Perhaps a decade after the catastrophe at the Lake, his daughter explained how it had all begun. He had told her during one of their bitter arguments at the beginning.
He had been sitting on a park bench at Shaw Lake in Golden Gate Park, waiting to die, as he put it, one more old man sitting in the dim sun of a winter day watching children play with toy sailboats on the small lake near the ocean end of the park. His mind was wandering over high school foot ball days and fantasized times with his deceased wife when one of the remote controlled boats that puttered around the Lake accidently rammed one of the toy sail boats, shattering its mast, sinking the little vessel.
The child who owned the sailboat began screaming and the elderly man who was operating the remote controlled tug boat came running over apologizing. McIsserson watched as peace was slowly made, the man offering a twenty dollar bill to the outraged mother. She sniffed and walked off with her child, the old man winked at McIsserson who simply glared back, and peace on the Lake was restored. McIsserson watched the water turn red as the sun began to set, then slowly and stiffly stood up in the soft breeze and walked over to the shore of the Lake. He carefully squatted down, hearing his knees creak, and picked up a piece of the broken mast that had drifted ashore. He continued squatting there, holding the small wooded piece of wood in his fingers and stared out over the darkening Lake.
Three months later he came into my law office. I had not seen Benjamin McIsserson for over a decade that day in 1990 and was saddened at his appearance when I did. He had always seemed the personification of the dependable middle class mechanic to me, strongly built, hard working, proud of his management of the welding shop that he had inherited from his father. Somehow in my mind he had come to symbolize the classic laborer, the worker who had made America great.
The first time I had seen him not dressed in his work overalls was at a baseball game in 1973, when I noticed him seated a few rows below me. On that hot day, he was bellowing for the home team, shirtless, both muscled arms raised above his head, pumping his fists as the runner came home. His pretty wife sat next to him, looking at him with amused if embarrassed fondness, beer in one hand, trying to pull him down with the other. She happened to notice me looking down and smiled and shook her head with mock despair.
She pulled his head down to her, said something, and he looked back towards me, grinning and nodding. “The bum finally hits one,” he shouted. “See, every dog has his day.” He threw his head back and laughed, then waved and sat down again, arm around his wife, reaching for the beer with his other hand. They sat as close as the seats allowed, laughing, hugging each other when the home team scored. They must have been in their early fifties then.
That was seventeen years before that day in my office and the man who sat across from me was hardly recognizable. His body had shrunk, his threadbare sports coat hung lose, his gnarled hands were clasped in his lap. Only his eyes remained young and somehow defiant.
When his wife died perhaps ten years after that game, after suffering through a long bout with cancer, McIsserson and I had had to spend many hours together handling her trust and estate. He never really talked about her, never talked about the pain that was clear in his newly lined face. When his just married daughter burst into tears at the funeral parlor, he stared at her for a moment with surprised contempt, then turned back to his brooding contemplation of the open casket. He did not comfort his daughter and he asked for no comfort from anyone. He hardly spoke at all.
That was five years before he sat before me in my office and stared at the certificates and awards hanging on my wall while I examined the papers he had placed on the desk between us. He did not look in my direction once though it took me a good ten minutes to review all the documents. His daughter was seeking to impose a conservatorship on him. To have him declared incapable of handling his own finances. Incapable, really, of taking care of himself.
I looked up at him, papers still in my hand.
He slowly moved his gaze to me. “So, I look nuts to you?”
I leaned back in my chair. “No more than you usually do. Are you?”
He grunted, slightly amused. “I must be to be seeing a lawyer.” Then he leaned forward. “She wants me out of the house, of course. That’s what this is about. She wants it for herself and her damned brood.”
I knew that his daughter and her family had moved into the family home shortly after his wife died. He had sold his welding company some years later, but continued to go to the shop as a “consultant” several days a week, acknowledged by the buyer as a true expert in the complex welding projects that his company specialized in. Some arcane part of building ship’s boilers, I believed. He had moved to a basement apartment that he had built in his good sized home, leaving his daughter and son in law and their two kids use of the main house. He would come upstairs for occasional meals and to watch games on their big screen television.
“He hardly ever talks," Sally, his daughter, told me while I was handling a case of theirs against a roofer. “He just sits and grunts. Never plays with the boys.” She had two sons, hellions as far as I could see, but one played baseball and I was a little surprised.
“Doesn’t take them to games? Doesn’t go to their games? He loves baseball, doesn’t he?”
“The game? I doubt it. I just think he loves to scream at the team and tell them they are dirt.” She blinked rapidly and looked away. I didn’t pursue the topic.
And now she wanted to be appointed his guardian, the person who would control his finances and, if necessary, take over even his personal decisions. That troubled me. I wondered how much love remained between father and daughter. McIsserson would be a hard man to love. But his wife had adored him. I remembered the game and how they sat together.
I studied him. He was staring at the certificates on the wall again. I waited until he met my gaze.
“Usually these petitions are filed because something remarkable occurred. Some action that makes the petitioner think that a guardian is needed. Like forgetting where you left your car and not being able to find it. Or wandering out at night and getting lost. Or losing your wallet daily. Anything like that happening?”
He looked back at the wall beside my desk. “Those certificates. Some say sailing. Sailboats. Right?”
I glanced at the sailing awards scattered among the legal certificates. “Yeah. I used to race sailboats. Sometimes you get trophies. Sometimes they give you certificates.”
He grunted. “Boats,” he said. “Boats…that’s why this is happening. She doesn’t like what I do with boats.”
I waited for him to continue but he said nothing, just sat there. I began to wonder if his daughter might be right. “Well, what about boats? What do you do with them?”
He straightened in his chair. “I sink them. That’s what I do. I sink them. And let the brats scream. If they want to sink mine, they can. If they can’t…well, that’s their problem. That’s what I say.”
A longish pause while I waited for him to explain. But he did not, just sat there, apparently content with his speech.
“You…you just sink children’s boats?”
His face hardened. “I do not just sink them. I have seized the lake. Conquered it, really. Fair and square. Now I patrol it. They come onto the lake…well, they have to get me off it. That’s how it works…” Again, a long pause. Then he pulled a crumbled clipping from a newspaper from his pocket. Without looking at it, he laid it on the desk between us. It was from the Chronicle from two months before, from the back pages.
“FRACAS ON THE POND” read the headline. “Shaw Lake, located at the western end of Golden Gate Park, has become the scene of repeated turmoil as children report that a remote controlled model boat has repeatedly collided with their toy boats for several afternoons last week. The remote controlled boat is allegedly operated by an elderly San Franciscan who was not available for comment. Police report that they have no jurisdiction to organize boat traffic on the lake and strongly recommend that all be careful and considerate of others and use the lake with that in mind. Brenda Wilkins, mother of one of the complaining children, claimed, “He is doing it on purpose. I am sure of it.” Police state that there is no evidence of this and that the Lake is small and all should be careful in the operation of the model boats that have used the lake for many years.”
I leaned back in the chair and now we studied each other. I threw the clipping on the desk. “That was a couple of months ago. Any articles since?”
“You still doing this?”
He sat up even straighter. “I have studied the ordinances. The Lake is not city property. It is State. Tidal. The city would have no right to control my use. Would you like to read the law?” I said nothing. He took that for assent and pulled out of his coat breast pocket a folded thick sheaf of Xerox papers.
I carefully unfolded them, and read the State statute. Amidst the usual incomprehensible verbiage the law was not complex-bodies of water subject to tidal movement were considered subject to State jurisdiction including jurisdiction of all traffic. Shaw Lake, near the Ocean, was connected via underground tunnels, to the tide and would rise and fall daily. It was truly State property. I sighed.
He leaned forward, his finger on the papers on my desk. “Says here that only the State can control the Lake, right?”
“I’m impressed you can understand the legal jargon.”
He locked his eyes on mind. “You always thought I was dense. Just a working stiff. I can read this stuff as well as anyone.”
My voice was stiff. “I did not think you were dense and I resent you saying that. I’m not one of your adversaries, Mr. McIsserson, and don’t try to make me one…” For a moment we glared at each other.
Then he slowly leaned back. He put his hands up in the air, face relaxing into a semblance of his old smile. “Ok, Ok, I take it back. For a lawyer you aren’t so bad. You and I always got along.”
“Maybe you should just calm it down a bit and not make accusations so quickly…”
He laughed outright then. “Hey, Sorry. Told you I take it back.” He sobered. “It’s been.. been a little tense, lately. I mean, don’t feel like I get a whole lot of backing. From most anyone…”
“Well, that’s a real surprise. Sinking kids’ boats…”
He leaned forward, elbows on the desk. “I would sit there. At home. In my own living room. Sit there and she would be vacuuming. And I was trying to read. And she would vacuum under my feet. While I was reading…”
“No, she would do it as if I wasn’t there. Like an end table. Just shove the vacuum under my feet. Didn’t say a word. Just shoved my feet aside. Not mad, you understand. Just like I wasn’t there.”
“You could get up and move away and let her vacuum, right?”
“She could hardly wait until I’d leave the house. Didn’t say anything, but I could see…”
“It’s your house, you know. You could order her out…”
“Not with my lousy retirement. Not unless I want to sell the house. No, they need to stay there… and they want to. Pretty good house for them for the price. And they knew they’d inherit it someday. Just didn’t like me there…”
“Because she vacuumed when you were there?”
He grunted in exasperation. “I’m not a fool. I can tell. Hell, I’m sure she’d start to dust me if I didn’t move away. So I started going to the park. Just to get out.”
“Nothing wrong with that. Do you some good.”
“Did nothing for me. I just had to get out. And then I saw the living dead. Those pathetic bastards…”
I was really beginning to wonder about him now and he could see it. He shook his head slightly at my denseness. “The old people. All the old people. All sitting on the park benches. Just sitting there, staring at each other, staring at the trees. All day, just sitting there…” His voice trailed off.
“There are a dozen things you could have done, Mr. McIsserson. You didn’t have to go to the park and sit on a bench…”
“Then they’d wait until the sun was going down and they’d all leave together. Like…like sheep. Just going in a damned flock to the bus stop. They’d done nothing but sit and stare all day long and they were all going home to stare at an idiot box and then go to sleep and then next day come back to the bench. Saw them every day. Didn’t read, didn’t do nothing. Just sat there and stared. Waiting to die. Be a relief to them.”
I had seen them too on my commutes through the park. I remembered the song, “Book Ends” by Simon and Garfunkel. Sitting and remembering. Sitting and waiting. McIsserson was looking at me, eyes hard. Waiting for my reaction. “You didn’t have to be like them. And maybe they liked that. You don’t know. You could find something else to do…”
It was my turn to grunt in exasperation. “You sink kids’ boats. Well, that’s a great hobby. Maybe something a little more appropriate?”
But then he wasn’t looking at me. He was staring out the window, seeming to be thinking. Another long pause. I glanced at the clock on the far wall and thought about my next appointment in only a half hour. I had to discuss this petition with him, discuss how to contest it, the procedure. I cleared my throat. He still stared out the window at the hundreds of windows, most visible with people working at computer screens.
He spoke before I could. “They play at games. They play their war games on their computer screens.”
Then he looked me square in the face. “I don’t play games on a screen. Mine is real.” It wasn’t said in a boastful tone, more as a simple statement of fact.
“Mr. McIsserson…Ben… we have a problem here. More serious than boats on ponds. Your daughter wants to have you lose control of your checking account. She wants control of all your finances. As a guardian she would be appointed by the court to handle all your affairs. She claims you are not competent and the Court, with this petition, will begin a process to check that out. We lose that petition, then she or a court appointed guardian runs your financial life. Maybe your personal life. This is serious stuff.”
He blinked rapidly. “I am fully sane. Never been more sane in my life.”
“The actual legal process is for the Court to appoint an expert investigator to determine that. We have the right to have our own experts and your daughter can as well. The Court hears from them and decides. This is real. Not a game on a pond. This matters.”
That made him sit up. “An investigator? To see if I’m crazy?”
“To determine if your daughter is correct. The Courts do not grant guardianships or conservatorships easily…they like people to take care of their own affairs. But with this petition, the process does begin.”
He face hardened. “We have to fight it. I’m not nuts. She just wants access to my house, to my accounts.”
I leafed through the pages. A standard pleading, not particularly brilliant. The lawyer’s name appeared at the top of the page, a Grace Enders. I didn’t know her. But the petition would have cost well over two thousand dollars to draft and file. McIsserson was studying me studying the papers.
I looked up. “Your daughter had to spend a lot of money to start this. Thousands of dollars. Thousands more to keep it going. She clearly takes this seriously. And it will cost you money to contest it.”
He blanched. “Cost? How much?”
“Thousands at least. We need an expert, a good expert, and he or she won’t touch the case for less than five thousand dollars. Up front. Legal fees and costs are going to triple that by the time we are done.”
For the first time since he came into the office I had his full attention. He clasped his hands in his lap. “That’s a lot of money. That’s what I live on for a year.”
“That’s what it costs, Ben. And your daughter may pay about the same.”
He shook his head angrily. “So, the family spends…what, thirty thousand dollars? Forty thousand?…to have her write my damned checks? She’s the one who’s nuts…”
“Did she tell you she was planning to do this? Threaten you with it?”
“Not a word. She wouldn’t dare.”
“How was this served on you? How did you get it?”
“Some hippie came up to me in the park and gave it to me. Just handed it to me. Almost made me lose my concentration and I was needing it at the moment…quite a few boats there that day.”
I let that go. “He was a process server. You hire them to personally serve documents.”
He said nothing, was remembering when he was served. And the battle on the Lake, presumably.
The family did not have that much money. I wondered how to cut this fight short. “Can you just talk to her about this? Tell her that it’s a waste of family resources? She doesn’t have that much to waste, I would imagine…”
“She’s got next to nothing. Those two kids cost a fortune and her husband is a drudge. He’ll never amount to shit. Never has, never will…”
I wasn’t about to get drawn into that discussion. “Ben, talk to her and talk to her now. Make a settlement here before both of you spend all your money to handle money that no longer exists since both of you have spent it all on attorneys…”
He looked at the papers on my desk. “How long do we got? When is the hearing and all?”
“She can drop it if she wants. If she doesn’t, we have to respond within thirty days, communicate with the appointed investigator thereafter, hire our own….You have a week or two to see if she will drop it. If not, I’m going to need a check from you for ten thousand dollars for our trust account. To pay the expert and to act as a retainer for our fees.”
He chewed his lip. Then he quickly stood up. Nothing like talking about retainers to get clients motivated. “I’ll talk to her tonight. Let you know how it goes.” And he was out the door while talking.
I grinned. He might be a bit nuts about boats but he sure wasn’t nuts enough to want to spend money on lawyers.
It was after a rather frigid argument with my wife that McIsserson’s daughter, Sally, called me at home on a Sunday afternoon three days later. I told her I couldn’t even talk to her since she was represented by counsel.
“Yes you can. I’ve dropped the petition. Like you wanted.”
“Well, that’s good news, I think. Your dad is not incompetent.”
I pictured her sitting in their rather shoddy house, kids’ toys scattered everywhere, television always on as background music, she in an apron and saggy dress that almost hid her somehow tired prettiness.
“No? Come over. Now. I want to show you something.” Her voice was brittle.
“Sally, I’m his lawyer…”
“You are our family lawyer too. And if you are his lawyer, you should be trying to protect him, right? Come over.”
Since my wife had just told me I cared nothing about our own family and spent all my time with clients and not her, this was not a good idea. I could still hear her slamming pots around in the kitchen downstairs. Our argument was far from done. This would make it that much worse. “I need to talk to your father first. And I’m pretty busy right now…”
“You can’t talk to him. He’s at his shop. Making something new that will be horrible.” Her voice began to break. Then she began to sob. Quietly but clearly.
I was trying to think of some way to delay all this when she gasped through the sobs, “He will kill someone with this…you will see. And you were the one who allowed it to happen. I was trying to stop it.”
I wondered how much of this was pure drama. I also felt trapped. “If you still feel that way, you can always bring the petition again…”
“I can’t. I can’t afford it. You know that. You told him that. He laughed at me. Said once I used up all my money in the fight, he’d kick me out of the house and I would have nowhere to go. You told him that…”
I couldn’t deny any of it since my conversation with McIsserson was privileged. I could not mention what was said to anyone. I was silent. Her voice hardened. “You have an obligation to come see what your advice is going to do. Why I tried to stop him…”
“I know he used a model boat to ram some children’s boats. He showed me the clipping.”
“You know nothing,” she snapped. “I will wait here for you to come and see what this is about,” and hung up.
Just like her father would have, I thought. They are truly father and daughter. I sat and gazed at the half drafted pleading on my home computer, half drafted and due on Monday. They lived about half an hour away in a bungalow that McIsserson had bought thirty years before. A car now cost more than he had paid for it, he once told me proudly. In our City, it was worth close to a million dollars now.
I had to go there, of course, and had to face outrage from my wife when I told her that. Perhaps five years before I had a client commit suicide when I failed to respond to a call for help late at night. Never again.
Helen looked at me coldly when I told her I would be gone only about an hour, an emergency. Her lips thinned. “It’s always an emergency, isn’t it? Knight on a white horse. For everyone else…” She turned her back to me and concentrated on some baking project for the PTA. An in house accountant for a large firm, she worked nine to five and only nine to five and made a point of that to me perhaps once a week. And now. Silently.
So I was not in the best of moods when I parked in front of McIsserson’s home that Sunday late afternoon. I sat in the car a few minutes clearing my mind and calming myself down to a professional demeanor. I wondered if her husband, Dan, would be there. I hoped so. One thing I did not feel like doing was calming a semi hysterical woman. I sat there comparing Helen’s cold anger with Sally’s emotional outburst. Which was worse? Which did I hate more?
I was still pondering that as I knocked on the door. It needed a good paint job. McIsserson was neglecting more than his family.
Sally opened the door, eyes swollen and looked surprised at my suit and necktie. I always dressed in my lawyer uniform when “on duty.” Like any uniform, it clarified roles and expectations. In our society, a suit and tie is power. Simple as that. And with a woman already blaming me for unspecified horrors, I needed all the power I could get.
I expected recriminations, tears, accusations. Instead, without a word, she turned around and walked to the basement door. I followed her, looking around for Dan, but we seemed alone. She was in another frumpy dress, no apron, a kid’s toy in one hand. The house seemed empty. Where were the kids and Dan on a Sunday afternoon?
She opened the door and stood aside. But I stopped at the top of the stairs. “I can’t just go down to his place without his permission, Sally. He has his privacy.”
She glared at me. Her hair was dirty blonde and disheveled, her eyes were huge and wet and, I realized suddenly, remarkably pretty. “I can’t lift it,” she said, “so you just have to go down there. Now.”
“Not without Mr. McIsserson’s permission. It’s his home…”
“It’s my home, too. And I go down there to clean. He allows that…he thinks I am good enough for that…”
“Sally, this is getting silly. What do you want me to see? Is there a body in the basement…?”
“Not yet. Not yet…”
I sighed. But without his permission I was damned if I would go down there. We stood there, at an impasse. She was not done. “Come down with me, then. He lets me go down all the time. He won’t let me touch it, but he lets me go down. I lease the house. The whole house. I let repairmen down there. Why can’t you go there? What are you afraid of?”
“He’s my client, Sally. I can’t just invade his privacy.”
She began to gasp, then, not sobbing but gasping as if out of breath. I didn’t know what to do.
Suddenly she ran down the stairs, slipped near the bottom step and fell heavily. Did she do it on purpose? I never really knew, but it got me down there fast. She lay sprawled on her stomach at the bottom, holding her wrist, staring back at me over her shoulder, tears running down her face, saying nothing. She twisted onto her back and sat up.
I reached over to help her up but she twisted away, leaned back and with her head nodded in the direction of a table in the middle of the room. Where his boat was.
I don’t know what I expected. A remote controlled boat, perhaps larger than most, a speed boat or a tug boat or some such thing.
It was a weapon. A very beautiful very deadly weapon.
Over four feet long, made entirely of burnished steel, in the shape of a large cigarette racer, like those flashy wedge shaped power boats that one hears on lakes that race about at seventy miles an hour. But they are made of brightly colored fiberglass. This was steel with a prow that appeared razor sharp. It shone in the dim light, with powerful intensity. Its bow was actually a ram, I realized, and took up a third of the entire length.
He had made a stand for it on the table and even just sitting there it exuded power and fearful symmetry. The remote control box appeared tiny beside it. Simple. No frills. Just a wedge shaped steel motorized knife in the water.
I stared at it for a long minute. Her voice behind me was suddenly calm. “It goes over twenty miles an hour. At cruising speed. It can go thirty five miles an hour when he is hitting something. He told me. It’s too heavy for me to lift. I tried to throw it away. I couldn’t even lift it.”
I continued to stare at it. “Where did he get that thing?”
She laughed without humor, making no move to get up. “He made it. They give him access to the shop. He’s a master welder. You know that. He made it. He disappeared for almost a month…was gone most nights and most days. I thought he was at the Park. But he was at the shop. And came back with that thing. The foreman at the shop called me. Said he was using their best steel. That it was going to cost a thousand dollars in materials…wanted to know if I knew…”
I tried to think of something to say but found myself just staring at the boat. If it could be called a boat.
“He attacks children’s boats with it, you know. Children’s boats. Little sail boats.” She slowly pulled herself to her feet. “Think of that racing around a pond. At thirty miles an hour. It’s going to kill someone. Maybe him…”
Drama again. I wanted to stay practical. “How does he get it to the pond? It must weigh…eighty pounds. Maybe more.” I touched its smooth cold deck.
“He built a trolley for it. He can build anything. Always could. He can do that kind of thing…” Her voice trembled again. “He doesn’t build anything for his grandchildren. Oh, no, that would be too nice. No, he builds…that…that thing. For himself. The selfish bastard.” Now she was crying again. Hands at her sides, just crying.
I turned to face her. “This doesn’t mean he’s crazy, Sally. Selfish, maybe. Obsessive, maybe. But he can build a model boat if he wants…”
“That’s not a boat. It’s a sword. An ax. To destroy…”
To conquer, I thought. To conquer a goddamned kid’s pond in the park.
A thought occurred to me. “You say he’s back at the shop again? What’s he building now?”
Her face turned hard, angry now. “An improvement, he said. It’s needed, he said. Bigger boats are challenging him. He has…he said he has to stay ahead of the curve.” She barked a sharp miserable laugh and turned and almost ran up the stairs.
I thought about waiting for him and talking about the boat. But Helen was waiting at home, the kids were due back from the movies and I still had the brief to finish. And what could I say?
I noticed some wording on the stern. The boat’s name. In the dim light it was hard to make out. I leaned forward to read the vessel’s name. “Despair.”
Two days later I stopped at the Park on the way back from court. A hearing had gone well, had ended an hour sooner than I had planned, and I figured I had to see McIsserson in action to make sure I had not let loose an ogre upon the children of San Francisco.
Away from the basement, in the light of day, things had fallen a bit more into perspective. An old man was sinking kids’ boats on a pond in the Park. A bit nutty and enough to qualify him for mean old man of the year, but McIsserson was no Jack the Ripper. Still…that was a pretty deadly looking object and if nothing else I could tell him to keep it at minimum speed near the shore. And to cool it a bit.
He had not answered my phone calls that Sunday night though he had a phone down in his basement apartment. I figured he was staying late at the shop making his next improvement to Despair. But he had also not answered my calls the following day and clearly felt that with the petition of his daughter dropped he had no reason to talk with me.
It was a perfect early Spring day, cumulous clouds in the clear air, light ocean wind coming from the West, air cool out of the sun. The Lake was an irregular oval perhaps a half a mile around, ringed by a cement path, tall Monterey Pines and Cyprus, park benches every fifty feet. Ducks and Canada Geese floated about, a few squawking at each other. Traffic of the City beyond the trees was dimly heard. It hadn’t changed in fifty years.
When I was a kid my mother used to take me to Shaw Lake on weekends so I could pretend to fish…there were no fish in the lake…and eventually sail homemade sail boats on it. Even back then there would be remote controlled boats, puttering along among the sail boats. I remembered one old guy had helped push my sail boat back to shore when it was becalmed in the middle of the Lake. That led to me building my own remote controlled boat, a freighter, which puttered along so slowly that it soon bored me.
As I walked up the path to the Lake I could hear the sound of powered model boats, more than one from the amount of noise, and then a faint cheer. I began to walk faster.
The path came to the Lake on its Eastern side so the setting sun was directly in my eyes. I put my sunglasses on and shaded my eyes, moving along the path towards two groups of people on the far side of the Lake near its Western end. On the water were only two power boats, both remote controlled vessels, circling each other. Even from a distance I could see that one was Despair.
There were perhaps thirty people scattered about the shore on the Western side, but most were gathered into two groups. As I came closer, I could see McIsserson on one of the benches, alone, the remote control box in his lap, leaning forward on the seat. Behind the bench, at least ten feet behind, stood a group of six or seven old men, a few old women, huddled together, muttering to themselves, watching the battle.
On the next bench over, fifty feet away, sat three teenagers, probably high school students, clustered close together, with the kid in the middle holding the remote control box. The kids were all talking at the same time, exchanging pointers and advice, a crowd of perhaps ten more kids bunched around the back of the bench, laughing and pointing and jostling each other. I could hear some rap music from a boom box one had brought and which was on the ground near the bench. All eyes were on the Lake.
I instantly saw the improvement that McIsserson had designed. Now a steel support was attached to the top of the ram, welded back along the forward deck. Clearly to avoid the prow being forced upward in a collision. He had polished the support so it shone in the sun.
The two vessels circled each other, perhaps twenty five feet apart. The boys had brought a smaller speed boat, apparently made of fiberglass, but they had built a metal ram on its bow, bolted into the deck. The weight of the ram would have made the bow sink deeply into the water, but with the boat underway the natural tendency of the bow to lift kept it on an even keel. It was perhaps three feet long, smaller than Despair, and they had attached a small flag to its stern. The movement of the vessel keep the flag flapping in the wind. It said, “Adams High.”
I walked to the bench but McIsserson did not notice me or look away from the Lake. He was dressed in his work overalls, I realized, a thick sweater inside of them, the name of his company stitched on the back. He wore a watch cap, his face concentrated and flushed with excitement. He did not look happy.
He looked intense. And he looked twenty years younger than when he was sitting in my office.
Leaning slightly to the left, he made his move. I heard Despair’s engines suddenly roar and looked to the Lake. Despair pivoted to its right, roared ahead cutting behind the stern of the Adams High boat. The kids reacted by increasing their speed and turning to their left, but Despair was already up to full speed and passed their stern before they could complete their turn and was now behind their boat by about five feet. It pivoted in their direction, full throttle now, roaring. They tried to increase their speed but before they could move fast enough Despair smashed into their stern, its momentum crushing their engine and raising Despair half way along its length before their boat twisted aside, wallowing and began to sink. Its engine stopped, now under water. Despair went into reverse and moved back twenty feet.
The kids were screaming and laughing, the one with the control box being teased and shoved by the kids behind the bench. All talked at the same time, enjoying themselves. One of the kids turned up the volume of the boom box and several danced a little to its pounding rhythm.
McIsserson sat silently, eyes on Despair. The old men behind him were nodding in approval, muttering to each other, looking content. The old women chattered among themselves. They did not speak to McIsserson and he ignored them entirely. I walked up to the bench.
I stood by the bench, close enough so he could not ignore me. Finally, he looked up, his face still flushed. He was not happy to see me.
“You didn’t answer my phone calls, Admiral Nelson.”
He blinked at that. He did not smile. He looked at Despair which was slowly circling the sinking boat.
His voice was dismissive. “Got nothing to say, do we?”
“I was at your house. Your daughter called me. I wanted to tell you and talk to you about your plans of conquest. Planning on taking on San Francisco Bay next? Then the South Pacific?”
Now he gave me his full attention. For a moment he just glared at me. Then he leaned back on the bench. “You mock me. I can understand that. This seems pretty damned stupid to you.”
“Look, you want a hobby, that’s fine. And those kids don’t seem to mind. But your daughter was nearly hysterical when I saw her…”
“She’s nearly hysterical on a good day. Fully hysterical on a bad day. That’s just her.”
The kid who had been his opponent in the just completed contest was walking up to us, followed by his supporters. He still held the control box in his hand and looked friendly enough. He glanced at me, then spoke to McIsserson.
“We should have divisions…weight and power divisions. You couldn’t have done that if you were our size.”
McIsserson looked at the box in the boy’s hand, then his face. “This isn’t a game, boy. You want the lake? Figure out how to take it and stop whining.”
The boy looked a little surprised. “It wasn’t fair. If boats were made to compete in the same weight and length class…”
McIsserson stood up. He was taller than the boy. His face was calm but his voice was tinged with contempt. “Like I said. This is not a tournament. This is not one of your damned high school foot ball games. I don’t ask for you to be fair. Don’t ask for me to be fair. Just do what you can. If you can’t beat me, then don’t come belly aching.”
But by the time he was finishing his little speech he wasn’t looking at the boy at all. He was looking over the boy’s shoulder to where a small girl was launching a toy sailboat halfway down the lake. She was about six years old, pretty and blonde with an older heavy Latino woman, perhaps her nanny, hovering over her. The girl shoved the boat from the shore and the wind took it and moved it out further onto the lake, heeling over a bit. The girl clapped her hands with excitement and the nanny leaned down and said something to her.
McIsserson fiddled with his box and Despair suddenly came to life and sped down the shore. It made a smooth curve, neatly clipping the sailboat and slicing off perhaps a third of its stern. The sail boat wallowed a bit in Despair’s wake as it began to sink. Despair slowed to a stop perhaps fifteen feet away. The girl was silent for a moment, then began to wail. As if on cue, Despair surged forward, smashing into the beam of the sinking boat, cutting it in half and then coming towards us at cruising speed. The girl kept wailing, her nanny holding her hand and staring in our direction.
“Man, you are so uncool…” the teenager next to us said, his head tilted as he studied McIsserson.
McIsserson ignored him, glanced at the sun now beginning to set, and nodded to one of the old men clustered behind the bench. Without a word, three of the men came around the bench, one pulling a steel trolley that he had behind him. McIsserson walked to the shore bringing Despair close in front of him, then cutting the engine and letting it drift to the shore. He held out one hand and held the vessel close to the shore while two of the old men attached small ropes to two eye bolts on its bow and stern.
The teenagers gathered around, staring but not interfering.
The ropes were attached to a complex set of pulleys on the cart and one of the old men swung a crane built onto the side of the cart out over Despair, attached the rope to the crane, and began grinding a small winch on the far side of the cart. Despair lifted from the water. McIsserson pumped some type of hydraulic lever which lifted the crane up so that the boat could clear the side of the trolley, and the vessel was slowly dropped onto padded supports on the trolley. It dripped. We all stood and stared at Despair.
Suddenly, screaming in Spanish interrupted our concentration. The nanny was standing in front of McIsserson, her meaty warms waving, her heavy body barely a foot away from him, clearly indicating her displeasure with his attack upon her ward’s boat. “Viejo verde,” she screamed, “Viejo verde!”
McIsserson simply stood there and looked at her, face blank, while she screamed, waiting for her to run out of breath. The little girl was at her side, trying to pull her away. Finally, panting, she stopped, glaring at McIsserson. He looked back, expressionless. The little girl kept pulling and finally the nanny let herself be pulled away, eyes still on McIsserson. “Loco,” she muttered, “loco.”
Without a word McIsserson nodded to the same three men who each took handles on the sides and front of the trolley while he took a handle at its rear and all four began to push Despair towards the taxi stand near the bus stop on the far side of the lake. I followed behind McIsserson.
“As your attorney, let me tell you something. You are playing with fire here.”
He said nothing, kept pushing. I was getting annoyed.
“That boat cuts the hand of a single person, especially a child, and you are in big trouble, McIsserson. You do get that, don’t you?”
He wouldn’t look back at me, just kept pushing the trolley. One of the old men glanced at me, then looked quickly forward. The other old men ignored me.
“McIsserson, you hear me? A child gets hurt, you’re in a jail cell or the loony bin that night. They will consider that boat a deadly weapon. Am I clear?”
He spoke without looking back. “Clear. No one’s getting hurt. I could maneuver that boat through the eye of a needle.”
My voice raised. “If you mess up just once, I don’t want to hear any whining about it when you lose your house to a million dollar judgment or you spend two months in a cell.”
That did it. He stopped. The old men stumbled a bit as he pulled the trolley to a halt and turned to look at me. We glared at each other. Finally, slowly, he nodded. “You are right, Mr. Phelps. If that occurs, I should not whine. Nor should I complain at all. That is the risk I chose to take and I must accept the consequences.” He studied my expression for a moment. Then, almost smiling, he said softly, “Am I clear?”
He turned to the trolley and again they moved towards the taxi stand.
I watched them go, wondering how much it cost each day to take a taxi to the Lake. I turned to go and almost bumped into one of the old women.
She was perhaps seventy five, dressed in a plain white coat over a flowered dress with a small pill box hat on her white hair. Her lipstick was very red against her pale wrinkled skin. She held a massive purse in both her arms in front of her, blinking at me through thick glasses.
“You are his lawyer?”
I sighed and nodded, watching them approach the taxi stand.
She wasn’t done. “He is a remarkable man.”
I kept watching them. “You could say that. Is that good or bad?”
She was silent and I turned my eyes to her. She was looking at the old men open the trunk of the taxi.
Then she looked me full in the face. “The taxi driver? Old Emery? He’s a veteran, you know.”
“Oh?” I wondered if she was another loco.
“Yes, at Guadalcanal. He was nineteen then. He sits with us sometimes.”
“I see.” I was wondering how to end the conversation.
“”He walks with a limp, still. He barely makes it day to day. They charge him a daily rent for the taxi, you know. The company who owns the taxi does.”
“Yes, I understand that’s how it works. I must be going now…”
She put her hand on my arm. “He doesn’t charge for the trips, you know. Bringing the boat back and forth.” She looked at me for a moment, then she turned and hobbled back to the bench where the other old women were watching us.
I looked to the taxi. The driver was out of the car bent over the trolley with the other old men, maneuvering Despair into the trunk. McIsserson stood apart, watching them, occasionally guiding the boat on the crane with his hand so it did not hit the trunk lid. McIsserson happened to look up and see me watching. From that distance I could not see any expression on his face.
I went to the office to pick up my phone slips.
I picked up the phone in my home office a Saturday two months later, hearing my wife slam the door to the bathroom downstairs. We had been arguing about my working weekends yet again and my last retort (“You don’t object to the money that working weekends brings home…”) had not been my most brilliant response.
The real problem was that my life and hers were bearing less and less relationship to each other, as we both sensed. But what we argued about was who did what on weekends. A fifty page pleading sat on my desk at home. I needed to respond by Tuesday. One partner was on vacation, two others in trial, so it was up to me to get this to court. Our planned trip to the wine country was impossible.
So I wasn’t in a very good mood when Sally’s brittle voice apologized for calling me on a Saturday. But she wanted me to know. McIsserson was in the hospital with a concussion.
“Concussion? Did he fall?”
She laughed without humor. “He’s a casualty.”
“What? I don’t get it.”
She exhaled in exasperation. “One of the children had enough. At last. Threw a rock at him. Now he’s in the hospital. He says he has to talk to you. Right now. General Hospital. Room 1444. Now maybe he will stop. He’d better…or I will have to do something. At least no child was hurt.”
