I remember when I used to get things done." Simon Roth was already speaking as he entered the conference room. "I went to a meeting, things got built out of it. Now I sit in conference rooms with lawyers and accountants all day. Number crunching this, produce documents-you fucking lawyers, you've made what you do so complicated and endless it's all anybody has time to do. The sideshow's taken over the stage."
"Good to see you too, Simon," Steven Blake replied, standing to shake Roth's hand. Duncan Riley, who'd been sitting next to Blake as they'd awaited their clients' arrival, quickly rose beside him.
Duncan was a senior associate at Blake and Wolcott, where Steven Blake was both a name partner and the leading rainmaker. They were in a conference room at Roth Properties, there to update Simon Roth and his people on the various legal tendrils extending out from the previous year's fatal construction accident at the Aurora Tower.
Roth Properties was a private, family-owned company. Simon Roth, the company's founder and still its CEO, was in his late sixties, although as his deliberately over-the-top entrance demonstrated, he made a point of carrying himself with the angry energy of a much younger man. Simon had a full head of gray hair, every strand carefully lacquered into place, a perfectly tailored suit, a striped blue shirt with a white collar, and heavy gold cuff links. The only place his age clearly showed was in his craggy reddish face, like that of a sailor too long at sea.
A small contingent of Roth Properties executives had followed Simon Roth into the room: Roth's two children, Jeremy and Leah, both of whom were vice presidents, followed by the general counsel, Roger Carrington, and the CFO, Preston Thomas.
Leah and her brother were very young for their positions, not far north of thirty, although that was hardly unusual in a family- controlled private company. Jeremy was heavyset and jaundiced-looking, while Leah was thin and ascetic, both appearing older than their years, although in entirely different ways.
Carrington and Thomas were each well into their fifties. Carrington looked like an old-school WASP; Thomas was African-American. They were dressed virtually identically: both in dark pinstripe suits with pocket squares in their jackets and cuff links in their crisp white shirts.
Duncan took his turn shaking hands after Blake, offering his best bright-boy smile and hoping he didn't look ill at ease. Simon Roth was a notoriously demanding and prickly client, prided himself on it, and Duncan would have been perfectly content to leave the client interactions to Blake, though he'd dutifully feigned enthusiasm when tapped to come along. Duncan was on hand to be the details guy; as a senior partner, Blake had scant involvement with the nitty-gritty of a case.
Roth Properties was the developer of the Aurora Tower, thirty-six stories of luxury condominiums going up in the heart of SoHo. The cheapest apartment, a five-hundred-square-foot pied-à-terre, was listed at just under a million, while a top-floor penthouse was on the market at twenty-five. However, advance sales for the building had been only a trickle, not good news for a half-billion-dollar construction project. The luxury aura had been tarnished by the accident and the resulting flurry of investigations and lawsuits.
First up had been the Department of Buildings. Construction had been completely shut down for a month while city inspectors nosed around the building site. The lawyers had coordinated the turning over of documents and been present at interviews, but had generally stayed in the background while the agency did its work. Unsurprisingly, the DOB issued multiple violations relating to the accident (the site had collected over a dozen violations from the city before the fatalities, which wasn't an unusual number for a large-scale Manhattan construction project), levying relatively small fines against both the subcontractor, Pellettieri Concrete, and the general contractor, Omni Construction.
Even before the DOB had issued its findings, a wrongful-death suit had been filed on behalf of the families of the three construction workers. The suit named Roth Properties among the defendants, although generally it was only the contractors who were on the hook for a construction accident. But Roth was the deepest pocket and the highest- profile company involved in the Aurora, so there were strategic reasons to include them as a defendant, even if there was virtually no chance of the plaintiffs actually seeing a dime of Roth's money.
The accident's aftermath had been proceeding predictably, with nothing but minor headaches as far as Roth Properties was concerned, when the article had appeared in the New York Journal. The story claimed that the concrete company had failed to provide the standard secondary supports for settling concrete. Even after workers had warned that cracks were appearing, Pellettieri Concrete did nothing to shore it up, ignoring the obvious risk. The article went on to mention that the company's cofounder was currently in jail on racketeering charges out of a prosecution aimed at weeding out organized crime from the construction industry.
