This is a good year for John Grisham readers. In the summer, he published Camino Island, a rare books caper that expanded his repertoire and captured a wide audience. Now comes a new legal thriller, The Rooster Bar.
Close readers of Camino Island might remember a conversation in that book that revolved around student loans. Well, in The Rooster Bar Grisham expands on that conversation with a thriller about three law school students who become caught up The Great Law School Scam. It turns out their school is part of a chain owned by a shady New York hedge-fund operator who also happens to own a bank specializing in student loans. Something doesn't smell right, and they start to investigate.
Where does Grisham go with the story?
Read the first four chapters here to find out yourself.
THE ROOSTER BAR
The end of the year brought the usual holiday festivities, though around the Frazier house there was little to cheer. Mrs. Frazier went through the motions of decorating a small tree and wrapping a few cheap gifts and baking cookies no one really wanted, and, as always, she kept The Nutcracker running nonstop on the stereo as she gamely hummed along in the kitchen as though the season was merry.
Things were anything but merry. Mr. Frazier had moved out three years earlier, and he wasn’t missed as much as he was despised. In no time, he had moved in with his young secretary, who, as things developed, was already pregnant. Mrs. Frazier, jilted, humiliated, broke, and depressed, was still struggling. Louie, her younger son, was under house arrest, sort of free on bail, and facing a rough year ahead with the drug charges and all. He made no effort to buy his mom anything in the way of a gift. His excuse was that he couldn’t leave the house because of the court- ordered monitor attached to his ankle. But even without it, no one expected Louie to go to the trouble of buying gifts. The year before and the year before that both of his ankles had been unburdened and he hadn’t bothered to shop.
Mark, the older son, was home from the horrors of law school, and, though even poorer than his brother, had managed to buy his mother some perfume. He was scheduled to graduate in May, sit for the bar exam in July, and begin working with a D.C. firm in September, which, as it so happened, was the same month Louie’s trial was on the docket. But Louie’s case would not go to trial for two very good reasons. First, the undercover boys had caught him in the act of selling ten bags of crack— there was even a video— and, second, neither Louie nor his mother could afford a decent lawyer to handle the mess. Throughout the holidays, both Louie and Mrs. Frazier dropped hints that Mark should rush in and volunteer to defend his brother. Wouldn’t it be easy to stall matters until later in the year when Mark was properly admitted to the bar— he was practically there anyway— and once he had his license wouldn’t it be a simple matter of finding one of those technicalities you read about to get the charges dismissed?
This little fantasy of theirs had some rather large holes in it, but Mark refused to discuss it. When it became apparent that Louie planned to hog the sofa for at least ten hours on New Year’s Day and watch seven straight bowl games, Mark made a quiet exit and went to a friend’s house. Returning home that night, while driving under the influence, he made the decision to flee. He would return to D.C. and kill some time puttering around the law firm where he would soon be employed. Classes didn’t start for almost two weeks, but after ten days of listening to Louie bitch and moan about his problems, not to mention the nonstop Nutcracker, Mark was fed up and looking forward to his last semester of law school.
He set his alarm for eight the following morning, and over coffee with his mom explained that he was needed back in D.C. Sorry to leave a bit earlier than expected, Mom, and sorry to leave you here all alone with your bad boy, Mom, but I’m outta here. He’s not mine to raise. I got my own problems.
The first problem was his vehicle, a Ford Bronco he’d been driving since high school. The odometer had frozen at 187,000 miles, and that had happened midway through college. It desperately needed a new fuel pump, one of many replacement parts on the Urgent List. Using tape and paper clips, Mark had been able to wire and jerry- rig the engine, transmission, and brakes for the past two years, but he’d had no luck with the fuel pump. It worked but at a lower capacity than normal, so that the Bronco’s max speed was forty- nine on level ground. To avoid being clobbered by 18- wheelers on the expressways, Mark stuck to the back roads of rural Delaware and the Eastern Shore. The two- hour drive from Dover to central D.C. took twice as long.
This gave him even more time to consider his other problems. Number two was his suffocating student debt. He’d finished college with $60,000 in loans, and no job. His father, who seemed happily married at the time but was also in debt, had warned him against further studies. He’d said, “Hell, boy, four years of education and you’re sixty grand in the hole. Quit before it gets any worse.” But Mark thought taking any financial advice from his father was foolish, so he worked a couple of years here and there, bartending and delivering pizza, while he haggled with his lenders. Now, looking back, he wasn’t sure where the idea of law school had originated, but he did remember overhearing a conversation between two frat brothers who were pondering weighty matters while drinking heavily. Mark was the bartender, the lounge was not crowded, and after the fourth round of vodka and cranberry juice they talked loud enough for all to hear. Among many interesting things they had said, Mark had always remembered two: “The big D.C. law firms are hiring like crazy.” And, “Starting salaries are one- fifty a year.”
Not long after that, he bumped into a college friend who was a first- year student at the Foggy Bottom Law School in D.C., and the guy gushed on about his plans to blitz through his studies, finish in two and a half years, and sign on with a big firm for a fat salary. The Feds were throwing loans at students, anybody could qualify, and, well sure, he would graduate with a mountain of debt but nothing he couldn’t wipe out in five years. To his friend, at least, it made perfect sense to “invest in himself” with the debt because it would guarantee all that future earning power.
Mark took the bait and began studying for the Law School Admission Test. His score was an unimpressive 146, but this did not bother the admissions folks at the Foggy Bottom Law School. Nor did his rather thin undergraduate résumé with an anemic grade point average of 2.8. FBLS accepted him with open arms. His loan applications were quickly approved. Sixty- five thousand bucks were simply transferred from the Department of Education each year to Foggy Bottom. And now, with one semester to go, Mark was staring miserably at the reality of graduating with a combined total, undergrad and law school, principal and interest, of $266,000 in debt.
Another problem was his job. As it happened, the market wasn’t quite as strong as rumored. Nor was it as vibrant as FBLS had advertised in its slick brochures and near- fraudulent website. Graduates from top- tier law schools were still finding work at enviable salaries. FBLS, though, was not quite in the top tier. Mark had managed to worm his way into a midsized law firm that specialized in “governmental relations,” which meant nothing more than lobbying. His starting salary had not been established, because the firm’s management committee would meet in early January to review profits from the previous year and supposedly jiggle the pay structure. In a few months, Mark would be expected to have an important talk with his “loan counselor” about restructuring his student debt and somehow repaying the entire mess. This counselor had already expressed concern that Mark did not know how much he would be earning. This concerned Mark too, especially when added to the fact that he didn’t trust a single person he’d met at the law firm. As much as he tried to fool himself, he knew deep in his gut that his position was not secure.