“Is it serious? What does he want?”
“Ask him. You’re his lawyer…”
And she hung up.
I tried to call him at the hospital for about half an hour but the line to his room remained busy. The hospital was only half an hour away and I figured it would be easier just to go there. My wife simply glared at me and returned to reading her book when I told her I had to make a quick trip to the hospital.
She didn’t ask me who was there.
McIsserson didn’t make me feel any warmer. He was lying in bed, alone in a three person room, head bandaged, some tubes attached to his arm, fully awake and angry before I opened the door. The phone was off the hook by the bed.
He did not let me get more than three feet into the room before he began. “They attacked me. But I’m not done. No, not by a long shot…”
“Who? What happened?” I put my briefcase down on one of the other beds and pulled over a chair.
“Blindsided me, that’s what. I think his mother was part of it. Snuck up from behind. I told my people to guard against that kind of thing. They just stood there. Bunch of God damned sheep.”
“Perhaps you should arm them. Guns and things…”
He glared at me as usual. “I am injured. Someone should be sued. You would think that as my attorney you would be concerned and anxious to discover the wrongdoer so we can sue him.”
“You know what this sounds like? Like the whining you said you would never do.”
That led to a moment of silence. Then, “I was discussing what would happen if I hit some kid and they sued me. Not if some kid hit me…attacked me…”
“What did you expect to happen? I’m surprised some teenager didn’t attack you the first time you sank his boat. You’ve been damned lucky to survive this long and still be in one piece…”
“I’m not in one piece. Look at my head.”
“Lucky for you they got your thickest part…”
Eyes wide, he sat up higher in bed leaning towards me….then stopped himself from what he was about to say. He paused, still staring at me. Then, suddenly he began to chuckle…then shake with laughter, then falling back on the bed he roared with laughter. It reminded me of the man I saw at the base ball game. He wiped his eyes, still chuckling. “Yeah, I guess they did at that. “ He paused again. “They couldn’t beat me on the Lake, you see. Had to find a short cut, I guess.”
“What’s your prognosis? Do you know?”
“I’m home tomorrow. Some more tests. Knocked me cold, must admit that. That hasn’t happened…must be thirty years. A bar fight in North Beach back then. Now some damned kid with a rock.”
“Well, if it stops this, maybe it’s worthwhile.”
He looked at me sharply then. “Sally tell you to say that?”
“She doesn’t say much of anything to me.”
“You’re lucky. Can we sue the kid and his mother?”
“In this country you can sue anyone you want. And if we do sue them, the jury will kill us.”
“He attacked me, damn it!”
“You just sunk his boat, right?”
“Then a jury is going to say you got what you deserved. They may start throwing rocks at you themselves.”
He grunted and looked at the ceiling . “So you can’t protect me in a court of law.”
“Your case would be a pretty lousy one. Give it up…”
He turned his head to me, still on the pillow, the bandages coming half way down his forehead. “I’m going back. Ramsey got the boat to the taxi. It’s safe.”
“Ramsey? Who’s he?”
“You met him. He worked the winch at the trolley when you were there. Well, he got the boat from the Lake when I went down.”
“That’s a relief. You’re on the ground bleeding and he got the boat to a taxi…”
“That’s his job. He at least did that right. The kid would have attacked Despair else whys…”
“And you are seriously thinking about going back to that Lake? Are you truly nuts?”
“I got ways. I got some ideas. This won’t happen again…”
A pause between us as I worried. “I was kidding about the guns…”
He barked a laugh. “Hell, if those losers had guns, they’d shoot themselves. I tell you I have some ideas. That’s my business to know.”
I leaned over the bed. “This is getting serious, Ben. With this injury Sally has better cause if she wants to push that petition again. And she just might. We are talking violence. That’s going to concern any court…”
“So I get clobbered and you’re telling me the only relief the court can grant is to put me away for being a nut?!”
“I’m saying that your daughter may refile her petition. And if she does your injury will be one more element of evidence the Court will consider…as to whether you may be acting as a danger to yourself…”
“I was the one attacked. He was the danger to me…”
“Because you were out there sinking his boat, right?”
“So he can attack me?”
“I didn’t say that. He committed a crime. The police should be told. But the situation can allow your daughter to renew her petition. That’s what I am saying.”
“The police! They’re never even at the park. A woman was mugged just the other day and they took an hour to even show up. They are useless…”
“You’re lucky they’re not there more. If so, they’d probably arrest you for sinking kids’ boats…”
He was almost bouncing up and down on the bed now in his frustration. “They can’t arrest me. That is not in their jurisdiction. I told you that. Gave you the law…”
“But they should protect you while you attack boats?”
“As is my right. I don’t complain if they try to sink me. I don’t think that gives them a license to attack me. Do you?”
I sat down on the bed next to him. “No, they don’t have the right to attack you. But it’s going to happen and happen again. You simply cannot sit there while you sink kids’ boats and expect them to do nothing but pat you on the back. Kids are kids. Even adults are going to lose it. Remember that nanny? Some teen age thug is going to do more than throw a rock at you.”
He considered and nodded. “You’re right. I know it.”
"You are done sitting on that bench sinking boats, then?”
He looked at me long and hard. “You’re my attorney, not Sally’s, right?”
“Right. But that bench will be the death of you if you’re not careful. It’s time to end this. Time to consider your own safety.”
He nodded again. “I’m not a fool. If one hoodlum did it, others will do it. You are right. This…this approach has run its course. Time for some changes. I see that.”
We looked at each other. He didn’t look like a man resigned to giving up his dreams of conquest. Before I could pursue the topic a nurse came into the room, wanting to do something involving the tubes. They both ignored me as I stood there besides the bed. Finally, she looked up and said briskly, “This will take some time. You might want to come back tomorrow.”
That was as good an excuse as any and I made my leave.
To a very sullen home.
My father once told me that going to trial for a lawyer was akin to landing on a contested beach for a Marine. He should have known since he was in the Navy during the Second World War and had seen plenty of action. If he had to chose between the two, he said, landing on the beach was easier because it was over in a few hours. Trials took weeks or months.
And like any battle, no plan survives contact with the enemy. No matter how much preparation you have before trial, the days and weeks of actual trial require constant adjustment to the evidence that is developed in court and the maneuvers of your opponents.
Since I was in trial for most of the next month McIsserson was not in the forefront of my consciousness. Indeed, I did not think of him at all. The trial became all engrossing and pretty much eliminated the rest of my life. I would come back to the office from court around four in the afternoon, pour through my mail and answer calls from the dozen clients who were trying to reach me while in court, then grab a dinner at my desk while my clerk and I prepared for the next day . It was utterly exhausting, enervating and invigorating. I lived in a state of intensity and exhaustion with adrenaline keeping me going. At night I dreamed of cross examinations and arguments to make to the judge.
My wife, Helen, was used to the program by now and automatically went into the “home trial support” mode. She never expected me home before nine at night, expected every weekend to be preparing witnesses for Monday’s testimony and for me to be distracted and moody. She also expected to have to hear me practicing my opening statement constantly for days before trial and my closing statement twenty times or so as the trial drew to a close.
Sitting in the breakfast nook, she watched me with a slightly bemused and amused expression as I strutted before her, pretending she was the jury. I invariably destroyed my opponent’s case in that kitchen while she took notes. At times she would critique and her comments were well placed. I think this was the part of my lawyer’s work she enjoyed the most.
By the tenth practice the night before the actual closing day in court, she had my sons as the jury since she couldn’t stand to hear my closing one more time. They were in middle school then and used to adults pontificating and acting bombastic so were enjoying themselves as I explained in detail why the defendant was a liar and a cheat. I was on a roll, the trial was going well, and I was convinced that if I did the closing right we would win.
I stood before the kitchen table, they clustered in the leatherette nook, and I held up a document a bit dramatically. “Look at this alleged contract, ladies and gentlemen.” My boys looked. “I put it to you that a document representing an obligation to pay over five hundred thousand dollars would normally be executed by the usual officers of the company, would it not?” My boys nodded. “Yet, see the signature lines. We have four lines and only one signature. And no officer signed at all…merely the salesman. One signature. And that signature is undated, you will note.”
They so noted, grinning now. They knew I was winding up. “Undated and this document was not in the normal place where the company kept its signed contracts, as admitted under cross examination by its own secretary. Where was it found?”
The boys watched as I picked up a copy of the daily transcript from the trial. “Let me read to you where it was found according to Mr. Edwin McCrea, the treasurer of the company. Page 24, line twelve, October 13 of last year."
“Question: You normally keep executed contracts in the office safe in the regular course of your business?
Answer: Usually. It’s a fireproof safe.
Question: Showing you Exhibit 4, do you recognize this as the alleged contract between your company and my client?”
(Witness examines the document.)
"Answer: Yes. That’s the one.
Question: And you were the one who eventually found it in your records?
Answer: Yes. Somehow it ended up in Bill’s desk…the salesman who did the deal. In the payables files. Very messy. He must have left it there somehow.
Question: But your regular practice is to keep all executed contracts in the safe, is that not true?
Answer: Yes, that’s true. Usually.
Question: Please read the handwritten notation at the bottom of the right page.
Mr. Peabody: Objection your Honor. Document speaks for itself.
Judge: He can answer.
Question: Please read it, Sir.
Answer: September 14, 1987.
Question: Do you recognize the handwriting?
Answer: I’m not sure. I think it’s Dan’s…the President’s…
Mr. Peabody: Objection, your Honor, He’s guessing. I ask the answer be stricken.
Mr. Phelps: Your Honor, this is his own corporate secretary giving his best opinion. Clearly it is admissible.
Judge: Overruled. Continue.
Question: But that date at the bottom was eight months after the contract was allegedly signed, is that not true, Sir?
Answer: Yes, I don’t know why that particular date is there.
Question: Do you see any other date on that document?
Answer: I guess not.”
I dropped the transcript on the kitchen table. My sons smiled, knowing the drama was coming next.
“Ladies and gentlemen, no date that relates at all to the actual time this document was supposedly signed. And this document pops up in a file that is not where they normally put contracts. Where does it magically appear? In the file of the salesman who stands to profit if the deal is really valid. If that was not enough…”
I stopped because Helen was standing with a phone in her hand, her other hand covering the mouthpiece, looking at me quizzically. “It’s Sally Benton…? She sounds hysterical again.”
McIsserson’s daughter. I had no time for this now. I shook my head no. Helen put on her professional voice. “I’m sorry, Ms. Benton, but my husband is involved with clients right now. He’s in a trial…”
She stopped as Sally went nuts on the phone. I could almost hear her words even from where I stood ten feet away. Helen looked at me as Sally went on for about a minute then apparently hung up. My sons were enjoying the show. Helen smiled slightly. “Your boy seems to be at it again. You’re to go to the Lake or she’ll file again. Or words to that effect.”
“I’m a little busy right now.”
She shrugged and left the room, phone still in her hand.
The boys were looking at me, wondering what would happen next. I tried to get back to the closing but visions of McIsserson in the hospital bed kept interfering with my eloquence about the contract. It was early afternoon. I could swing by the Park, check it out, and still practice the closing for the rest of the afternoon. I looked at my boys. They might enjoy it.
So it was that the three of us arrived at Shaw Lake about two in the afternoon on a windy brisk day in late Spring. High fog was over the ocean but had not yet blocked the sun sparking on the Lake. My boys had wanted to bring their own model boats to the Lake, two store bought small race boats, but I told them it was a bad idea until we checked out the battle field. They were a little confused and disgruntled but I promised them a show and muttered, “They have no idea,” as we drove to the Park.
They were running ahead of me up the path and stopped dead as they came to the shore, staring across the Lake.
There must have been eighty people in several clustered groups across the Lake…and something square and dark next to the far shore. We stood and stared for a moment and then our attention was drawn to the sea battle in the middle of the Lake.
“Cool,” said Jeremy, my oldest.
“Way cool,” said his brother Vincent.
“Damn idiot,” said their father and sighed.
Despair was taking on two boats, both apparently custom built for this kind of warfare since they also had metal prows. But Despair clearly was superior, spinning about in circles they could not match, faster and more maneuverable, sliding between them and roaring out of their reach at will. Despair roared forward in perfect position to cut one of them in half, then suddenly swerved away just before colliding. For a moment I wondered if McIsserson had decided on avoiding sinking boats, whether he was truly making it into a game of skill rather than utter destruction. Then Despair ripped around, and with a deft movement to its right, came behind both vessels and smashed into the stern of first one, then the stern of the other before either could accelerate away. Both their motors, previously high whines, suddenly went dead.
I shook my head slightly. McIsserson was not being kind. He simply did not want Despair to suffer the effects of a full collision if he could disable a boat with a slash at the stern. Both boats drifted to a stop as Despair moved to the center of the Lake and idled.
“Wow. He’s good,” Jeremy breathed.
“Way good,” Vincent agree.
As we came around the Lake the dark object was revealed. He had built a metal fort. A plain apparently aluminum box, perhaps five feet square and six feet tall, hinged, with viewing slits on the front side. A small vent was visible in the roof. It shone dully in the sun and had no markings at all. What appeared to be a hatch for entry was in its rear facing away from the Lake.
Perhaps twenty feet away three trolleys sat alongside the trolley that I had seen used to move Despair. The trolleys was guarded by four old men, all of them in their sixties or seventies, but still large men. They looked at us without expression as we approached. A portable fort.
The fort was surrounded by perhaps thirty other elderly, mostly men, a few women. The women had apparently brought food and had laid out baskets of it on the grass and on the benches. They fussed about the baskets, serving the men who guarded the trolleys or who observed the battles. One old man guarded half a dozen binoculars which he handed out to others who were interested in more detailed observation.
There was a card table and an old man sat in a folding chair behind it, writing in a note book, a cup of coffee on the table being refilled by one of the women. She carefully added sugar and milk in just the right amount, and hurried away. The old man did not look up, continuing to write in the journal. Records of the battles, I realized. Statistics. Jesus.
One of the old men guarding the trolleys spoke to the other man keeping the journal who glanced at me, then rose then came over to me. He glanced at my boys who were observing all this wide eyes and held out his hand. “Ramsey,” he said. “You’re the lawyer, aren’t you?”
I shook his hand. He was big and gnarled, dressed in a beat up leather jacket and jeans. On his label was an American Flag pin. On his hand a tattoo of an anchor. His eyes were careful.
I smiled grimly. “Yep. That’s me. And these are my boys. Jeremy and Vincent. I presume the Admiral is in the box?”
He studied me for a moment before responding. “He’s in there if you mean Mr. McIsserson. You think he’s nuts, do you?”
“He’s my client. My clients are always right. How do I get his attention?”
“He comes out about once an hour. For the call of nature. That’s maybe twenty minutes away. But you came at just the right time.”
“Yeah.” He jerked his head towards another group perhaps two hundred feet further along the shore.
Perhaps twenty teenagers and younger children, maybe an adult or two, and in their midst a police officer looking at us. The teenagers were excitedly talking to the officer but his eyes were locked on the fort. I sighed again.
I decided that it is always better to go to trouble then wait for it…McIsserson was a good example of that…and walked over to the cop, my boys trailing behind. We met halfway between the two groups.
He might have had a faint smile on his weathered face, hard to see. He had a long scar down his right cheek and his blue uniform seemed rumpled on his large frame. His heavy belt, with the gun, mace, night stick, radio and other assorted leather encased equipment creaked as he came towards us, his hands were loose at his sides, ready.
Midway between, close to the shore, I held out my hand. “Officer, my name is Phelps. I represent Mr. McIsserson, the man in the box. I presume you wish to discuss his activities?”
“Officer McAdams, sir. Yes, you might say that.” We shook hands.
“These are my sons, Jeremy and Vincent. They’re about to go sit by the ladies dishing out food. Right boys?”
They looked up, ready to argue, but seeing my expression, went meekly over towards the fort. We waited until they were out of earshot. I made the first move. “You realize the Lake is State jurisdiction. What he does there is not within City control.”
He said nothing, just looked at me. I continued. “I do understand that if there was any threat of bodily harm that would not stop you a moment. But for these…these jousts…it seems to me that you don’t have jurisdiction to stop it.”
He studied the fort on the shore. “That’s on Park property, isn’t it? Does he have a permit?”
I pretended surprise. “A permit for a portable structure? Do you ask for permits for people who put up tents for their kids to stay out of the sun?”
His eyes became cold as he looked at me. “That is not a tent.”
“Agreed. It’s a portable structure, however, removed every night. You have how many homeless in this Park sleeping in tents every night, never taking them down?” I was getting a bit heated as I always did when arguing for a client.
“Is that relevant? It’s portable.”
We stood at an impasse for a very long moment. Then I heard a voice behind me. Ramsey.
“Officer, you ex military?”
The officer moved his eyes to Ramsey who regarded him with equal coolness. “Might be.”
The officer blinked at that. “Yeah.”
The officer was uncomfortable but nodded.
Ramsey said nothing but looked out over the Lake for a few moments. I was about to start my argument again, when he spoke. “I don’t know but you looks like you, maybe, were in the bush. Like me. You look like you didn’t like what you saw there, maybe.”
“How the hell you know so much about me, Mister?” He didn’t sound like a cop now.
“You were a grunt. I was a sergeant. You think I can’t tell after all those years?” They locked eyes now.
The cop looked down. Ramsey went on. “You got to do what you got to do. I get that. But this…” he jerked his head towards the Lake. “…this ain’t the sort of thing that a cop needs to worry about, I figure. This…well, this matters a lot to a lot of people…that maybe don’t matter a lot. You get that?”
The cop got it but didn’t like it. “I don’t want to rain on your parade, Sarge, but someone is going to get hurt out here. A lot of kids. A lot of nuts. Pardon my expression. And that damned boat looks damn like a floating knife to me…”
“It ain’t concealed, is it? He ain’t threatened anyone with it, has he?”
The cop said nothing but looked doubtful. Ramsey kept going. “I can promise you the fort goes down every night. Before dark. And if you give me your number, I’ll call you if there’s trouble. I got a cell phone. I call you and you can get down here and stop it…”
The cop was shaking his head, his expression firming up. “Sorry, Sarge, but…”
A noise stopped him and we all turned to the high whine of the next battle commencing. Someone was on the far side of the Lake and roaring towards Despair was a tremendous vessel that dwarfed the waiting Despair. Like Despair it was made of metal, shining in the sunlight, water spraying back from its bow wave. It swerved side to side as it came, a rooster tail of water shooting out of its stern from its powerful engine. On its sides was its name: “Killer.” I glanced at the cop, thinking that name alone meant we were going to be kicked off the Lake but he was intent on the coming battle. Despair waited, continuing to idle.
While Killer must have taken less than thirty seconds to close Despair, it seemed much longer. Despair just sat there, waiting while the behemoth roared towards it. The tension mounted and I could hear a man next to the trolley shouting to the box, asking if he saw what was happening. Still Despair sat idle.
I wondered if McIsserson had perhaps fallen asleep. An old man in a warm box, probably on a chair inside.
Then, when Killer was within twenty feet, Despair suddenly moved…backwards. He had put Despair in reverse, moving remarkably fast, wobbling a bit as its rudder tried to adjust to the backward movement.
Killer kept coming and, indeed, seemed to increase speed, its bow lifting higher from the water.
“What’s he doing?” the cop muttered.
“Watch,” Ramsey said, “He ain’t no fool.”
We watched. Despair was picking up reverse speed and moving to the left and Killer adjusted. They were both close to the shore now and suddenly Despair whirled around so that Killer was chasing it from behind, coming closer, along the shore. We heard a glass breaking and looked towards the box. One of the old women, intent on watching the battle, had let a tea pot slip from her hands. It lay broken at her feet. She ignored it, eyes on the two boats.
Despair and Killer raced along the shore, within a few feet of the side of the Lake, moving faster, when suddenly Killer’s engine went up to a higher whine but Killer seemed to be slowing down. Then almost stopping. It was bouncing along the muddy bottom, I realized. It had a deeper draft than the smaller Despair. The owner of Killer must have realized what was happening for Killer slowly tried to turn towards the center of the Lake, trying to break free of the bottom.
Too late. Despair had moved in a tight circle and at full speed smashed into the exposed side of the slow moving Killer, Despair’s sharp bow easily penetrating the relatively thin metal of Killer’s beam. Still stuck on the bottom, Killer leaned far over, almost on its side, Despair on top.
There was some high pitched screaming heard above the sound of the engines. I realized it was my sons, both jumping up and down and cheering. After a moment, a lower pitched cheer from some of the elderly joined in.
Ramsey was looking at the cop. The cop was looking at the boats.
Despair was in reverse again and Killer, somehow caught in Despair’s bow which was still buried deep in its side, was being pulled sideways into deeper water, its engine still going so that the boats were wobbling side to side as McIsserson adjusted his rudder to counteract Killer’s efforts to change course.
Suddenly Despair jerked side to side quickly and broke free from Killer’s hull, roaring back in reverse. In the deeper water, Killer’s gashed side dipped below the surface, bobbed up in Despair’s wake, then wallowed again with the large hole beneath the surface and the vessel quickly filled, capsized and sank. For a moment its engine could be heard dimly under the water, then went silent.
A bit scraped on the bow, Despair backed to the center of the Lake and went into idle again. Waiting.
Our ears were still ringing a bit from the loud engines, now thankfully quiet. The old lady began cleaning up the broken pieces of tea pot. She was having a hard time bending down and the man at the table came over, carefully got on his knees, and began helping. One of my boys, bless him, also ran over to help her while the others clustered around the fort, chattering excitedly, some of the old men pounding each other on the backs.
The three of us looked at them silently. We then watched as the fellow from across the Lake, the owner of Killer, walked along the shore, control box in his hand, his young ten year old boy trailing behind. The man was dressed in jeans and a sweater, in his thirties, a bit over weight, a baseball cap with “Killer” on its crown tilted far back on his head. For a few minutes he stood near the fort and looked out over the Lake to where his boat had sunk. His boy came close to him and they both looked to the Lake. He studied the Lake for a few moments, then seeing the cop with us, walked slowly over.
The cop remained expressionless as the man approached. The man handed the box to his son and stood with us, all of us looking out over the Lake. The cop spoke first. “You have any complaint to make, Sir?”
The man seemed surprised and turned to the cop. “About what?”
“The sinking of your boat.”
“Yeah, I have a complaint. That old fox outsmarted me. That’s my complaint. Just cost me five hundred dollars in lost boat.” He grunted once which might have been a laugh.
“You wish to make a property damage complaint?”
The man turned and stared hard at the cop. “What’s with you? We fought fair and square. You going to arrest him for beating me?”
“Only if you wish to make a complaint…”
The man’s eyes got large. “That’s what’s wrong with our country today. We have a contest and the cops arrest the winner. Now that’s not right…” He moved closer to the cop, becoming heated. The cop stood his ground and put his hands on his belt.
Ramsey put his hand on the man’s arm, but looked at the cop as he spoke, voice very even. “Looks like we have no complaints, here, officer. Looks like everyone is pretty happy with what’s going on. Even the guys who lose.”
But the Killer’s owner was not done. “I can’t believe this. You planning to close this down? My boy and I have been preparing for this for a week. Right, son?”
The boy nodded but said nothing. The man continued. “It’s time our nation stopped coddling losers. If I lose I don’t mind. We’ll be back with a better boat. Maybe I’ll get smarter. I don’t need no cop protecting me. You got that?”
The cop just looked at him, then looked behind him at the old lady who had cleaned up the mess and, with oldest son, was taking the pieces to the nearby garbage can. My other son was using one of the binoculars that were available for onlookers. The old man was showing him how to focus. Several of the elderly were looking over at us, faces worried.
With a grunt of exasperation, Killer’s owner turned and walked off, his son still trailing him.
It was my turn to join the fray again. “Officer, you arrest my client or attempt to shut down this sporting event…”
“Sporting event?!” he interrupted.
“Sporting event. You seek to halt it and I will not only defend my client but will make sure every newspaper in town knows that the police are busy protecting people who don’t want it and ignoring five hundred homeless sleeping in this Park half a mile away. I mean it. This does not need your attention.”
We glared at each other. I was a little surprised at my own heat. At last he said, voice neutral, “This is my beat, counselor. My task is to keep the peace. To make sure all can enjoy the area in safety. I protect my beat.”
“You see anyone endangered here? All I see is a lot of people having a good time.”
“Your client was assaulted not that long ago. Not everyone is having fun.”
“And my client has clearly adjusted to make sure that will not happen again. And with this crowd around, I doubt if some kid is going to try to throw rocks another time.”
He looked at the fort and chewed his lip. I kept going. “Did any of the teenagers over there complain? Is that what the problem is?”
“No. Not really. They’re into it. They think it’s pretty cool, they call it.” He looked at me now. “Makes me nervous. All these people. All the time. A crowd watching. Could be trouble.”
I was about to answer when Ramsey spoke up. “What can we do to make you feel easy, officer? What would make you sleep at night?”
The cop was silent for a long moment, still looking at the box. As he watched, the rear hatch slowly opened and McIsserson appeared. He was stiff from his long sitting inside the box and had to hold onto the door as he slowly lifted on leg, then the other, through the hatch. He slowly straightened, one hand still on the door to the hatch, the other holding the small of his back. He was dressed in his overalls, thick sweater, watch cap on his head. Stretching a bit, he looked around and saw Ramsey with us. He ignored the cop and me. He held out his hand with the control box in it.
Ramsey looked apologetically over at the officer. “I handle the boat when he’s in the can. Just to make sure no one tries to attack while he’s busy. No one has…but just in case.” He stared at the cop’s face for a moment then hurried over to the impatient McIsserson.
We watched as McIsserson gave him the box and without a word, and began a stiff walk over to the Park bathrooms a few hundred feet from the Lake. He hobbled a little, but was clearly hurrying so as to be back at his post quickly.
Suddenly the absurdity of the situation hit me. I turned to the cop. “I can’t believe I’m standing here with you arguing about whether that old coot can sink boats on the Lake. I should be preparing for trial. I must be as nuts as he is.”
The cop may have smiled. “You and me both, bud. Look at that guy move. He’s got to be back in his fort before the next challenge, right?”
“Right. While his cheering squad cheers him on. It’s the American way, right?”
He chuckled now. “Well, I’ve seen a lot of crazy things out here. Guess this is just one more.” He looked at me, still smiling. “Wouldn’t mind a chance at him, myself. Wouldn’t mind that at all.”
And he sauntered off, eyes still on the Lake. I watched him go for a few moments, then went over to the fort before McIsserson could get inside again. Standing there, next to Ramsey, I watched McIsserson hurry back from the bathroom, still hobbling a bit.
He did not look at me, keeping his eyes on the hatch, his hand coming out for the control box. I stepped in front of the hatch. “Hello, Mr. McIsserson. I think we have to talk.”
He stopped, staring at my stomach for a moment, then moved his eyes to my face. His hand was still held out for the control box. Ramsey put it in his hand while McIsserson and I looked at each other.
“What about?” he asked, voice brisk.
“I think we need some privacy. Shall we enter Fort Apache?”
He blinked several times rapidly in annoyance. “I don’t have time, now. You see the situation. There could be a launch any moment.”
“Of a challenger, of course. A challenger. I must get back in.”
“I’ll join you and we can keep watch together. We need to talk and talk now.”
“It’s too small for two people.”
“Then let’s take a little walk. Now.”
He was about to move past me but saw by my expression that I meant it. He looked across the Lake, gauging something. Then, quickly, he handed the box to Ramsey without looking at him, glanced around, and began to walk back towards the bathroom without looking back. I looked over at my kids who were both now using the binoculars. Across the Lake I could see a small crowd of children apparently getting a boat ready to launch. Shaking my head slightly, I followed my client.
The rest room was an ancient brick structure, a bit dilapidated, one half reserved for each of the sexes, Monterey Pines towering over it. Several bikes leaned against the door to the men’s side and I could hear kids’ voices inside. We stood a few feet from the door. The wind was turning cold.
McIsserson turned to face the Lake over my shoulder and looked at it while talking with me. “So? What’s the problem that is so damned urgent?”
“Your daughter. She says she’s filing the petition again.”
He kept looking at the Lake. “Yeah, hysterical again? Like always? And you listen to her?”
“It’s already drafted from last time. Will cost her only a few hundred to file. And then you have to defend it and hire your own psychiatrist. It will cost you tens of thousands. You ready for that?”
But this time the amount of costs didn’t seem to faze him. He kept looking at the Lake for a few moments, then shifted his gaze to me. He studied my face. “You think you can beat it?”
“Beat it? You mean stop her from being appointed your conservator? Probably. You aren’t totally nuts and that’s what the law requires. But this…this game is going to be hard to explain to a court. And if anyone is hurt again…”
“You already told me that. No kid can be hurt. Well, no kid has been hurt.”
“You’ve been hurt. That will influence the court.”
“Can you beat it or not? Stop beating around the bush.”
“I don’t guaranty results, McIsserson. You know that. And I am not beating around the bush.”
He kept looking at the Lake and I could see he felt he was running out of time. He looked at me again. “OK, odds. Can you beat it?”
We glared at each other a moment. Then, “Better than sixty forty, I think. If no one hurt. And if you plan to spend twenty to thirty thousand dollars you don’t have…”
“I got it. If I need to, I got it. She doesn’t. Won’t it cost her as much? She won’t have the cash.”
“Not as much as it will cost you. The State appoints an investigator and she can rely on him or her. You have to pay for your own if you want to win.”
“An investigator? I hire an investigator?”
“No, an expert. A psychiatrist to say you can take care of your own affairs. I already told you this.”
He sighed and looked at the ground now. “A shrink. I gotta pay a shrink. The bitch.”
“Or you can back off and start collecting stamps or playing golf. You don’t have to be Horatio Nelson.”
He kept studying the ground, saying nothing. On the Lake we heard the whine of a motor. The children across the Lake had launched their boat, a small, not very fast tug boat. It moved slowly towards Despair. Ramsey was fiddling with Despair’s control box and he moved Despair slowly away from the approaching tug. McIsserson snorted in contempt as he examined his next challenger.
Then he looked me full in the face. Eyes hard, chin up. He looked younger than at that baseball game a thousand years ago. “We fight it if we have to, then. I’m not stopping. Period. Now let me get to work.”
He shoved past me and hobbled quickly towards his fort. He grabbed the control from Ramsey without even glancing at him, slammed the door shut, and a moment later Despair roared to life.
I try to take a few days off after a trial concludes, especially if we win, so it was two weeks later that I returned from Arizona and found the Petition on my desk. She had waited a week to file it, had not bothered to change a word of the pleadings she had first filed and I thumbed through them looking for the name of the appointed investigator. Bill Arnold. I grinned. He and I had worked on perhaps a dozen cases together and before he was appointed investigator we had locked horns as opposing counsel quite a few times.
He was not a psychiatrist but a court appointed attorney who could hire experts and usually did to determine if there was cause to impose a conservatorship. His advice to the court was important but not conclusive. Often the petitioner would also hire his or her own expert to push for the conservatorship and, of course, the person facing the prospect of having a conservator appointed over his or her assets, the Respondent, always hired a psychiatrist to defend his or her sanity…if he or she could afford it.
Arnold normally would use Margolis as his court appointed psychiatrist and while Margolis was good, I would try to use Stein who was a thousand times better. If expensive. But also on my desk was a check from McIsserson for a ten thousand dollars retainer. I recalled that he always paid his bills promptly in the past. He hadn’t changed. That gave me some room for maneuver.
I picked up the phone and called Arnold but he wasn’t in and didn’t call me back until late afternoon.
“So, Phelps, you represent the mad Admiral, huh?”
“You know the case already?”
“Where have you been? He’s been in the news. Sinking childrens’ boats on Shaw Lake. From his castle near the shore. Where do you get these nuts?”
I was annoyed. My clerk should have had the articles on my desk when I returned. I was at a disadvantage already. “He’s not a nut. His daughter and he have always squabbled and she doesn’t like his hobby. Those events at the Lake are consensual for the most part. A contest…”
“Crap. Says here that he sinks any boat that tries to get on the Lake. Any boat. He’s a mad man conquering City property.” The words were serious but his tone was not. He was enjoying himself.
“It’s not City property. It’s State property and the police were there and approved.”
“They checked it out and no arrest was made. I’ve been there. It’s a contest. Why not come on out and check it out?”
“I’ve a better idea. Meet me for drinks at Hooligans in half an hour and you can explain it all while I ask you about your beautiful wife and why she doesn’t leave you for me.”
So it was that we sat over beer at his favorite bar, a dark and rather grim place at the edge of the financial district, the type with fake Tiffany lamps overhead, mirrored advertisements for drinks on the walls, and ancient pin ups behind the bar. Arnold was studying one of the pinups while the middle aged overweight bartender topped up his glass.
“She sure is fat. Odd how aesthetics change over the centuries. She must weigh one hundred and sixty.”
I looked at the faded photograph, apparently taken before the turn of the last century. The lady was lying on a divan, feather boa hiding most of her charms, one fat leg raised alluringly. I then studied Arnold.
The years had not been kind to him. Mostly because he spent too many hours in places like this hitting the hard stuff. He watched me watch him in the mirror and grinned and threw the newspaper clippings on the bar. “Since you haven’t seen them yet, you might find them of interest.”
I kept my face carefully blank as I leafed through the two or three clippings. I knew that Arnold was watching me closely in the mirror despite his careful aura of casualness. He was one of the smartest attorneys I knew. At least before he began to spend too much time in bars.
There were no pictures in the articles and they were uniformly short with a slightly mocking tone.
Thumbing through them quickly, I noted that no one had been hurt nor was there any mention of that possibility. I breathed easier. They mostly wrote that an elderly nut was claiming he had conquered the Lake and how funny that was and what was the City going to do about it.
The Daily Call was typical:
“Children at Golden Gate Park now face a new menace to their play at Shaw Lake. Benjamin McIsserson, 69, has constructed an armored remote controlled model boat that has sunk upwards of sixty model boats at Shaw Lake over the past several months. Injured two months ago when a disgruntled child threw a stone at his head, McIsserson returned to the Park some weeks later with a custom constructed all metal portable fortress which allowed him to reclaim his conquered territory from safety.
Weekend crowds in excess of one hundred people watch as McIsserson easily dispatches any vessel that dares use the Lake, be they children’s sail boats or custom built challengers from the various boating clubs in the Bay Area.
Police state they have no jurisdiction to control or halt the contests since it is State property.
McIsserson is usually cheered on by a dozen or so people of his approximate age who assist him in assembling and disassembling his portable castle which he takes home in two taxis each evening. He is normally established and ready for combat by seven in the morning every day. He declined any comment but the mother of one of the children who lost his vessel to the all conquering McIsserson stated, “He is a menace. I mean, we don’t want to fight, just enjoy our time on the pond. He should be stopped.”
One of the supporters of McIsserson, a Mr. Neil Ramsey of San Francisco, disagreed. “This is a wonderful chance for testing one’s skill. We welcome any and all challengers and suggest that those not wishing a contest use Lake Merced for their model boats.” The Chief of Police was not available for comment but the mayor’s office stated they are investigating the matter.
I looked up but Arnold was looking at an attractive woman leaving the bar and I had to wait until his attention returned to the matter at hand. “Doesn’t sound like my client is a nut. Sounds like he has found something to do in his sunset years.”
