion,” he said in a strained voice. “But in light of the views of Mrs. Walker and her adviser, the case will be set for trial on the next available date.” He called in his clerk. “And the motion for a psychiatric examination of Mrs. Walker is granted.”
The old lady tottered to her feet, silk dress gently rustling in a room that had gone quiet except for the ticking of the clock. Dolan took her arm, and the two moved away from their chairs and across the floor to the door like a couple in a marriage ceremony. Nora knew they were dead losers now. The judge could see that Evelyn Walker was incompetent, Dolan a nutcase.
The two of them reached the doorway. Dolan stopped and looked back at Nora. His face was hard and smooth as Connemara marble. She remembered who he reminded her of—a cousin from Ireland who had come to visit when she was thirteen. At dinner he told them he’d been a member of the Provisional IRA, how one of the lads had been tortured to death by police trying to get the names of other members of the cell. “Never gave ‘em anything,” he said. “Spit in their filthy faces.” Her mother had a shouting match with her father after he left, called him a cold-blooded killer. Her father said he admired a man with the guts to stand up for his friends, no matter the cost. She turned away, and a bone-deep feeling of sadness swept through her.
“Good work, Nora,” Walker said after they left the judge’s chambers. “I was skeptical, but you knew what you were doing.” He told her to try to get the hearing on the petition set before the end of the month. He had a foreign trip planned. She asked where he was going. “Thailand,” he said. He also told her that after they won the trial he’d have his mother put in a private mental institution.
She returned to the firm and later that day went to see Brad. She knocked and entered his office. He looked up from his desk. “Oh Nora, I’m glad you came in. Walker called and said you did a great job. He wants you to handle the trial.”
“I want to be taken off the case.”
“What? Don’t be ridiculous. There’s a lot of money involved. Do well on this, and you’ll be on your way to making partner.”
“My heart’s not in it. Put Jake on it. He’ll do a good job.”
“Oh no, not Jake. He’s a bull in the china shop, much too aggressive. He’s already fucked up the pollution case. Thank God his uncle insisted he handle it.”
“Let me think about it.”
She walked back to her apartment that evening. She felt light-headed. There was no wind. Somebody had thrown some crumbs on the sidewalk. Pigeons were jostling each other to get at them. She was going to do pro-bono work, a lot of it—but not quite yet. First she had to get Walker that $10 million.