Another problem was the bar exam. Because of demand, the D.C. version of the test was one of the more challenging in the nation, and FBLS grads had been bombing it at an alarming rate. Again, the top schools in town did well. The year before, Georgetown had a 91 percent pass rate. For George Washington it was 89 percent. For FBLS, the pass rate was a pathetic 56 percent. To succeed, Mark needed to start studying now, in early January, and hit the books nonstop for six months.
But the energy simply wasn’t there, especially in the cold, dreary, depressing days of winter. At times the debt felt like cinder blocks strapped to his back. Walking was a chore. Smiling was difficult. He was living in poverty and his future, even with the job, was bleak. And he was one of the fortunate ones. Most of his classmates had the loans but not the jobs. Looking back, he’d heard the grumbling even in his first year, and with each semester the mood at school grew darker, the suspicions heavier. The job market worsened. The bar exam results embarrassed everyone at FBLS. The loans piled up. Now, in his third and last year, it was not unusual to hear students verbally spar with professors in class. The dean wouldn’t come out of his office. Bloggers blistered the school and screamed harsh questions: “Is this a hoax?” “Have we been had?” “Where did all the money go?”
To varying degrees, almost everyone Mark knew believed that (1) FBLS was a subpar law school that (2) made too many promises, and (3) charged too much money, and (4) encouraged too much debt while (5) admitting a lot of mediocre students who really had no business in law school, and (6) were either not properly prepared for the bar exam or (7) too dumb to pass it.
There were rumors that applications to FBLS had fallen by 50 percent. With no state support, and no endowment, such a decline would lead to all manner of painful cost cutting, and a bad law school would only get worse. This was fine with Mark Frazier and his friends. They would endure the next four months and happily leave the place, never to return.
MARK LIVED IN a five- story apartment building that was eighty years old and visibly deteriorating, but the rent was low and this attracted students from George Washington and FBLS. In its earlier days it had been known as the Cooper House, but after three decades of frat- like wear and tear it had earned its nickname as the Coop. Because its elevators seldom worked, Mark took the stairs to the third floor and entered his cramped and sparsely furnished flat, for which he paid $800 a month for five hundred square feet. For some reason he’d cleaned the place after his last exam before the holidays, and as he flipped on lights he was pleased to see that everything was in order. And why shouldn’t it be? The slumlord who owned the place never came around. He unloaded his bags and was struck by the silence. Normally, with a bunch of students, and with thin walls, there was always a racket. Stereos, televisions, arguments, pranks, poker games, fights, guitar playing, even a trombone played by a nerd on the fourth floor that could rattle the entire building. But not today. Everyone was still at home, enjoying the break, and the halls were eerily quiet.
After half an hour, Mark was bored and left the building. Walking along New Hampshire Avenue, with the wind cutting through his thin fleece and old khakis, he decided, for some reason, to turn onto Twenty- First and stop by the law school to see if it was open. In a city with no shortage of hideous modern buildings, FBLS managed to stand out in its unsightliness. It was a postwar edifice covered with bland yellow bricks on eight levels slung together in asymmetrical wings, some failed architect’s effort at making a statement. Supposedly, it once was an office building, but walls had been knocked out with abandon to create cramped lecture halls on the four lower floors. On the fifth was the library, a rabbits’ warren of large, retrofitted rooms packed with seldom- touched books and some replicated portraits of unknown judges and legal scholars. The faculty had offices on the sixth and seventh floors, and on the eighth, and as far away from the students as possible, the administration carried on, with the dean solidly hidden in a corner office from which he seldom ventured.
The front door was unlocked and Mark entered the empty lobby. While he appreciated its warmth, he found the area, as always, utterly depressing. A huge bulletin board covered one wall with all manner of notices and announcements and enticements. There were a few slick posters advertising opportunities to study abroad, and the usual assortment of handmade ads offering stuff for sale— books, bikes, tickets, course outlines, tutors by the hour— and apartments for rent. The bar exam loomed over the entire school like a dark cloud and there were posters extolling the excellence of some review courses. If he searched hard enough he could possibly find a few employment opportunities, but at FBLS those had become scarcer by the year. In one corner he saw the same old brochures hawking even more student loans. At the far end of the lobby there were vending machines and a small coffee bar, but nothing was being brewed during the break.
He fell into a battered leather chair and soaked in the gloominess of his school. Was it really a school or was it just another diploma mill? The answer was becoming clear. For the thousandth time he wished he had never walked through the front doors as an unsuspecting first- year student. Now, almost three years later, he was burdened by loans he couldn’t imagine paying off. If there was a light at the end of the tunnel, he couldn’t see it.
And why would anyone name a school Foggy Bottom? As if the law school experience itself wasn’t dreary enough, some bright soul had, some twenty years earlier, tagged it with a name that conveyed even more cheerlessness. That guy, now dead, had sold the school to some Wall Street investors who owned a string of law schools that were reportedly producing handsome profits while cranking out little in the way of legal talent.
How do you buy and sell law schools? It was still a mystery.
Mark heard voices and hurriedly left the building. He hiked down New Hampshire to Dupont Circle, where he ducked into Kramer Books for a coffee and a quick thaw. He walked everywhere. His Bronco lurched and stalled too much in city traffic, and he kept it tucked away in a lot behind the Coop, always with the key in the ignition. Unfortunately, so far no one had been tempted to steal it.
Warm again, he hustled six blocks north along Connecticut Avenue. The law firm of Ness Skelton occupied a few floors in a modern building near the Hinckley Hilton. The previous summer Mark had managed to weasel his way inside when he accepted an internship that paid less than minimum wage. At major law firms, the summer programs were used to entice top students to the big life. Little work was expected. The interns were given ridiculously easy schedules, along with tickets to ball games and invitations to fine parties in the splendid backyards of the wealthy partners. Once seduced, they signed on, and upon graduation were soon thrown into the meat grinder of hundred- hour weeks.
Not so at Ness Skelton. With only fifty lawyers, it was far from a top- ten firm. Its clients were trade associations— Soybean Forum, Retired Postal Workers, Beef and Lamb Council, National Asphalt
Contractors, Disabled Railroad Engineers— and several defense contractors desperate for their share of the pork. The firm’s expertise, if it had any, was maintaining relationships with Congress. Its summer intern program was designed more to exploit cheap labor than to attract top students. Mark had worked hard and suffered through the stultifying work. At the end of the summer, when he had received an offer that somewhat resembled a position upon passing the bar exam, he couldn’t decide if he should celebrate or cry. Nonetheless, he jumped at what was being offered— there was nothing else on the table— and proudly became one of the few FBLS students with a future. Throughout the fall, he had gently pressed his supervisor about the terms of his upcoming employment but got nowhere. There might be a merger in the works. There might be a split. There might be a lot of things, but an employment contract was not one of them.