“Yeah, sink kids’ boats. Just what grandpa should spend his time doing. Glad he didn’t decide to dissect cats and claim he was a surgeon.”
“No one has been hurt but him. And he has solved that problem.”
“For now. But how long can a floating tank roar around that pond before someone loses a hand…or worse? Your guy is funny now. Could be a lot less funny later.”
“Don’t exaggerate. It’s a big Lake. The boats stay and fight in the middle. Unless someone goes for a swim, we are not facing real danger. And no one swims in the Lake.”
He sighed and watched another slightly attractive woman come into the bar, her large escort glancing over at Arnold and frowning. Arnold contemplated his beer. “Hey, if he wants to play with boats, that’s fine with me. But this is attacking other people’s property, as I see it. And he paid how much for that boat and that fort?”
“It’s his money and he loves it. If he spends some thousands to do it, that’s his business. Hell, his daughter lives in his home as does her whole family. She should be supporting him in his hobby.”
“And if his hobby was killing cats, she should support him?”
“If it was that damned cat that keeps me awake all night fighting, you bet.”
He grunted a laugh and turned on the seat facing me. “And how is the lovely blonde Helen? Still working as an accountant when she should be gracing the pages of a fashion magazine?”
“She’d like to hear you say that. Though I’m not sure fashion is what she cares about.”
“She should. Lovely lady. You are one lucky man. Don’t deserve it, I’m sure.”
“I’m sure you’re right. You going to stay divorced forever?”
“Can’t afford to do otherwise. Those child support payments are pretty tough for a poor old court investigator.”
“Hell, you’d pay for the kids anyway, court order or not. I’ve seen you with them. At the Little League. You’re a typical doting Daddy.”
“Yeah, yeah. You’re probably right. So I stay at the grindstone and work to keep menaces like your client away from the public.” He grinned at that and singled for another fill up. “Your guy willing to cut this short and start collecting string or something sensible?”
“No way. He loves it. And so do about fifty other elderly people who join him every day. It’s like a club out there, really.”
“Don’t sell me, Phelps. There are a lot of people who don’t like him sinking their own hobbies. And that fort…Jesus, he spends every day in that fort, right?”
“He has to. A kid attacked him. And those victimized people have plenty of other ponds to chose from. Look, join me there tomorrow or the day after. Check it out. You might be surprised.”
“What am I going to see besides Admiral Nimitz taking out the Japanese fleet?”
“Who knows? Maybe some pretty girl who will find you irresistible and be rich besides. Check it out.”
He leaned back on the stool and studied himself in the mirror. His face was puffy and unhealthy in the dim light and he needed to lose thirty pounds. He needed a haircut and he needed a new tie. His suit was rumpled and his shoes unshined. He grunted. Then he studied his drink in his hands. ‘You planning to use that old bastard Stein, again?”
“Yep, and you will use Margolis, right? That’s fine with me.”
“State won’t pay for Stein and he won’t change his rates.”
“Life is unfair.”
He continued to stare at his drink. “It is, it is, indeed. Genius Stein versus grubby old Margolis. Wasted Arnold versus White Knight Phelps. Stein check him out, yet?”
“I’ll be setting that up tomorrow.”
Arnold looked at me then. “And if Stein says he’s a danger to society, you going to change your stand?”
“If he does?”
I hesitated. “Then I’ll have a long talk with my client.”
Arnold nodded. “OK, if Stein supports you, you and I will go out there and see your nut conquer. Give me a call when you find out.”
Stein’s office and clinic was in one of the better San Francisco neighborhoods, a mansion he had paid a fortune to convert into an elegant live in facility for twenty or so neurotic rich people with his office on the top floor overlooking a carefully manicured garden. From the street it seemed just one more magnificent mansion from the days of the Robber Barons with a small shiny brass plate near the door bell proclaiming “Dr. Gerald Stein.” That was all. One could see the Golden Gate Bridge and most of the Bay from his front steps. Fog was pouring in the Gate, small sailboats playing in the Bay, racing away from the incoming fog bank.
McIsserson stood next to me while we waited for the door to be answered. He was not happy. He had to give up his daily patrol at the Lake to be here and he was going to be examined by a psychiatrist at his own great expense. He stood stiffly, glaring at the paneled door, in his best suit that hung loose on him.
His tie was absurdly thin, two decades out of style. His powerful hands hung at his sides. He had said nothing to me the entire car ride over and said nothing as we waited.
A tall black man in a white uniform answered the door, eyes quickly scanning both of us. This was Hendricks, Stein’s sole security man, who had been there since I first used Stein perhaps a decade earlier. Occasionally he and I would run into each other at the symphony, he always alone, usually Baroque concerts. Helen had told me she was convinced he was a prince from some African Sheikdom.
Whenever Stein and I worked together, she always asked about him. He nodded to me, face polite but blank.
We entered the a small bare room with a security door at the far end, some ugly plastic chairs against the walls, a table in the middle with ancient magazines. Hendrix pushed a button next to the security door which silently swung open onto a very different world. We entered a large high ceiling paneled room with thick Persians on the floor, tapestries and leather covered books in built in bookcases on two of the walls, antique sofa near the center, just behind it, a long maple table with a shaded green lamp.
At the far end, an elegant wooden stair case led to the upper floors, its treads thickly carpeted as well, brass rods holding the carpet in place. Through an archway appeared a massive dining room with a large mahogany table and chairs. A hushed silence in the room.
“Gentlemen, the Doctor is just finishing with a patient and asks your indulgence. He should be in his office within ten minutes. Would you care to wait there or here?”
“There,” said McIsserson quickly. His eyes were darting around the room. I could understand his concern. It looked expensive.
Hendricks turned and began up the stairs with McIsserson, then I, following. I thought of suggesting the elevator but McIsserson seemed to have no trouble as we went up two flights. Indeed, he hurried along, close on Hendricks’ heels. By the second story he was slowing down a bit, breathing hard…but so was I.
The second floor had a metal security door blocking the hall from the stair case landing which we passed. The third floor was Stein’s, another elegant Persian and tapestries. Hendricks walked past two doors and came to a third, opened it without knocking and we followed him into Stein’s empty office.
Large French doors led to a small balcony at the far end of the good sized room, white curtains blowing in the warm air. A large walnut desk was placed perhaps ten feet before the doors, a large globe off to its right. All the other walls were covered floor to ceiling with books in built in cases. Two leather chairs sat before his desk, a small conference table with four other chairs a few feet away near large bay windows to the left of the desk.
The desk was empty but for a telephone, an elegant leather blotter, what looked like a spent fifty caliber bullet casing and a legal tablet with an inscribed gold pen lying on it. The traffic could be dimly heard through the French doors and I could see the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay through the windows to the left of the desk. No computer. No stereo. No dictating machine. No clock. The light streamed through the windows, the fog still miles away on the Bay. Faintly, we could hear a fog horn from the lighthouse near the Gate.
McIsserson stood in the center of the room as Hendricks slowly closed the door as he left the room. I walked over to one of the leather chairs, dropped my briefcase besides it and sat down. I looked back over my shoulder. “You going to have a seat or just stand there?"
He didn’t answer but slowly walked to the large globe. He touched its smooth surface and moved it around slowly, stopping when Europe was under his fingers. He studied it for a minute, then walked back to the chair next to me. He sat down heavily. He sighed.
We sat in silence for a few minutes, listening to the faint sounds of traffic, watching the curtains blow. I leaned back in the chair and looked across at him. “How many ships have you sunk so far?”
“Seventy two.” He was not bragging, just stating a fact. His eyes were on the globe.
“And how many belonged to children rather than adults?”
He looked at me then. “I have no idea. It does not matter to me.”
“It will matter to any court. No idea at all?”
He humphed and thought for a while. “Perhaps half. Often children come with their parents. I don’t know if you count those. I care little.”
“And if you were the judge, that would be fine. You’re not. The judge will care a lot. Attacking kids’ boats is going to be our problem. Ever bring your grandkids with you?”
He looked surprised. “Why would I do that? They are useless.”
“Useless? What do you mean useless? They’re your grandkids.”
“I mean when I asked them to help with the trolley they just stared at me. Didn’t help. Didn’t even try, really. Their mother has poisoned their minds against me.”
“I would have thought you’d like the boy who plays baseball. He’s pretty good, isn’t he?”
McIsserson humphed again and remained quiet. I tried again. “Who is this Ramsey guy? He seems a pretty loyal follower.”
McIsserson looked at me blankly for a moment, then remembered. “He saved the boat when I was unconscious. I owe him that. And he holds my control box when I am indisposed. Used to be Army I think.”
“Whatever. He is useful and has some intelligence. That sets him apart from the other sheep.”
“Sheep? You mean your supporters?”
He turned his stern face towards me. “I need no supporters. I ask for no supporters. They are hanger ons. Groupies…that’s what they are called, right? Old groupies.” He turned back to the globe and studied it while I looked at him with increasing dislike. What was I doing here, anyway?
The door opened behind me and I stood up. Perhaps seventy now, Stein was big. Not just fat, though he now was, but big, six three or four at least. He always wore a three piece suit, often not very clean, thick glasses and a distracted air until he concentrated on you. Then you felt as if you were under a brilliant search light. It was hard to forget his eyes.
He was a refugee from Germany but had no accent I could discern. Indeed, his vocabulary was better than mine. In court he was close to impossible to impeach, becoming calmer and more intimidating the more you attacked his testimony. I knew since my failure at impeaching him led me to hire him for my very next case.
But he seldom testified, not liking the “absurd theatrics” of the courts, as he termed it. Only a fat fee or an interesting case would induce him to appear as an expert. We both knew that requirement of his and he had come to expect one or the other of any client I brought to him. That was our unspoken arrangement.
I had sent him my file on McIsserson the week before and he had it under his arm and dropped it on the desk as he went behind his desk without shaking hands and slowly lowered himself in his seat. He clasped his hands over his large stomach. I noticed his vest pocket was torn.
He glanced at me, nodded slightly, then concentrated on McIsserson. I sat down. No one spoke for a good half minute which seemed a long time. I was thinking how to break the silence when Stein at last spoke.
“You have obviously read Clausewitz and Liddell Hart. I wonder if you have considered Sun Tzu.”
McIsserson’s voice was careful. “You mean that Chinese fellow? The one they use for guerilla war?”
“He wrote two thousand five hundred years ago. He discussed every type of war. Since Mao quoted him you presume he supported only one type of war. He did not.”
“So? Why should I read him?”
“He wrote of a smaller army overwhelmed by superior forces. How one can survive such an eventuality. In your case a certainty, I would imagine. In time.”
McIsserson pondered that. “I’m doing fine.”
Stein shook his head slightly. “You are not. You have no method of strategic victory. You are simply confusing tactical success with grand strategy. You are a mouse biting at the toes of a tiger.”
That made McIsserson sit up straight. “Tiger? Mouse? Who is the tiger?”
“The public at large. The thousand combatants who will eventually challenge you. The courts and state that now seeks to control you. Your family who seeks to obtain control of your finances. The hounds of publicity who will distort your activities and try to convert you into an object of fun and jovial interest.”
Stein leaned forward in his chair. “The world, Mr. McIsserson, the world. That is the tiger you face.”
Stein leaned back to see what his words would accomplish.
McIsserson blinked. Another long pause. “How did you know what books I read?”
“Mr. Phelps has described your tactics when challenged on your field of battle. You are either a natural tactical genius or have studied the matter. It was not hard to conclude you have studied the matter.”
McIsserson nodded, staring at Stein. “I have read much more than those fellows.”
“Yes, I am sure. Let me consider. Guederian. Patton. Fuller. With some Thucydides, Herodotus and Julius Caesar thrown in. I hope not Ann Rand. I would lose some of my respect for you if you rely on that charlatan.”
That made McIsserson smile. “Pretty good, Doctor, Pretty good. I don’t know the Rand lady but you were right on the others. And more.”
“I am sure. You are clearly satisfied with your past progress. May I pose a question to you?”
“That’s why I’m paying you.”
“Your resentment at my intrusion is noted. I should advise you that it does not matter who pays me, My question is this: Where does this end?”
McIsserson shook his head. “End? What do you mean? It’s not going to end.”
Stein’s eyelids lowered a bit as he contemplated the old man. “Of course it will end. In ten years you are dead. You are probably physically incapable of doing this in another five years. You will run out of money to afford the cost of the constant battles in a few more years, I imagine. Or will lose in combat to a more skillful younger opponent. Or will be barred from further combat by the State. Of course it will end. My question is which of these possible outcomes do you think will occur? And are you prepared for that outcome which I consider inevitable.”
McIsserson frowned. “You speak well, I grant you that. For a foreigner. But your thinking is muddled.”
“Oh? Educate me as to my fallacy.”
“I end it when I want to end it. If I’m too old or sick, then I’ll decide to end it. Phelps here, and you will keep me out of court and will keep my damned daughter out of my pocket book. That’s why I’m paying you. Sorry you don’t like to hear you’re working for me.”
“Your apology is insincere. You enjoy the feeling of power that such payment entails.”
“Maybe I do. So, the only really possible outcome besides me choosing to end it is me losing on the Lake. And that is fine. I don’t mind that. If it’s an honest fight."
“I see,” Stein said, continuing to study McIsserson. “And when you lose, which will happen sooner or later, what will you do with the rest of your life, while you wait for inevitable decay and death?"
McIsserson laughed. “Cheerful fellow, aren’t you? You talking about yourself or me?” Stein did not answer or react so McIsserson continued. “I’m doing just fine, thank you. I was decaying sitting on a park bench watching the sheep come and go. I’m not decaying now and if I lose…”
“When you lose...”
“If I lose, I build another boat. And another. I go down fighting.”
“So, you have read Dylan Thomas as well, I see. No quiet entry into the dark night for you, then?”
“I don’t know Thomas but I know this. I don’t sit on a God damned park bench and rot. Or get dusted by my daughter. Or play bingo in a church. Or bounce a grandkid on my knee. I…I do this.”
“Very well. Now tell me this. What precisely are you doing?”
Another long silence. McIsserson leaned forward. Began to speak, then stopped. Then he shook his head in frustration and began again. “Why do you think Caesar conquered Gaul?”
“Political power. Loot. Prestige back at Rome above all.”
“That’s right but I put it another way. He didn’t keep any of the loot. He used it all to show the Romans he was a big man. Spent every dime, right? The biggest man. For glory, right? Like Achilles. Like Patton. Like all those fellows. It wasn’t the money. It was glory. And how that glory made them feel.”
“You do this for the respect of others?”
McIsserson shook his head angrily. “No, you don’t get it. I don’t give a damn what others think of me. That’s not what I mean by glory. It’s my glory. Mine. What I think of me. What I think I’ve accomplished. Do you think Patton gave a damn what some housewife watching the news in Omaha thought about him? Or that Achilles cared what a peasant in Greece thought about him? This is not…it’s not publicity we are talking about. Glory means…means much more.”
An even longer pause. “It means doing what you should do and doing it right. Making…making your stand, I guess. Making your stand.”
He leaned back in the chair, exhausted from the effort. Stein’s face was expressionless as he studied the man, fingers still clasped across his broad stomach. He may have grunted to himself, then began. “You are aware that your “stand” as you term it, is occupying for some months or years a pond in a public park and stopping children and those adults with little more on their minds than illusory combat from occupying the pond at the same time?”
McIsserson glared. “It’s my stand. Not yours. It’s my stand and it’s up to me to decide if it matters, not you, not Phelps, here.”
“Why not pick an ant colony and smash it to the ground and claim you have triumphed? That could be your “stand” no?”
McIsserson sat forward. “I thought you were a psychiatrist. A doctor. You’re just attacking me. Aren’t you supposed to treat people?”
“You are not my patient, sir. I am not treating you. My assigned task is to determine if you are competent or not. Only that.”
“Then do it and stop judging me. It isn’t your business if my stand is good or bad or stupid. Am I nuts or not?”
Stein may have smiled but with the light behind him it was hard to tell. Another pause. “Why do you think you are a magnet, Mr. McIsserson?”
“A magnet? What are you talking about now?”
“You are now surrounded by crowds are you not? Supporters. Enemies. Press. Do you understand why?”
McIsserson snorted. “Groupies. They don’t know what to do with their sorry lives so they cling to me. Simple as that. Pathetic.”
“And your enemies? Do they conspire to destroy your “stand?”
McIsserson leaned back, smiling. “At last. You want to see if I’m paranoid. Right?”
Stein said nothing.
“My enemies want to shove me off the Lake, That’s all. Cause I shoved them off the Lake. No more, no less. They don’t give a damn about me. They want to win. They want some of the glory, I guess. Nothing personal.”
“Even when you wantonly destroy a child’s toy boat while a parent observes? You think it is not personal, then?”
McIsserson looked slightly surprised. He considered for a moment. “Well, maybe so. Maybe they are a bit upset. Maybe a lot upset. But I figure it teaches their kids a good hard lesson in life. If it makes them angry, well, that’s spilt milk, maybe.”
“One cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs?”
“Napoleon. I’ve read about him, too.”
“I am sure you have.” Stein opened his file and began writing.
I was more than a little nervous at that. If he was writing already it probably meant McIsserson was a nut case and my best expert was out the window. I glanced at McIsserson, then spoke to Stein. “Are you finished with your interview, Doctor? Are there additional tests or questions you would like to pose?”
Stein did not glance up. “Do not concern yourself, Mr. Phelps. This gentleman is sadly quite sane considering our standards of the day. I will so testify.” He continued writing while I leaned back in some relief.
McIsserson looked over to me with a brisk nod, raising his eyebrows. “We should be going now, Phelps?”
“I’ll meet you downstairs. I’d like some words with the Doctor.”
McIsserson glanced at me suspiciously but wanted out of that room so badly he quickly made for the door. Stein must have pushed a button since Hendricks opened the door before McIsserson could reach it and escorted him out of the room.
I remained seated and Stein continued writing. A few minutes passed while I watched him concentrate on his drafting and then he sighed and leaned back in his chair. He took off his glasses and cleaned them with a not very clean handkerchief from his pocket, blinking at me. He put them back on, regarded me a moment more, his hand fiddling with the gold pen on his desk.
“Well, counselor, you wish a preview of my report?”
“The whole thing might go away if your report is strong enough. Arnold is interested in the results.”
“Mr. Arnold. The probate examiner, I believe? That sad spectacle awaits my report? Has he sobered up enough to make such commitments?”
“He doesn’t want to see you go against Margolis again, I imagine.”
He stared at the books on the wall behind me for a moment. “Yes. I can understand that. Perhaps court has become my particular pond by now.”
“I am sure McIsserson will make room for you in his fortress should you wish to change your locale for seeking glory.”
He smiled. “And I am sure you are incorrect. There is a reason his fortress is only large enough for himself. As is his glory.”
“He is competent to handle his own affairs?”
“Quite. In another age and place, he would be an honored somewhat competent minor warlord. His narcissism is regrettable, perhaps, his frustration and anger understandable, certainly, and his doom inevitable. But as for competency to handle his check book, that should not be a question for the court to even consider.”
“Doom? That seems pretty bleak.”
“You will win your hearing, Mr. Phelps. His doom need not concern you overly.”
“That’s not how I work with my clients, Doctor. Please explain your thinking here.”
He saw my expression and studied me now. “I do not impugn your motivations. I agree you show more concern for your clients than the overwhelming majority of your profession. But neither you nor I can halt his progress to his inevitable end nor should we try. It is not anything we can control.”
“By no means. It is death, sir, no more or less. And now I have my next session if you do not mind. My report will be on your desk by next Tuesday. Good day to you.”
I called Arnold the next day to try to arrange a time to check out the field of battle but his secretary told me he was ill and was not expected back that week. After some hesitation, I called Sally’s attorney since she had, after all, started the whole thing. Grace Enders apparently practiced from a home office and her answering machine told me she would return my call promptly.
I was behind on several matters due to the trial and the vacation afterwards and forgot about McIsserson while drafting contracts and negotiating settlements. The day was almost done when she returned my call.
“Ms. Enders, I’m glad you called. But sorry you filed that petition again. I have to tell you I don’t think the court is going to be happy to see this on again off again filing.”
She sounded stiff and very young. “We had no choice. Mr. McIsserson is engaging in dangerous activities. Someone is bound to be hurt. Maybe him.”
“We all engage in dangerous activities every time we drive a car or play football. The question is whether he is competent and my expert…who is famous internationally…is going to testify he is quite competent. My client is furious and thinking that having his daughter and her family live with him in such circumstances does not make sense. You might want to reconsider.”
“The court has already appointed a probate investigator.”
“Who will probably drop this if you do.”
A pause on the line. “I still think that what he is doing does not indicate he is rational.”
“Irrationality is one thing. Competency is another. Anyone who watches television is irrational as far as I am concerned.”
“He sinks the boats of little children!”
She had hit our weak spot, of course. Maybe she wasn’t quite as inexperienced as she sounded. I tried out the argument I was planning to use in court. “Those children are accompanied inevitably by adults. Those adults can see what is happening on the Lake. Hell, he’s there with three dozen people and in a metal fort. It’s in all the papers. The parents should be the ones held responsible for putting their kids’ boats on the water. They seem to want the attention, if you ask me.”
“That’s nonsense. He doesn’t own the Lake. He attacks other people who want to use the Lake. He can’t be in his right mind.”
“It’s become a jousting field, now, and everyone knows it. Those kids have half a dozen other ponds to use. If they go out on the Lake, their boats are in trouble. And we are only talking about toy boats. No one has even hinted any child is in danger.”
A long silence on the line. I could tell she didn’t want to fight. Probably sat at home, taking care of infants, and practiced law on the side while hubby had a nine to five. Not the type of lawyer who wants a no holds barred battle in court…with her client being kicked out of the home by a furious father if she loses.
I kept pushing hard. “Look, when push comes to shove, he is playing with model boats and sinking other toy boats and no one is hurt. And the cops aren’t upset. There are no indications of mental illness. He is a gruff old bastard. I admit that. Unlikable perhaps. But do you have any evidence that he is incompetent…or is he acting like a mean old man and this is what this is all about?”
“Mean old man? More than that!”
“”Really? What? He’s at the pond sinking boats. Anything else?”
“The cost of that boat.”
“It’s his money. He can spend it any way he likes. Your client lives in his house. He’s beginning to think that’s an even bigger waste of money.”
“She pays rent.”
“Full market value? I doubt that. And if you think a court is going to take away his freedom to spend money because he pays a lot of money for model boats…well the judge who is probably going to hear this collects model trains. Good luck on that.”
“Does he ram those trains into children?”
“Does my client? What child? When?”
A pause. I thought I probably had her now. I played my trump cards. “Mr. Arnold is not going to support you on this. And your client is going to be looking for a new place to rent. Do you really want this fight? Does your client?”
I could hear a child in the background asking for milk. Her voice remained stiff. “Well, I have to talk to my client again. If the probate examiner thinks it should be dropped, that will make a big difference to her.”
So it was to be Arnold who decided how quickly and cheaply this ended. I tried him several times more that week and he finally called me the following Monday.
It was on his cell phone and since it was during lunch time I suspected it was from some restaurant.
The background was noisy, the reception poor and he wasn’t so clear himself.
“Howya doing, counselor? Been sick, you know.”
“So I was told. You all right now?”
“Good as could be expected. I got half a dozen phone calls from the Enders woman. Called you first. Know what she wants with me?”
“Wants to know if you’re going to drop the case if she does, I expect. Which you should.”
“What you do, scare her to death? Threaten to kick her poor client out on the street?”
“I guess he doesn’t like living with family that wants him put in the loony bin. Odd of him.”
“What did Stein say?”
“Took him five minutes and he said more competent than you are.”
“Not saying much at that. He said the guy’s competent, then?”
“No question. I get the report tomorrow. If you agree to drop this if it says competent, you can have a dozen copies of it.”
He thought for a few minutes. “I don’t know. Attacking kids’ boats. In a public place. Don’t know…”
“He is the only one that was harmed, you know. Kid beaned him with a rock. And he is in the fort because of that. Only other casualty is toy boats on the Lake and the parents are the ones who can stop that.”
“He own the Lake now?”
“By right of conquest.”
He grunted what might have been a laugh. “So, when do we see the gladiator at work? I’m behind now. Can’t it wait some weeks?”
“You know when the hearing is?”
I could hear him shuffling his calendar book. “Shit,” he said, “coming right up. How about a continuance? You stipulate?”
“Can’t. Have a trial coming up. Let’s wrap this up. If you have to see him at the Lake, let’s go tomorrow. You could use some air.”
“Air is lethal to me. All my problems will be over when I stop breathing it.” He chuckled at his own humor. “OK, tomorrow at three? Meet at the Lake?”
“See you there. Bring your boat.” He laughed and hung up and I called McIsserson. He wasn’t home, of course. Busy at the Lake winning glory. I made a note to myself to call him that night. I wanted to make sure he wasn’t planning to murder children tomorrow afternoon.
After dinner I was sitting on our leather sofa in the living room and picking up the phone when Helen’s steady gaze stopped me. I knew that look. She wanted to talk. I glanced at the boys who were both fiddling with a computer game on the living room floor.
“Boys,” she said, “your father and I need to talk for a few minutes. Go on upstairs.”
“But we’re only half way done.”
“Now. We’ll let you know when we are done.”
Serious then. I mentally prepped myself and wondered what I had done wrong. We both waited listening to the boys trudge upstairs and then regarded each other for a moment. She was having trouble beginning. I wasn’t going to help her.
At last, “I don’t interfere with your cases, you know that.”
“But…but I don’t understand this thing with this old man. McIsserson. I mean, it’s been in the papers. Attacking children…”
“He’s not attacking children.”
“Their boats then. I mean, sinking little toy boats while the children cry on the shore. And you are defending him.”
“His daughter is trying to take control of his assets. He has a right to be represented.”
“He’s a nut and he is endangering children and your name is associated with him. Your name is in the papers now. As his lawyer. I just don’t understand how you can do this. It’s embarrassing.”
“Embarrassing? To who?”
“To me. At work. Several of my coworkers have asked me about it. My boss…my boss’s boss… have said they’re surprised that you would be doing this. I don’t know what to say to them.”
I felt my face flush. “I have a suggestion. Tell them it’s none of their damned business. And if that doesn’t work, tell them that in this country every man and woman has a right to competent counsel and they’d better be damned glad of that. Tell them…”
She held up her hand, her eyes wide and very blue. “Slow down, honey. Don’t get upset. I understand you take this seriously. So do I. I know you represent people who are accused of all sorts of things…”
“I used to do criminal law. I’ve represented murderers. Rapists. And you’re upset about an old ill tempered codger…?”
“Why are you so emotional about this? You should hear your voice.”
“I don’t like being questioned by your boss’s boss…”
“Then consider it questioning by me,” she said, voice hardening. “He attacks children. Simple as that. And you are working to make it so he can keep going. I don’t understand how you can do that and pretend it’s something to be proud of.”
“It’s my job. I am his lawyer. His daughter has a lawyer. The State has a lawyer. I’m the only one representing his interest. That’s the way the system works.”
“It doesn’t have to be you, that’s what I’m saying. I mean, people are going to wonder why you are doing this.”
“Let them. Tell them to read the Constitution and they may get some ideas as to why.”
“Don’t go self righteous on me. This isn’t about Thomas Jefferson. This is a crazy old man attacking children in the Park and you are putting the family name in the paper as his champion. I hate that.”
I stood up. Then I sat down. “I can’t believe we are having this conversation. I can’t believe you are questioning Mr. McIsserson’s right to hire me. Or my duty to defend him to the best of my ability.”
She leaned forward, her lovely face intense. “I don’t question your duty to defend people. And I know you take it seriously always. Indeed, I know you will win. You always win…”
“No I don’t.”
“You almost always win and you will win this one. You are better than that foolish groper Arnold and you tell me the daughter’s attorney is a dolt.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You didn’t have to. So tell me this. When you win and that crazy old man is out there again, what have you done? You’ve earned your fee. You’ve won again. And when a child is finally really hurt, what will you say? What will you feel?” She blinked rapidly and I wondered for a moment if she was going to cry.
From the staircase we heard Jeremy’s voice. “He’s not a crazy old man. He’s really good at what he does. He knows how to fight the boat. And Dad’s his lawyer and helping him.”
She glared at the staircase. “I told you we are having a private conversation, young man. Please go to your room.”
“But you called him crazy. Why is he crazy? I like model boats. I’d like to do what he’s doing.”
“You are not seventy years old.”
”So? So what?”
She stood up. “Go to your room, Jeremy Phelps, this instant.” Whenever she used both his names it was a sign to retreat and he did so. She looked down on me. “Can you really feel that what you are doing is good for anyone? For him? Don’t you think if you really cared about him you’d talk him into doing something that helped others?”
I shook my head with a small laugh. “McIsserson is not interested in doing good for anyone. Including himself, possibly. Would never occur to him.”
“So, what are you doing? Why?”
I leaned back on the sofa, the phone still in my hand. “Look…” I began. But it was hard to phrase. I hesitated, then tried again. “I’m not sure how to say this. And it doesn’t really matter since my job is the same whether I like him or not. And I don’t like him, really. He’s an asshole as far as I can see…”
“Let me finish.” I looked at the phone in my hand. A moment passed. “He’s doing something that he feels he has to do. He’s maybe wrong to do it. Maybe it’s distorted. But at least…at least he’s putting himself out there and doing it. Putting it all on the line. Not just sitting on a park bench and boring people with stories of past glory days.”
“Doing something? He’s attacking toy boats owned by children. If he killed cats would you say at least he is doing something?” Her voice was shrill now, arms spread.
I felt my face flushing again. She saw that and turned on her heels, heading for the kitchen door. She called back over her shoulder, “You can come down again, boys. Daddy and you can talk about how to keep that monster out in the park.” She slammed the door to the kitchen.
It took the boys about ten minutes to risk coming down and by then I was on the phone with McIsserson. I told him Arnold and I would be at the Lake the next afternoon at three.
“So,” he snapped, “What am I supposed to do?”
“Do what you normally do but don’t sink any kid’s boat while we are there. You don’t want him to see that.”
“Why? That’s what I do if they come onto the Lake. Ain’t no secret about that.”
“It’s one thing to know it and another to see it. Control your baser impulses for a few hours.”
“And then they take over the Lake. I’m supposed to let them?”
“They take over the Lake whenever you aren’t there. They took it over when you were with me and Dr. Stein, right?”
“But I’m there tomorrow. It’s different.”
It had been a long day and night and I was getting testy. “Look, Mr. McIsserson, you want to win this matter or not? Arnold is the guy who decides if this goes forward or not. If he drops it, it is probably dropped by your daughter. You send a kid screaming to his mom while we are there and you are going to be in a hearing no matter what.”
“Does that mean he wins the hearing?”
“Probably not. But it will cost you thirty thousand dollars to find out and we can always lose. Look, just let it stay peaceful for a few hours. Can’t you do that?”
A very long silence. I broke it. “Hey, fine with me. Sink a dozen kids’ boats while we are there. I make my fees either way. You can ponder how wise it was while your daughter writes out your monthly allowance check so you can buy your bingo card at the local church…”
“Hey, cool down, cool down. I get it. I have to be on my best behavior while this fellow is there. I just don’t want to…to fake it. To be like I’m ashamed of it or something. I’m not ashamed. I don’t want him to think I am.”
“He is only concerned as to whether you are a danger to yourself or to others. Like children. A kid screaming and crying may convince him you are.”
No answer. Another long pause. I lost it. “You are making my job pretty damned tough. You’d better decide if you want to listen to my advice or not. Maybe another lawyer would give you advice you find more palatable. I think I’m doing a damned good job cooling down a pretty volatile situation and you don’t seem to care about helping me. Perhaps you better think about whether I’m the right lawyer for you.”
Another long pause while I seethed. “You’re my lawyer. Have been for twenty years. I’m not changing now.”
“We haven’t faced what we face now. And you’re not listening to me.”
“Calm down. Jesus, I’m the client who’s supposed to be nuts. And I’m telling you to calm down. Maybe you should buy a boat and find a pond of your own.” He chuckled at that.
“So, what happens tomorrow?”
“I cool it while you are there. I don’t do a thing to any boat not owned by a fifty year old coot who knows what he’s doing. OK?"
I breathed deeply. “That’s right. I might introduce you to Arnold. If I do, don’t drool on him.”
“Got it.” He hung up without another word.
A deposition that should have taken two hours was dragging onto its fourth hour because my opponent could not frame a question that was not compound, ambiguous or inane. This was perhaps the fifth deposition in his career and the three of us in the room watched as he painfully tried to determine how to frame the question so I would not object.
I didn’t want to object. I wanted to get out of that room and get to the Park. But the deposition was central to the issues of a Will contest, my client and I had prepared for it for days, and this kid just might, by chance if nothing else, stumble across the right question that could really hurt our case.
We sat in my small conference room, my client, opposing counsel, the deposition reporter, files scattered over the conference table, the sound of traffic in the street and the murmuring of the receptionist as she answered phones at her console on the other side of the glass wall that separated the conference room from our entry way. Walnut modern furniture, relatively comfortable conference chairs, a few potted plants. On the far wall a large photograph of a racing sloop which happened to be mine and which I was contemplating while listening to the next pointless question.
Midway through the third hour my secretary had slipped in and dropped a phone slip on my desk. “Bill Sutter called about McIsserson. Call today” it read. With a number to call back. I absently folded and refolded the note and thought about Bill.
Senior partner at one of the giant firms, ensconced in the fiftieth floor of one of the black monoliths that were the newest buildings changing our skyline. Perhaps two hundred attorneys in that firm, a satellite office half that size in Palo Alto earning a fortune from Silicon Valley. We had gone to law school together and he, like most of my class mates, ended up at the mega firms.
They all hated it, of course. The atmosphere of intense politics, struggle for clients and prestige and constant search for more hourly billings made life a bitter struggle. They were required to bill a number of hours annually that was impossible unless one lied about the hours committed or worked twelve hours every day including weekends. If you failed to make the hours, you were terminated.
But for those who survived and made it to the top, the money was substantial, the prestige even more substantial, and the cases became more interesting as one clawed over one’s competitors. Most were bright, all were competent, some were brilliant. Bill was brilliant and, remarkably, a nice guy, someone who truly cared about clients. In the world of the mega firms, that was so unique that he had developed client sources of his own which guaranteed him success in the hungry world he worked in.
Why would he be involved in the McIsserson matter? No one connected had the dollars to buy an hour of his time.
“Objection,” I said, flatly. “The question is both compound and has already been asked and answered at least three times in the last two hours. Counsel, how much longer do you see this lasting? It was scheduled for only two hours, you know.”
He flared. “If you would stop objecting so much it would go much faster.”
I simply blinked at him while the deposition reporter smirked. But there was the record to protect.
“Counsel, I have no desire to object. I do have a duty to protect my client from the type of inappropriate questions you pose. And will continue to do so. I do have a commitment in about half an hour, I am already late, and I need to know when you intend to end this.”
“I think your objections are wasting our time. I need at least another hour, maybe more. I didn’t think you would object so much.”
“Can he do this?” my client asked in a loud whisper. He was a large man, electrical contractor, already upset to be fighting over his mother’s estate. He kept looking at the door to the office longingly. So did I, for that matter.