But the main focus of the article had not been on the accident itself, but rather on the city's response to it. The story claimed that the DOB inspector in charge of investigating the collapse, William Stanton, had originally recommended referring the case to the district attorney for a criminal investigation. That recommendation had supposedly been rejected by the head of the department, Ronald Durant, who'd then watered down the investigator's findings before issuing a public report. Shortly thereafter Durant had resigned from the DOB and joined a prominent architectural firm that had been hired by Roth Properties to design a wholesale transformation of a city housing project. Although the article didn't come right out and say so, the suggestion was that the city agency charged with policing construction accidents had gone out of its way to issue a toothless report in exchange for a plum job for Durant.
The Journal's story had sparked immediate outrage and was quickly picked up by the rest of the New York press. The district attorney's office promptly announced that it was opening a criminal investigation into the accident. Although Roth Properties was not a target of the probe, the developer had been hit with a subpoena seeking virtually every document in the company's files relating to the construction of the Aurora.
If that wasn't enough to get the billable hours flowing, Simon Roth had also directed Blake to file a libel suit against the New York Journal. They'd just survived the paper's motion to dismiss and were proceeding with discovery, which Duncan was heading up. He was scheduled to depose the reporter who'd written the article, Candace Snow, later in the week.
While there were a dozen or so Blake and Wolcott associates working on the various Roth matters, Duncan was the only person besides Blake who was connected to all of them. For the past six months virtually all of Duncan's working hours had been occupied with the affairs of Roth Properties. This wasn't ideal from Duncan's perspective, but it wasn't the kind of thing he could complain about either.
Aside from providing a general update on the state of play of the various cases, the purpose of the present meeting was to discuss a particular piece of bad news: the firm's motion to dismiss Roth Properties from the wrongful-death suit had just been rejected by the court, meaning the company would have to proceed with turning over documents and submitting its executives to depositions.
"What did I just say?" Roth burst out, interrupting Blake's summary of what the company would have to produce. "They want to depose me?"
Blake shook his head. "For starters, they want your son, and Preston. If they do drop a depo subpoena on you, we can always try to quash, since it's a matter of public record that Jeremy was taking the lead on the project and you weren't directly involved. The good news on the documents, anyway, is that we've already collected everything relevant for the DA's subpoena."
"You know how much time I've spent being deposed the past year? Three full days. That's more time than I spent on vacation."
"As I recall, you were down at our place in the Caymans for most of February," Jeremy Roth said to his father.
Simon glared at his son, who didn't meet his eyes. "Just because I'm in the Caymans doesn't mean I'm not working," he growled. "I can get more accomplished down there than the rest of you get done without me up here."
"I'm sure you actually believe that," Jeremy said. Duncan was surprised by the adolescent nature of Jeremy's sullenness with his father, and that he was willing to indulge it in a business meeting.
"I believe a lot of things that are true," Simon shot back.
"In any event," Blake said, ignoring the sniping, "discovery's going to happen. We need to prep everybody, go over stuff. You know the drill."
"I'll be coordinating things from our end," Leah Roth said softly, her cool demeanor a world apart from her father and brother.
"Duncan here will be our point guy on the day-to-day," Blake said, draping a paternalistic hand on Duncan's shoulder. Duncan smiled at Leah, who looked back at him, her own expression unchanging.
"So, you need to take up any more of my day with this crap?" Simon said, pushing his chair back from the table.
"We still on for lunch?" Blake asked him.
Simon checked his watch. "As long as you promise you're not going to try to bill me for it."
Leah looked at her father, then back to Duncan. "You have time to set up a to-do list now?"
Duncan readily agreed and the meeting broke up. Leah picked up a phone on a side table and asked her assistant to have lunch brought in for them. Duncan was annoyed with Blake for not bothering with a heads-up about his own lunch with Simon Roth, although he should be used to such offhand slights by now. Blake wasn't a yeller or an all-around prick like a lot of partners, but he was brusque and elusive, as well as expecting something like mind reading from those who worked for him. But the law was not a profession for those who wanted their hands held.