So he hung around. Afternoons, Saturdays, holidays, anytime he was bored he would stop by the firm, always with a big fake smile and an eagerness to pitch in and help with the grunt work. It was not clear if this was beneficial, but he figured it couldn’t hurt.
His supervisor was named Randall, a ten- year guy on the verge of making partner, and thus under a lot of pressure. A Ness Skelton associate who didn’t make partner after ten years was quietly shown the door. Randall was a George Washington law grad, which, in the city’s pecking order, was a step down from Georgetown but several notches above Foggy Bottom. The hierarchy was clear and rigid, and its worst perpetrators were the GW lawyers. They detested being looked down upon by the Georgetown gang; thus they were eager to look down with even more disdain on anyone from FBLS. The entire firm reeked of cliques and snobbery, and Mark often wondered how in hell he wound up there. Two associates were from FBLS, but they were so busy trying to distance themselves from their school they had no time to lend Mark a hand. Indeed, they seemed to ignore him more than anyone else. Mark had often mumbled, “What a way to run a law firm.” But then he figured that every profession had its levels of status. He was far too worried about his own skin to fret over where the other cutthroats had studied law. He had his own problems.
He had e-mailed Randall and said he would be dropping by to do whatever grunt work was available. Randall greeted him with a curt “Back so soon?”
Sure, Randall, and how were your holidays? Great to see you. “Yeah, got bored with all the holiday crap. What’s up?”
“Two of the secretaries are out with the flu,” Randall said. He pointed to a stack of documents a foot thick. “I need that copied fourteen times, all collated and stapled.”
Okay, back to the copy room, Mark thought. “Sure,” he said as if he couldn’t wait to jump in. He hauled the documents down to the basement, to a dungeon filled with copiers. He spent the next three hours doing mindless work for which he would be paid nothing.
He almost missed Louie and his ankle monitor.
Like Mark, Todd Lucero was inspired to become a lawyer by booze- tinted conversations he’d overheard in a bar. For the past three years, he had been mixing drinks at the Old Red Cat, a pub- style watering hole favored by students from GW and Foggy Bottom. After college at Frostburg State, he’d left Baltimore and drifted into D.C. in search of a career. Finding none, he hired on at the Old Red Cat as a part- timer and soon realized he had a fondness for pulling pints and mixing strong drinks. He’d come to love the pub life and had a gift for schmoozing with the serious drinkers while placating the rowdies. Todd was everybody’s favorite bartender and was on a first- name basis with hundreds of his regulars.
Many times over the past two and a half years he had thought of quitting law school to pursue his dream of owning his own bar. His father, though, had strong opinions to the contrary. Mr. Lucero was a cop in Baltimore and had always pushed his son to obtain a professional degree. Pushing was one thing, but paying for it was something else. And so Todd had fallen into the same trap of borrowing easy money and handing it over to the greedy folks at FBLS.
He and Mark Frazier had met the first day, during orientation, back when they were both starry- eyed and envisioning big law careers with fat salaries, back when they, along with 350 others, were horribly naive. He vowed to quit after his first year, but his father yelled at him. Because of his commitment to the bar, he had never found the time to knock on doors around D.C. and hustle for summer internships. He vowed to quit after his second year and cut off the flow of debt, but his loan counselor strongly advised against it. As long as he was in school he did not have to confront some brutal repayment schedule, so it made perfect sense to keep borrowing in order to graduate and find one of those lucrative jobs that, in theory, would eventually take care of the debts. Now, though, with only one semester to go, he knew only too well such jobs did not exist.
If only he’d borrowed $195,000 from a bank and opened his bar. He could be printing money and enjoying life.
MARK ENTERED THE Old Red Cat just after dark and took his favorite place at the end of the bar. He fist- bumped Todd and said, “Good to see you, man.”
“You too,” Todd said as he slid over a frosty mug of light beer. With his seniority, Todd could comp anyone he damn well pleased, and Mark had not paid in years.
With the students away, the place was quiet. Todd leaned on his elbows and asked, “So what are you up to?”
“Well, I’ve spent the afternoon at dear old Ness Skelton, in the copy room sorting papers that no one will ever read. More stupid work. Even the paralegals look down their noses at me. I hate the place and I haven’t even been hired yet.”
“Still no contract?”
“None, and the picture gets fuzzier every day.”
Todd took a quick sip from his mug stashed under the counter. Even with his seniority, he wasn’t supposed to drink on the job, but his boss wasn’t in. He asked, “So how was Christmas around the Frazier house?”
“Ho, ho, ho. I lasted ten miserable days and got the hell out. You?”
“Three days, then duty called and I came back to work. How’s Louie?”
“Still seriously indicted, still looking at real jail time. I should feel sorry for him but compassion runs thin for a guy who sleeps half the day and spends the other half on the sofa watching Judge Judy and bitching about his ankle monitor. My poor mom.”
“You’re pretty hard on him.”
“Not hard enough. That’s his problem. No one’s ever been hard on Louie. He got caught with pot when he was thirteen, blamed it on a friend, and of course my parents rushed to his defense. He’s never been held accountable. Until now.”
“Bummer, man. I can’t imagine having a brother in prison.”
“Yeah, it sucks. I just wish I could help him but there’s no way.”
“I won’t even ask about your dad.”
“Didn’t see him and didn’t hear from him. Not even a card. He’s fifty years old and the proud papa of a three- year- old, so I guess he played Santa Claus. Laid out a bunch of toys under the tree, smiled like an idiot when the kid came down the stairs squealing. What a rat.”
Two coeds walked to the bar and Todd left to serve them. Mark pulled out his phone and checked his messages.
When Todd returned, he asked, “Have you seen any grades yet?”
“No. Who cares? We’re all top students.” Grades at Foggy Bottom were a joke. It was imperative that the school’s graduates finish with sparkling résumés, and to that end the professors passed out As and Bs like cheap candy. No one flunked out of FBLS. So, of course, this had created a culture of rather listless studying, which, of course, killed any chance of competitive learning. A bunch of mediocre students became even more mediocre. No wonder the bar exam was such a challenge. Mark added, “And you really can’t expect a bunch of overpaid professors to grade exams during the holidays, can you?”
Todd took another sip, leaned even closer, and said, “We have a bigger problem.”