“Counsel has the right to ask reasonable questions for a reasonable period of time, “ I answered, for all to hear, “but I am sure he understands he has gone way over his anticipated time and will adjust to fit our schedules.” I then gave a hard look at counsel who looked down at his papers.
He sighed. “Well, if you have to leave, maybe I can continue this to another time and we can see if interrogatories can cut the questions short for next time. To save money.” He looked up at me, hopefully.
“Good idea, counsel. Give me a call and we can arrange another date if you feel it is critical. We don’t want to spend a fortune on this discovery if we can help it, I am sure.” Again, for the record.
“Right,” he said, looking at the reporter who began to pack up. My client stood up, mumbled that he would call me the next day to talk about the case, and rushed through the door. I also quickly left the room. I was supposed to be in the Park with Arnold and McIsserson in less than ten minutes and the Park was a half hour away.
As I swerved through the busy afternoon traffic, I called Bill Sutter. To my slight surprise, he took the call right away.
“Ed Phelps. It’s been too long. You never show up for the alumni get togethers. You should.”
“You always schedule them overlapping my sons’ tournaments, Bill. Besides, all you guys are too old. Makes me feel too old.”
He laughed at that. “Well, we miss you. You always were a trouble maker. Remember what Lindsey in Property One said about you?”
“He was a pompous jerk.”
“Called you the sleeping giant, remember? When you suddenly popped up two months into the course with that philosophical question?” He chuckled, remembering.
“You’re not calling to reminisce. How are you involved with Mr. McIsserson?”
I saw a cop on a motorcycle on a side street and slowed down. I glanced at the watch on my wrist.
“I’m not. My client is. Rex Wentroth.”
“That’s right. Your man sunk his son’s boat. He’s annoyed, to put it mildly.”
I closed my eyes for a moment in exasperation. Wentroth was one of the Silicon Valley venture capitalists. Often in the papers pontificating. Big time, more money than God. Young, aggressive, hated by many. Supposedly smart and innovative. And he loved litigation.
“Great. Just great. What does he want?”
“McIsserson’s hide, I imagine. But he told me to tell you that he would be contacting you and that this doesn’t need to involve lawyer to lawyer. He just wants to talk to you. So, here’s permission to talk to my client.”
“I think you should be there, Bill. Sounds like it may lead to some litigation. From what I hear of Wentroth, most everything with him does.”
“Don’t always believe what you hear. Between you and me, I think he likes having that reputation. I also think…and don’t quote me…but I also think your client intrigues him. He’s angry but I’m not sure he wants this to go nuclear. Maybe you can quash the whole thing. Let me know and come to the next party. You still boycotting the old school?” Before I could answer he laughed and rang off.
It was a day when afternoon fog poured in from the Ocean and this late in the day so close to the water the sky was already white, the cold wind strong, thicker lower fog beginning to move over the Lake. A day for windbreakers and hands in the pockets.
And a day when the crowd at the Lake was small. As I came up the path I quickly noted the fortress in its usual location, perhaps six elderly men clustered near it and the trolleys, no women, and, to my horror, McIsserson standing and talking to Ramsey and Arnold. I was over half an hour late but Arnold should not have talked to my client without me there and I steamed as I hurried around the Lake.
There seemed to be no challengers on the water now, indeed, no one aside from the group at the far end near the fort. Arnold watched me walking quickly towards him and even from the distance I could see he was smiling. Then I noted the control box in his hand.
Suddenly Despair, which was in the center of the Lake, roared to life and, wobbling slightly, motored over to the shore near me and began to parallel my walk. Arnold was at the controls. As I watched the boat wobble, I realized just how professional McIsserson had become in his handling of the boat.
McIsserson was looking at the boat and clearly uncomfortable but kept his hands at his sides, his fists balled. I joined them. I kept my voice neutral. “I see you’ve already met Mr. McIsserson.”
But Arnold was looking at the Lake. “Look at this, Phelps.” He pushed a lever and Despair swerved around, heading back to the center of the Lake, a rooster tail of water high in the air behind it, bow high.
Arnold laughed. “This is great. Great. Look at that baby go.”
I glanced at McIsserson whose hands were opening and closing and who was watching Despair as it bounced over the small waves the wind was causing on the Lake. He licked his lips, looked at me and, to my surprise, winked.
Arnold concentrated on the boat, his tongue slightly protruding between his lips. He was dressed informally that afternoon, jeans and a thick coat, baseball cap on his head, running shoes. Somehow it made him look healthier than usual. I did not smell any liquor on his breath. Despair made circles in the middle of the Lake, slowed to a stop, then reversed for a bit. Arnold was getting a bit better at the controls.
Ramsey moved behind Arnold. “You’ve got to use both power and steering together to get it to turn smoothly. You are not coordinating them yet.”
“Right,” breathed Arnold, eyes on the boat. “I’m getting it. Just give me a little more time.”
Ramsey looked at me, smiled slightly, and returned to watching the boat.
I waited a few more minutes, then interrupted his concentration. “Well, Mr. Arnold, you appear to be demonstrating a level of incompetence in your activities that could lead a court to impose a conservatorship.”
He grunted a laugh, still studying the boat as he maneuvered it on the Lake. “Well, you could say that. But this isn’t quite the same thing…” he paused as he coasted the boat back to the center of the Lake, then turned to look directly at McIsserson. “…as sinking boats owned by children. Now, is it?”
I stepped between Arnold and McIsserson and took the control from his hands. I handed it to McIsserson while looking at Arnold. He watched that and met my eyes. For a moment we looked at each other.
“I wonder you didn’t wait for me before talking with my client.”
He grinned. “Can’t help it if you are late, Phelps. So it goes.”
“If you have questions, we are looking forward to answering them. But before you do that, why not look around and tell me who is being harmed by this.”
He pretended a careful study of the Lake, still grinning. “Well, as far as I can see, ain’t no one here but us fellows. Kind of hard to harm anyone when we’re alone.”
“Which is what is the situation most of the time. And much of the time challengers come with the goal of taking Mr. McIsserson on. I keep hearing about children’s boats being sunk. Somehow that’s become a great myth of this situation. I would bet that 80% of the boats sunk …maybe more… were challengers who came to take their chances. But perhaps more importantly, given that we are here not to judge Mr. McIsserson as Mean Old Man of the Year but to see if he is a danger, has anyone been hurt? See any blood on the sidewalk?”
He kept grinning. “Good speech, Phelps. A jury would love it. But my job is to determine competency and sinking kids’ boats…well, that seems pretty extreme to me.” He turned his gaze to McIsserson who stared right back without expression. “Perhaps Mr. McIsserson would tell me why he is doing this.”
McIsserson answered before I could stop him. “You’d love to do the same, Arnold. And you and I both know it. I just got here first.”
Arnold was taken aback and, for once, speechless. I gave McIsserson a look to shut up and broke in.
“Mr. McIsserson’s goals are not at issue unless he is demonstrating incompetency or a danger to the public. Dr. Gerald Stein has examined my client and you have his report already. My client is competent. Unless you see some danger here, I think your duty is clear, Mr. Arnold.”
But Arnold was ignoring me and still staring at McIsserson who stared right back.
I took Arnold’s arm and pulled him away towards a park bench. McIsserson walked back into his fortress, slamming the hatch behind him. Ramsey smiled in our direction and ambled back to the trolleys where his comrades had been watching us.
We sat on the bench and I leaned towards Arnold, voice low and angry. “What the hell are you doing talking to my client without me being present? Do you want to get in trouble with the Bar? I can’t believe you did that.”
He wouldn’t look at me. “No big deal. Just checking out the boat, that’s all.”
”Bullshit. You were engaged in discussions with a party represented by counsel outside the presence of counsel. Damn, you’re too experienced for that kind of amateur stuff. What’s with you?”
He didn’t answer, looking out over the Lake at Despair sitting quietly in the middle. Then both of our eyes were drawn to the arrival of three teenagers at the far end of the Lake. They were a gangly bunch, what we would have called nerds when I was in school, two carrying a covered item on a board, undoubtedly another challenger, the third carrying a control box.
“Let the games begin,” said Arnold.
Despair’s engine began to idle as the boys removed the cover and what appeared to be a clone of Despair was slid into the water. Same size, same shining metal, same oversized ram, but on its sides the name: “Enola Gay.” The boat wallowed a little on the shore, then slowly began to move towards Despair. The boy who had first held the control box retained it, the other two boys standing near him, staring over at us.
“You do protection of intellectual property?” asked Arnold. “For I do believe your boy’s design has just been duplicated.”
“But they don’t duplicate him, do they? Watch what he does with them.”
We watched. Again, his old tactic. McIsserson began to back his vessel away from the boys, forcing them to fight the boat from the far side of the Lake. Again he drew the opponent close to the near shore, forcing the opponent to increase its speed as it tried to close with Despair.
“He’s running out of room to maneuver,” muttered Arnold.
“He has a plan,” I answered.
“He’d better. He’s got another ten feet then he’s cornered.”
“Cornered? That’s like cornering a rattle snake.”
Arnold snorted, leaning forward on the bench. “Do tell.”
Perhaps McIsserson was showing off. His maneuver was spectacular. He suddenly roared forward at Enola Gay and at the last moment swerved to its port side, roaring past it before the boys could react. He then pivoted in Despair’s own boat length and lightly tapped the stern of their vessel, then roared backwards, again towards the center of the Lake. Enola Gay seemed confused, slowly turning towards Despair. Despair waited, motor idling.
“Damn,” breathed Arnold.
But McIsserson was not done. Before Enola Gay could get close, he spun off to his right making a wide turn around the vessel moving close to the shore line. Enola Gay reacted faster this time, accelerating to full speed and trying to cut Despair’s circle short. As Enola Gay increased to full throttle, Despair turned directly towards the vessel and quickly gained its full speed. It appeared a head on collision was inevitable. Arnold stood up, eyes fixed on the coming collision. Then Despair jagged slightly to its right and slammed into reverse, stopping suddenly. Enola Gay roared by, almost brushing Despair, and went full speed into the shore, somersaulting when its bow hit a rock that was directly behind where Despair had begun its ramming maneuver. It tumbled back, then lay next to the rock on its side, its prow bent at a thirty degree angle. Its motor whined loudly for a moment until the boys cut its power.
“Double damn,” breathed Arnold again.
The boys hurried to where their vessel lay ruined in the shallow water next to the rock. Despair was silent in the middle of the Lake. They all three kneeled down by the shore and began fiddling with the half sunken boat.
“Let’s go talk to them,“ I told Arnold, pulling at his arm.
He followed me as I walked over. The boys were chattering excitedly to each other and looked even more nerdy than they appeared from across the Lake. All where skinny and small and wore glasses and had pocket protectors. All needed a haircut and all looked up with intelligent eyes as we approached.
“Hello, boys, I’m the attorney for the owner of Despair and this is a representative of the great State of California. My name is Phelps, his is Arnold, and we are here to see if you think Despair should be banned from this Lake.”
“Well…” began Arnold in a protesting tone.
“Why would you do that? “ the tallest of the boys barked, standing up. “We want him here. We’ll be back. We just got to practice a whole lot more.”
“Yeah,” one of the others said still kneeling by the boat. “You can’t do that. I mean, just cause he is good? Just cause he always wins? I mean, we aren’t giving up. We want him here.”
“So,” I interrupted, “You aren’t upset? You don’t feel endangered by the Mad Boater in the black box?”
They laughed at that. “No way,” the tallest one said again, and began fiddling with his ruined boat again.
I looked at Arnold. He shook his head slightly. “That proves nothing and you know it.”
“So, let’s see if I have this right. The best expert in the Bay Area says he’s saner than you are. Others on the Lake want him to stay here. The police refuse to stop it. The City has no jurisdiction. So, you are going to claim he’s incompetent because…because what?”
Arnold didn’t answer, just looked over at the fort. After a moment he looked back at me. “You gotta admit, Phelps, that this is some weird stuff.”
“Yep. It is. And I saw your face. You’re just as weird as he is and would love to be doing this. That old coot is right.”
Arnold laughed at that. “Maybe. Maybe. I’ll think on it.”
He began to saunter off towards the parking lot. Across the Lake I could see Ramsey and McIsserson pulling Despair from the water, a large car battery on the shore. Time to recharge. I waved. McIsserson ignored me. Ramsey waved back. Then they both knelt down working on Despair. I glanced at the three boys pulling Enola Gay from the water, placing her on the board they had brought. I grinned, and left the Lake.
Three days later Arnold left me a voice mail. Both he and Sally had decided to drop the second attempt at a Petition. Stein’s bill came and was not as large as I feared. My fees thus far were less than the retainer. For the next two weeks I was feeling pretty good.
Then Wentworth came by my office.
He had made an appointment a few hours before he arrived but I was late getting out of Court so he was sitting in our large conference room by the time I hurried back from court.
He looked like his photos in the papers. If one of the nerdy kids at the Lake had added fifty pounds of weight and a foot of height, gave up the pocket protector but spent a lot of money on clothing that looked carefully inexpensive, and kept the same type of haircut, the kid would have been a twin of Wentroth. He was dressed in that careful informality beloved by the rich of Silicon Valley. We called them “Banana Republicans” at the time, mocking the store where the clothes were sold. Expensive khakis over expensive running shoes with a simple but elegant shirt. And never a tie. The absence of a tie was as much a uniform as the presence of a tie was the uniform of attorneys in the court room. The watch he wore was cheap, the computer he carried the best.
He was working on his laptop when I entered the room, his cell phone on the cherry wood conference table next to the computer, typing faster than I ever did.
The conference room walls are lined with law books we used then but never use now, cadenzas for coffee thermoses, quite good models of sailing ships in glass cases, and a variety of pictures of square rigged sailing vessels. A thick Persian covers the floor and the ten swivel conference room chairs are made to be comfortable. Since we often spend days there in meetings and depositions, the chairs matter. I chose one at the head of the long table and sat down.
He looked at me, still typing just as quickly, and nodded. He pushed send on the computer and slowly closed the laptop. We regarded each other for a minute.
“Bill says you are a good attorney and a guy who doesn’t mind making waves.”
“Bill remembers me from twenty years ago. I am much more mellow and mature now.” I grinned.
He grinned back. “That’s not what he says. Let me show you something.” He opened the laptop, typed a bit on his machine, then turned the screen so it faced me. It was a full screen picture of him with a boy of about eight or nine. Sweet looking kid holding a model boat about half his sized. Looked like a model of a River Boat, with gingerbread on the cabin, paddle wheel on the stern. To the side of the boy stood Wentworth helping the boy hold the large model.
“Nice looking boy.”
Wentworth leaned back in his chair. “You know, when your client smashed up his boat, he didn’t cry or scream or anything like that. Was dead quiet for about a minute, then simply said to me he wanted to go home. I asked him didn’t he want us to try to pick up the pieces of the boat. He said no. Just wanted to go home. So we went to the car.”
I shifted uncomfortably.
He continued. “On the way home he was quiet. Didn’t say a thing. When we were almost home I looked over. Tears were coming down his face. Not crying or sobbing or anything like that. Just tracks of tears.”
He paused and studied the screen. “Broke my heart. Really did. Then he just opened the door and went into the house.”
He kept looking at the screen. “You know, he won’t talk about it. He hasn’t acted that differently, still a bright happy kid. But he won’t talk about it. We spent two months building that thing, it’s smashed in an instant, and he won’t talk about it. I don’t get it.” He looked at me, eyes bright. “You’re a father. What do you think is going on inside my boy?”
“He’s still doing OK in school? Not acting sick or anything?”
“Nope. Same bright kid.”
“Then I expect it bothered you more than it bothered him.”
Wentroth nodded. “Perhaps. Because it does bother me. A lot.”
I leaned forward on the table and clasped my hands together on the smooth surface. “I am truly sorry your son was upset. And that you are upset. But aside from a broken model boat, there doesn’t seem to be any permanent damage. I wonder you chose that Lake to launch it on, given all the publicity that surrounds it.”
He looked at me for a long moment, perhaps a slight smile on his face. “Rather than arguing back and forth about who has the right to use that Lake, let me explain my intentions so we are clear on the options available to your client. You are aware I have substantial resources.”
I said nothing.
He regarded me a moment longer, then continued. “Those resources include both monetary assets and some political influence. Should I elect to bring them to bear, I suspect your old warrior may find life much more stressful.”
I said nothing.
“I have no desire particularly to do that. I find his actions unfortunate as it relates to my son and what happened. Other than that, he is, what the French call a character and I somewhat enjoy his antics. But when he injured my son, it became personal and I must take appropriate action.”
“I’m explaining. I believe his daughter ceased her efforts to have him declared incompetent. I believe she did so because she could not afford expert advice on her own and the state investigator was not inclined to continue his own action. Am I correct?”
“The Petition was dropped. Twice. There was no evidence his competency was really at issue.”
“Perhaps. Or perhaps the costs of court and your influence with the investigator stopped the usual process. Be that as it may, my resources will be made available to the daughter to supplement her own and I will bring what influence I can to convince the investigator to refile his petition.”
He saw my expression and shook his head slightly. “I can tell you are not pleased. He will not be pleased either. I will also ask my various lawyers to have the State take appropriate legal action concerning this tidal pool…it is a tidal pool, correct?...and to safeguard it from what I consider a public nuisance. This state is an odd one, I will admit, and the legislators an odd bunch, but I expect that the obvious danger to the public may cause some to consider my arguments as valid. It may take some months…even a year…but they will take action. Don’t you agree?”
I said nothing.
“Finally, I have the resources to develop model vessels and hire experts to defeat your client on his own turf. He is apparently quite facile at his game. Indeed, from what I have discovered from my investigators, he is truly excellent. As an aside, we may just design a computer game that would mirror his efforts since it clearly appeals to a certain mind set. Say, teenagers…”
I said nothing.
“In short, I will soon overwhelm him on many fronts and if I do not succeed on one, I will eventually succeed on another. You know that. I know that. And you think I am the exemplar of the evil capitalist rich man, bringing my economic might to bear on this poor old man. Am I correct?”
“Are you not?”
“I am not. And I will prove it to you. I do not want him to stop what he is doing on that Lake, really. And I do not want him to buy another boat for my son. I do not want him to pay money in damages. I do not want a public apology or to humiliate him in any way.”
He now leaned forward on the table locking his eyes on mind. “This is what I want him to do. He will meet my son. He will then teach my son how to operate his own boat. It is called Despair? Odd name. He will do so no less than two days a week for the next month. He will let my son operate the boat from time to time and perhaps even engage in one or two combats…easy ones that he can easily win, I don’t want Mr. McIsserson’s boat harmed…and he will sign a certificate I will prepare that certifies my son finished a training course taught by Mr. McIsserson."
“From time to time over the next year, I want him to visit me in my home and help my son and I build and operate a boat that will be ours. Then, when he is satisfied with our progress, he will let us…defend, I guess…defend the Lake at least once a month for the following year. Other than that, he is free to continue his activities so long as you can keep him out of the nut house.”
It was a long offer and speech and he leaned back in his chair after he delivered it. I also leaned back and we looked at each other for a minute.
“Not what I expected, Mr. Wentroth.”
“I know. I am not Daddy Warbucks. I appreciate novelty. Innovation. I reward it. I…I just don’t let people step on me. Or my family. I am not his enemy. Unless he makes me one.” He leaned forward again. “And if he forces me to be his enemy, he will not be pleased at the result.”
He saw my expression and gave a short laugh. “Yes, I can see you are getting your hackles up again. You see yourself as the great defender, I am sure. But tell me…is there anything in my offer that is obnoxious? That Mr. McIsserson should see as an affront? That any rational man would see as an affront? Is there?”
I dodged that trap. “I will communicate your offer to my client, Mr. Wentroth.”
He smiled again. “I would hope so.” He paused a moment then continued. “I would hope for an answer within the next five days.” He stood up, closing the laptop.
“I’ll do my best. He’s a hard man to push at times.”
He leaned towards me, one hand on the conference table. “So am I, Mr. Phelps. And this offer will not be repeated. Not in six days. Not ever.” He nodded, still smiling slightly, and left the room, carrying only his laptop.
Knowing McIsserson, I knew I would have to be in the same room with him when communicating the offer if we were to have any chance of his accepting it. That meant another evening away from home and when I explained the situation to Helen on the phone she was more than displeased. That was my second evening at work that week but what really made her furious was the nature of the case.
“You say he smashed a little boy’s boat, all the father is asking is that he teach the little boy how to play with these boats and let him practice on his damned Lake and you have to beg that vicious old man to take the offer?”
“Not quite accurate but close enough. But it’s a bit tenser than that. The little boy is Rex Wentworth’s son. And if we don’t accept, he’s going to war.”
“Rex Wentworth? Of QED? Are you kidding me?”
“Admiral McIsserson sank his boat a week or two ago. Made the boy cry.”
“That stupid mean old…”
“Easy. It’s what he does. And Wentworth went there knowing that he did it. He chose this to happen as much as McIsserson did.”
“Did he? Did he really? How arrogant of him to want to use a public pond at the Park to show his son how to operate a model boat! I can see why you feel McIsserson’s in the right on this one…”
“There’s something more going on. Wentworth reads the papers. Listens to the news. He knew his boy’s boat would be smashed. He is doing this to prove something. I’m not sure what.”
“And what is your old man proving? And why are you helping him?”
“That’s what I do. I’m a lawyer, remember? I represent people.”
“Anyone? Hitler? Jack the Ripper?”
“Even those guys deserve a fair trial. Adequate representation. Deserve it as much as the innocent do, really. Everyone wants to represent the innocent. Our system is tested when it works to protect those we don’t’ like, right? We’ve gone through that before.”
“Is he paying you enough for this? How can he afford to take on Wentworth? He’ll have an army of lawyers. He can spend a million on this and not notice.”
She was right and I had no ready answer to that. My silence told her that and she raised her voice. “We can’t afford to have you spend tens of thousands of dollars of your time fighting this God of Computers for free, can we? How about the college fund? We are already five thousand dollars behind on that. I can’t believe you are pouring your time into this. You have your own family to take care of, you know.”
“So far he has paid all his bills and costs.”
“Fighting his idiot daughter and that lecher Arnold. He can afford that. Can he afford what’s coming?”
“So, I’m going to recommend he settle. Calm down.”
“Will he? That old nut?” Her voice was quite loud now. She was at work and I could imagine her secretary in the next office staring through the glass walls.
“Look, you are overreacting. Last year I represented that embezzler and you didn’t object. Five years ago that guy accused of stock fraud. Those were thieves. This is a nutty old guy conquering a lake. I don’t get why this is getting to you.”
“I know you don’t. You don’t get any of this. It’s not that he’s a nut. It’s that you seem to be as fixated on this as he is. And you’re not working to protect his legal rights. He has no right to “conquer” a lake from children. You seem to think it’s OK. Wentroth is right and you are wrong.”
I was beginning to heat up myself and took several breaths. “First, you don’t know all that is really happening. You can’t. Privileged communications occurred I cannot share with you…”
“Nonsense. That old man has nothing that is secret. Don’t get pompous on me…”
“And don’ t tell me what he told me that I cannot tell you. How would you know? There is far too much emotion on your part. That’s what I don’t get. He’s paid his bills, the daughter’s backed off, and a lot of people think what he is doing is just fine.”
“Well, I don’t. And I’m tired of people asking me about it and asking how you can help this monster. You’re supposed to be a successful important lawyer. And all you are doing is helping some nut in the Park.”
“So, I’m no longer successful because I’m representing someone you don’t like? And a rich embezzler is OK but this old man is not?” My voice was as loud as hers now and I could see my receptionist looking in my direction. I studied my blotter and tried to calm it down. “We can discuss this later tonight. I was just calling you to say I will be late.”
There was a long silence on the phone. I wondered if she had hung up. Then, more softly. “This is really concerning me, you know. And has been for some time. I think this is wrong. And you don’t seem to care.”
“We can discuss this later tonight.”
“Whatever,” she snapped, and hung up.
I hung up the phone a bit harder than I needed to as well.
I spent some minutes being angry and telling myself that a wife should support her husband and generally feeling sorry for myself. Then I pondered how to convince McIsserson that the game was changing and changing fast. An elephant was about to stomp on a fight between two or three mice. But the elephant was willing to be kind so long as the mouse obeyed orders. Nice elephant. I broke the tip of my pencil on my legal tab and threw my pencil down on the blotter.
I wondered if Stein would be useful in the coming meeting with McIsserson. Who else? Ramsey? Sally? Did anyone alive have any influence on that man? I certainly did not.
I had a headache and decided to work out in the gym and think about it on the treadmill. Maybe a brilliant idea would occur to me. On the way out the door I asked my receptionist to call Stein’s office to see if he was available to speak that afternoon.
Two hours later, a bit more even tempered if sore in my muscles, I was talking to Stein. Phone cradled at my ear, I went through my mail as I laid out the current situation. Stein had the ability to listen without comment to relatively long explanations as to issues in a case and this was no exception. I explained the new developments while he grunted occasionally.
“So,” I concluded, “ we are now faced in a week with confronting resources that will bury Mr. McIsserson alive. We can resolve it with some relatively minor concessions. But I fully expect McIsserson to turn them down. Simply because he is ornery and does not like to be told what to do.” Stein grunted. I waited for more and when there was none, continued, “Can you give me your views as to an appropriate approach with McIsserson to minimize that danger? You’ve met the man…” I put my now opened mail aside on the desk and stared at the pictures of boats on the wall across office.
A pause while he considered. “There is nothing you can say to persuade your client, in my opinion. He will reject the offer.”
“It’s a fair offer.”
“It is not. It is an offer to your client to admit publically that Mr. Wentroth is bestowing upon your client his benevolent condescension. It is, if you will, touching his forelock to the Lord of the Manor. Of course a man with the mental outlook of Mr. McIsserson will not only reject it, but will welcome the possible catastrophe that refusal will probably entail.”
“He has a death wish? He wishes to spend all his money fighting a titan of business?”
“You still do not understand your own client.”
“You’ve never explained him to me.”
“You did not hire me to do so. You retained my services to determine if he is competent. He is.”
“He can’t be so competent if he is going to turn down this offer and go to war with Wentroth.”
“Really? I am surprised you make that assertion. Consider Masada. Thermopylae. Even Napoleon’s Guard at Waterloo. I do not believe any of those combatants were incompetent yet all engaged in defiant if futile resistance and won the everlasting applause of humanity. Yet, your client is incompetent for engaging in the same decision process?”
“Dr. Stein, he is an old man fighting for a pond in a Park. He is not fighting the Romans, the Persians or Wellington.”
“Does that signify?”
“Does the cause you fight for matter? I am surprised you pose that question.”
“The Zealots in Masada were seeking to stop some practical imperial Romans from defiling the sacred land of Israel. The Spartans were fighting a delaying action to largely assist a polis that they actually despised as decadent and which they utterly destroyed themselves a generation later. Napoleon’s Guard at Waterloo watched as their Emperor ran off the field of battle, saving his skin while they died crying the Guard never surrenders.”
“Actually, they cried ‘merde,’ I believe.”
“They cried both, I believe, but, regardless, their various motivations were akin, not opposed, to that of your client. Irrational defiance. He simply is working on an individual not nationalistic impulse.”
“Let’s not get too philosophical…this gets us nowhere. You are saying my effort to make him accept this offer is not going to work.”
“Of course not. That is to your benefit. You will earn many tens of thousands contesting Mr. Wentworth’s henchmen I presume. You should not sound as concerned as you sound.”
“You say I do not understand McIsserson. Perhaps you don’t understand me.”
Another pause. “Indeed. You are perhaps correct. Your approach is certainly not pecuniary in this matter. I question whether you should perhaps continue, given your emotional attachment to the situation. I do not say attachment to Mr. McIsserson since an emotional attachment to that curmudgeon is unlikely."
I said nothing. After another pause he continued, “There is only one possible end to this dispute whether or not Mr. Wentroth funds your opposition. If not Mr. Wentroth, some governmental bureaucrat or publicity seeking entity will seek to confront your client. Sooner or later he will be stopped. You must see that.”
I said nothing.
“And Armageddon is almost certainly what he seeks. Why that is the case would be an interesting study if someone paid me sufficient sums to determine it but there is neither money nor scientific interest in his coming defeat. Indeed, that alone may be some indication of the cause of his pervasive rage. But this is guesswork at this point. You might as well benefit economically since I cannot.”
So after receiving resentment from my wife and pessimism from Stein I knocked on McIsserson’s door about seven that evening, girding myself for Sally’s greeting once the door opened. I had already decided to withdraw from my representation if he rejected the offer. But I wanted to give him every chance to accept it.
But it was her husband Dan, with his younger son Jim looking over his shoulder, who answered the door. Dan seemed to have aged over the past few years far more than mere time should imposed. Even now as he opened the door, his eyes quickly slipped away from mine as he stepped aside to let me in.
He worked in a local garage, his nails always black from grease, usually hung around the house in his work overalls and a baseball cap inverted on his head. He and I had exchanged perhaps fifty words in all the years I represented the family. He would stay in another room while I discussed estate planning or elder care with them or strategized as to problems with contractors. He would always go along with his wife’s decisions and seemed to consider himself an unwelcome visitor in his father in law’s home. He may have been right. I had never heard McIsserson say anything good about Dan and even Sally seemed to largely ignore him.
On the Little League field he was another man. My sons had both played on teams against his sons while he was their coach and I was surprised at his skill in developing winning teams and teaching the kids how to play. No matter how early we arrived at the field he was already there, practicing with the team, going through drills, running as hard as his players. During the game he would charge out on the field, praising his players, bellowing at the umpires, planning strategy with his best players and some of the parents. His players clearly loved him. In contrast our boys’ coach was a well meaning nonentity barely tolerated by my boys. My oldest commented that he wished Dan was his coach. So did I.
I think it was his later being unemployed for close to a year that changed Dan. From owning his own garage, he was only able to find work after a year and Sally had had to find work to support the family. God knows what McIsserson had said to him during that time. He seemed to shrink into himself.
Perhaps living with McIsserson could make anyone end up that way.
Still looking away from me, he gestured towards the basement door where McIsserson lived. “Sally’s at a PTA meeting with our youngest. The old man is down stairs.”
“How are you doing, Dan? Enjoying the drama?”
At that he finally looked me in the face. “Drama? Right. Drama for him, maybe. A pain in the ass for us.”
He glanced at his son. “Reporters keep calling. Even some kids wanting autographs.” He shook his head looking at the basement door. “He can’t get into baseball when his grandkids play. Or soccer. Or anything.”
His boy looked embarrassed and pulled on his arm. Dan shook him off. He thought for a moment. “You know why? Because he’s too damned immature to care about anything that he isn’t the center of. That’s why. It’s all about him. Always about him.” The last was said as he put his arm over his boy’s shoulder and walked towards the kitchen.
I knocked on the closed basement door. No answer. I knocked louder and called out McIsserson’s name. A minute passed and then the door slowly opened. McIsserson was still in his combat uniform, his overalls, a thick sweater, tennis shoes. He looked at me without speaking .
“Mr. McIsserson, there have been some important developments. We need to talk.”
He tilted his head looking at me. “You could have phoned. I’m pretty busy.”
“So am I. And I’m not happy to have to come here at night. But we have things to talk about. Shall we do it here at the top of the stairs?”
He looked over to the kitchen door where we both knew his son in law was listening and reluctantly turned to lead me down the stairs. As I followed I noted that he hobbled a bit and had to use the banister.
The room appeared unchanged from the last time I was there. Despair was on the dining table in the middle of the room, spot lighted by various work lamps. As he arrived at the bottom of the stairs he quickly walked over to the table where Despair sat with its entire engine removed. He spoke while looking at the boat and already picking up a small wrench. “I don’t have a great deal of time. What’s the problem?”
“Mr. McIsserson, I would like to be at home. I am here at your place, not insisting you come to the office during regular working hours. My wife is angry I am even here. If you can’t take the time to give me your full attention, just let me know and you and I can go our separate ways.”
He stopped and regarded me for a moment. He put the wrench down next to the boat, then gestured to two rather shabby overstuffed chairs near the basement window at the top of the wall across the room. He watched as I walked to one of the chairs and dropped my briefcase next to it, then dropped myself into its sponginess. His blinked several times rapidly, then walked over to the other chair and sat, his hands on the arms of the chair. He mopped his brow absently.
“It seems I’ve insulted you. Didn’t mean to. I appreciate you coming here if it’s an emergency as you say.”
“It is. You sank Rex Wentroth’s son’s boat. While he was watching. Kid cried on the way home and he is threatening fire and brimstone if you don’t agree to a reasonable settlement.”
He stared at me, face blank. “Do I know this Wentroth fellow?”
“Perhaps you should. He is perhaps the fiftieth richest man in the Bay Area, invented a lot of the insides of a quarter of the computers surrounding you and is considered brilliant.”
“I have no computers.”
“He’s still richer than God and mad as hell at you. I don’t think he much cares if you have computers.”
He shifted a bit and pulled out a book that he had sat on when he sat down. It was Sun Tzu. He threw it on the floor, still looking at me. “When did this happen? Describe the boat.”
“Maybe two weeks ago. A river boat with paddle wheel and…”
“I know that boat. Four thirty in the afternoon two weeks ago yesterday. Launched from the south side of the Lake. Could barely go three knots.”
“Not fast enough to escape the mighty Despair.”
“And I knew it and I gave them fair warning.”
“I sent Despair over, did a close pass, a few inches away. That’s not easy to do when across the Lake, you know.”
“I presume not.”
“Then I went to the center. That’s my warning. To let them know what waits for them if they don’t get out.”
He shrugged. “I’m not an idiot. I heard what you said to me. Kids’ boats. That’s the problem you said. I try to warn the brats off. Sometimes it works.”
“Not this time.”
He thought about it for a moment. “No. they actually headed straight for Despair after that pass.” He grunted. “As if they were about to attack me.”
He rose and went to a large bookshelf across the room and pulled out a leather bound note book. He opened it and began leafing through the pages. Standing there, in his overalls and sweater, white hair and oily hands, he looked like a stereo typed picture of a grizzled ship’s engineer reading a manual.
“Humph. Less than twenty five seconds to sink it. Approach from its port stern, one side swipe which tore off its port quarter.”
“You keep good records, I see.”
“Ramsey does. I had to tell him what to put there, but he does it adequately now. Need records. Too many boats come and go to remember now.” He slid the boat back on the shelf and came back to his chair.
“They attacked me. With a ridiculous boat. They knew what was coming.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps they figure they have as much right to the Lake as you.”
“Now they know different.”
“No. Now they intend to show you who owns what. He is powerful, he is rich, he is angry and he is determined. He can bring resources to bear that are overwhelming. He intends to do so if you don’t agree to the following.”
I opened my briefcase and took out my legal pad. I laid out the settlement offer which I had jotted down on the pad. I glanced up from time as I read it to him. He was leaning forward in the chair, hands clasped in front of him, intent. I finished and leaned back in the chair.
I expected him to rasp out his objection, to reject the offer with scorn, to ask why I even bothered to present it to him. I expected we would argue about it and I would resign from my representation of him. I figured twenty minutes of snarling back and forth and McIsserson would go his own way.
I was wrong. He leaned back in his chair, hands again on the arms, and stared at the wall behind me.