And besides, part of the idea of coming to a meeting like this was for Duncan to get to know the next generation of Roths. Duncan was at the point in his career that was less about acquiring new legal skills and more about developing relationships and connections to start growing his own book of business, assuming that his approaching partnership vote went as he hoped. Ideally he would establish the same sort of relationship with Simon Roth's children, who were roughly his age, that his boss had long ago built with their father. Blake had been Simon Roth's primary litigation lawyer for over twenty years, one of many blue-chip clients he'd maintained. Blake, who billed just under a thousand dollars an hour, was widely acknowledged as one of the country's leading trial lawyers.
Leah looked over at Duncan while on the phone with her assistant. She didn't smile or otherwise blunt her gaze, just openly evaluated him. Leah was attractive in a stringent sort of way, with dark straight hair and deep brown eyes, her coloring complemented by her dark pantsuit. She had the particular sort of confidence that Duncan had first encountered a decade previously upon entering Harvard Law: that of the born to it.
Duncan wondered what she in turn saw while looking at him. He was medium height, with honey-colored skin and green eyes that stood out against his complexion, his dark brown hair cropped so short a comb could barely pass through the back and sides. Despite the July heat, he was dressed in a gray Brooks Brothers suit, with a blue oxford shirt and a striped navy blue tie. Duncan had picked out the most conservative outfit in his wardrobe for this meeting-even his business attire usually had at least a little more flair-and such clothing still sometimes felt like a disguise. But he was a background presence at a meeting like today's, meant to be a quiet backstop for Blake, speaking if spoken to, and he therefore did his best to blend into the environment.
"So," Leah said, once she'd rejoined him across the conference room table. "You're Steven Blake's protégé?"
"One of them," Duncan said. "Blake brings in too much work to have just one."
"But you're the one we get," Leah said. "Hope we're not keeping you from more important things."
Duncan wasn't actually a fan of the work he was doing for Roth Properties: there were certainly sexier cases at the firm, including some of Blake's. But there wasn't an instant where he contemplated giving an honest answer, and he had no doubt Leah wasn't expecting one. "You're one of our firm's most important clients, obviously," he said instead. "It's an honor to be trusted to work on your matters."
Leah smiled dismissively, signaling nice try. "The bills from your firm go across my desk," she said. "I saw that you billed over two hundred hours to us the other month. That can't leave you much time to work on anything else."
Duncan shrugged, a tad uneasy, not sure what Leah was looking for him to say. "It doesn't really," he said. "I've got a pro bono case, but that doesn't take much time. As far as paying clients, right now you're pretty much it. But it ebbs and flows."
"What's your pro bono case about?"
Duncan was surprised by the question, not expecting any actual curiosity about his professional life from Leah. "It's just defending a family in an eviction proceeding."
"Is that all?" Leah said archly.
Duncan felt a mix of annoyance and embarrassment, but tried not to let either show. His dismissiveness had not been directed at the case itself, which he took seriously, but just at the prospect of talking about it with Leah Roth. This was especially true because the case had a connection, albeit a tenuous one, with Roth Properties.
His clients, a grandmother and grandson named Dolores and Rafael Nazario, were residents of the Jacob Riis housing project on the far eastern edge of Alphabet City. That project was receiving a radical makeover into mixed-income housing, a hugely ambitious transformation in which Roth Properties was partnering with the city. The eviction was based on the grandson getting arrested for smoking a joint outside his project. He'd been busted not by the cops, but rather by private security guards who'd been patrolling around the ongoing construction work.
Rafael had pled guilty to a disorderly conduct charge stemming from the weed, not realizing that doing so would open the door to eviction proceedings. Rafael insisted that the whole thing was a lie, that he hadn't actually been caught smoking pot, although Duncan didn't necessarily put a lot of stock in the denials, especially since they were being made in front of his client's grandmother.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Blind Man's Alley by Justin Peacock. Copyright © 2010 by Justin Peacock. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.