“I was afraid of that. I’ve texted and tried to call but his phone’s turned off. What’s going on?”
“It’s bad,” Todd said. “Evidently, he went home for Christmas and spent his time fighting with Brenda. She wants a big church wedding with a thousa
nd people. Gordy doesn’t want to get married. Her mother has a lot to say. His mother is not speaking to her mother and the whole thing is blowing up.”
“They’re getting married May 15, Todd. As I recall, you and I signed on as groomsmen.”
“Well, don’t bet on it. He’s already back in town and off his meds. Zola stopped by this afternoon and gave me the heads-up.”
“It’s a long story.”
“He’s bipolar, Mark. Diagnosed a few years back.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Why would I kid about this? He’s bipolar and Zola says he’s off his medication.”
“Why wouldn’t he tell us?”
“I can’t answer that.”
Mark took a long drink of beer and shook his head. He asked, “Zola’s back already?”
“Yes, evidently she and Gordy hurried back for a few days of fun and games, though I’m not sure they’re having much fun. She thinks he quit his meds about a month ago when we were studying for finals. One day he’s manic and bouncing off the walls; then he’s in a stupor after sipping tequila and smoking weed. He’s talking crazy, says he wants to quit school and run off to Jamaica, with Zola of course. She thinks he might do something stupid and hurt himself.”
“Gordy is stupid. He’s engaged to his high school sweetheart, a real cutie who happens to have money, and now he’s shacking up with an African girl whose parents and brothers are in this country without the benefit of those immigration papers everyone is talking about. Yes, the boy is stupid.”
“Gordy’s in trouble, Mark. He’s been sliding for several weeks and he needs our help.”
Mark pushed his beer away, but only a few inches, and clasped his hands behind his head. “As if we don’t have enough to worry about. How, exactly, are we supposed to help?”
“You tell me. She’s trying to keep an eye on him and she wants us to come over tonight.”
Mark started laughing and took another sip.
“What’s so funny?” Todd asked.
“Nothing, but can you imagine the scandal in Martinsburg, West Virginia, if word got out that Gordon Tanner, whose father is a church deacon and whose fiancée is the daughter of a prominent doctor, lost his mind and quit law school to run off to Jamaica with an African Muslim?”
“I can almost see the humor.”
“Well, try harder. It’s a scream.” But the laughter had stopped. “Look, Todd, we can’t make him take his meds. If we tried to he’d kick both our asses.”
“He needs our help, Mark. I get off at nine tonight and we’re going over.”
A man in a nice suit sat at the bar and Todd walked over to take his order. Mark sipped his beer and sank into an even deeper funk.
Three years before Zola Maal was born, her parents fled Senegal. They resettled in a Johannesburg slum with their two young sons and found menial jobs scrubbing floors and digging ditches. After two years, they had saved enough for a boat ride. Using the services of a broker/trafficker, they paid for a miserable trip to Miami aboard a Liberian freighter, along with a dozen other Senegalese. When they were safely smuggled ashore, an uncle met them and drove them to his home in Newark, New Jersey, where they lived in a two- room apartment in a building filled with other folks from Senegal, not a single one of whom held a green card.
A year after they arrived in the U.S., Zola was born at Newark’s University Hospital and instantly became an American citizen. While her parents worked two and three jobs, all for cash at less than minimum wage, Zola and her brothers attended school and assimilated into the community. As devout Muslims, they practiced their religion, though at an early age Zola found herself attracted to Western ways. Her father was a strict man who insisted that their native tongues of Wolof and French be replaced with English. The boys absorbed the new language and helped their parents with it at home.
The family moved often around Newark, always to cramped apartments, each one slightly larger than the last, and always with other Senegalese close by. All of them lived in fear of being deported, but there was safety in numbers, or so they believed. Every knock on the door brought a brief shudder of fear. Staying out of trouble was imperative, and Zola and her brothers were taught to avoid anything that might attract the wrong kind of attention. Even though she had the right papers, she knew that her family was in jeopardy. She lived with the horror of her parents and brothers being arrested and sent back to Senegal.
When she was fifteen, she found her first job washing dishes in a diner, for cash of course, and not much of it. Her brothers worked too, and the entire family scrimped and saved as much as possible.
When Zola wasn’t working she was studying. She breezed through high school with good grades and enrolled in a community college as a part- time student. A small scholarship allowed her to become full- time and also landed her a job in the college library. But she still washed dishes, and cleaned houses with her mother, and babysat children for family friends with better jobs. Her oldest brother married an American girl who was not a Muslim, and though that meant an easier route to citizenship, it caused serious friction with her parents. The brother and his new wife moved to California to start another life.
At the age of twenty, Zola left home and enrolled as a junior at Montclair State. She lived in a dorm with two American girls, both of whom were also on tight budgets. She chose accounting as a major because she enjoyed working with numbers and had a knack for finance. She studied hard when time allowed, but the juggling of two and sometimes three jobs often interfered with the books. Her roommates introduced her to the partying scene and she discovered she had a knack for that too. While she clung to the strict Muslim prohibition against alcohol, and she really didn’t like the taste of any of it anyway, she was more receptive to other temptations, primarily fashion and sex. She was almost six feet tall and was often told how great she looked in tight jeans. Her first boyfriend happily taught her all about sex. Her second introduced her to recreational drugs. By the end of her junior year she silently and defiantly considered herself a nonpracticing Muslim, though her parents had no clue.
Her parents would soon have more serious problems. During the fall semester of her senior year, her father was arrested and jailed for two weeks before bail was arranged. At the time, he was working for a painting contractor, another Senegalese with proper documents. Evidently, his boss had underbid a union contractor for a job painting the interior of a large office complex in Newark. The union contractor notified Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and reported that illegals were being used. That was serious enough, but some office supplies were allegedly missing and fingers were being pointed. Zola’s father and four other undocumented workers were charged with grand larceny. He was served with a Notice to Appear in immigration court, along with a criminal indictment.
Zola hired a lawyer who claimed to specialize in such matters and the family forked over a retainer of $9,000, virtually all its savings. The lawyer was extremely busy and seldom returned their phone calls. With her parents and brother hiding in and around Newark, Zola was left to haggle with the lawyer. She grew to despise the man, a fast talker who liked to stretch the truth, and would have fired him had it not been for the retainer. There was no money to hire another. When he failed to appear in court, the judge kicked him off the case. Zola eventually convinced a legal aid lawyer to step in and the indictment was dismissed. The deportation, however, was not going away. The case dragged on and became so distracting that her grades suffered. After several court appearances and hearings, she became convinced that all lawyers were either lazy or stupid and that she could do a better job herself.