The house was quiet, light dim in the basement but for the work lights on Despair, disassembled and gleaming on the table in the middle of the room. I wondered when Sally would come home. I wanted to be gone before she arrived. I saw that he had rigged a block and tackle over the basement window. That must be how they got the boat to the street outside to put it on the trolley. I wondered how long it took to get the boat out of the house each day. My mind drifted while he sat.
A long time seemed to pass while he thought and while I looked at the boat. Finally he moved his gaze to me. “I see.” That was all he said.
I waited a minute to see if more was coming. It was not. I sighed in exasperation. “I’m glad it’s clear to you. Let me explain that he has made clear he will use every resource at his disposal to obtain redress…to stop you…if this offer is not accepted. He will probably sue you. He will use his influence at the State and local level to make your acts illegal. He will fund Sally’s next petition.”
He regarded me steadily. Then, “Is that all the threatened to do?”
“No, he also said he would hire the best model boat captain in the bloody world and spend whatever it takes to sink your boat no matter how long it takes. And, knowing his resources, he could hire a thousand captains and build a thousand boats.”
“I see.” He stared at the wall yet again. His fingers began to drum on the arms of the chair.
“That all?” I asked. “You have any instructions for me? A counter offer? I think we could get him to change a bit of his demand. You might like his kid, after all. You might be his mentor or some such thing. Wentroth might build you a better boat…”
He laughed bitterly. “Of course he won’t. Are you nuts? And of course he will not accept any counter offer. You don’t get it.”
“You don’t. His boy was bait. That’s the truth. Bait. He just wants to be on the Lake and take me on. How old is this fellow?”
I leaned forward in the chair. “Mr. McIsserson, he could buy the Lake and a third of San Francisco if he wanted to. He doesn’t need to bait you and didn’t need to have his son’s boat sunk to challenge you.”
“No? No? I think he does. I think he doesn’t have the stuff to just come at me otherwise. To do that. He has to pretend it’s to protect his son or something. So he doesn’t look like me…he’s got to be better than me, more noble…but he wants this fight. I know that.” His fingers were drumming. “How long do we have to respond? You said less than a week?”
“A few more days. If we counter this will go back and forth for a few weeks, perhaps. You need more time to think about the offer?”
“No. I need more time to think about what to do. I didn’t expect this. It’s not part of the plan.”
“You’ve got a plan? That’s news to me. Mind sharing it with me? You have more ponds to conquer? Perhaps the Ocean?”
He glared at me. “You’ve been down on me since this started. You just want to quit, I think. I understand that. Been waiting for that. Don’t blame you. This family can’t be worth working with. And now, with all this money facing us, you’d be nuts not to want to walk away. I get it.”
“That’s not what I’m saying.”
“No? Then you’re saying I’m an old nut who you don’t want to hang around with fighting this guy with so much money? You think he’s right and I’m wrong?”
“Right or wrong is not the issue. As long as it’s not against the code of ethics, I have to represent you to the best of my ability.”
“Crap. You don’t have to represent me at all. You don’t need this case. Don’t want this case. Well, I’m just telling you I understand. You’ve done good work for me. You beat down my Sally and you got that fellow Arnold off my back. I know that. I don’t blame you for wanting out. I want you to know that. You’ve done right by me. I appreciate that.”
“I didn’t say I’m quitting. I am saying you don’t have the resources to fight Wentroth. You buy justice in this country. You buy it. Only when both sides have equal money does the system really work. If not, one side pounds the other into the ground.”
He laughed shortly. “Sounds like this country, to me. Hell, sounds like any country. Them with the money always wins. That’s no news.”
“Usually they do and here our budget is…what?...another thirty or fifty thousand dollars. He can spend that with a dozen lawyers in two weeks. And will if he needs to. He can fund Sally. Push Arnold. File his own law suit for public nuisance. Hire a lobbyist and push the State. Call the Mayor, the Chief of Police….”
“Slow down, Phelps. You’re getting hysterical. Like Sally.”
“Mr. McIsserson, I have been in dozens of cases against better funded opponents. And a hundred cases in which I was the better funded side. I know how the game works. You buy power in the courts like you buy power anywhere else. It’s more subtle perhaps, but it’s real. Listen to me and listen closely. They can and will bury us alive and I cannot represent you without being paid…no one could when we can expect a thousand pages of discovery every month and five hundred depositions.”
“The courts won’t limit him?”
“He has the right to reasonable discovery. We can argue he is going too far. They will limit it a bit. But not much and not enough.”
He shrugged. “Some court system, then. Justice for sale.”
“Not quite but close enough. That’s why contingency was invented. To allow the little guy to sue the big corporation. But contingency only works if there is money to recover. Not when you are defending a claim. As here. He’s going to be suing us.”
“He may buy the courts, Mr. Phelps. He damn well won’t buy me.”
With that he stood up and walked over to Despair, picked up the wrench, then realizing what he was doing, put it down and faced me. “You can’t help me, then. And he’s gonna get the cops and the mayor on his side. And the state government. And Sally. And the damned whole world. I get it. So, you’ve told me and now I know. I got to get to work. The boat needs some repair.” He looked at the boat, his fingers on the wrench but not picking it up. He was breathing a little heavily after all the talking but he didn’t look like a beaten man.
“I have a bright idea. Why not stop your conquest of the Lake? At least for a while? Just take a vacation for a month or three. Let him simmer down and go away. Stop the publicity and the furor. Just…just ease off.”
He said nothing, just looked at his feet. I kept going. “He’ll lose interest. Go away and fight some other battle. You can always conquer the Lake again in the Fall. Take a summer break.”
“He’ll know. He’ll know he got me off the Lake.”
“He might, he might not. But you doing this to impress him?”
That got him and he looked up sharply at me. I pressed it. “If you aren’t doing it for your own publicity, what do you care what he knows, what anyone else thinks? You said you were doing it for yourself, right? So what does it matter what he knows or doesn’t know?”
He chewed his lip at that. I was making some headway. That’s when Sally came down the stairs. Without knocking, without warning, just came down.
She was dressed for the PTA meeting, a flowered housedress and an open red coat. High heels and makeup. She looked nervous and pretty, indeed frightened to invade her father’s precinct without permission. One hand on the banister, the other raised a little, her eyes on her father as he glared at her.
“I just need to say something,” she said a little breathlessly. She glanced at me, then back to her father. “You’re talking about Mr. Wentroth, aren’t you?”
I stood up at that. “Did he contact you? Already?”
My tone must have told her something was wrong since she looked at me with the same frightened eyes she had shown her father. “Yes. Yesterday. He called me at work. He wanted to talk about Dad.”
So, even before he had seen me he had started the wheels in motion. He knew damned well McIsserson would turn him down. It was all a show, then. There would be no intelligent, rational, calm settlement. I felt used. Sally was staring at me now and took a step back. “Sally, if you are now represented by counsel, I cannot speak with you now without that counsel being present.”
“I’m not. I won’t be.” She looked at her father who was still glaring at her. “He wanted to pay for my lawyer. Said he would get me the best. To have that petition granted. Said you sunk his little boy’s boat. Made his little boy cry.”
She paused to give McIsserson time to respond. He simply stood looking at her. She went on. “He said that working together we could stop you. That you were a menace and he sympathized with me. His little boy had cried.”
I interrupted. “You already said that, Sally.” Both looked at me in surprise.
I shrugged. “’I’m getting a little tired of the crying little boy,” I explained. “Everyone gets that story. But, Sally, he’s playing a game here. He came to me with an offer to settle this and I’m supposed to have five days or so to respond. Even before he saw me he offered you his financial support. That’s not quite how it should go, no?”
McIsserson spoke at last. “He’s covering all bases, Mr. Phelps. As I would expect him to. And he knows me. Knows what I would say to his offer…that he can take his offer and go to hell with it.” He said it to me but it was meant for Sally.
“I said no,” she said.
We both looked at her. Her eyes were wet. “You’re my father. I’m not going to work with some mega millionaire to take away your money. Even if what you are doing is…well, it’s bad. Really, bad, I think. I wish you would stop…but I won’t work with him.” She looked at me. “He just sounded…he sounded as if he cared about me, my family so much. But he doesn’t. I mean, I know about him. He takes over companies and drives them out of business. He did that with the company Brenda’s husband used to work in…she’s a friend…he’s not a nice man. He tries to be like one. But I can tell.”
We both kept looking at her. She turned full on her father. “And you’re not a nice man. Not at all. But at least you don’t try to pretend otherwise.” She turned and rushed up the stairs. She may have been crying by then.
McIsserson picked up his wrench.
“Stop that,” I snapped. “We aren’t done.”
He sighed, put down the wrench and trudged…there was no better word for it…to one of the easy chairs again. He sat without looking at me, waiting for me to sit down myself. I sat.
I let the silence drag on for a bit. At last he looked at me. I met his gaze and said nothing. He tilted is head. “Well?”
“What’s the plan?”
“Plan? I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’ll think on it.”
“That’s not what I meant. You said you had a plan. What is it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Nonsense. This is part of some larger project? What?”
“You’re the one talking nonsense.”
“I talked to Dr. Stein about this situation. Including Wentroth. He said you’d turn it down cold.”
“He’s a genius. But he also said there was no way out of this but you eventually being stopped. If not by Wentroth, by some agency or some better combatant.”
“Maybe? Of course you will lose. Sooner or later, you will lose. Or be banned from the Lake by some new law. You aren’t stupid. What happens then? What’s your long term plan?”
He laughed bitterly. “Long term plan. Boy, when you are my age, long term is a few years. I don’t need a long term plan.” He fidgeted, wanting to get back to the boat.
“You’re dying, aren’t you?”
He stared at me a moment. “We’re all dying.”
“That’s not what I meant and you know it. You’re dying now. How long do you have?”
“You are barking up the wrong tree. Leave me alone. You were planning to stop being my attorney anyway. What difference does it make to you?”
“God damn it, how long do you have?”
He looked at the wall over my head now. A long minute passed. He sighed. “You still my lawyer?”
“Till I tell you differently.”
“Well.” He pulled his eyes down to me reluctantly. Studied me for a moment. “Well, I need some Will planning anyway, I figure. Might as well do it sooner than later.”
“Do you have a “later?”
He laughed a little at that. “Good point. I got some later. Maybe four months. Maybe six months. Nine months just possible. Maybe a little more. Maybe a little less. Won’t much care by the last few months, they say. Won’t want to stick around for that, they say.”
We sat together there, both silent, both looking at each other. At last he glanced at the stairway and then leaned forward. “I don’t want anyone to know. You guessed cause I messed up…said something I shouldn’t have. But I don’t want no pity and no bullshit. I want this…this to be privileged, get it? I want to go out as I lived…without a lot of fuss and bother.”
“Your antics at the Lake are not fuss and bother?”
“It’s what I want to do. For the first time in my goddamned life I am doing just want I want to do. And if the world doesn’t like it…well, so it goes. They can try to stop me. I don’t mind that. I welcome it.”
My turn to lean forward so our heads were only a foot apart. I spoke softly. “It’s a park lake, Mr. McIsserson. It’s a pond. It doesn’t matter worth a shit to anyone.”
He didn’t move back, continuing to lean forward on the chair. “You got to make a stand somewhere. Seems to me doesn’t matter much where you decide to do it. You got…to find something you value, you know, and make your stand there. You’re a lawyer. You have money and a place to fight and do what you do. You act as if cause it’s a pond it can’t matter. Well, it don’t matter to you. It matters to me. And since it’s my stand, that’s what matters, right? You can make your stand somewhere else…when you need to.”
I leaned back, shaking my head. He saw that and leaned even further forward. “Look, I spent my life making damned welds and boilers and that crap for other people, paying the bills, paying my taxes, doing what I had to do, obeying the rules, a good boy. Raised my daughter. Bought this house. Figuring me and my wife, we’d have some good times sooner or later. Cause we didn’t have many when we busting our butts. Well, she died. She died just a few years after I sold the business. Just died.”
He leaned back then, looking at his hands in his lap. “Don’t know why I worked all those years. I mean, what’s the point? You work and work and it’s always going to get better soon and it never does and you keep waiting…”
“You have your kids. Your grandkids.”
“They got their own lives. Can hardly wait until I stop taking up the basement.”
“That’s not how your daughter just acted. She acted as if she loved you.”
He looked up at that. He nodded. “Yeah, maybe she did. Maybe she did. Surprised me a little. Married to that bum, I forget she’s got spirit. Has a little of me in her, maybe.”
“She’s a lot nicer.”
He grinned. “Wouldn’t be too hard to be that…”
“You think you shouldn’t tell her? Let her make her own plans? Doesn’t she deserve that?”
He didn’t hesitate. “Naw. I want this private. Just me. She can handle it. Has her own family. Her kids. She’ll be all right.” He thought for a moment. “Glad she told that millionaire to shove it. Showed spirit. We don’t take charity.”
“I don’t think Wentroth sees it as charity.”
“No, he don’t. He sees it as another way to get to me. To get me off his Lake.” He locked eyes on mine. “For don’t you make a mistake about this, Mr. Phelps. He wants that Lake. That’s why he’s doing it. His boy don’t much care. Wentroth cares. Like me.”
He stood up and moved to the table. “Gotta fix the boat.”
“Hey, we haven’t made any plans. We have to decide how to handle this.”
He turned, wrench in one hand, and grinned. “I fix the boat. I fight the boat. That’s what I can do. You…you will figure out how to handle that fellow Wentroth. That’s what you can do. I give you authority to do what you got to do. And…” he turned to the boat, beginning to fiddle, not looking at me, “… I suspect you can do a pretty good job.”
“Mr. McIsserson, I came here to resign if you didn’t take his offer.”
He glanced at me but kept his wrench working the boat. “There weren’t no real offer, was there? Besides…” his grin broadened. “You ain’t gonna to resign. You’re as pissed off as I am. Wentroth…well, maybe he’s your pond.” He chuckled at that and went to work on his boat.
When I came home an hour later Helen had left me a long note on the kitchen table. I sat in the breakfast nook, loosened my tie, and began to read. She and the kids were suddenly taking a trip to visit her mother in Colorado. It was the kids’ Spring break, she had mentioned that possibility to me a week before, and while sudden and unplanned, this seemed to her a very good time to do it given our clear disagreement. Her note went on for several pages more.
I dropped it back on the kitchen table without reading the rest. She must have raced home to pack the kids right after our phone call. Fast work. The note had been on the kitchen table next to a small pile of bills she had left for me to pay. It was my month to pay the bills. I picked them up and leafed through them without seeing them.
I suddenly realized that I was just as glad she wasn’t there. The boys, well I’d like to see them. But Helen? When was the last time I really rushed home to see her?
What was wrong with me? Beautiful, smart, hard working, good sense of humor. Good mother. Liked to sail. A little. Liked glamour and the good life. A lot. She always glowed when we were at an expensive restaurant, strutted her stuff at the opera or symphony, could spend four hours in a high end store pondering what blouse to purchase. And it was not pretending on her part. She truly loved that life, genuinely loved the excitement and thrill of being at the right place with the right people, on the right night, one of the beautiful people with her successful lawyer husband who was presentable if a little sarcastic.
I remembered the first time I took her to Paris, how she was as excited and joyous as a girl, running from one event or museum to the next, breathless with happiness, loving and close and so happy. That had been over a decade ago. We had been to Paris several times since but somehow it was different.
The City had not changed. I had. Oh, I also loved that city, no one forced me to go to the same restaurants or opera she loved. But my excitement was not hers. She loved sailing as I loved the high end life. A little.
The glamorous life, the city life was not bad. Indeed, at times it was interesting. But it gave me no joy.
Joy was deep in the mountains or at sea. Joy for me was away from the high end restaurants and bars, the carefully worded exchanges with powerful people, away from what she actually loved the most. Joy was succeeding at a challenge that mattered and was not squabbling over money against another well paid legal gladiator. That was a chess game often interesting, challenging, at times fun and intriguing. But joyful?
I picked up the bills and played with the envelops. You have to pay these. You have to crack that nut. You can have the glamour and can pay the bills at the same time if you just concentrate on being the good top lawyer. Forget the McIssersons, the cranks with little money and lots of trouble. People with money need help, too. Are victims, too. And don’t often try to conquer ponds.
Or do they? Wasn’t Wentroth doing precisely that? Maybe they were just as nutty. Maybe Wentroth was as bored and frustrated with his corporate success as McIsserson was with his daily struggle.
Maybe they were kin under the skin. McIsserson thought so.
But Helen would say in that case, represent Wentroth, not McIsserson. Pick the party with the big bucks. I wasn’t being fair to her, I knew, even then in my self- pitying anger. But I wasn’t entirely wrong either.
I changed into sweats, grabbed a book to sit by the gas fire place, opened up a very good mystery I was half way through. I sat but didn’t read it but thought about McIsserson and what to do. Next morning I woke up in that chair, book on the floor next to me, half a dozen sheets of notes scattered on the floor. I had my plan.
Charlene and I had been lovers in college, buddies in our twenties, annoyed with each other in our thirties, and friends thereafter. She worked at the sole surviving daily newspaper in town, starting as a local reporter and moving up to national where she hit the glass ceiling. Or so she said. She was not attractive enough to be on television which was gutting the newspaper circulation and with a kid of her own could not easily work the hours that are required for the top end reporters.
She sat across from me over lunch, drinking a bit too much for a work lunch, and carefully studying the others in the high end restaurant I had chosen, looking for someone to interview, perhaps. Business suit, hair cut short, beginning to grey, unattractive red glasses, her fashion model thinness now appearing a bit gaunt. Nails always carefully manicured. I wondered how she kept them long if she typed her own stories.
She finally settled on looking at me since no celebrities were at the other tables and studied me for a bit. “What’s wrong?” she asked.”You look like Helen and you are going at it again.”
“So, if you know what’s wrong, why ask? And that’s not why we are eating at this expensive lunch on my dime.”
“That’s good. Lord knows I’m no marital counselor.”
“I may have a sexy story for you. Local interest but national interest as well. Involves Wentroth.”
Her face became neutral and inquisitive. Her professional face. She waited for me to go on. “You know I represent Mr. McIsserson, the fellow who is at Shaw Pond daily.”
“The old nut who challenges all comers? I think I read you represent him. Wentroth suing him?”
“Not yet. Maybe never. Our client sank his boy’s boat.”
“Idiot. Might as well spit at the Queen of England.”
“She doesn’t have as much money as Wentroth. Wentroth came to see me.”
She leaned forward but waited. I drank some wine. Might as well build the suspense. “He intends to have McIsserson give him access to the Lake for his own combats from time to time as part of a settlement deal he offered my client. We train him and his boy. We give him access. If we don’t, it’s being buried alive by his paid politicos, media, litigators and hired challengers on the Lake. He’s going to show his boy his old man can’t be pushed around.”
She blinked but stayed silent. I kept going. “He offered to pay McIsserson’s daughter’s costs to have him declared incompetent.”
“Didn’t she already try that?”
“She did and abandoned the attempt. Twice.”
“You have anything to do with that?” she smiled a little tightly.
“I represent Mr. McIsserson. You bet I did. But he is not incompetent and she knows it. Knows it so well she told Wentroth to shove it. She won’t be bought.”
I leaned back now and watched as she played with the story in her head. Lunch arrived. I fiddled with my salad watching her.
“Might be a story there. Have to be careful. He likes to sue.”
“Tell me about it.”
“The move with the daughter was stupid. Not like him. Makes him look bad.”
“She’ll interview well. She was crying when she told her Dad.”
“And what did he say?”
“That Wentroth could go to hell.”
She pulled a small note book from her purse and began writing notes. “This old fart you represent. He really sank Wentroth’s son’s boat? Can’t blame Wentroth for being mad.”
“He didn’t want an apology or a new boat. He wanted to be taught combat on the lake. Ponder that for a while.”
She did. Then she began to play with her salad, putting a little into her mouth. “We have to be very, very careful here, you know. Very careful. For all I know he owns the damned paper.”
“So? You let the owners decide your content?”
“I didn’t say he was an owner. I’m just saying we can’t just write the story without a lot of due diligence. Need to interview him and give him a chance for his comments.”
She looked at me brightly at that. “So, you don’t mind me getting some quotes from him. Is that why you are doing this? To let him know the press is on the scene?”
“I don’t mind him knowing. I don’t think it will stop him, if that’s what you’re asking. Might even encourage him. But I don’t mind him knowing.”
She considered me for a while, eating without knowing it. “I’m not sure I’m the right reporter for this. It’s local.”
“Running and hiding?”
She flushed at that. “It’s my career, not yours. I don’t step on toes without making sure the toes don’t kick back.”
I leaned my elbows on the table. “Do all the due diligence you want. Interview him. Have another reporter interview him. Do all the investigation you feel is warranted. But if you decide not to go with this story, you and I both know you are doing it because you are scared. Because we both know this is newsworthy as hell. And I go to the television people I know and see if they want to go with it. Might make good video. Sunset on the pond and such.”
“You telling me I have an exclusive on this?”
“If you move on it, I don’t go to television for two more days. If you sit on it or refuse the story, I will go anywhere I can. Including PR people if need be.”
“Why? What’s the angle?”
“Privileged. And you don’t need to know. Decide if you want to run the story.”
“Your man won’t look that good in the story. He’s sinking kids’ boats. Wentroth is protecting his son.”
“Crap. Wentroth is grabbing the lake for himself.”
“Can I quote you?”
“Go for it. And while you’re at the Lake talk to a fellow named Ramsey. You’ll like him. And the old ladies root him on. Serve tea to the crowds. Something to see.”
“You’re manipulating me.”
“You can’t manipulate someone who knows they’re being manipulated.”
She smiled at that. “I’m out of here.” She began to get up, forgetting the rest of the lunch. “Will the old man talk to me?”
“I doubt it. The daughter might.”
“Can I tell them you said it was OK?”
“Sure. Neither will care much.”
“Can I quote you to Wentroth?”
She stood there looking down at me. “You always had that white knight syndrome. Taking on the big boys for the little guy. I hope you know what you’re doing… this old man is no damsel in distress. You might be representing the dragon.”
“He’d like to hear you say that.”
But she didn’t smile, just nodded at me and hurried out of the restaurant.
That afternoon I had a deposition which could not be put off so it was not until mid afternoon when I called Arnold hoping to beat Wentroth to the punch. No dice, he had called earlier that day. Actually, Wentroth’s lawyer had called him. Arnold told me that then quickly said he had to finish up a meeting but promised to call me back in an hour. Two hours later as I was packing up to leave he did.
“So, boyoo, you’re in the Big Leagues now.”
“Sutter called me. You know him, right? Corporate warrior in one of the firms used by the Mighty Wentroth. Thinks your man is a menace to society.”
“I suspected that might happen. You didn’t speak to the God, yourself, then?”
“Nope, Maybe if I’m a very good boy, Sutter hints.”
“He tried to get Sally, McIsserson’s daughter, to bring the petition again. At their cost. She told him to drop dead.”
A silence on the line. I felt my stomach tighten. “She said she couldn’t be bought. Thought you should know that.”
“Well, good for her. But maybe they’re right. He’s a potential danger out there, you know. That big boat, and all.”
“And maybe one who works for the Great State of California can’t just tell a God of Computers to take a walk.”
“You would lose. Stein’s still on board.”
“Sutter can provide all the expertise in the world, friend. A thousand Steins.”
“I’d put Stein against any dozen experts.”
“And my dad can beat your dad up. That’s not the point. Your boy can’t fight this, Phelps. We are talking big bucks, endless bucks and a very pissed off daddy. Your boy picked the wrong boat to sink.”
“Did he? I think Wentroth set him up.”
“McIsserson gave him a warning. Wentroth knew what McIsserson was doing, spent two months building a boat that could barely float, ignored the warning pass, then chugged right at Despair while his son looked on. Think all this was a surprise to him? Think he didn’t know precisely what he was doing?”
A much longer pause. “You get this from your boy?”
“I did. But you’ve met him. He has a log book of every battle. He can give you every detail.”
“Christ. A nut. Hell, two nuts. On the same Lake. So why do you think he did it?”
“If I could figure out why people do what they do, I’d be a richer man. Maybe he wanted to show off for his son…show what he could do to the famous nut of the Lake if the nut pushed him around. Maybe he wants to meet McIsserson and figures this is the way. Maybe he dreams of being McIsserson and not a rich corporate warrior. How the hell do I know?”
“And it really doesn’t matter, you know. Not in the least. If your guy is taking public property and monopolizing it…”
“That sounds like Sutter. He’s not monopolizing it. He’s simply altered its public use.”
“To a gladiatorial arena, right?”
I had to laugh at that. “You’ve hit it on the head. But…he’s competent and that’s what your part in this issue is…that is your only criteria, not whether he broke the law or is monopolizing public property. Is he competent? A famous expert says he is. The only thing that says he isn’t…”
“Is more money than you and I will ever see and in this place at this time, that’s pretty convincing evidence.” He laughed without humor.
My receptionist looked in and waved. She was locking up the office. I nodded and kept on. “You don’t strike me as the sort who jumps when the rich guy tells you to. I’m a little surprised at you even considering this.”
“It’s not so simple, Phelps. I mean, your guy is operating in a public locale, over the objections of his family, spending thousands of dollars sinking children’s boats. He’s used you to shove his daughter back but the facts remain.”
“And you decided to drop the matter. As did the daughter. All that’s changed is that he sank Wentroth’s boat.”
“And kept going month after month. I mean, do you think what he’s doing is sane? C’mon. Every damned day in the park lurking around to sink kids’ boats?”
“Most of the boats are competitors now…”
“Because he scared the kids off the Lake. In his fort. Jesus, take a step back and look at this.”
I paused then tried another tack. “I sail in an expensive boat, getting wet and risking my life to go three miles an hour in the ocean. You hit a white ball into a cup and spend ten thousand dollars a year for the privilege to do that…”
“Hey, apples and oranges…”
“What people do is crazy to others. Simple as that. You think I’m nuts to sail, I think you’re nuts to walk around on the grass in funny clothes hitting a white tiny ball…”
“And you’d be right in both cases…” he laughed and I could hear a clink of a glass on the phone. Well, it was after five, now.
I slogged on. “Look, we’re both big boys. If you feel you have to bend to the breeze, let’s at least admit that it’s political and not because you suddenly have decided that my client is a nut and a danger to society.”
“So, level with me. Is there any way the politics can allow you to wiggle out of filing a petition?”
A long pause. “Sorry. Life’s like that.”
I leaned far back in the chair and looked at the ceiling in my office. “And….do you have to hurry on this? Don’t you have quite a case load as it is?”
Another long pause. “I’m pretty busy, all right. But even if a glacier moves slowly, it keeps moving.”
“But you’d have to hire a new expert. More than one. You’re not going with Margolis.”
“Thank God, no. Not now that I have some experts who are suddenly interested in providing the state with their opinions at a very reduced rate.”
“And bringing those experts up to speed…it could take months. At least four months, perhaps.”
“Experts are busy people. And they’d have to interview my client. He’s pretty busy, you know.”
“I noticed. Lots of boats need sinking.”
“And getting a hearing date. And conferring with experts. And having Stein talk to your experts. Four months, Five months, at least, right?”
Another long pause. I could hear a clink again. “Four months would be the limit before the roof drops on my favorite lawyer, me.”
“Four months until you lose, in my opinion…but four months is a long time. A lot can happen in four months. It might not matter as much.”
“Well…” The line was dead silent for another long minute. “Well, I’m always interested in saving the State needless expense. And we want to do this case right. Want to make sure our ducks are in a row. Yeah, and pick experts who have plenty of time to check out your client. It could easily take four months. You fond of this old bastard?”
“Not really. But…well, I think he needs to do this and maybe that’s OK.”
We both said nothing for a minute. Then his voice became brisk. “You’ll get a petition from me…it will take a week, but you’ll get a petition. I plan to schedule this for midsummer. Need to hire good experts. Stein on vacation in early summer?”
“He and I both.”
“OK, I’ll grab end of July or early August. That work for you?”
“I’ll call Stein but I expect…I expect that date is just fine.”
“You know Chief Williams? Chief of police?”
“He might be a good call for you to make, next.”
I knew some cops but the highest up was a lieutenant and that was not going to make a difference to the Chief. I had represented an earlier Chief ten years ago but this Chief would not care. He wouldn’t even take my call, I suspected.
The publicity I had set in motion might influence him but would take some days to begin. He might hold off if he knew it was coming but he had to be told in just the right way. And neither of us would know if the publicity would help or hurt McIsserson.
Meanwhile, I had to get home to the empty house, walk the dog, water the plants, and prepare for a hearing on another matter involving a contested guardianship set for tomorrow morning. McIsserson was not going to pay the bills, as Helen would say. She was right.
On the way home, brooding on it, I realized that the city Chief of Police was not the key, the State Attorney General was and I knew enough Deputy Attorney Generals to have a little clout. I’d call one tomorrow.
Helen called as I was eating a badly cooked hamburger at the kitchen nook, my file for the hearing scattered all over the table, a note book with an outline of my argument on my lap. She spoke with artificial calm.
“Hope it wasn’t too much of a surprise our not being there.”
I kept my voice as neutral as I could “It was a surprise. Actually, upsetting. Pretty there?”
“Beautiful…And…I didn’t mean to upset you. But we were just going to argue anyway and I thought this would be a good solution. Some cooling off time.”
“Right. Next time you might ask me what my views on it are.”
A long tense silence followed that. Finally, her voice still carefully calm, “And, did you think about what I said? About my feelings?”
“You didn’t say much. You weren’t here.”
“Before I left. I let you know you seem to ignore my feelings. About the case. About money. About your priorities.”
“I heard what you said. And said we should discuss it. Then you were gone.”
“Well, I’m on the phone now.”
“And I’m here preparing for a hearing. Which you would see if you were here and not on vacation.”
“You are always preparing for something. Except for me. For us.”
“Well, I have a good idea as to how to solve that. Instead of talking, why not run off to the mountains and call me at night? That should solve it.”
“At least you’re talking to me and not telling me to wait until you have plenty of time for us unimportant things. Plenty of time to help old men sink boys’ boats for free. And to fight rich men for free. Glad you have time for that.”
“So, we’re having this conversation late at night on the phone so we won’t argue? Is that it?”
“Your sarcasm always makes communication impossible.”
“You being a thousand miles away doesn’t help, now does it?"
We both fell silent. I broke the silence. “My boys there?”
Her voice was tight. “In the next room. I’ll get them.”
They sounded great, excited, talking about their days on the slopes, their plans for tomorrow. My oldest brought up a sore topic. “Can we go see the Lake again? I want to see Despair sink more boats.”
I grinned at that. “You bet. Soon as you are back. You like that, right?”
“Mega cool, Dad. I mean, I’d like to try it. Can we?”
“Sure. But be sure to ask your mom.”
She came back on a few minutes later. With the boys in her room she couldn’t argue more and I was too tired in any event. We agreed to talk tomorrow night. As she hung up, she whispered, “I know you are upset with me. And about the case. I don’t know why this matters to you. But I want you to know I love you and I know a little how upset you are.” She hung up before I could say anything. But I had a lump in my throat after that.
The hearing lasted until the afternoon and by the time I was back in the office I had a call from Charlene, a call from someone at the State Water Board and a call from the District Attorney. All of them had the subject line “McIsserson.”
But first I had to handle a couple of other legal matters which were critical, return a call from a court clerk about a motion on file in yet another case, and look through a pile of mail to see if there were any other immediate issues on the desk. An hour later, I looked at the McIsserson calls and decided on the DA call first.
He was in court so I left a message. Next the State Water Board. He had left for the day. That left Charlene. She was in.
She sounded much happier than when we had last talked. “I owe you. This is going to be fun.”
“You always were a weird lady.”
“In that case you should represent me since you seem to like weirdoes.”
“You talk to my client?”
“He’s in the box. Jack in the Box won’t come out. But Ramsey is great. Did you know he has a Silver Star? He carries your boy’s boat for him. And the old ladies…incredible…must have been five of them there. With tea, like you said. All they need is cheer leader’s costumes.” She laughed at that. She was having a good time.
“You see him at work?”
“Sank two when I was there. A teenager and another old coot who came on the Lake to take him on. I am telling you, it’s a weird place now. Ramsey keeps a journal of it all. Let me see it. Eighty four boats. I need another day or two to get this to print, I want this to stay exclusive for that long. Can I have it?”
I hesitated. “I’m under a lot of pressure, Charlene. Wentroth is pulling a lot of strings. A lot.”
“I have to interview him on this. I need his side of the story. I can’t go to the editor without that.”
I thought about that. As long as Wentroth knew she was on the story, I was accomplishing what I had to. “He’ll show you a picture of his boy, I am sure. Tears on his face, probably. Put on by computer graphics.”
“You getting as cynical as me?”
“Could never be that. Well, OK, but make your appointment with him no later than tomorrow. We have to move on this.”
“Done,” she chirped and was off the phone.
The DA called me back ten minutes later. I did not know him. I could hear him shuffling papers on his desk and knew he probably had a dozen files going at that moment. Good lawyers, always overworked and underpaid.
“Mr. Phelps, my name is Jed Baker. Assistant District Attorney. I believe you are counsel for the famous Benjamin McIsserson? The old fellow who has taken over Shaw Lake?”
“That’s me. That’s not city property, you know. State tidal property. I wonder you are calling me.”
“I know you assert that. But it’s by no means clear where the City ends and the State begins and you’d simply be facing the State Attorney General in any event. Might as well deal with me.”
“About ceasing and desisting. I am calling to let you know we will be filing requisite criminal complaint as to trespass and endangerment and will be seeking an injunction should you fail to convince your client to desist and to do so within three days.”
“Let me state three things to you about this case. First, it’s Rex Wentroth who is pushing this and you and I both know it. No one has done anything for three months and until he shook cages all was fine.”
“So? I believe he’s a citizen and can ask for police help? And the police can ask us to prosecute to protect citizens, can they not?”
“Second, the Chronicle is running a story on this and the theme will be big money pushing broke elderly people around. It might be you are a hero. It also might be you are a lackey. Consider that.”
“Third, we will fight you on this and you are going to lose. It is clearly State property, has always been State property, you have no jurisdiction and I have no problem dealing with the State attorney general as needed. And, Mr. Baker?”
His voice was carefully neutral. “Yes?”
“You don’t need this case nor want it. It’s going to be very messy, very public, and if you can shove it in the lap of another office to prosecute, such as the State, you would be wise to do that. If you win you are a bully. If you lose, Wentroth will go ballistic. As for the story, you can call Charlene Andrews of the Chronicle to confirm what I say here.”
“You clearly have my interests at heart. I appreciate it.”
“Sarcasm interrupts communication,” I said, smiling to myself.
“I’m not in the habit of being told what to do, Mr. Phelps. Your client is endangering the public. He has what is apparently a deadly weapon and is attacking people with it. The police are concerned and so is our office.”
“Well, I have a gun at home. It’s also dangerous. Perhaps you should arrest me as well since it might hurt someone someday.”
“Apples and oranges. And if you were walking around in the park shooting off the gun, we would arrest you.”
“Not if I was on State property which specifically allows me to have that gun. Or on a State lake which does not prohibit a boat such as my client’s. Get this clear. You will never get to a trial since you don’t have jurisdiction to even bring an action. Punt it to the State Attorney General.”