She fell for the scam that easy federal money could make law school possible for everyone, and took the first bold steps that would lead to Foggy Bottom. Now, halfway through her final year of law school, she owed more money than she could imagine. Both parents and Bo, her unmarried brother, were still facing deportation, though their cases were languishing in the backlogged immigration courts.
SHE LIVED ON Twenty- Third Street in a building not quite as dilapidated as the Coop but similar in many respects. It was packed with students crammed into small, cheaply furnished flats. Early in her third year, she had met Gordon Tanner, a handsome, athletic blond boy who lived directly across the hall. One thing quickly led to another, and they began an ill- fated affair, one that soon led to conversations about living together, to save money of course. Gordon finally nixed the idea because Brenda, his pretty fiancée from home, loved the big city and visited often.
Juggling two women proved too much for Gordy. He’d been engaged to Brenda for practically his entire life and now wanted desperately to avoid a marriage. Zola raised far different issues, and he had not convinced himself he was brave enough to run off with a black girl and never see his family and friends again. Add the strain of a soft or even nonexistent job market, suffocating debt, and the prospect of flunking the bar exam, and Gordy lost control. He had been diagnosed as bipolar five years earlier. Meds and psychotherapy worked well, and, with the exception of a frightening episode in college, his life had been pretty normal. That changed around Thanksgiving of his third year at Foggy Bottom, when he stopped taking his meds. Zola was shocked at the mood swings and finally confronted him. He admitted his condition and went back on the meds. The ups and downs leveled out for a couple of weeks.
They finished exams and went home for the holidays, though neither wanted to. Gordy was determined to provoke the final fight with Brenda and blow up the wedding. Zola did not want to spend time with her family. Even with his troubles, her father would find the need to unload lectures and tirades on her sinful Western lifestyle.
After a week they were back in D.C. with Gordy still engaged, the wedding still on for May 15. But he was off his meds and behaving erratically. For two days he never left his bedroom, sleeping for hours, then sitting with his chin on his knees, staring at the dark walls. Zola came and went, uncertain about what to do. He disappeared for three days while sending her text messages that he was on the train to New York, to “interview some people.” He was on the trail of a great conspiracy and had a lot of work to do. She was asleep in her apartment when he barged in at four in the morning, ripping off clothes and wanting sex. Later in the day he disappeared again, chasing bad guys and “digging for dirt.” When he returned he was still manic and spent hours with his laptop. He told her to stay away from his apartment because he had so much work to do.
Frightened and exasperated, Zola finally went to the Old Red Cat and talked to Todd.
She met them at the stoop in front of the building and they followed her up the stairs to her apartment on the second floor. When they were inside she closed the door and thanked them for coming. She was obviously worried, almost frantic.
“Where is he?” Mark asked.
“Over there,” Zola said, nodding toward the hall. “He won’t let me in and he won’t come out. I don’t think he’s slept much in the past two days. He’s up and down and right now he’s bouncing off the walls.”
“And no meds?” Todd asked.
“Evidently not, at least none from the pharmacy. I suspect there’s some self- medicating going on.”
They looked at one another, each waiting for someone to make the next move. Mark finally said, “Let’s go.” They stepped across the hall and Mark knocked on the door. “Gordy, it’s Mark. I’m here with Todd and Zola and we want to talk.”
Silence. Springsteen could barely be heard in the background.
Mark knocked again and repeated himself. The music died. A chair or a stool was kicked and fell over. More silence, then the doorknob clicked. A few seconds passed, and Mark opened the door.
Gordy was standing in the center of the cramped room, wearing nothing but an old pair of yellow Redskins gym shorts, the same pair they had seen a hundred times. He was staring at a wall and ignored them as they eased into the room. To their left, the kitchenette was a wreck with empty beer cans and liquor bottles left in the sink and strewn along the counters. The floor was littered with paper cups, used napkins, and sandwich wrappers. To their right, the small dining table was piled high with papers in random stacks around a laptop and printer. Under it, the floor was covered with papers and files and discarded magazine articles. The sofa, television, recliner, and coffee table had been shoved as tightly as possible into one corner, as if to clear everything away from the wall.
The wall was a maze of white poster boards and dozens of sheets of copy paper, all arranged in some crazed order and secured with colored pushpins and Scotch tape. With black, blue, and red markers, Gordy was in the process of piecing together a gigantic corporate puzzle, some grand conspiracy that led to the ominous faces of a few men at the top.
Gordy appeared to be staring at the faces. He was pale and emaciated and had obviously lost a lot of weight, something Mark and Todd had not noticed two weeks earlier during final exams. He was an athlete who loved the gym, but the toned muscles were gone. His thick blond hair, the source of immense vanity, was stringy and had not been washed in days. Sizing him up, and taking in the condition of his apartment, they knew instantly that their friend had gone over the edge. They were in the presence of a manic artist, secluded and deranged and hard at work on an enormous canvas.
“What’s the occasion?” Gordy asked as he turned and glared at them. His eyes were sunken, his cheeks hollow, his beard a week old.
“We need to talk,” Mark said.
“Yes we do,” he said. “But I’m doing the talking because I have a lot to say. I’ve got it all figured out now. I’ve caught the bastards and we have to move fast.”
Tentatively, Todd said, “Okay, Gordy. We’re here to listen. What’s up?”
Gordy pointed to the sofa and calmly said, “Please have a seat.”
“I’d rather stand, Gordy, if that’s okay,” Mark said.
“No!” he barked. “It’s not okay. Just do as I say and we’ll be fine. Now sit down.” He was snarling, suddenly angry, and seemed ready to throw a punch. Neither Mark nor Todd would last ten seconds in a fistfight with Gordy. They had seen two in their law school days, both quick knockouts in bars with Gordy still on his feet.
Todd and Zola sat on the sofa and Mark pulled a stool over from the snack bar. They stared at the wall in disbelief. It was a maze of flowcharts with arrows jutting in all directions and linking together dozens of companies, firms, names, and numbers. Like schoolchildren who’d just been admonished, they sat, waited, and absorbed the wall.
Gordy stepped to the dining table, where a half- empty fifth of tequila was in the works. He poured some into his favorite coffee cup and sipped it as if having tea.
Mark said, “You’ve lost a lot of weight, Gordy.”
“Haven’t noticed. I’ll get it back. We’re not here to talk about my weight.” Holding the coffee cup, and evidently giving no thought to offering his pals anything to drink, he stepped to the wall and pointed to the top photo. “This is the Great Satan. Name’s Hinds Rackley, Wall Street lawyer turned investment crook, worth only four billion, which barely gets the poor guy on the Forbes list these days. A lesser billionaire, I guess, but nonetheless one with all the toys: Fifth Avenue mansion with a view of the park, big spread in the Hamptons, a yacht, couple of jets, trophy wife, the usual. Law school at Harvard, then a few years with a big firm. Couldn’t fit there so he hung out his own shingle with a few buddies, merged here and there, and now he owns or controls four law firms. As billionaires go, he’s rather shy and loves his privacy. Operates behind the veil of a lot of different companies. I’ve only tracked down a few but I’ve found enough.”
Gordy was talking to the wall, his back to his audience. When he lifted his cup for more tequila, the indentions between his ribs were visible. His weight loss was astonishing. He spoke calmly now, as if spouting facts he alone had uncovered.
“His main vehicle is Shiloh Square Financial, a private investment operation that also plays with leveraged buyouts and distressed debt and all the usual Wall Street games. Shiloh owns a chunk of Varanda Capital, how much we don’t know because their filings are bare- bones, everything about this guy is deceptive, and Varanda owns a chunk of Baytrium Group. As you might know, Baytrium owns, among many other companies, our dear Foggy Bottom Law School. Us and three others. What you don’t know is that Varanda also owns an outfit called Lacker Street Trust, out of Chicago, and Lacker Street owns four other for- profit law schools. That’s a total of eight.”
On the right side of the wall in large squares were the names of Shiloh Square Financial, Varanda Capital, and Baytrium Group. Below them in a neat row were the names of eight law schools: Foggy Bottom, Midwest, Poseidon, Gulf Coast, Galveston, Bunker Hill, Central Arizona, and Staten Island. Below each name were numbers and words in print too small to read from across the room.
Gordy stepped to the table and poured another measured serving of tequila. He took a sip, stepped back to the wall, and faced them. “Rackley began piecing together these schools about ten years ago, always, of course, hiding behind his many fronts. It’s not illegal to own a for- profit law school or college, but he wants to keep it under cover anyway. Guess he’s afraid someone will catch on to his dirty little scheme. I’ve caught him.” He took another sip and glared at them, his eyes wide and glowing. “In 2006, the bright people in Congress decided that every Tom, Dick, and Harry should be able to vastly improve their lives by getting more education, so the bright people said, basically, that anyone, including the four of us, could borrow as much as needed to pursue professional degrees. Loans for everyone, easy money. Tuition, books, even living expenses, regardless of how much, and of course all backed by the good word of the federal government.”
Mark said, “This is well- known, Gordy.”
“Oh, thank you, Mark. Now, if you’ll just sit there and be quiet I’ll do the talking.”
“What’s not well- known is that once Rackley owned the law schools, all eight of them, they began expanding rapidly. In 2005, Foggy Bottom had four hundred students. By the time we arrived in 2011, enrollment was at a thousand, where it remains today. Same for his other schools, all have roughly a thousand students. The schools bought buildings, hired every half- assed professor they could find, paid big bucks to administrators with passable credentials, and, of course, marketed themselves like crazy. And why? Well, what’s not well- known are the economics of for- profit law schools.”
He took another sip and moved to the far right of the wall, to a poster board covered with numbers and calculations. He said, “A bit of law school math. Take Foggy Bottom. They clip us for forty- five thousand a year in tuition, and everybody pays. There are no scholarships or grants, nothing real schools have to offer. That’s a gross of forty- five million. They pay the professors about a hundred grand a year, a far cry from the national average of two- twenty for good schools, but still a bonanza for some of the clowns who taught us. There is an endless supply of legal academics looking for work, so they’re lined up begging for the jobs because, of course, they just love being with us students. The school likes to brag about its low student- to- teacher ratio, ten to one, as if we’re all being taught by gifted pros in small, cozy classes, right? Remember first- semester torts? There were two hundred of us packed into Stuttering Steve’s classroom.”
Todd interrupted with “How’d you find out about their salaries?”
“I talked to one of them, tracked him down. He taught admin law for third years and we never had him. Got fired two years ago for drinking on the job. So we got drunk together and he told me everything. I got my sources, Todd, and I know what I’m talking about.”
“Okay, okay. Just curious.”
“Anyway, Foggy Bottom has about 150 professors, its biggest expense, say $15 million a year.” He pointed to a jumble of figures they could barely read. “Then you have the administration on the top floor. Did you know that our incompetent dean makes $800,000 a year? Of course not. The dean at Harvard Law makes half a million a year, but then he’s not in charge of a diploma mill where someone is watching the bottom line. Our dean has a nice résumé, looks good on paper, speaks well whenever he speaks, and has proven rather adept at fronting this racket. Rackley pays all his deans well and expects them to sell the dream. Throw in another, say, $3 million for the other bloated salaries up there and it’s safe to say the administration costs $4 million a year. Let’s be generous and make it $5, so we’re at $20 in costs. Last year it cost $4 million to operate the place— the building, the staff, and, of course, the marketing. Almost $2 million of it was for propaganda to entice even more misguided souls to sign up, start borrowing, and pursue glorious careers in law. I know this because I have a friend who’s a pretty good hacker. He found some stuff, didn’t find some other stuff, and was impressed with the school’s security. He says they work hard at protecting their files.”
“That’s $24 million,” Mark said.
“You’re quick. Round it off to $25, and the Great Satan nets $20 million a year off dear old Foggy Bottom. Multiply that times eight and the math will make you sick.” Gordy cleared his throat and spat at the wall. He took another sip, swallowed slowly, and paced a few steps.
“So how does Rackley do it?” he asked. “He sells the dream and we took the bait. When his eight schools expanded overnight, they opened their doors to everyone, regardless of qualifications or LSAT scores. The average LSAT for entering first years at Georgetown, which we know for sure is a top- tier school, is 165. For the Ivies it’s even higher. We don’t know the average LSAT at Foggy Bottom, because it’s a military secret. My hacker couldn’t penetrate the file. But it’s safe to say it’s well below 150, probably closer to 140. A major flaw in this defective system is that no LSAT score is too low to be admitted. These dipshit law schools will take anybody who can borrow the federal money, and, as stated, anybody can borrow the federal money. The ABA will accredit a kindergarten if it calls itself a law school. No one cares how dumb an applicant might be, nor does the federal loan program. Don’t want to offend anyone in this room but we all know our scores. We’ve all been drunk enough to talk about them, with the exception of Zola of course, who happens to have the highest of the four. So to be diplomatic I’ll say that the average of our little group is 145. Based on percentages, the chances of passing the bar exam with a 145 is about 50 percent. No one told us this when we applied because they care nothing about us; they just wanted our money. We were screwed the day we walked in.”