“Our public is in danger, Mr. Phelps.”
“Only if they are swimming in the Lake which even then would be State property. You’ve been to the Lake ever?”
“With my children who I would not want endangered.”
“Ever see anyone swim in that muddy pond? I believe it’s illegal to swim in it anyway. But not illegal to operate a model boat, I might add. If you claim danger to the public, you’re going to look pretty silly in the paper. And when Wentroth’s role is shown, you might look even worse.”
“So, let’s see if I have this straight, counselor. Your client can sink other people’s property, using a razor sharp boat, build a structure which sits on the shore of the Lake, which is City property by the way, cause deep concern to the public at large, but you think we should do nothing? Because I might get embarrassed by an article yet to be written in the local rag? That’s your argument?”
This wasn’t working so I tried another path. “What are you really worried about? People love the show. He has two dozen elderly fans out there every day, challengers come along daily, the fort is there because some kid beaned him…he was the victim not the kid. Everyone is having a good time and there are a dozen other places for kids to put their boats. The boat never goes on shore except to go home and no one is in the Lake. What’s the real problem here?”
“He has no right to just take over the property.”
“That’s up to the State to enforce, not the City. He takes the fort down every night. If the public is not in danger, I think you are wasting City resources.”
I could hear someone talking in the background. He was being given another case, his secretary telling him to talk to his supervisor when off the phone. I heard him put the file down on what was probably a large pile of files. His voice was different when he spoke again.
“Look, I’d love to give this to the State. I’d love to get to a few murders on my desk that I think matter a whole lot more. But I can’t just tell my boss to shove it.”
“I can give you plenty of law on the subject. A full memo. You can show that to your boss and tell him it’s up to the State to do something, why waste time on a jurisdictional squabble in court. Give me a day or three to get it to you. You were giving me three days to respond to your demand to cease and desist anyway. And there’s another benefit.”
“The story will be out by then. Your boss can see how the wind blows then and can decide if my guy is the bad guy in the story or not. It’s been three months. What’s another few days?”
“You know all that happens at best is the State Attorney General has this same call with you in a week.”
“That State Attorney General has different priorities, maybe. In any event, it’s one less file on your desk.”
I could hear him opening a file, papers shuffling again. “OK, you got a deal. I look forward to getting that memo.”
“Right,” and I hung up. Close call. My palms were wet.
The State Water Board had not called back so I went to the gym. I needed it.
I was in Law and Motion the next morning and didn’t get into the office until eleven. Helen and I had kept the call to empty pleasantries the night before, the boys in the room listening so no hard talk could occur. We both realized anyway that our big discussion would have to wait until she returned at the end of the next weekend. So, pleasantries and tension. And dinners in the kitchen while working on files.
My clerk was working on the memo on Statue jurisdiction of the Lake already and I picked up the new phone slip from the State Water Board guy and called him back. I could instantly tell he was elderly, not happy to be talking to me and even less happy that he had to talk to me.
“Mr. Phelps, my name is Wilcox. I have here a file with a dozen newspaper clippings that seem to indicate your client is seeking to utilize State property without our prior consent.”
“You mean he’s operating a boat on a pond you have let model boats use for fifty years? You’re right.”
“And sinking other boats?”
“And engaging in competitions with other boats. You know, like the kite contests in Afghanistan?”
“I don’t know about Afghanistan but I do know that such contests would require our prior written consent. We would have to review the safety procedures used.”
“Would operation of a boat on a pond require such consent?”
“I am sure.”
“Then the citizens of this City have been violating the law for fifty years. That pond has been full of boats for that long. When I was a kid my mom took me there. Her mom probably took her there. C’mon, you know that.”
“Did you attack other boats?”
“I would have if I could have. And you probably have a collision or two a day all the time.”
“These are intentional, aren’t they?”
“Mr. Wilcox, you’ve read the articles?”
“I represent an elderly man who worked his tail off for fifty years, had nothing to live for, and decided to do this to keep busy. He loves it. He spent months building that boat, everyone on the Pond likes to compete on this, the papers don’t show him as attacking and hurting people, and the reason you are talking to me is that a man as rich as God wants you to shut my client down. My client doesn’t have a lot of money. You can probably shut him down. I’m not sure why you would want to.”
That was a long speech and he took some time to digest it. Then, “He doesn’t have a permit. He needs a permit to do this kind of activity. There are rules.”
“But you guys have never required permits before, have you? You didn’t for me and my mother. What’s different now? The fact that you are being forced to do it by Rex Wentroth?”
“No one is forcing us to do anything, Mr. Phelps. There are rules.”
“Mr. Wilcox, how long have you worked at your desk?”
“What does it matter?”
“Thirty years I bet. More.”
“Thirty eight years.”
“And when you retire will you do what you’ve been putting off cause you have no time?”
“That’s for me to decide.”
“And if someone rich decided he wanted to do what you wanted to do instead and made some phone calls and asked the State to stop you, how would you feel?”
“If I broke the rules, I would have no grievance.”
“The rules are suddenly important and enforced because a rich man wants them to be. You know that, don’t you? If my client was here talking to you, perhaps you’d understand. This…this matters more to him than anything else in his life. He’s old. His wife is dead. This is what he has left.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t like having to do this. But there are rules. I am asking you to tell him to stop his activities.”
"We will refer this to the State Attorney General.”
“That will take months to result in action, you know.”
“That’s not my concern.”
“It is mine. Because I need four or five months for this to continue. That’s all.”
“I can’t tell you. But that is the time frame that matters.”
Another long silence on the phone. Then, “I see.”
“I thought you would. I thought you would understand what his feelings are.”
Another long silence. Then, to my surprise. “Wentroth is not the problem. The rules are the problem. They have to be enforced.”’
“You know why you have your job? I’ll tell you. Because a human being has to be in the picture to make the rules conform to reality. And to compassion. And to reasonableness. That’s why I’m not talking to an automated voice.”
“That’s not my job, Mr. Phelps. I don’t decide what rules get enforced.”
“No? Really? Think on it. The people who used that Pond were ignored by the rules for half a century. Why? Because the reality was that it was OK for them to use it. No one cared and they enjoyed it and it made them happy. No big deal. And what I am saying is that four months more of my client using it is as much an exception to the rules is no big deal and that’s OK. Except…”
“A rich man made a phone call and suddenly those rules are going to be enforced. Not because the reality changed. But because he wants it. He’s young. He’s powerful. He’s rich. So, the rules get changed.”
“He’s not changing the rules. He’s asking us to enforce them.”
“Enforcing fifty year old rules, suddenly. Why?”
“Because your client is attacking people, that’s why,” he snapped.
“Mr. Wilcox, he is not attacking he is competing and if he was just attacking, he’s been doing it for months. What’s new now but that call or letter or attorney call from Wentroth?”
“It’s the rules.”
I sighed and played with my pen on my blotter. “OK, it’s the rules. You have to do what you have to do. Please tell the State Assistant Attorney General to call me once he gets the file.”
“I’m sorry. We are restricted in our discretion.”
“I understand. It’s not your fault.”
“You fight for your client, that’s your job. My job is to enforce the rules.”
“I get it. Again, have him call me directly. I don’t want my client to be confronted with some summons and complaint…send it to me.”
Another pause. “Well, it may take me a few weeks to refer the matter out. We’re busy here.”
I paused. “I see. Not enough State funding, right?”
“It’s a crime how they under staff us. Then expect lightening moves. We do what we can.”
“I’m sure you do.”
Another silence. “May take a month or more. Probably more. But you can be sure we will do what we can. We have to enforce the rules.”
“Mr. Wilcox, you’re up in Sacramento, right?”
“Check out the San Francisco Chronicle in a few days if you have the time.”
A pause. “I’ll make time.” He hung up.
I put my head down on my desk. Another close one.
The world did not change because the story came out. It was on the third page and came out two days after my talk with the State Water Department. By then I had sent the memo to the DA and had heard nothing further from him. I had heard nothing from Arnold. And the story had resulted in two local television stations filming at the Pond and a dozen new challengers.
The story had been adequate but not great from my point of view. Wentroth was mentioned but in relatively neutral tones as being one more victim of the aggressive McIsserson. Indeed, McIsserson was not even central to the story so much as the crowd of elderly clustered around him, cheering him on, having a “community” built around the fort. And how the competition cemented the group together.
The only quotes were from some of the old ladies who gushed with happiness that they could make sandwiches daily for “the boys” and from Ramsey who was central casting for the cast off war hero. The three picture in the papers were of the fort, one fight on the Lake, and a big picture of Ramsey looking over the Lake with “Silver Star recipient Neil Ramsey watches a more enjoyable battle” as the caption.
But no real attack on Wentroth trying to stop McIsserson. I was disappointed but understood Charlene had to be careful. It was better than I expected, really. When I thought about it, perhaps it was even better that it didn’t reveal Wentroth’s efforts. Get the public to like the scene, then if Wentworth had some success, he was the bad guy. And, just maybe, it would allow Wentroth to back down without losing face. Get him to get involved in some other project. Maybe.
Helen and the boys were due back the in two days, McIsserson was still sinking all challengers and I was caught in a silly one day trial that was costing my client more than the amount in dispute but both parties were so angry with each other that neither cared. The judge and I exchanged exasperated looks as my opposing counsel went on for hours on pointless cross examination, that single cross examination costing his client about the same as his client was claiming from my client. Finally, the judge took it under advice, which meant he would issue his judgment in a month or so, my client thanked me for the great job I did, and I went back to the office to confront my fifty phone slips. Among them was the call from Wentroth. And also one from Sutter leaving the message I was free to talk to Wentroth.
I had expected Sutter to call telling me he was suing my client. That I had better back down. Again, Wentroth surprised me. But I was in no hurry to chat with Wentroth until I was a bit further along in my defense. Besides, my practice was not only helping an old man sink model boats. I had to argue on the phone with a lawyer about a contract, a tenant about moving out of my client’s commercial building and my garage about fixing my car.
And that night Helen and I had a melt down on the phone. The boys were at a movie and she was tired from a long day outside and an argument with her mother. I was tired from the idiot trial. But the real reason was all that we had going for us for the past week had been tension and expectation of a fight. It was almost a relief to have it come.
It crept up on us. We were talking about our respective days, talking about a dinner commitment we had a few days after she returned, she kept asking details about what I had done at the office, fishing to see if McIsserson was on my schedule. I was getting annoyed at her prying, she was getting annoyed at me evading it, and the explosion finally came.
In a pause after a discussion as to my son’s chances at varsity, she asked, voice level, “And, has Wentroth filed any legal action, yet?”
“Nope. But he’s shaking the cages. Arnold. State Water Board. DA. Probably more.”
“But no need to go to court yet?”
“Not yet. But soon, I expect.”
“Because that’s when it’s going to cost a lot of money, right? When you will be spending days arguing with his army of lawyers?”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
“How not? And it will cost us…as a family…how many tens of thousands in your time?”
“McIsserson has paid every bill so far. Promptly. That’s more than I can say for a lot of clients.”
“But that’s, what, a few thousand for some negotiations, right? You doing your lobbying thing…”
“It’s not lobbying and I resent you belittling what I do.”
“Call if what you want, the big cost now comes. And not just for McIsserson. For us. For your family. Did it ever occur to you that you might talk to me before taking all that money from my pocket? Before embarrassing me with your defending that monster?”
“He’s not a monster. Stop this. You are becoming so emotional about this you can’t even see straight.”
“I’m emotional? Me? You talk about the case and you look like a little boy all worried and upset. It’s sick. You and that old man plotting how to sink childrens’ boats. We can’t even talk about it rationally.”
“Talk about the case? With you? Might as well talk to Wentroth. He’s saner about this than you are. This is my job. What I do. I am defending…”
“Defending a crazy old bastard. That’s something to be proud of. And risking your son’s college fund to do it. You never did put any of us first. It’s always your damned cases and clients.”
“Glad to get such support from you. Makes my days and nights so much easier. Nice to know where I stand. If the money isn’t in the case, then I should drop the case, right? Hell with the client. At least we know what matters to you.”
“And what matters to you? Defending him at the risk of your own family? At the risk of your marriage?”
“Whoa! Slow down. You are escalating this way, way too much.”
“It’s not just this. This just is symptomatic of your whole idea of what matters. Where we stand. I’m sick of it. We’re a place for you to sleep before you leap onto your next charger.”
“Maybe you should have married a nice dentist. Or a druggist. Home every day at five.”
“And not helping crazy old men attack children? Yes, they sound pretty good to me right now.”
I felt my eyes burn. “So, am I hearing you right? I’m risking my marriage by defending this client? Did you mean that? Because that is going to a brand new level.”
“Would it make any real difference to you anyway?” Her voice was shaking.
I took several breaths and tried to keep my voice steady. “I am about to take on, nearly single handed, one of the richer men in America and I am trying to do what I think is right. What my duty requires me to do. And you have been undermining me every inch of the way. Hell, you walked out on me without warning and took my entire family away.”
“You drove us away.”
“You ran. Simple as that. This may come as a real shock to you, but I rather hoped you’d support me. This isn’t easy. I’m as worried as you are.”
“Then stop. Tell him to get another lawyer.”
“Why? Because you don’t like what he is doing? Because the opponent is rich?”
“Because your wife who you love asks you to. Because I can’t stand you spending your time and your brilliance defending that fool. You are a great lawyer. I know that. And look what you are doing. What is wrong with you?”
“What is wrong with us if the marriage is on the line because I am helping an old man finish his days up as he wants?”
“By sinking childrens’ boats? By ignoring us again no matter how we feel about it?” She began to cry. “I just can’t talk about this anymore. I hate this. Hate this. You’re not there for me, just for him.”
“I didn’t leave home. I didn’t leave you a note saying see you in a week. Who are you to tell me I’m not there for you?”
She sobbed and hung up. When I called back, she didn’t answer.
I stared at a television for two hours and fell asleep on the couch, a movie about a robot killing people on the screen.
Charlene was apparently hoping to make the story into a running feature. The next day was the next installment of what was termed, “The Battle of the Pond.” And Wentroth was featured in the next installment. I noted she used the same picture he had shown me of he and his son holding the Riverboat and she had the story of the brief sinking of the model boat. To my slight surprise, she mentioned that there had been a warning pass but then also made clear that this was no combat but a ramming of an innocent, pure and simple. The tone was one of regret and surprise at the destruction.
But then she began to have fun, mentioned how the monolith, angered at the affront, began to flex its impressive muscles.
“Angered at having to watch his son’s boat crushed by the always victorious Despair, Rex Wentroth has begun to utilize the tools for control that have worked so well for him in his takeover of an estimated fifteen percent of the personal computer business. Calling in his legal, political and monetary resources, he has commenced a campaign which he states, ‘…will return Shaw Lake to the public use for which it was intended.’ His methods, which have worked well against the giants of industry, are expected to compel Benjamin McIsserson to reconsider whether his armored vessel is enough to counter the wrath of the computer magnet. Robert Phelps, the attorney representing Mr. McIsserson, has long been known for defending unpopular causes and is determined to resist the coming storm. Perhaps Neil Ramsey, the Silver Star winner who supports Benjamin McIsserson at the Lake has the most appropriate comment. ‘There’s a good way to win this Lake and it’s not spending a ton of money buying lawyers and politicians. I don’t know why this Wentroth just doesn’t learn to fight his boat and see what he can do here.’”
Unpopular causes. That’s me. Especially unpopular with Helen.
She did not call back and I did not try to call her again. I figured we’d hash it out when she came home the coming weekend. Besides, I was soon in a six hour mediation in Alameda which consumed most of the day and came back to the office to the usual fifty phone slips among which was a message from Ramsey. He had no call back number, just a message to come to the Lake as soon as I could. That was three hours ago and it was too late to get to the Lake by the time I finished my phone calls. No call from Helen.
It was a Friday evening by then and I figured I’d visit McIsserson at the Lake the next day. Helen was due back Sunday afternoon with the boys and what better way to spend a Saturday afternoon than watching an old man sink kids’ boats as he waited for the Grim Reaper? I leaned back in my chair, looking at the pile of files on my desk, thought about the whirlwind of trouble about to drown me in the case and wondered how I could handle fighting Wentroth, keep my practice from going broke, and assuage an angry wife.
Four months. Up to nine months. Then it wouldn’t matter anymore. Figure the last two or three months he couldn’t get to the Lake in any event, what with his health deteriorating. And unless I missed my guess, his heart wasn’t working that well. I remembered the symptoms from my Dad who had died from a stroke. I wondered if the cancer medications might affect his circulation. But one way or another this would be over in a quarter or two.
And I would be left with a lot less money in my bank and a marriage even more fractured than before.
But McIsserson would have sunk another few hundred boats. That’s a great goal. I threw my pen down on the blotter and opened up a new file involving a commercial lease.
It was no good. All I could do was brood and plot. I did some brooding. Then I put the file aside and called Charlene before going home. I could hear voices in the background. Her office always sounded like a movie set for the busy Big City newspaper. I had never been there but pictured her desk among dozens in a large room with people running about.
“Like my story?” she asked with assumed youthful enthusiasm.
“Moved my heart. Sweet old man. Sweet Rich man. Grizzled War veteran giving sage advice. How can you go wrong?”
“That’s what I told my editor. He thinks it doesn’t have legs unless Wentroth goes to war."
“It’s your lucky day. He has. So far I’ve been called by a DA, the State Water Board and the Probate Investigator. I am sure more are coming. Every string he has he will pull. And I’m expecting suit to be filed in the next few days. Scorched earth is the plan, I’m sure.”
“Who from the DA? State Water Board?” I could imagine her pulling her notebook out.
I hesitated. “I don’t want to rock their boats. I don’t think any of them are enthusiastic about having to go after my old man. I don’t want them to feel any heat from you.”
“Heat? From me? What until Wentroth doesn’t get action this minute. That will be heat. I’m not even a flicker.”
“I’m not giving out names. I think they will go slow and steady for the next month or two. What I do want is to make sure you print that I have been contacted by all of them and Wentroth is on the march.”
“I just can’t print that without putting in names and details. Sorry, Ed, but that’s our rule. We check out stories.”
“Check out all you want. But I’m not giving you names. I have been contacted by these various agencies, all say they are planning to move based on complaints from Wentroth and he’s doing what he said he would do. Crush the broke old man using his massive resources. Don’t mess with the King.”
“Oh, I see, your client is a victim. A victim who just happens to sink any boat on the Lake.”
“Wentroth could have pulled his boat off. He did not. Instead, he has started an all out no holds barred destruction of my client using every resource that he has access to and my old man does not. A bunch of old people are about to see their champion eliminated not by defeat on the Lake but a mountain of bureaucratic paper. That’s what I’m saying.”
“He’s not a fuzzy wuzzy old man, Bob. He won’t even talk to me.”
“Let me just leave you with one thought. Once the lawyers and bureaucrats fight over McIsserson and get him off the Lake, imagine what life is going to be like for these elderly people left there. For Neil Ramsey. Back to sitting on the park benches, watching the kids play with their sail boats. They can watch Wentroth strut around the Lake telling them how he saved it for them. A good public servant like that. They will undoubtedly be grateful. Just ask Ramsey.”
A moment of silence as she scribbled. Then, “The Lake’s not just for them, you know.”
I took a deep breath and tried my ploy. “Look, if Wentroth wants to save the Lake for the public, he should come and fight for it the way McIsserson does. Tell him to learn how to fight his boat and take McIsserson on. Make it a fair fight. Have his kid watch. Hell, have his kid trained. McIsserson will slink away if he loses. I know him. Wentroth should fight fair and not simply rely on his millions.”
A very long pause while she pondered the circulation numbers that challenge would have. “Can I quote you on that?”
“Do it. Tell them I said we won’t start our own computer company and complain that he is too tough to handle and should be kicked out of business. If we were running a startup company, we wouldn’t ask Congress to ban him from competing with us. As he is doing to us on the Lake. He can make a boat. He should. We will be waiting.”
She laughed at that. “You boys. You have to learn to play nice.” But she hung up without another word. And that meant the story would be in the paper.
Somehow I expected Helen to call that night despite the fact I did not call her. At least I hoped. I slept badly and woke up that Saturday morning groggy and in a bad mood. After a workout at the gym I felt better and was actually feeling pretty upbeat as I arrived at the Park around noon.
I parked the car and began the walk up the path to the Lake. No fog, no clouds, no wind and San Francisco felt a bit like Los Angeles. Summer finally coming. Temperature in the seventies, sun warm on my face as I climbed the hill. I could hear a buzz from around the Lake even before I came to the top of the path and I paused a bit surprised at the number of people around the Lake. McIsserson’s fort was at the far end as usual, with the three trolleys about it, McIsserson presumably in the fort. Despair was at the center of the Lake and I could see despite the sun in my eyes that his elderly cheerleaders were on the job, Ramsey at the card table keeping the log, food and drink on other card tables that people had brought, the fellow with the binoculars sharing them out.
There were perhaps a hundred or so other onlookers, many with lawn chairs and picnic baskets, most of them sitting or lying on the grass around the Lake. On the actual dirt shore were four separate groups of challengers, each working on a particular vessel and apparently trying to get them ready to launch. Two of the boats, metal wedges not dissimilar to Despair, were in various stages of disassembly. Another, a model of a battleship of some kind, was fully assembled but was being charged with a large battery next to it. The owners of the final challenger, a multi hulled extremely large power boat, were having trouble bolting metal to its bow and the three kids gathered around it were arguing loudly with an older man, probably their father.
Near Despair in the center of the Lake was a hulk that was capsized, apparently the last challenger, not quite sunk. Several boom boxes could be heard along with excited chatter, children’s laughter and screaming, and a few hawkers selling cold drinks and hot dogs.
A Saturday afternoon at the Coliseum with the gladiators preparing for their next combat. Shaking my head slightly, I slowly pushed my way through the crowd towards the fort. About halfway there I heard a familiar voice and turned to see Charlene with her daughter on a blanket on the grass. A large picnic basket was open next to them, some sodas and sandwiches spread out on the blanket.
“Bob! I didn’t know you were a fan of the arena,” she called cheerfully. Her daughter, a pretty fourteen year old with a book in her lap, glanced up, nodded, and went back to her book, uninterested in the scene or me. Charlene shrugged slightly, making a face in the direction of her daughter, and patted the blanket next to her.
Charlene was in a halter top and was a bit too thin to make it work. She had put on prescription sunglasses which were every bit as unattractive as her regular glasses and I noticed she had her notebook out with numerous notations in it.
“Hard at work, Charlene?”
“Work and play. Watching your man dispatch those who dare to approach. I have to admit, he makes it look pretty easy.”
I sat down next to her. “He’s had a lot of practice.”
“So they say. Ramsey says over ninety victims now. And by the end of today, he’ll add half a dozen more.”
“He talk to you yet?”
“Nope. I ran after him as he scurried to the john. He just ignored me. Ignored my questions. Guess publicity is not what he’s about. If it wasn’t for Ramsey and a few old biddies, I’d get nothing from that crowd.”
“How’s their tea?”
“Actually, the sweet old dear in the red dress offered me some. Not too bad.”
Her daughter gave her a disgusted look, sighed, and read on.
“Any other press here?”
“Oh, my evil competitors at some neighborhood weeklies were here earlier and KNGF was here with some television cameras before the sun was too high. They got the first combat, I suppose. Didn’t interview anyone so guess it’s voiceover. Sorry you missed the opportunity.”
“And I wore my clean shirt, too.”
“There’s always tomorrow. Like my follow up story?”
“I did. Guess Wentroth talked to you.”
“He did, he did. Business desk was jealous, he never talks to them. And he has a big contested merger going on right now so they were trying to get to him for weeks. Then I call about a little old man and he takes it right away. Guess you got to him.”
“McIsserson certainly did. And does, I expect. He does that to people.”
I patted her hand and rose and kept moving to the fort. The sun was warm enough for me to pull off my sweater and drape it across my back as I stepped around the people on blankets, around the lawn chairs near the shore, and the children running about playing. Ramsey had been watching me and rose from the card table and walked over towards me, taking my arm and pulling me a bit further away from the Lake so we stood on the grass.
He was dressed in jeans and the beat up leather jacket, an ancient fishing hat on his head. He smiled slightly, his eyes scanning the crowd about us. Several of the other elderly watched us from near the fort but made no move to come closer. One old lady help up a tea cup in my direction, her face questioning. I shook my head no, smiling.
Ramsey glanced at her, then at his feet. “Glad you’re here. We may have some new issues.” He nodded in the direction of two young men squatting near the shore a few hundred feet across the Lake. They were dressed in jeans and tight fitting T shirts, muscular and crew cut. One black, one white. The white one had a lap top on the ground and was typing, the other looking in our direction.
“Know who they are, Mr. Ramsey?”
“Don’t know who they are. Know what they are.”
“Ex military or military. Special Ops, I would guess. Or used to be. Green Berets in my day. Don’t know what they call them now.”
“You can tell all that just looking at them?”
He looked at me then. “Hell, was one. Figure someone might want to talk to them. They been watching and using that computer for two days now. Not talking to us. Not talking to anyone.”
“They have a right to be here, you know.”
“Don’t question that. Just kinda curious as to what they are up to.”
“They plan to challenge McIsserson, I would guess. And are checking the terrain.”
“Oh, that’s pretty clear. But…” he then looked at me significantly, “they ain’t here for fun. They aren’t laughing or joking or anything like that. This is business. This…this is a mission. Figure you should know that.”
I studied them and both of them were now looking at us. Not with hostility. Just examining us. I turned my back to them and faced Ramsey. “McIsserson know?”
Ramsey shrugged. “Yeah, he figured it out about the same time I did. But made him all kind of giddy. Happy. I think…well, hell, it don’t matter what I think. He knows.”
I somewhat casually weaved my way through the crowd, past the fort on the shore towards the two men. They both rose, the one closing his laptop, as I approached. Just before I arrived the roar of engines on the Lake drew all of our eyes to the water.
One of the groups on the shore had launched one of the boats that looked like a metal wedge, actually rather like a smaller Despair. It was burnished a dull steel and left the shore at full speed as if hoping to catch Despair by surprise. It had a powerful engine and the bow rose high in the air as its motor dug into the water, the boat racing along with the forward third of it entirely above the water. A rooster tail rose high in the air behind it and the three boys who launched it cheered as the boat left the shore. The crowd around the shore became silent, only the children’s voices and shouting still to be heard above the sound of the engine.
It wobbled slightly as it came towards Despair whose engine idled but did not move. The distance between the vessel and Despair was perhaps three hundred feet but time seemed to slow down as the boat roared towards McIsserson’s waiting boat.
Perhaps twenty feet before impact Despair moved forward at perhaps half speed then moments before impact, at full speed. With its bow still high in the air, the other boat’s ram was above Despair whose own bow tore into the unprotected keel of the boat, still raised above the water. In effect, the boat impaled itself on Despair’s sharp prow. The keel ripped apart, Despair reversed its direction, and the challenger fell back into the water, its prop again dug in still at full throttle, sputterred forward a few feet past Despair as the water was shoved into his hull, literally motoring itself under water. Its engine fell silent as the boat sank. Several people on shore cheered, some hooted at the boys who had launched the vessel. One old lady jumped up and down a bit, waving her arms in excitement. Despair backed into its position and waited.
“Idiots,” muttered the black young man.
“Good quick response,” muttered the other, opening the laptop for a moment, leaning forward with it braced against his legs to type a few words in, then closing it, straightening and looking at me. “Can we help you, sir?”
“My name’s Bob Phelps. I am the attorney for Mr. McIsserson, the owner of Despair. Can you give me your names?”
They hesitated but my official tone worked. “McGrew. Bill McGrew and that’s Drew Axel.”
“Gentlemen. It is clear you are planning your own challenge. We look forward to it. I am simply curious as to whether you have been hired to challenge my client.”
“By Rex Wentworth, to be precise. He hire you?”
They glanced at each other and McGrew answered. “We’re not at liberty to discuss that, sir.”
I shook my head slightly. “You don’t have to, son. That’s answer enough. Have a nice day.”
They glanced at each other again, grinning in an embarrassed way, and I walked back to the fort. There were no boats on the Lake other than Despair for the moment. The crowd was laughing and loud, a boat motor starting and stopping for some reason. I banged on the fort. “Mr. McIsserson. Phelps here. We have to talk. Now.” Several of his followers gave me unfriendly disapproving looks. There goes my free tea, I thought. Silence from inside. I banged again and kept banging until his hatch opened and he glared out at me.
“Give Mr. Ramsey your control box and let’s chat near the men’s room again.”
“Can’t you see I have three challengers left?”
“You are facing more than that, Admiral. A lot more. We need to talk.”
He glared some more, then sighed. He went back in for a moment, and Despair slowly motored over to the shore near the fort. He painfully stepped out of the hatch with a small flag in his hand, hobbled to the shore where Ramsey held Despair steady while he placed the ten inch square flag in a small holder on the stern of the boat. It read, “Ten Minute Truce Period” in large red letters on a white background.
He handed the control box to Ramsey who motored the boat over to the center of the Lake. The two men on the far shore both sat down on the bank.
As we turned to go three boys younger than ten ran up to him, one holding a magazine about model boats in one hand, a pen in the other. “Can you sign, Captain?” he panted. The other boys stared bashfully at my client who was, as always, in his overalls, sweater and watch cap.
“No time for this crap,” he grunted at them and began to shove them aside. I grabbed his arm hard. “Yes you do. You will sign that autograph. Period.”
He stood straight, facing me, ready to argue. I spoke before he could. “Remember the division of labor? You win on the Lake. I win in the courts. I need you to do that. Got it?”
He opened his mouth. Closed it. Then looked down at the boy holding up the magazine. He grabbed the magazine and pen roughly, and scribbled his name.
The boy took back the magazine reverently, staring at the signature. “Thank you, Captain.”
McIsserson regarded the boy. “Why are you doing this nonsense with autographs? I’m not a celebrity or nothing. You should build a boat. Put it on the pond. Beat me if you can. This autograph stuff makes no sense.”
The boy took a step back, staring up at McIsserson. “I don’t know. I mean, I don’t think I could do it. Could beat you. You always win.” The boys behind him nodded their heads in agreement.
McIsserson looked over the Lake at the two men who gazed back. Then he looked down at the boys.
“Let me tell you something. Winning is good. It’s really good. But you can’t win if you don’t…don’t take a chance of losing. And if you lose, so what? Be a man about it. Take it like a man. You got that?”
“Yes, sir” they chorused.
“Toughen up, “ he grunted and with a glance at me, started towards the men’s room. I winked at the boys and followed him.
He stood with his back to the men’s room wall, the Lake in his line of sight. But he wasn’t looking at the Lake so much as at the two men. I stood next to him and we watched the men. We stood silently for a moment. “I see you are fully aware of what those guys are about.”
He looked at me. “Ain’t stupid, counselor. They from Wentroth?”
“Ramsey says military. Maybe ex.”
“Probably security people he hired from the military. Guys like Wentroth have plenty of those. I suspect he figured those are the guys to take Despair down.”
He nodded, looking at them, but said nothing. I went on. “I think I’ve stalled most of the legal actions for a month or two. No more. Then Arnold, the State and probably Wentroth in a civil action will be coming at us.”
“Only a month? Two?”
“That’s damned remarkable as far as I am concerned. He has more power than Jesus Christ.”
He nodded again. “Yeah, that’s what money does. No shock there.”
“One thing that would help is good publicity for us. The public doesn’t like Wentroth. Think he’s a bully. If he overdoes his actions, could be a backlash.”
“What does he care? He’s rich.”
“He cares plenty. It means the DA and the State and even Arnold will probably back off. It means a jury may find against him. And he needs not to be too unpopular. He needs approval for much of what he does from a lot of governmental agencies. He’s trying to do a big merger now and that’s going to take all of his time and energy. He needs to worry about the public.”
McIsserson’s eyes blinked in contempt. “You may be a lawyer and smart and good, but let me tell you something. A man like that with all his money. He can buy anyone he wants. He can buy those bureaucrats any time he wants. Money buys people. He can buy anyone.”
“It doesn’t buy me.”
That stopped him and he turned towards me and took a step back. We stared at each other. But I wasn’t done. “I’m not in it for the money, McIsserson. And my family doesn’t like me doing this. Neither do my partners. Maybe your theory of human motivation needs some updating.”
He looked down at his feet, then up to me. “I’m paying you. Intend to pay you.”
“You can take your money and shove it if you think I’m just a hired gun who can be bought.”
“I’m always seeming to insult you. I’m not sure why you think that. I wouldn’t have you as my lawyer if I didn’t think you were good. That you were the right lawyer for me.”
“I’m not sure that’s a complement.”
To my surprise, he laughed, head back, full laugh. His supporters stared over at us. Maybe I would get some tea after all. He shook his head, still laughing softly. Then, “You’re probably right. Maybe saying that was another insult.” He grinned. “Phelps, you are as weird as I am. You know that? But I got an excuse. You know my excuse. Got no time for crap, got to do what I want to do. You…you’re young.”
He studied me for a moment. “It ain’t the Lake and it ain’t Despair. You’re fighting for something. You know what?”
“Damned if I know. And you sound like my wife. She thinks I’m crazy to be defending you. She thinks Wentroth would pay me more.”
McIsserson kept his eyes on my face. A pause. Then, “She doesn’t know you, Phelps. Doesn’t know you at all.” He returned his gaze to the two men. “ Now, what do you want me to do?”
I had to breathe a few times before I could respond. “Be adorable, you damned misanthrope. Pat the kids on the head. Give them grandfatherly advice. Wave to the throngs. Show them you are the little guy fighting the big guy. Not all the time. Just once in a while.”
He nodded, still looking at the two men.
“And McIsserson, if you think you can beat those guys like the kids and losers on this Pond, think again. They are making a plan. You had better have one of your own.”
He smiled to himself, still looking at them. “I know what I’m doing, Phelps. And…you’re right. Gotta keep innovating, that’s what I say.” He looked at me. “Maybe they’re in for a few surprises. Maybe those young soldiers may be in for a bit of a shock at what old bastards can do.” He glanced at them then back to me. “We done? You got more to say?”
“Tell your groupies to be interviewed. Tell them to say how much they enjoy this.”
He winced but nodded. “Anything more?”
“That should do it.”
He started back to the fort, then stopped and came back to me. He regarded me for a moment. Then, “When they come back fighting…when it’s time for them…I’ll make sure Ramsey calls you.” Without waiting for a reply he hurried back to his fort.
It took him less than five minutes to sink each of the remaining two challengers. The large catamaran was never launched, the father and sons carrying it back home for further work. The two soldiers left after the last combat, nodding at me. Charlene waved from across the Lake as she and her sullen daughter left. The crowd thinned out. The sun was behind the trees, the wind was getting cold, and I slowly walked back to the car. McIsserson was still in the fort, waiting for more challengers.
I was fixing a broken pipe in the basement sink when I heard the boys and Helen coming in the door Sunday afternoon. I trudged up the basement stairs, a bit grimy and sweaty, and she threw herself into my arms, kissing me. With a wrench in one hand and both hands greasy, I could only hold her with my upper arms.
My oldest, Jeremy, rushed by, saying “Oh you two, it was just a week,” but he was smiling.
She pulled her head back but still held me. “I just want to say I will support you. I understand it matters to you. Somehow, it matters. I thought a lot about it. But I need to hear you say you care about my feelings too.”