“You’re preaching to the choir,” Mark said.
“And the sermon is not over,” Gordy shot back, then ignored them for a moment as he studied his wall. Again, they exchanged looks that conveyed apprehension and fear. The sermon was interesting, and depressing, but they were far more worried about their friend.
He continued, “We’re in this mess because we saw the opportunity to pursue a dream, one that we could not afford. None of us should be in law school and now we’re in over our heads. We don’t belong here, but we were scammed into believing we were cut out for lucrative careers. It’s all about marketing and the promise of jobs. Jobs, jobs, jobs, big jobs with nice salaries. The reality, though, is that they don’t exist. Last year the big firms on Wall Street were offering $175,000 to the top grads. About $160,000 here in D.C. We’ve heard about these jobs for years and somehow convinced ourselves that we might get one. Now we know the truth, and the truth is that there are some jobs in the $50,000 range, something like you, Mark, managed to get, though you still don’t know the salary. These are at smaller firms where the work is brutal and the future is bleak. The big firms are paying one- sixty plus. And there is nothing in between. Nothing. We’ve suffered through the interviews, knocked on doors, scoured the Internet, so we know how bad the market is.”
They nodded along, primarily to placate him. Gordy took another sip, moved to the left side of the wall, and pointed. “Here’s the really nasty stuff, the part you know nothing about. Rackley owns a New York law firm called Quinn & Vyrdoliac; you might have heard of it. I had not. In the trade it’s referred to simply as Quinn. Offices in six cities, about four hundred lawyers, not a top one hundred firm. A small branch here in D.C. with thirty lawyers.” He pointed to a sheet of paper with the firm’s name in bold lettering. “Quinn works primarily in financial services, the gutter end. It handles a lot of foreclosures, repossessions, collections, defaults, bankruptcies, almost everything related to debts gone bad. Including student loans. Quinn pays well, at least initially.” He pointed to a colorful brochure, a trifold opened and pinned to the wall. “I saw this four years ago when I was considering Foggy Bottom. You probably saw it too. It features the smiling face of one Jared Molson, a grad who was supposedly happily employed at Quinn with a starting salary of $125,000. I remember thinking that, hey, if Foggy Bottom is turning out guys who get jobs like that, then sign me up. Well, I found Mr. Molson, had a long chat with him over drinks. He was offered a job at Quinn but didn’t sign a contract until after he passed the bar exam. He worked there for six years and quit, and he quit because his salary kept going down. He said that each year the management would study the bottom line and decide that cuts were necessary. His last year he earned just over a hundred and said screw it. He said he lived like a bum, whittled down his debt, and now he’s selling real estate and driving part- time for Uber. The firm’s a sweatshop and he says he got used by Foggy Bottom’s propaganda machine.”
“And he’s not the only one, right?” Todd said.
“Oh no. Molson was just one of many. Quinn has a fancy website and I read the bios of all four hundred lawyers. Thirty percent are from Rackley’s law schools. Thirty percent! So, my friends, Rackley hires them at enviable salaries, then uses their smiling faces and great success stories for his propaganda.”
He paused, took a sip, gave them a smug smile as if waiting for applause. He walked closer to the wall and pointed to another face, a black- and- white photo on copy paper, one of three just under the Great Satan. “This crook is Alan Grind, a Seattle- based lawyer and a limited partner in Varanda. Grind owns a law firm called King & Roswell, another low- tier operation with two hundred lawyers in five cities, primarily out west.” He pointed to the left, where King & Roswell held a spot next to Quinn & Vyrdoliac. “Of Grind’s two hundred lawyers, forty- five came from the eight law schools.”
He took another sip and walked to the table for a refill.
“Are you going to drink that whole bottle?” Mark asked.
“Only if I want to.”
“Maybe you should slow down.”
“And maybe you should worry about yourself. I’m not drunk, just sufficiently buzzed. And who are you to monitor my drinking?”
Mark took a deep breath and let it go. Gordy’s speech was clear enough. His mind was certainly clicking right along. In spite of his disheveled appearance, he seemed to be under control, at least for the moment. He stepped back to the wall and pointed at the photos. “The guy in the middle here is Walter Baldwin, runs a Chicago law firm called Spann & Tatta, three hundred lawyers in seven cities, coast to coast. Same type of work, same fondness for graduates of lesser law schools.” He pointed to the third face under Rackley. “And rounding out the gang is Mr. Marvin Jockety, senior partner of a Brooklyn law firm called Ratliff & Cosgrove. Same setup, same business model.”
Gordy took another sip and admired his work. He turned and looked at the three. “Not to belabor what should be obvious, but Rackley has under his thumb four law firms with eleven hundred lawyers in twenty- seven offices. Between them, they hire enough of his graduates to give his law schools plenty to crow about, so that suckers like us rush in with piles of cash provided by Congress.” His voice was suddenly loud and shaky. “It’s perfect! It’s beautiful! It’s one great big fat law school scam that’s risk- free. If we default the taxpayers pick up the tab. Rackley gets to privatize the profits and socialize the losses.”
He suddenly threw his coffee cup at the wall. It bounced off the thin Sheetrock unbroken and rolled across the floor. He sat hard against the wall, facing them, and stretched out his legs. The soles of his feet were black with dirt and grime.
The crash echoed for a few seconds as they watched him. Nothing was said for a long time. Mark gazed at the wall and absorbed the plot. There was no reason to doubt Gordy’s research. Todd gazed at the wall as if enthralled by the conspiracy. Zola stared at Gordy and wondered what they were supposed to do with him.
Finally, Gordy, almost in a whisper, said, “My number is 276,000 in loans, including this semester. What’s yours, Mark?”
There were no secrets. The four knew each other well enough.
“Including this semester, 266,” Mark said.
“One- ninety- five.”
“One- ninety- one.”
Gordy shook his head and laughed, not from humor, but from disbelief. “Almost a million. Who in their right mind would loan the four of us a million dollars?” At the moment, it did seem absurd, even laughable.
After another long pause, Gordy said, “There’s no way out. We’ve been lied to, misled, scammed, and suckered into this miserable place. There’s no way out.”
Todd slowly got to his feet and stepped to the wall. He pointed to the center of it and asked, “What is Sorvann Lenders?”
Gordy snorted another fake laugh and said, “The rest of the story. Rackley, through another company, and this guy has more fronts than a low- rent strip mall, owns Sorvann, which is now the fourth- largest private student lender. If you can’t get enough cash from the government, then you go private, where, surprise, surprise, the interest rates are higher and the debt collectors make the Mafia look like Cub Scouts. Sorvann lends to undergrads as well and has about ninety million in its portfolio. It’s a growing company. Evidently, Rackley smells blood on the private side as well.”
Todd asked, “And what is Passant?”
Another pained laugh. Gordy slowly climbed to his feet and walked to the table, where he grabbed the bottle and took a long swig. He grimaced, swallowed hard, wiped his mouth with his forearm, and finally said, “Passant is Piss Ant, third- largest student loan collecting racket in the country. It’s under contract to the Department of Education to ‘service,’ as they like to say, student debt. There’s over a trillion dollars out there, owed by fools like us. Passant is a bunch of terrorists, been sued a number of times for abusive debt collection practices. Rackley owns a chunk of it. The man is pure evil.”
Gordy walked to the sofa and sat next to Zola. As he passed, Mark got a strong whiff of his body odor. Todd walked to the kitchenette, stepped around the debris on the floor, opened the fridge, and pulled out two cans of beer. He handed one to Mark and both popped the tops. Zola rubbed Gordy’s leg, oblivious to his odors.
Mark nodded at the wall and asked, “So how long have you been working on this?”
“That’s not important. There’s more to the story if you care to hear it.”
“I’ve heard enough,” Mark said. “For now anyway. How about we walk around the corner and get a pizza? Mario’s is still open.”
“Great idea,” Todd said, but no one moved.
Gordy finally said, “My parents are on the hook for ninety thousand of my debt, private stuff I carried over from college. Can you believe that? They were hesitant, and for good reason, but I pushed them hard. What an idiot! My dad makes fifty thousand a year selling farm equipment and owed nothing but a mortgage until I started borrowing. Mom works part- time at the school. I’ve lied to them, told them I have a great job all lined up and I could handle the repayments. I’ve lied to Brenda too. She thinks we’ll be living in the big city where I’ll hustle off to work each day in a nice suit, eager to claw my way to the top. I’m in a bit of a jam, guys, and I see no way out.”
“We’ll survive, Gordy,” Mark said, but without conviction.
“We’ll get through it,” Todd said, without specifying which “it” he was referring to. Law school? The debt? Unemployment? Or Gordy’s breakdown? There were so many challenges at the moment.
Another long, dreary pause. Mark and Todd quietly sipped their beers.
Gordy said, “How can we expose Rackley? I’ve thought about sitting down with a reporter, someone who covers the legal beat for the Post or maybe the Journal. I’ve even thought about a class action lawsuit against the crook. Think of the thousands of young idiots like us who are on the same sinking ship and would love to take a shot at the guy once the truth is out.”
Mark said, “I don’t see a lawsuit. I mean, sure, he’s put together a brilliant scheme but he hasn’t done anything that’s actionable. There’s no law against owning diploma mills, even though he’s trying his best to hide it. His law firms can hire whoever they want. Sleazy, unfair, deceitful, but not enough for a lawsuit.”
“Agreed,” Todd said. “But I love the idea of helping an investigative reporter hammer the guy.”
Zola asked, “Wasn’t there a case in California where a law student sued her law school because she couldn’t find a job?”
Mark replied, “Yes, there have been several, all dismissed but for the one in California. It went to trial and the jury found in favor of the law school.”
Gordy said, “I’m not giving up on the lawsuit. It’s the best way to expose Rackley. Can you imagine what discovery would be like?”
“All fun and games, but he’s not stupid,” Mark said. “Hell, he owns four law firms. Just think of the heavy artillery he’d throw at you. The plaintiffs would spend the next five years drowning in paperwork.”
“What do you know about lawsuits?” Gordy asked.
“Everything. I’ve been educated at Foggy Bottom.”
“I rest my case.”
The lame effort at humor passed and they stared at the floor. Finally, Todd said, “Come on, Gordy, let’s go get a pizza.”
“I’m not going anywhere but I think you guys should leave.”
“Then we’re not leaving either,” Mark said. “We’re staying here.”
“Why? I don’t need a babysitter. Get out.”
Todd, still standing, walked to the sofa and stared down at Gordy. “Let’s talk about you, Gordy, you and your condition. You’re not sleeping or eating, or bathing for that matter. Are you taking your meds?”
“Come on, Gordy. We’re your friends and we’re here to help.”
“What meds?” he demanded.
“Come on, Gordy, we know what’s going on,” Mark said.
Gordy turned to Zola and growled, “What have you told them?”
Zola was about to respond when Todd said, “Nothing. She’s told us nothing, but we’re not blind, Gordy, we’re your best friends and you need some help.”
“I don’t need meds,” he snapped back, then bolted to his feet, brushed by Todd, and went to his bedroom. Seconds later he yelled, “Get out of here!” and slammed the door. They took a deep breath and stared at each other. Seconds later, the door opened and Gordy came out. He grabbed the bottle of tequila, said, “Leave! Now!” and disappeared again into his bedroom.
A minute passed without a sound. Zola stood and crossed the den. She put an ear to his door and listened. She stepped away and whispered, “I think he’s crying.”
“Great,” Mark whispered.
Another minute passed. Softly, Todd said, “We can’t leave him.”
“No way,” Mark said. “Let’s take turns. I’ll pull the first shift on the sofa.”
“I’m not leaving,” Zola said.
Mark looked around the den and finished his beer. Almost in a whisper he said, “Okay, you take the sofa and I’ll take the chair. Todd, you sleep on Zola’s sofa and we’ll swap in a few hours.”
Todd nodded and said, “Okay, I guess that will work.” He stepped to the fridge, got another beer, and left. Mark turned off the lights and settled into the battered leather chair. A few feet away, Zola curled up on the sofa. He whispered, “This could be a long night.”
“We shouldn’t talk,” she said. “The walls are thin and he might hear us.”
The digital clock on the microwave emitted a bluish light that seemed to grow brighter as their eyes adjusted to the darkness. It defined the shadows of the small dining table, the computer, and printer. Though they were still wide awake, the room was perfectly still. No sounds from the bedroom. Soft, distant music from down the hall. After ten minutes, Mark pulled out his phone and checked his messages and e-mails. Nothing important. The next ten minutes seemed like an hour as the chair grew more uncomfortable.
He stared at the wall. He couldn’t see the picture of Hinds Rackley, but he could feel his eyes gazing smugly down at them. At the moment, though, Mark wasn’t concerned with Rackley and his grand conspiracy. He was worried about Gordy. Their challenge tomorrow would be getting their friend to the doctor.
[End of excerpt]