“I do, baby. I do. You know I do.”
“No I don’t. Sometimes I think you hardly notice me at all.” She blinked and stood back a bit. “But know I love you and will be there for you.”
Despite the grease on my hands, I took her hand and squeezed it hard. “That matters. I can’t explain all that I do all the time. But I need to know that you understand what my job is. What I have to do. That I just can’t treat it as a paycheck.”
She smiled. “If you could, you wouldn’t be my husband. I chose you, you know.”
“I thought I chose you. You’re the good looking one.” We hugged each other. “I will try to let you know how much I care about you, Helen. I promise. Now, let me clean up. I want to be close to you.”
“We all have to shower. The boys have some surprises for you.”
So it was a few hours later the four of us were sitting on the large sofa in our living room. Half eaten dinner was scattered on the coffee table in front of us, the boy’s picture albums opened and under examination by all of us, one boy on either side of us, the smell of coffee being made in the kitchen permeating the room. The phone rang.
I instantly felt my stomach tense and looked over at Helen. Her smile faded then she bravely smiled again and looked at me.
“I don’t care if it’s your mad boater, Bob. I really don’t. Go handle it.”
“Can we go see his next fight?” Vincent, my youngest, asked.
“We’ll see. It’s usually during school time.”
“But if it’s on a weekend?”
“Probably,” I said, avoiding Helen’s eyes as I extricated myself and headed to the phone.
By the time I made it to the phone it was transferred to the answering machine that we used back in those days. I watched as the cassette recorded the message then I played back the recording. To my surprise, it was Wentroth. Somehow, he had obtained my unlisted home phone number. The recording was brief:
“Mr. Phelps. Wentroth here. Sorry to bother you at home. Please call my cell first thing tomorrow. We have some matters to discuss. Thanks.” And his cell number.
I looked up and Helen was leaning on the door jamb to the living room, long blond hair still a bit wet from the shower, arms crossed, elegant and beautiful. She also looked bemused. She smiled a little grimly.
“At least you’re talking to the big wigs, now.”
I went over to her and kissed her long and deep. She reciprocated, pressed tight against me. “Thanks for being there,” I said softly.
She snuggled her head against my chin. Then she looked up, eyes bright, smiling. “Only, next time pick the rich client, OK?” She laughed and we went back to the boys on the sofa.
It was mid day by the time I called him back. Depositions took up my morning as did client conferences. I had heard nothing from McIsserson or Ramsey so figured we were not in a crisis. No pleadings had arrived from Wentroth’s army of lawyers and the State and Arnold remained quiet.
I leaned back in my office desk and punched his number into my phone. He answered immediately.
“Mr. Phelps. I am glad you called me back.”
“Always happy to please. What can I do for you?”
“I think it would be useful for us to meet again. I came to you last time. How about meeting half way?”
“At the Lake?”
He laughed but it didn’t sound real. “I have a branch office in Palo Alto. Tomorrow morning between ten and noon would work for me.”
“Can you let me know what this is about? I have no authority from my client to settle anything.”
“I want to show you something. I think you will find it worthwhile and it will serve your client.”
“Life is a wild adventure. Will you come?”
“Always happy to please. Ten it is.” He gave me his address and I wrote it down. “Your son OK?”
A long pause. “That’s what we will be talking about. I look forward to seeing you.” The line went dead.
Charlene again made the second page that Monday with her running story of the antics at the Lake. The article again concentrated on the elderly clustered around McIsserson more than him. One of the old ladies apparently had been a Navy nurse in the Second World War, and that was worth a paragraph and the tea lady got mentioned. But where she went to town was in her description of the challengers, teenagers for the most part who had saved up and invested in boats to take on the old man. I liked her last sentences: “But Despair may soon face an opponent that will outclass the teenagers and elderly who have husbanded their scarce resources to engage in combat on the Lake. Computer magnet Rex Wentroth has vowed revenge for the destruction of his son’s model and all await his appearance on the Lake. Stay tuned.”
McIsserson classed with the poor teenagers. Good stuff. And no mention of children’s boats being sunk by a willful ornery old man. I owed her.
Helen later read the story as well, and aside from commenting “That old girl friend must still have a crush on you,” did not mention McIsserson that night and our lovemaking was tender and close. I had to get a brief out the next day so rose early, making sure not to wake her, and went to the office. I worked some hours before leaving to drive to meet Wentroth.
Back then Palo Alto, home of Stanford University, was in the throes of one of its first big high tech booms. Homes that sold for two hundred thousand five years before were selling for a million, traffic was always congested and youthful entrepreneurs were suddenly multi millionaires before they were in their thirties. We had not yet learned much of the busts that alternate with booms in Silicon Valley. Hubris was the name of the game and I felt a bit stodgy as I pulled up at the sparkling office park that housed Wentroth’s branch office.
Clean lines on the four story ultra modern buildings, small trees planted in the landscaped parking lots, sculptures on the manicured grass surrounding the buildings, a modern fountain spraying gently in the lobby as the security guard took my name, gave me a name card to put on my lapel, and escorted me to a bank of elevators. He did let me enter on my own after confirming that I knew how to punch the fourth floor button.
Bill McGrew, the ex soldier, met me at the door opened. He was dressed in the standard uniform for the Valley, the khaki pants, pastel shirt open at the collar, loafers, inexpensive watch.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Phelps. I’m here to show you the way.”
“Great. Plans going well?”
He spoke over his shoulder as he turned to go down one of the three long halls that branched out from the elevators. “We hope so. Your client is a talented man. We do not underestimate him.”
“He’d be delighted to hear that.”
The hallway was deserted, names on Lucite panels next to each door, carpet thick, lights muted. We went to the end of the corridor, perhaps three hundred feet. The doors were all oak and he turned to the last one on the left, knocked twice and immediately opened the door. He held it open for me to enter.
I expected a standard office set up and was surprised. It was quite a large room and clearly an electronics laboratory. Discarded and disassembled computers and screens were piled on several of the rows of work benches that lined the walls and arranged in lines in the center of the room. Bright overhead lamps were directed on the benches and rows of plugs, small tools and testing gear filled most of the spaces left on the crowded benches. Tall stools were scattered about and in the far corner a small kitchen table, refrigerator and beat up sofa made up the employee lounge.
The room was empty save for Wentroth, talking on a phone, and the other military looking man, Drew Axel. Dressed identically to McGrew, he immediately rose from the stool he was sitting on and came out, hand outstretched.
“Mr. Phelps. You may recall my name is Drew Axel. We met at the Lake.”
“I remember it well, Mr. Axel. I presume you are done checking out the action?”
He smiled broadly. “Yes. May I say I greatly respect your client’s skill and determination. He certainly outclasses all of his opponents.”
“Mr. McGrew so advised me. Mr. McIsserson would be delighted to hear your opinion. Though I expect he wouldn’t show it.”
Axel laughed good naturedly. “My Dad was like that. Still miss him.” He nodded at me, glanced at Wentroth, then moved to the far side of the room where one of the benches was covered with a white sheet, three shapes under the sheet.
Axel sat on a stool near the covered table while McGrew sat on one of the high stools at a bench near the door. Wentroth was on another stool at a bench in the middle of the room, leaning on the workbench and speaking softly into a cell phone. He seemed to be arguing about providing some documents to someone involved with his merger, looked in my direction, nodded while talking, shrugged at me, shaking his head, and went back to his conversation.
I walked to the bench with the sheet covering. “Mr. Axle, is this the surprise I’m supposed to see?”
“Expect so, sir. I’m sure Mr. Wentroth will be off the phone soon.”
“You develop your strategy, yet?”
“We’re certainly trying. You can bet on that. One advantage is we can see what doesn’t work with Mr. McIsserson.” He grinned. “Far as we can see, that includes most everything.”
I sat at a stool at the covered bench, put my briefcase near my feet, and watched Wentroth gesticulate to the phone. He was not a happy fellow. Finally, he grunted, “Fine, fine, just do what you have to” and pushed the button which ended the call. He dropped the cell on the bench, stood up and came over to us. McGrew stayed on the stool near the door.
He held out his hand mechanically. “Sorry about that, Mr. Phelps. Frankly, all you lawyers make life most difficult.”
I shook his hand. “That’s our job.”
“I know that, but when two companies simply want to create synergy and have all the willingness in the world to come together, I don’t understand why months of muttering and document review is so important.” He shook his head and sat next to me at the covered bench. He was dressed in the Valley uniform, a bit flushed with the call, his hands moving nervously.
“But that’s not why you asked me to come down, right? To complain about lawyers?
“By no means. He looked steadily at me a moment. “My son was beaten at school last week. By children. Mostly older children.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“The article in the Chronicle was the catalyst. Some of the children screamed at him that he shouldn’t be threatening an old man. That his rich dad shouldn’t be a bully. That sort of thing.”
“That’s not what the article said, of course.”
“Of course not. No paper would slander me. But the inference was clear enough to the other children. Or, rather, to their parents, I suppose. I’m sure it was discussed at length at the breakfast table.” He leaned towards me. “You see, I’m hated, Mr. Phelps. Perhaps I have caused it, but I think it mostly derives from jealousy and the fact that I have a lot of money. I expect you are not immune from that emotion.”
I did not lean back on my stool. “If so, I do my best to control it, Mr. Wentroth. Perhaps if you were not threatening to punish my client and using all your influence to have him committed and barred from the Lake, this would not be happening.”
He thumped his fingers on the bench. The white sheet on the bench muffled the sound a bit. “Maybe. But somehow…when my child’s boat is destroyed in front of his eyes and when my child is beaten at his school, maybe then I feel as a parent that I cannot remain silent and helpless.” His voice was flat and hard.
“I think the event at the school was a direct result of your decision to escalate the matter. What happened at the Lake was regrettable but I would think that someone involved in a multimillion dollar deal would put it behind him and not hire professionals to fight on a lake in a park and be in court over it.”
“That’s what you think? Well, perhaps we have a different set of priorities. My son means everything to me.”
I flushed. “And my sons mean a lot to me. Perhaps I misunderstood your last inference.”
“I will do everything…anything legal…to protect my child and to show him that I care if he gets hurt, either physically or mentally. I mean that.”
“Anything? Are you threatening me or my client?”
Axel’s voice cut in. “I’m sure that’s not what he meant, Mr. Phelps. He was just expressing his love for his son, that’s all.”
Wentroth hesitated, then shrugged slightly and leaned his elbows on bench. “Drew’s right. I would never threaten you or your client. But I’m a little surprised you take my boy’s problems so lightly. I don’t.”
I let a few seconds pass to cool myself down. “I fully understand and respect your feelings for your son. I can understand you being upset. And I’m sorry he was upset at the Lake. But this situation is becoming absurd. My client is an old man and he has made one of five lakes in the Park a place for competitive boating. OK, he did it on his own. He’s an odd old codger. But you are acting as if this is a big deal, far bigger than it should be.”
He studied me. “Is it not? I disagree. I think we show what we are by what we do. And what we do wherever we are. Some of us follow. Some lead. Some look the other way. Some allow themselves to be maneuvered and controlled. Every day, each day, one sees what one is.”
“Amen,” Axel said.
Wentroth looked at Axel. “These men proved themselves in situations few of us can imagine. One reason I trust them to provide security is that I grasp that. All of us are what we do.”
He looked at me. “You are trained for dispute and to combat opponents of your clients. It is now automatic with you. I oppose Mr. McIsserson, thus I am evil and must be fought. He attacks my son, yet I am the evil one. You don’t even see that, do you?”
“Your son? That’s what’s this is about? Then answer one question. Did you know when you launched your boat that McIsserson was defending that Lake?”
“How is that relevant?”
“Your refusal to answer is interesting. I put it to you that you selected that Lake precisely because you knew what would happen. It was not your son being attacked by a mad boater. You put the boat in his path precisely to be attacked. What was that all about? Some type of challenge?”
“Let me get this. I put the boat on a public Lake, am attacked by your client causing my son deep hurt, and somehow I am at fault and your client bears no responsibility?”
“Why’d you do that? Why did you go to that Lake?”
“I have every right to put that boat on any Lake in the Park. Your client had no right to attack mine. Your entire view is upside down.”
He stood up and looked towards Axel. Axel put his hand on the sheets covering the table and looked at Wentroth with his eyebrows raised. Wentroth nodded. Axel pulled the sheet back. One edge caught on one of the lumps under the sheets and Axel snapped the sheet up and away.
The three vessels under the sheet were stainless steel, I supposed, but had been polished so they were as bright as chrome. The three were on stands on the bench, close together, a control box placed in front of each. At first glance they were similar to Despair in size and shape but the similarity stopped at the bow.
Each bow was razor sharp steel, with a ram bolted on the fore deck, in an S shaped curve so that it protruded under the water line perhaps five inches before the boat. That protrusion curved back to the bow, than curved out again at the waterline and finally arched curved back to a reinforced support on the bow.
Each boat had a number painted in red on its gleaming sides. As I looked harder, one of the prows had barbs in it, the others did not, but aside from that they seemed identical.
“Recognize the design?” Wentroth was staring at the boats as were we all.
I paused. “All but the bow.”
“Think back on your classical education, Mr. Phelps. Those are identical to the rams on the bows of the Greek Trireme. It was a brilliant design. Allows not only catastrophic damage in a ramming situation but actually improves the performance of the vessel through the water. You may have noted all the large ships now have bulbs under the waterline protruding forward.” He was leaning forward on the table now, studying the bows, as was Axel. McGrew watched from the door.
He stood up and regarded me a moment. “The Greeks continue to amaze me. They were superb scientists and engineers and philosophers but crumbled so readily before the Romans. There is a myth that the Romans were the builders. The inventors. Simply untrue. The Romans used this design for another thousand years.”
“You design it, Mr. Wentroth?”
“As I said, the Greeks did.”
“But you brought that design to the attention of whoever manufactured this?”
He tilted his head slightly. “I did.”
His cell phone rang on the table behind him. McGrew rose and brought the phone over to Wentroth who glanced at the number calling and frowned. “I appreciate you coming this distance Mr. Phelps, but as you know I am in the middle of a very complex and annoying deal. So let me get straight to the point. I am showing you these vessels so you are aware of the challenge on the Lake Mr. McIsserson now faces. By tomorrow at this time you will receive the initial pleadings we are filing to enjoin your client from abusing people’s rights at the Lake. I also believe that the State Water Board is now in the process of passing new regulations concerning use of Tidal pools. Such as the Lake.”
He looked at me significantly. I said nothing.
“I again urge you to have your client leave off. I have no wish to make life difficult for the old man. My son has twice now been affected by what he has done. By what you are doing, I might add, since I expect that you are not passive in this newspaper publicity nonsense.”
I said nothing but gave him my calm look. He flushed a little. “I think I am being more than reasonable here. If he leaves the Lake for three months, the matter is closed. He can give any excuse to the public he wishes so long as he writes a letter of apology to my son. The letter need not be made public, it can just be shown my son. I…I want my son to know I am taking steps to protect him.”
“Why not just tell him, then? Do you think he wants to see this old man kicked around?”
He flushed more but controlled himself. “I have told my son I am taking action. He needs to see results. He’s like everyone else.” He glanced at Axel and McGrew, then took my arm and brought me away from the bench and to a window on the far wall. He spoke to me in a low tone, still holding my arm. “Can’t you help me here at all? I’m up against the wall with this damned deal, spending fifteen hours a day with accountants and lawyers, have a son who I am really worried about and I just need this to be over one way or another. I don’t want to hurt the old man. Let him have the damned Lake once three months have passed. But I can’t just let my son be exposed to this without taking some action, can I?”
I sighed. “Look, this is only an annoyance to you and, yes, your son is upset and I’m really sorry that had to happen. What happened in that school is wrong and kids can be cruel. But you seem to be escalating this all out of proportion. Who gives a damn what the old man does on the Lake? What do you care if he’s there next week playing this game? Maybe I can get your son a written apology. But he’ll never leave the Lake voluntarily.”
“I need action to show contrition on his part. I need to show my son that it’s more than words.”
“Are those your son’s demands? Or yours? I don’t think your son needs to have the old man humiliated, does he?”
“Leaving the Lake for three months is not humiliation.”
“If it didn’t matter to him it wouldn’t matter to you. It’s defeat for him. And victory for you? Is that what this is about?”
“It’s about my son.”
“Is it? Maybe. But not all.”
He let go of my arm. “I can’t believe you are turning down this offer. You know the resources that will be brought to bear. You know your client is breaking the law…”
“He is not.”
“Not yet, technically, but he is assaulting innocent people on the Lake. Can’t you see that? What’s wrong with you?” He shook his head in exasperation, glancing at Axel over my shoulder.
He opened his mouth to continue but his cell phone rang again. He looked at the number, punched a button, said “I’m with you in a few minutes,” listened a moment, then hung up and looked at me again, eyes squinting as if I was some odd animal. “Are you really going to advise your client to reject our offer?”
“I have to discuss your offer with my client. I have no authority at all. But to ask him to give up the Lake for three months is unlikely to work. It’s become his whole life.”
“He can have it again in three months. And write a letter of apology. Or he can fight me in court, at the State Legislature and on the Lake. I don’t see how anyone that is sane would reject this offer.”
A knock at the door. McGrew looked at Wentroth who nodded and opened the door. Two men in suits entered. Attorneys or CPAs, I was sure. Wentroth shook his head slightly at me. “I hope to hear from you tomorrow. I hope this matter can be closed. Mr. McGrew will give you his cell phone and you can leave any message you wish to leave.”
He studied me a moment longer, didn’t like my expression, rose and joined the men at the door. The three of them left without another word. I looked at Axel who just shrugged and wrote his cell number on a small slip of paper.
Three hours later I was sitting with McIsserson in his basement living room and looking at Despair, wondering why it seemed different. Was it a bit longer than before? I stared at it a bit, then noticed McIsserson looking at me with a slight smile. We were sitting at the card table he had put up for his meals now that Despair permanently took up his dining table. His just finished dinner was shoved to the side next to the tools he had put down when I came down the steps.
I put down the mug of coffee Sally had given me when I entered upstairs. McIsserson and I sat alone in his apartment. I had outlined Wentroth’s offer while McIsserson stared at the coffee mug cupped in his hands. He seemed quite subdued. When I was done he leaned back in the chair.
“Apology? You mean for sinking the boat? That don’t seem quite right to me.”
“If that was the only problem, we’d figure out some wording. The real problem is three months away from the Lake…”
“Can’t do that…”
“I know that. We could get it down to two months but…and this is gut more than anything…I don’t think he expects you to and does not really want a settlement. I think he wants to keep going.”
“Of course he does. Describe the bows again?”
“He’s got a merger going on. He’s a busy man. Don’t know why he’s pushing this so hard. Says it’s his son…the kid was beaten up…but I’m not convinced as to his motivations.”
“I am. He wants to sink me. No genius thinking needed there. He can hardly wait to try. I get that.”
“That’s not the message he gives to me.”
“You ain’t the one he’s talking to. He’s talking to me. Describe the bows, will you?”
“Greek warship bows. The big curved rams, most of it at the waterline and below. Huge.”
I thought back. “One was a little different. I didn’t study them that long. Think it had a slightly different shape. Barbs?”
He studied the coffee in his mug and said nothing.
I leaned forward towards him. “This is show time. They’re going to hit the Lake, hit us in court, hit us in the State administrative agency, perhaps call the police, try to get Arnold moving again on his petition. Full court press. It’s going to cost you thirty thousand dollars or more in the next six weeks.”
He nodded again, still looking at the mug. I waited for any comment then continued. “I think I can beat him in court. He’ll argue we are a public nuisance. The law is iffy for him. And that process will take some months in any event. It will cost you but they have a lousy argument about public nuisance, the State is the one to take action if there is a nuisance, or the police if there is danger to the public, neither are now acting. I don’t think he’ll get an injunction.”
He looked up, nodded, then looked down at his mug again. I kept going. “The State may close the Lake to you but that’s several months of process and I don’t think the State’s very enthusiastic. Neither is Arnold. So…what I am saying is that if you can afford the fight, we can either beat them or stall them for some months. What I can’t do is help you on the Lake, itself. I think Wentroth knows that. I think that’s what the show and tell at his plant was about.”
“Yes. I can see that.” He blinked several times and shook his head as if dizzy. He sighed, then looked up at me, waiting for more.
“From his point of view, the tactics are complete. In medium or long term, he plans to crush you in two different forums, the State Agency, and then the court with the attempt at a conservatorship and seeking an injunction. Sooner or later he gets you off that Lake. But the immediate step is a different battle ground. His plan is to sink Despair before the other matters come to a head.”
A silence. Then he squared his shoulders. “OK. Got it. I got to win on the Lake or what you do won’t matter. Got it.”
“And he’s ready to roll. Those boats will be on the Lake in a day or three. And if you sink those, he’ll build a dozen more. You understand that.”
I noted that his forehead was wet with perspiration and he used his free hand to mop his brow. It didn’t seem that hot to me but I hadn’t been carting that boat around all day. He breathed deeply for a few moments. Then he looked up and smiled. “Got it. Well, he can bring them on. Three dozen for all I care.”
I leaned back. “That’s what you want isn’t it? You and Wentroth, one of a kind.”
He put the mug down carefully on the table, then looked at me. “Six months ago I was an old man sitting on a damned park bench waiting to die and not much caring if I did. Next week I take on this rich young genius in a big time contest of skill. Hell, before year end I’m dead anyway. I think…I think this is a great way to go. Go down fighting, I say. The hell with him, the hell with all of them.”
He saw my expression and it angered him. “They want me off the Lake. Let them try. You and me are a team. We’re both damned good at what he do. Let them try.” He slapped the table, then smiled and gazed at Despair. “And if he is as young and arrogant as I think he is, then this is going to be a hell of a lot more fun.” He grunted in laughter.
“And his kid? Where does he come in?”
His gaze shifted to me. “He ain’t doing it for the kid and I’m not attacking the kid. He just don’t want people to know that. This…contest…is too juvenile for a big time man like that. He’s got to go to a golf course or a yacht club and be dignified and all. But what he really wants…well we both know that, don’t we? And it ain’t too juvenile for me.” He stood up, picking up a screw driver and ignored me while he fiddled with Despair.
Chapter Twenty One
Wentroth’s attorney, Sutter, had his process serve deliver the petition seeking an injunction a day later. It arrived on my desk about mid day with a hearing set for Friday, two days away. Such a petition for an injunction is set by the court with a priority since the petitioner is claiming need for an immediate court involvement to protect life or property.
I leafed through the sixty pages quickly. As I expected, he claimed a dangerous public nuisance on the Lake which endangered the public which the court should enjoin. The law took up thirty pages, declarations under oath from witnesses and experts the other thirty pages. An ex parte motion shortening time had granted the quick hearing date. He was seeking a preliminary injunction and if granted, the court would grant a permanent injunction only after a much longer hearing to be held in a month or two. Our task was to survive the preliminary injunction and all other work in the office had to stop for that.
Sutter included a handwritten note with the pleading, addressed to me. It said I could still talk directly to the client should I wish. Wentroth was waiting for my response.
No surprises and I thought he was dead wrong on the law. Only the State should have the right to seek to stop a public nuisance. I had heard nothing from the State or the DA and Arnold was equally silent.
Clearly Wentroth’s only immediate chance for action would come from this private law suit. And I thought we could probably beat it.
I called in our usual litigation team in the office, two younger attorneys and a paralegal and clerk and assigned out the tasks, one attorney researching the law, the other attorney, paralegal and clerk tasked with getting declarations from witnesses as to the relative safety of the combats on the Lake and the support McIsserson had from the elderly on the Lake. We’d attached all the articles from the paper.
Since the burden of proving the need for an immediate injunction was on Wentroth, all we had to do was create a reasonable doubt of the validity of their claim in the judge’s mind.
Given the lack of time, they rushed out of the office to the Lake to get declarations signed and the other attorney was drafting our opposition papers within the hour. I called Charlene and let her know the hearing had been set and she said they’d be sending someone. I sat at my desk and thought for a while, then called Sally who told me McIsserson was at the Lake of course.
“I’m phoning you, actually. They have filed a petition for an injunction. Trying to get your Dad banned from the Lake. It’s set for Friday in the morning. I was wondering if you and your family would be willing to come to court to support your Dad in this.”
Silence. I tried again.
“Wentroth has filed a sixty page brief against us and half of it is declarations from people saying your Dad is a danger, crazy, vicious and unpredictable. You and I know that’s simply not true. Wentroth needs to convince the court a crazy man is on the Lake rather than an ornery old codger who likes combat on the Lake who has found hundreds of people to join him and root for him. No one has been hurt but him and he has a fort now to protect him. Wentroth doesn’t’ t care about truth. You know that.”
A pause. Her voice became small. “I’m just not sure that it’s good for him to be doing this.”
“Neither am I. But it’s what he wants to do and he’s your family. I’m not asking you to testify. Just to be there to show the judge he is not some old nut living in a one room walk up and eating dog food.”
“I’m not sure the rest of my family would come.”
“Ask them…but I bet your kids would. They would love the show.”
She laughed bitterly. “I’m not sure if they wouldn’t be on Mr. Wentworth’s side. They don’t like me not cooperating with him. Dan thinks he could get a job out of it, maybe.”
I studied my ceiling and spoke very carefully. “You’ve got to live with yourself. He’s an old man. He won’t be here forever.”
“I know, I know. I see him taking pills all the time. I worry about his heart. His dad died from a stroke you know. So did his mom.” Another pause. “I’ll think about it. Maybe I’ll come. I have to think about it.”
“That’s all I’m asking now. But do let me know.”
I called my paralegal on her cell phone. She was still on the way to the Lake. “When you get there, get Ramsey in here. I may need him to be able to testify at the hearing if the judge takes testimony.”
I sat and thought some more and picked up the receiver again. I called half a dozen organizations for the protection of the rights of the elderly and two agreed to send someone to the hearing to voice support if needed. I called two model boat organizations. They weren’t open on weekdays but had voice mail. I left messages saying it was an emergency and unless they wanted boats banned from Shaw Lake we needed their support.
I thought some more. Then I called Axel’s cell phone. He picked up right away.
“Mr. Axel. We are rejecting Mr. Wentroth’s offer, of course, as you knew we would.”
“Sorry to hear that, Mr. Phelps. But I’m not surprised.”
“Nor disappointed, I would bet. Those boats were made to be used.”
His laugh was deep. “Must admit have some interest in seeing what we can do with them. I know it’s like a kid’s game but me and McGrew…well, we have some interest in taking on your client.”
“You may not get a chance. Your boss just dropped a massive brief on me trying to stop the right to use the Lake. The hearing’s on Friday. Wanted you to know.”
There was a long silence on the phone. When next he spoke his voice was a bit stiff. “Well, Mr. Wentroth certainly has the right to do that.”
“No he doesn’t. He’s going to lose. But I just wanted to ask you something. Why make the boats and why are you training if he is going to stop the contest before we get a chance to see who can win this? Either he’s simply making my client waste money in court to force him to the poor house and expects to lose or he expects to win and he just made all your effort useless. I don’t get it.”
His voice was cautious. “You cover all bases in a fight.”
“Well, please tell him this. That we are confident about what will happen in court but suggest we see what happens on the Lake first. Tell him his son is unlikely to be comforted by a piece of paper handed down by the court, now is he?”
I waited a long minute for an answer. “I’m not the one to say that kind of thing to him, Mr. Phelps.”
“No, but I am and you’re simply passing it on. He’s bringing a gun to a knife fight, isn’t he?”
He laughed at that. “I could see you saying that.”
“If this is to show his son who’s boss, all it shows is who has more money to buy lawyers. Not sure that’s really the message to give and not sure there’s anyone there who can tell Wentroth that he’s wrong about anything. So, let me do that through you. Might be fun for you.”
“Might get me fired.”
“No way. He respects you. That’s clear. But…maybe some things are to be proven without money being the operative tool. Maybe he needs to think about that. When were you planning to launch on the Lake?”
“Saturday. I was to tell you when you called. One in the afternoon. Tell your man to be ready.”
“High noon. OK, you tell your man to let us. We’ll be there. And…”
“I know you personally wouldn’t be trying to stop us in court. You don’t have to say anything, but I know you know this isn’t the way to do it.”
Silence. Then, “Good bye, Mr. Phelps.” The line went dead.
I grinned. Let Wentroth stew on that.
The rest of the afternoon was spent putting other matters in a state where I could concentrate on the hearing on Friday. With three dozen cases active, one does not just ignore them even if a case is on the front burner. It was past closing time and I was agreeing to a continuance of a deposition with opposing counsel when Stacey, my paralegal, came in with Ramsey, raised her eyebrows at me behind his back, and closed the door to my office quietly while he took a seat. “Going home,” she had mumbled as she closed the door.
He was in a faded denim jacket that day, jeans that were a bit dirty, running shoes and a baseball cap that read, “Giants.” He looked around my office openly as he sat, agreed to drink coffee with me, and by the time I came back with coffee for both of us, had completed his examination.
“See you like boats. Just like McIsserson.”
“Yeah, but I don’t try to ram other boats. And I like the quiet of sailing.”
He nodded, smiling. “Yeah, well maybe you’re not proving anything. Just enjoying it.”
“Maybe McIsserson has to use his boats to prove something.”
“I’m sure you’re right. Were you always the philosopher?”
He laughed. “They sure didn’t call me that in the military. Called me a lot of things but not that.”
“Why are you helping my nutty client?” I had planned that blunt question and was curious as to how he would react.
He instantly sobered. “Nutty? Naw, I don’t think he’s nutty. Tough to deal with, maybe. A little…little conceited maybe. But he knows what he’s doing.”
“Really? You mean sinking boats on a pond?”
“That’s not how he puts it.”
“You’ve discussed this with him?”
“We spend a lot of hours together in the cab. Taking the boat and fort home. We get to talking. He’s not a bad guy.”
I pondered that a bit. “How does he put his motivations?”
“He thinks he’s making a stand. A stand.”
“On a damned pond in the Park.”
“Yeah, I said that. And he said a stand is a stand and it don’t matter much where you make it. You carve out a place and you make your stand.”
He studied me a moment. “Easy for you. You prove yourself against lawyers all the time. Was easy for me. At least once was. You win or you’re dead with what I did. But give yourself another few decades, when people don’t want you much anymore cause you’re too old to fight…maybe you’ll get him better.
“Do you? Can you explain?”
He leaned forward. “Not sure I can, really. I just know it. I’m not good with words. But a man…or a woman, I guess, but more with a man…well, you got to know you matter. Somewhere, some place, you make your place, state your position, prove you can hold your own. You get that?”
“Well, that sometimes ain’t possible when one gets into the ashbin of society. When you’re crippled or old or sick or just not considered worth a damn. We don’t treat old and weak with much respect. Not here. And…”
“And maybe this is him saying he has a place. A place he picks. For himself. And if we try to pull it away, well, he’ll fight for it. I don’t know. Maybe.”
“And you? Why are you there?”
He sat up straight. “He’s right, that’s why. He damned right. He matters. He ain’t something to be dusted and ignored.”
“That’s him talking about his daughter. And that’s bull. She loves him.”
“Love is not what we’re talking about. It’s…maybe respect. Maybe understanding that you don’t just sit around and wait to die, you keep doing, keep moving, keep…” He hesistated. “Oh, hell, I don’t know. I just think he has a right to be what he is. That’s all.”
“You know why I asked you to be here?”
“You need my Silver Star to impress the court so that McIsserson is not banned from the Lake.”
“That’s about right. Both in a declaration we file and to be there and let the judge see you. He’ll have the news articles about you already. We need all the help we can get.”
“That Silver Star thing is bull shit, you know. I got it by pure luck.”
“I’m not surprised at you saying that.”
“Some men really earned it. I was just at a place that was dangerous when some big wigs happened to be nearby. That’s all. Just doing what I always do and half as much as others did who got nothing.”
“It will still matter to the judge.”
“Yeah, I get that. Just don’t want to make too big a deal of it.”
“Let me call my wife to explain why I’m going to be late and let’s start working on the hearing testimony and your declaration, OK?” I rose.
“Before you do…” he hesistated.
“Ain’t none of my business but have you seen anything about his health that concerns you? I mean, he don’t look so healthy to me.”
I sat down again. “I really couldn’t discuss his health with you, Mr. Ramsey. That would be privileged.”
“Well, as I said, it ain’t my business. But he don’t seem healthy lately. Not even as good as he was some months ago. I think he might want to see the doctor about his heart.”
“Yeah. I’ve seen this before. Hell, half my friends have keeled over. Can’t be too good for him sitting in that hot box all day long. I never see him eat. Just rushes out to the john. I just want someone to know this.”
“Have you talked to him about this?”
He laughed. “Are you kidding? He’d bite my head off.” He chuckled at the thought.
In the hallway I called Helen. She was commuting home and I could hear traffic in the background.
“Understood. No shock.”
“So, the war began today. Hearing Friday, whole office working on it. I have to prepare a witness tonight.”
“Yep. And I think we can beat it back. Sorry won’t be home until late.”
Her laugh was forced. “Or tomorrow night, I expect. Good luck, hon.” She started to say something, stopped herself and hung up.
Chapter Twenty Two
Sutter and I had argued cases against each other once or twice. He was not the regular attorney for Wentworth or his various companies but had been brought in by Wentroth for this matter alone. He nodded to me and may have winked as McIsserson and I shoved our way through the crowd to sit at the defendant’s table before the judge.
In court, Sutter was intelligent, soft spoken, calm and charming. He specialized in corporate litigation and I was a little surprised that Wentworth would pick him for this odd litigation. His moving papers filed with the court, undoubtedly drafted by one of the three associates sitting with him at the table, were well written, avoiding the weakness of their attempt to usurp the role of the State by constant references to the danger that McIsserson’s actions caused the children in the Park. “It is only a matter of time until severe injury is caused to a child playing in the Park as this motorized steel vehicle continues to tear around a public Pond long frequented by families with young children.” That sort of thing. He glossed over the fact that the City had no jurisdiction over the Lake and that a private individual, such as Wentroth, had no standing to bring an action, only the State Attorney General could.
His underlying tactic was to terrify the judge into overreacting and granting the preliminary injunction. Even if the injunction was later overturned, it would get McIsserson off the Lake, avoid an unsafe condition and avoid having the judge later labeled as someone who allowed a child to be maimed.
Our tactic in our brief was to convince the judge that the situation was quite safe, the only person injured had been McIsserson, and that the judge would be publically overturned by the upper courts since clearly standing was inappropriate. We hinted that he was being set up to be a lackey of Wentroth. “Aside from a single individual whose own combat ended badly, there have been no public complaints and no effort by the State of California to seek an injunction. No one aside from this one individual has complained of imminent harm. The newspapers have featured this innovative and exciting series of contests. Despite the wealth of certain individuals who may consider themselves as equivalent to the great State of California, this is not a matter rightfully brought by citizens, wealthy or not. If the State has a problem with what is occurring on State property, it is up to the State to bring the action.”
That sort of thing.
To my surprise, two of the model boat clubs had half a dozen members each present in the court room, T shirts proudly proclaimed their membership, which were televised by the two television cameras in the court room. The other press was represented by Charlene with her ever ready notebook and a few other reporters from local weekly newspapers. A business reporter from a national magazine was present but clearly only to poke fun at Wentroth and was interviewing the boat club members. Half a dozen elderly from the Lake, including Ramsey, and perhaps fifty other people who were just curious onlookers murmured together in the back of the crowded court room while in the hall louder voices could be heard from that crowd.
Wentroth was not present. Sally and her family were not present. Axle and McGrew sat next to Sutter and the three associates at the plaintiff’s table, both men dressed in tight fitting suits that made them clearly uncomfortable. In that regard, they were like McIsserson who was next to me, dressed in his best suit pursuant to my strict demands and sat fiddling with his out of date tie with an exasperated glare at the entire court room.
This was back in the days when our Superior Court was in the City Hall building, an ornate art deco structure with lovely oak paneled court rooms with decorated ceilings, musty smelling padded chairs, faded state and American flags flanking the tall walnut judge’s bench behind which the Judge presided. No air conditioning and huge floor to ceiling windows along the sides with curtains a bit tattered. The windows were open on this warm Friday morning. With the crowd in the room, it was still too hot.
The room was filled beyond capacity that day and many in the hall were pushing at the door. The elderly bailiff looked apprehensively at the Judge’s door to chambers as he tried to direct people behind the wooden railing which separated the front third of the room. Before that bar sat the attorneys. Behind stood or sat the public. Once called, the attorneys and the clients would sit at tables just before the bench, plaintiffs on one side, defendants on the other. The tables were also oak, scarred and pitted by decades of nervous counsel arguing before the judge.
Whenever the television cameras would swing in his direction the bailiff pulled in his stomach and stopped his pushing of the crowd, smoothing out his worried look. Since the cameras were constantly scanning the court room, he was having a difficult time doing his job and posing. We were the first case on the calendar that morning and the many other lawyers with their own matters sighed and grumbled as it became clear that our case would take up much of the morning while they waited. A few of them grinned at me and McIsserson. They were going to enjoy the show. Sutter sat conferring with his associates in a low tone.
I stood and motioned to Ramsey to sit at the table with McIsserson and me. Might as well have a Silver Star recipient at our table. He had also worn a suit at my request, this one a bit cleaner than McIsserson’s but big on his shrunken frame. I moved closer to McIsserson as Ramsey pushed open the gate to the bar. The bailiff came over to stop him but let him through with a glance at me. Ramsey seemed intimidated by the noise and bustle. Sutter glanced up then watched him closely as he sat on my left, McIsserson on my right.
I leaned towards McIsserson and whispered. “Stop looking like you eat children. Relax. Smile. You’re on TV and I need people to like you, not fear you. Remember?”
He grunted, looking around with a grimace that he thought was a smile. I sighed and leaned towards Ramsey. “Glad you could make it. You won’t have to do anything but look kindly and involved. The reporters will know who you are from the past stories.”
He had a pale sheen of sweet on his forehead. He nodded, looking nervously about. Then his eyes rose above me looking at something. I turned in the chair and Sutter was standing before our table. The three of us stood up.
He held out his hand to me. “Counsel. We seem to have quite a crowd. I am looking forward to this. I hope you will introduce me to your clients?”
“Of course. Mr. McIsserson, Mr. Sutter, counsel for Mr. Wentroth. Mr. Ramsey, Mr. Sutter.” We all stood stiffly and all shook hands.
Sutter smiled. “Mr. McIsserson, I may be your opposing counsel but I have to tell you that Mr. Axel and Mr. McGrew seem to be great fans of yours.”
McIsserson looked over at their table where both men were watching. McIsserson’s’ voice was loud and harsh. “Then tell them to come to the Lake and let’s have it out there. Not here in this circus.” Axel smiled and nodded. McGrew gave a nudge to Axel and he dropped his smile. The associates smirked.
The loud murmuring subsided as Judge Benson entered, glared at the cameras, then sat down. Sutter moved back to his table.
I saw that the judge looked miserable. Judge Benson was in his mid fifties, distinguished looking, indeed handsome, appointed to the Bench by a conservative governor and reelected by the city populace who liked his background in the district attorney’s office. The entire bar knew that he loved presiding at complex civil and criminal trials but after a heated argument over assignments with the head presiding judge, was apparently punished by being assigned to Law and Motion for a term.
Law and Motion was the only court room restricted to only hearing legal motions. It never had trials. Each day three dozen matters would be heard by Benson who, with three attorney research clerks, was expected to rule on the motions. Injunctions such as those sought by Wentroth, were considered equivalent to law and motion and usually ended up in his court room.
So a judge who loved long intricate trials instead spent long days considering arcane law and motions and listening to attorneys plead their arguments five hours each day. Surprisingly, most of us attorneys felt he was quite good at it, taking the job seriously, though clearly not enjoying it much. He perhaps considered it a form of penance to be performed with suitable determination. He was not brilliant but was smart and seldom lost his temper.
He was also a political creature, fully aware that in our City judges were elected and bad publicity could have him knocked right off the bench at the next election. I knew that our case was a time bomb for him. Wentroth could contribute to an opponent for his judgeship more money than Benson could ever raise but the newspapers could destroy him if he was unfair to an elderly man just having fun in the Park. Yet, if a child was hurt it was even worse. Being overturned by an appellate court was also a black mark for a judge and the law was pretty clear that Wentroth had no standing to even bring the motion.
Not an easy case to survive intact. The cameras and reporters clustered about the court room only made it worse.
He fiddled with some papers on his bench, not looking up for several minutes while the bailiff continued to shove onlookers behind the bar and clear the aisle, muttering “fire code, fire code” as he pushed several people into the halls. The sound abated as he hurried back to his position near the judge and Benson looked up, glancing at Sutter and studying McIsserson. McIsserson lifted his head proudly and stared right back.
“Call the calendar” the Judge said to his clerk, still looking at McIsserson. While the clerk read all the cases pending that day, in the order they were to be heard, various counsel behind us would indicate to the Court whether they were ready to argue or whether they wished a continuance and estimated the time for their arguments. The Judge wrote down their time estimates since he intended to hold counsel to them, sent some of the parties to other court rooms which might have a judge free to hear short arguments, and glanced at McIsserson from time to time. The cameras were turned off during this routine process and some of the press people went out to the hall way where smoking was still allowed in those far off days.
Ramsey had calmed down and was watching the court reporter work on her machine and McIsserson was sketching possible battle maneuvers on the pad of paper I had given him in the event he wanted to write me notes during the argument. I felt that calmness overcome me that often occurs when preparation is done and it is time to argue or put on a case. That was always the best part of the job.
My outline of argument was in a folder in front of me, binders containing expert opinions and witness declarations to my right, additional legal cases on standing summarized and put in order of relevance in a folder to my left. I felt ready and reasonably confident.
At last the Judge leaned back, sighed, and listened while the clerk read out our case name and both Sutter and I stood to read our names into the record. I sat and Sutter remained standing to begin his argument. The Judge leaned forward. “I have read your briefs, gentlemen. I do not want merely an oral recitation of what I have already read. If you have additional arguments to advance, please do so. If you do not, please rest your case.”
Since he always said that at the beginning of oral argument, it did not faze Sutter. He paused while the television people scrambled back to their cameras and we could hear the soft whirring of their machines. He raised his hand gracefully, his other hand in his pocket.
“Your Honor, I will not repeat the facts of this case already summarized in our briefs. I wish to emphasize that this is about the safety of children and their parents on a public park in the middle of San Francisco. There is a tendency to treat this as an amusing spectacle, the foible of an elderly man of eccentric whims. It is not. It is the planned and continuous utilization of a dangerous instrument on public premises whose sole purpose is to cause destruction to property and now endangers the physical safety of the public.”
Sutter looked over at McIsserson who had stopped drawing battle plans and was glaring at the lawyer. “I do not presume to speculate as to the motivations that have caused this man to undertake such reprehensible and dangerous activities. Nor do I wish to speculate why his destructive, indeed vandalistic game seems to intrigue certain portions of our society. He is certainly free to engage in such blood sports on private premises devoted to such games or to public spaces that might be legally put aside for that purpose with due process. What I argue here is that his unilateral attempt to convert public use to private gaming is not only illegal but dangerous and must be halted before someone is injured.” He said all this staring at McIsserson who stared right back.
Sutter turned to the Judge. “How would the court, how would the public react if some child, God forbid, loses a hand or fingers as this floating sword skims by the shore? How would we forgive ourselves that happenstance?”
The Judge was expressionless. “Counsel, do you have something to say about standing? I am well aware of the potential danger but I am equally aware that the State is the entity charged with corrective action, not this Court.”
The cameras whirred.
“Indeed I do, Your Honor,” Sutter quickly said, as he picked up another folder on his desk. He seemed a bit flustered by the abrupt cut off of his eloquence. The Judge was having none of it. Good.
“Mr. Phelps argues that standing belongs solely in the public realm, is the prerogative of the State. But when matters of public safety are concerned, the law is clear that other forums may take remedial action to safeguard the…the condition of the public.” He was leafing through his case folder, looking for his cite, his careful preparation disrupted by the court’s interruption. The judge watched him coldly, then turned to me.
“Counsel, are you contending that standing should prohibit this Court from protecting the public?”
I leaped up at this chance. “Your Honor, you of course should protect the public. But, of course, that is a nonsensical argument drummed up by my worthy opponent to evade the real issues at Bar. There is no public danger.”
The Court looked at me archly while Sutter pulled a case out of his folder and turned, a bit flushed.
The Court spoke before Sutter could. “No, Counsel? No danger at all? I presume you examined the pictures in the brief of Mr. Sutter showing the bow of the vessel?”
“An artfully done picture, Your Honor, and I expect the same camera man could have made my pencil appear a lance.” Some laughter behind me and I rushed on before Sutter could speak, “The Court should consider the following. Six or more months of this activity. No one hurt. Aside from my client, attacked by children. The vessel is in the middle of a Lake that no one is allowed to swim in…”
“Counsel postulates no one is allowed to swim in it. But no one is allowed to sink model boats in it, either. That is small comfort, relying on the law, given the actions of Mr. McIsserson in violating it.”
“Law violated? What law? The whole problem confronted by Mr. Sutter is that there is no law that applies to the Lake that this Court can impose.”
The Court waved his hand dismissively in my direction. “Let’s have Mr. Sutter finish his argument.”
I sat down, still breathing a bit hard, and Sutter fussed a bit with his papers, then began again.
“Your Honor, the danger to the public is not ancillary to the question of standing. Standing is a doctrine that involves identifying the party who is the correct one to bring an action. That concept is broadened in certain circumstances involving clear and present danger as described in the Mallon case…”
The Judge interrupted again. “That case involved an explosives factory, did it not? You contend that this contest on a park pond is equivalent to the danger of an unlicensed explosive factory, counsel?”
“I do, Your Honor. For the child who may be injured, every bit as dangerous.”
There was a moan of derision from the audience and the Judge looked up frowning but did not indicate to the bailiff to take any action. “Go on, counsel.”
“We are not objecting to the right of the State to control use of the Lake. Indeed, we encourage them to take corrective action and our client has begun those actions necessary to promote that result. We are stating that we have a clear and present danger here and while the State moves in its rather ponderous way to take action, this Court, to protect our citizens, must take preliminary steps to protect the public.”
“Including exceeding my jurisdiction, counsel?”
“Your jurisdiction is not exceeded if you are protecting public safety, Your Honor.”
“I see. So if I decide that the Federal government is endangering the public by building a weapons base on Federal land close by, then you state I can issue an injunction?”
“The Federal government is not an old man usurping a Lake.”
“Agreed. But both would appear to be acting in areas in which I have no jurisdiction.”
“Your Honor, with all due respect, there is a danger exposing the people of this City to harm and the State has not taken action. Whether explosives or a razor sharp motorized device, the law imposes upon this Court the duty to act. I refer not only to the Mallon case but the Ramonsky case as interpreted by the Third Court of Appeals.
The general theme in all these cases is the same. The overarching need for the Court to protect the public is not to be restricted by relatively arcane procedural requirements. Here, with a pressing public danger, if we fail to act waiting upon the State, we actually ignore the duties imposed upon the Court.”
What many attorneys fail to do is watch the audience listening to the argument. So caught up in the prepared agenda, attorneys plow along without regard as to whether the argument was working. You can always tell a good lawyer by his or her concentration on the face of the Trier of fact…here the judge.
Sutter was good and noted the judge becoming impatient with him repeating the same theme. He immediately moved to more contested areas. “Mr. Phelps argues that the danger is not acute and implies that a different photographer would have made this weapon into a harmless toy. Nonsense. The vessel is almost four feet long and requires a cart to move it about due to its massive weight. Stainless steel, welded with a special ramming bow. To compare this to a toy boat is to compare a submachine gun to a cap pistol.”
He was getting to the judge with this, I saw, the judge leafing through the brief to gaze at the picture of Despair. Sutter also saw that and pushed harder. “Your Honor, if we were only speaking of a man whose boat intentionally rammed toy boats, I could see some hesitation in whether the Court should take immediate action despite the jurisdictional questions. Here, we have a vessel, a weapon I should say, specially constructed by an expert…for Mr. McIsserson was in the welding business for thirty years or more…and made for the sole purpose of destruction. Any boat…a child’s paper boat, we may imagine…is to be subjected to the onslaught of this custom built weapon. The police are helpless due to jurisdictional issues. But we must act."
“And let me emphasize that this is for Mr. McIsserson’s protection as much as the children’s. He has already been to a hospital due to conflict between himself and a teenager. He faces danger each hour that he is out there attacking the beloved boats of children and teenagers. He cannot sit in the metal fort forever. Summer is coming, It will become an oven in there. You must act to protect all the public…including this misguided elderly man.”
“Crap,” muttered McIsserson loud enough to be heard. The judge glanced at him in annoyance and I kicked McIsserson under the table.
“Perhaps a hypothetical situation would best illustrate the situation. We see a house smoldering. It will soon burst into fire. We have phoned the fire department but they have not arrived. We see a police officer and ask him to enter the premises to warn the occupants. He rings the bell but they do not answer. At that moment, the smoldering fire seems to go out, there is no more smoke.
Shall we then walk away? Shall we state that no one has been burned yet? Shall we say that the fire department may solve the problem when they arrive on the scene? Shall we say we have no right to enter the premises since probable cause has been possibly extinguished? Shall we let the occupants suffer whatever fate awaits them?"
“Or…” and here he turned and looked at McIsserson and, not incidentally, towards the cameras, “shall we say that good common sense must prevail over legal niceties and there may be lives at stake? Shall we say that we can take the chance of being considered in violation of breaking some minor civil trespass laws but the dangers are great enough that it warrants extraordinary action? Shall we say that our task as good citizens is to protect our fellow citizens…even from themselves?”
He turned back to the judge. “Your Honor, the law grants you broad discretion in this matter. Once the State acts you may withdraw from your involvement but until it does, the cases and commonsense coalesce in what your actions should be.”
The judge had his chin on his fist and was regarding him steadily and with clear interest. Sutter saw that. He was smart enough to sit down without further argument. The judge did not move his head but moved his eyes to me.
I waited the ten seconds necessary to build the suspense, rose and moved to the space between the two tables facing the Court, leaving my notes back on the table. I locked my eyes on the judge “Mr. Sutter’s eloquent presentation is inaccurate in two vital areas, Your Honor. The law and the facts. First, the law. As the Court has noted, jurisdiction and standing is not a minor issue to be put aside at the discretion of a particular jurisdiction. It is the axis of the power of the judicial body. It is not self imposed. It is created by statute and by precedent. And it does not exist in this instance however Mr. Sutter exaggerates the danger existing on the Lake.”
“I should do nothing?”
“You can do nothing. They have no standing to even bring this action. And without that standing, you have no more jurisdiction as to this matter than a court in Indiana. Consider. Assume a tourist of note from Indiana advises the Indiana court that he intends to swim in this Lake. Assume that court concludes that Mr. McIsserson’s Vessel of Death (snickers from the audience) poses a danger to a swimmer. Assume the Court in Indiana is actually quite correct. Does that mean that a judge in Indiana can enjoin Mr. McIsserson because there is a danger? Of course not. The body of the State…here a state agency… must make that request of the Court, not any citizen who wishes, and that standing is vested with exclusive jurisdiction precisely to avoid conflicting rulings and claims of power. That is as central to our body of law as statute itself.”
“And if the State does not act?”
“Then the redress is to seek an injunction to force the State to act, not to seek to have you usurp the States power.”
The judge nodded at that, and made a note. I was winning. “Now let us discuss the danger. I won’t dwell on the fact that all sport entails some danger and that using Mr. Sutter’s analogy, football, baseball, basket ball, and, Lord knows, Hockey would be banned since danger to the participants is at issue…”
The judge interrupted. “We are not speaking of participants. We are speaking of innocent bystanders, are we not?”
“Innocent swimmers may be in danger but since no one has swum in that Lake for the eighty years of its existence, that is not to be treated seriously. And if one of the innocent bystanders is a passenger on the two or four foot boats, perhaps they are in danger. Other than that, the action takes place in the middle of a Lake and that, sir, is why not a single person has been injured in six months of this activity…”
“Yes,” said a voice from the back, one of our supporters.
The judge held up a hand and addressed the assembly. “This is a court of law. You will remain quiet or you will be removed. I will not warn you again.” He turned his eyes back to me.
I kept going. “This Lake, for better or worse has become a forum for jousts. Perhaps the State should have already set that up. Perhaps it will. There are half a dozen other lakes in the Park that could be used for sail boats and this one may be set aside for contests. The State may be already considering that move. We don’t know and the State will eventually decide. But to suddenly claim that these contests represent a danger to life and limb is ridiculous and the type of panic and exaggerated thinking that one would not expect to influence the Court.”
He regarded me, face blank. I kept going. “Indeed, Your Honor, standing is particularly questionable here. I put it to you that Mr. Wentroth is not only a willing participant in the jousts, but has built three vessels to challenge my client within the next few days. He is not here because he objects to the contest. He is here because he lost the first contest.”
Sutter leaped up. “Your Honor, this is entirely improper. We have no authenticated evidence before the Court as to the existence of these vessels, even if it was relevant.”
“Your Honor, those two gentlemen at Mr. Sutter’s table can confirm what I state. I expect they will soon operate the vessels that are at issue here.” I turned and dramatically looked at them and noted the cameras moving to McGrew and Axel. The two large men looked at Sutter, unsure what to do and I looked at the judge who was looking at both of them, eyes narrowed.
Sutter leaned towards the two men and they conferred in low tones. The entire Court room was buzzing and the judge looked to the bailiff who said “Quiet!” several times. The noises subsided. The Judge turned his attention to me. “Counsel, I saw no declaration as to the existence of these vessels in your responsive pleading. I am not happy to be presented with evidence at the last minute.”
“I did not fully comprehend the nature of this nascent challenge until after the pleadings were filed, Your Honor, but if you wish to swear me in…as well as these two gentlemen…you will substantiate my claim.”
“I would object strenuously, Your Honor,” snapped Sutter. “This is frankly outrageous and beneath Mr. Phelps I would have thought. This is not an evidentiary hearing.”
“I don’t blame Mr. Sutter for wishing to avoid this testimony, Your Honor.”
The Court held up his hand. “Enough, counsel. Enough.”
But Sutter was too upset to heed. “Your Honor, even if my client is building vessels, that is to be expected since if the Court will not protect his son’s boat or the State take action, he should take back the Lake.”
“Take back the Lake” shouted a voice from the rear and the court room burst into laughter.
“Let them fight it out,” shouted another voice.
The gavel came down hard and the Judge looked to the bailiff. “Remove those persons immediately, bailiff.”
He then turned to Sutter even as the bailiff moved to the audience section. “Let’s see if I have this clear, counselor. The danger is great. The public is endangered. But if this Court does not grant your request, your client intends to begin to compete with his own fleet of boats, having that contest on the Lake, and somehow that will eliminate the danger?” His voice was dangerous. I had heard that tone once when I had failed to file a paper on time and was whining with excuses. Sutter knew that tone as well and was pale.
“Until the Court grants our injunction, what else is he to do?”
“Petition the State, if he feels it is a danger,” I broke in. “The point I make, Judge, is that if Mr. Wentroth sees this as a dangerous past time, he is not acting it. He is acting as one who wants to play the game but wants the ref to stop the opposition.”
Sutter moved closer to the Bench. “Your Honor, the situation is becoming out of hand precisely because Mr. McIsserson won’t stop. Ban all this and no one endangers the public on the Lake.”
“Danger?” I interrupted. “Does his building a fleet to compete demonstrate his concern that there is a danger?”
“Counsel I have heard enough,” snapped the Judge. We both stood before him. I had no idea what he was going to rule. And we never found out.
Axel broke in. “Judge, sir, can we talk to our lawyer?” I looked back and he was standing at the table, a cell phone in his hand.
The Judge glared at him. “Is what Mr. Phelps said true, sir? Are you preparing to enter the competition against Mr. McIsserson on behalf of Mr. Wentroth?”
Axel may have smiled but it was suppressed quickly. “That’s what we need to talk to our lawyer about, Sir. Just a minute or two, please? It might solve a lot of this.”
The judge looked at him hard. Then at Sutter and me. Then, “This will give me a chance to discuss a few matters with counsel in Chambers. A thirty minute continuance. Mr. Sutter, join me and Mr. Phelps as soon as you are done with your telephone call.”
He stood, glared at the cameras again, then walked stiffly through the ornate oak door to his Chambers, behind the Bench. I raised my eyebrows at Sutter, turned and gestured to McIsserson and Ramsey to stay at the table, and followed the Judge.
Judges were free to decorate their own Chambers and Benson had lined the walls with law books, had two faded but comfortable padded leather chairs before his large walnut desk and behind the desk, next to the only window in the room, pictures of his children. His ex-wife was not in the picture. On his desk was the usual large computer monitor that was used in those days, an ornate blotter, and a large picture of his true love, his large cruising boat. I knew he was a member of the elite San Francisco yacht club, the San Pedro, and was chairman of their cruising committee.
He opened his robe but kept it on, sat down behind the desk and motioned me to one of the chairs. He saw me looking at the picture. “You own a racer, don’t you, Phelps?”
“Out of date racer, now. But used to win some races.”
“Me, I like cruising. Getting out on the Ocean. Away from lawyers.” He smiled slightly but I thought he was not joking. We chatted about boats for the next ten minutes and I wondered if Sutter was going to keep us waiting much longer. Not a smart thing to do with a judge hearing your case.
Sutter came in, looking flustered. The Judge nodded to the other chair and Sutter sat. The Judge looked at me. “So, what the hell is this all about? Are we just playing for the publicity, here?”
“I can’t speak for Mr. Sutter. I can tell you that my client has no interest in publicity, just wants to get back to the Lake and do his thing. I can’t believe everyone is making this into a huge issue. It’s a model boat banging into other toys, for God’s sake. I think Mr. Wentroth needs to find better use for his litigation budget.”
“He has,” broke in Sutter.
We both looked at him. He shook his head slightly and continued. “I am instructed by my client to drop the Petition, Your Honor. Immediately. We have so indicated to your clerk. The Petition is now withdrawn. My client regrets any inconvenience to the Court.” He started to say something else, saw the judge’s expression, and stopped.
I said nothing, just leaned back in the chair.
The Judge drummed his fingers on the table a moment, then started to speak, paused, then stated, “I want Mr. Wentroth in this Court room next Monday afternoon. I intend to ask him some questions. Mr. McIsserson will also appear.”
Sutter was sweating slightly. “Your Honor, I happen to know Mr. Wentroth is currently in Chicago. I believe he returns tomorrow but I do not know his schedule…”
The Judge leaned forward. “Let me be clear to both of you.” He paused and chose his words carefully. “ I am not pleased with this nonsense. This circus. It is a waste of our resources. If your client feels there is a danger, he should not be dismissing this action. If he feels there is no danger, he has wasted a great deal of time and money and much of it was my time. I intend to ask him about that and will ask him about that Monday afternoon. Is that clear?”
Sutter looked miserable but he was not giving up. “Judge, I don’t believe you have jurisdiction to order my client to appear. He has dismissed the Petition. He is, effectively, a stranger to the Court at this time. I do not mean disrespect but I simply cannot commit to him appearing on Monday. He is not in the court room so this cannot be treated as contempt of court and…” He stopped seeing the Judge flush red.
I said nothing. I thought Sutter was probably right, Benson had no right to order Wentroth to do anything. He could issue a subpoena in a case but there was no longer a case pending. The matter had been dismissed. Sutter had been smart to do that before coming into Chambers. Smart lawyer. I could see Benson coming to the same conclusion and he flushed even redder, his fingers drumming again as he thought it out.
Sutter watched the Judge’s face. “I’m sorry, Your Honor. I know this must make you furious. I am instructed in no uncertain terms. If it matters, I remain convinced the petition should be heard and granted. “ He glared in my direction for a moment, then looked back to the Judge. “This is not my choice nor my recommendation.” He leaned back in the seat.
Benson was a good judge and a smart lawyer. He also knew how to hold his temper. I watched him slowly calm himself down. He looked at me. “So, you win, Mr. Phelps.”
“It’s good to know the Admiral Nelsons of the Park Ponds are safe, Your Honor.”
He smiled slightly. “Yes. But perhaps not as safe as you hope. I expect Mr. Wentroth will be sending an armada against your man, Phelps.”
“I am sure you are right. And, guess what? That’s OK. He’s fine with that. That’s what he wants. The Battle of the Century.” I looked at Sutter. “In the middle of the Lake, safe as can be, with your client a major participant, right?”
Sutter shook his head angrily. “This is not amusing and not a game. Your Honor, I just hope no child ends up in the hospital with one of those boats running about the Lake.”
The Judge leaned forward. “Then bring the petition you should have. Petition for mandamus to make the State take action.”
Sutter shook his head again. “I have no authority to do anything, Your Honor. Perhaps the Court, on its own volition…?”
The Judge leaned back. “Perhaps I will. And perhaps I will make some telephone calls first to see what the State is doing.” He looked at me. ‘You have information on this, counselor?”
“I do not know what action the State is taking.”
“Don’t you agree some rules, some guidelines are required here?”
“I am not saying they are not required, Your Honor. But banning the boats is not the same as regulating the contests.”
The Judge nodded. “Very well. I will let you both know what the State says.” He thought a moment longer. “So, we have a crowd out there with cameras and reporters. Have you told them you dismissed, Mr. Sutter?”
“They heard me tell your clerk, I believe.”
The Judge smiled broadly for the first time. “Then I leave it to you two to explain this nonsense to all of them. For me…I intend to go to lunch.” That was a dismissal and Sutter and I rose and walked to the door. The Judge’s voice behind me stopped me and, given what later happened, bothers me to this day.
“Mr. Phelps, I hope you know what you are doing. I hope you realize what your client is doing. This is not good.”
I looked back but he was already working on an open folder on his desk, not looking up. Sutter and I left the room.
Chapter Twenty Three
Saturday was to be the big day. My boys and I showed up at the Park before the sun was up. I had the photographer that I utilized for court exhibits with me, though he grumbled mightily at having to get up early on a weekend, his long disheveled hair falling around his face as he stumbled about in the dark setting up his tripod. His name was John Petty and he had had some success with exhibitions before drugs knocked him off that circuit. Now he took anything he could get.
I expected Wentroth to bring another petition if he lost his battle on the Lake or to push the State to intervene. I wanted the State to see Wentroth participating in the game to gut his argument. Sutter was now emotionally committed to this case, Wentroth was erratic in what he wanted and did not want, and I needed some bullets in my gun. I knew the first battle had been won but the war continued.
At least that’s what I told myself. I also wanted to see the fight on the Lake and my boys were wild to go, not even complaining at rising before five in the morning and eating a breakfast of muffins in the car as we picked up the photographer and arrived at the Lake before anyone else.
Or so we thought. As we explained the layout of the Lake to John and I laid out my needs I saw that there were two men, dark shapes, across the Lake on one of the benches. I stared and thought I recognized them. As John fiddled with his film case, I told my boys to stay near him and walked over to McGrew and Axel. They both rose as I approached.
I shook hands with each of them in turn, Axel smiling, McGrew looking a little uncomfortable.
“Checking out the playing field ahead of time, gentlemen?”
Axel looked out over the dark Lake. The sky was clear, some of the stars sparking in the still water, the sky beginning to lighten. Slight wind, the Pines and Cypress moving slightly in the breeze. The sound of the Pacific surf could be dimly heard from the other side of the trees. “Well, we’ve been here for so many hours it’s like home by now. But I like to come to the game early…” he grinned at me now. “When I know that it’s game time and my opponent is the pro I need to come to the arena early and calm down.” He chuckled. McGrew said nothing.
“When does the fleet arrive? Don’t see it around here.”
“It’s coming,” McGrew grunted, not liking the conversation.
But Axel was relaxed. “Mr. Wentroth is bringing it, himself, Mr. Phelps. He’s coming. With his boy.”
I raised my eyebrows. “He deigns to participate in the contest, then? We are honored.”
“He wouldn’t miss it for the world,” McGrew said quickly. “He isn’t like you think. He’s a warrior. A fighter. He just figured that court was not the place to make that clear. Words are just words.”
“And toy boats are just toy boats,” I responded.
He didn’t like that but Axel laughed his deep laugh. “You got us there, Mr. Phelps. Sometimes I feel a little silly. But…” he looked hard at me. “I figure maybe you aren’t just here on the clock."
"Maybe…maybe you get what this means. I mean…” He paused and thought it out. “I mean that it really don’t matter where you fight and with what. What matters…is you fight. You take the challenge.”
“You make your stand,” I replied.
He considered that. “Yeah, I guess you could say that.”
“Maybe McIsserson is actually your dad. You sound just like him.”
He threw back his head and laughed at that. “Yeah, a little light complexioned for me. But, well, who knows? But…I guess I know what he’s about.”
“Me, too,” said McGrew. “He’s a salty old bastard but I gotta say it beats playing bingo in a damned church basement like my Dad is doing.” He spit on the ground and sat on the bench. After a moment, Axel sat down next to him and I waved goodbye and walked back to my boys.
Both were selecting our location to view the contest, setting up the folding chairs we had brought, putting out the basket with food and carefully pulling out the binoculars. John had finished setting up his tripod and was wandering around the Lake checking angles.
Jeremy kept looking in the direction of Axel and McGrew. “They’re soldiers, Dad?”
“Once were. Mr. Ramsey says ex special forces of some kind.” I sat down on my folding seat and opened our thermos of coffee.
“What are they doing with Wentroth, then?”
“That’s Mr. Wentroth to you. Providing security, I supposed. And drafted now to handle McIsserson and Despair.”
“Yeah, but how can they do this? I mean, attack Mr. McIsserson for that rich guy?”
“I think that’s unfair. Mr. McIsserson attacked them to begin with.”
“You moron,” Vincent said to Jeremy, “this is a contest. Of course you have to have someone on the other side. Doesn’t mean they’re bad men…”
They began to argue and my mind drifted as the sun rose.
At seven thirty McIsserson arrived with his retinue of elderly helpers including Ramsey. I had not seen how they set up the fort before and had to admire its design. It was constructed of six interlocking pieces and was assembled in less than five minutes. I watched from our chairs as McIsserson put his stool and some bottles of water and a lunch bag inside as well as his two spare batteries they used to keep Despair charged. They went back to the taxi to pick up the boat but Ramsey came over to where the boys and I sat looking on.
“Morning, counselor. Enjoyed your little show yesterday.”
“Well, I enjoy winning whenever I can get it. But it just set up today, didn’t it?”
“You can say that. But, that’s OK.” He looked across the Lake in the early morning sunlight. “Those our boys over there, right?”
“Yep. And Wentworth himself is coming with his boy.”
“You said to call him Mr. Wentroth,” my oldest interrupted.
“I’m older than you, son. I can call him anything I want.” We all laughed.
Ramsey studied the men, his face calm and considering. I thought that was how he probably looked out over the enemy when he was in the service. He saw me looking at him and winked. He slowly walked back to the fort.
Despair was brought in its trolley and slowly launched into the Lake. It somehow seemed bigger in the early morning light and McIsserson had polished his vessel to a dull gleam.
After launching the vessel, McIsserson glanced in my direction, hesistated, then came over. He was in his uniform, overalls, watch cap, heavy sweater, work shoes. He also studied the opponents across the Lake. Axel waved. McIsserson did not wave back. He looked at my boys.
“Hello, Mr. McIsserson,” Vincent said. “Good luck today. We hope you win.”
McIsserson nodded at him, then addressed me. “I just want to say I appreciate what you did yesterday. I heard what you said.”
“I’m paid to be on your side, Mr. McIsserson. You’re going to like what I say in any court room.”
“Yeah, well, the important thing is the judge liked it.”
“We’ll never know. He didn’t get a chance to make a decision.”
“I saw how he looked at Sutter. Was going to chew his ass off.”
My boys giggled at that. He ignored them. “And you sounded pretty much like you were convinced I was right. That’s what I heard, anyways.”
I sighed. “I think…I think you have a right to make a stand. To decide on your stand and make it, maybe. I don’t know if this one makes sense, but I don’t like Wentroth and what he’s doing.”
He studied the men across the Lake some more. “What he’s doing? He’s fighting. Like he should. I got no problem with that. A fair fight is what I want.”
“With his money, the fight can never be fair. Money is power, especially in the courts. He uses all this weapons and money can buy a lot of weapons. He doesn’t care if you have equal money…he’s not after a fair fight…he just intends to crush you with the money he can bring to bear. That fair?”
“Well, you won didn’t you. Maybe money isn’t always enough.”
“He isn’t done by a long shot. We have to keep at it. We have to keep pushing back and being smarter and more efficient than he is…”
I stopped because McIsserson was laughing that grunt like laugh of his. After a moment he stopped, still looking at me, still grinning. “Well, son, I guess we can see what Lake you fight on.” He leaned forward and patted my shoulder and, still grinning, walked towards the fort.
By eight thirty the television cameras and reporters had arrived and were setting up, a reporter from a weekly coming over to interview the old men who had now been joined by some elderly women who were setting up their refreshment tables. By then Despair was in the middle of the Lake and McIsserson ensconced in his fortress. A crowd was gathering around the shores of the Lake. No sign of Wentroth or his son. Axel and McGrew had left the bench and walked in the direction of the road.
I had taken off my sweater. It was going to be a hot day, particularly hot for San Francisco, and I told my boys to put on the sun lotion. They complained, did so, then ran off to wrestle on the lawn on the other side of the Lake. I munched a muffin and saw Charlene approaching, trailing a camera man.
My boys were still playing on the grass so she plopped down on the seat next to me. The crowd was in the hundreds by then, many with chairs like ours, people setting up picnic clothes and baskets, A buzzing sound of conversation, kids screaming, laughter permeated. The old ladies were already dishing out tea and cookies, the old men in their usual position behind the fort, the man with the binoculars set up and loaning out his wears.
Charlene looked out over the scene. She was in very short shorts. Her legs were her best part, as is usual in very thin women, and she always took the opportunity to display them. She saw me looking at them. “You have any coffee left, Mr. Lawyer?”
“A bit.” I poured her the rest in the thermos. She leaned over to take the cup, brushing against me. She grinned as she saw me move back.
“I see your boys. Where is the glamorous Helen of Oy?”
“She’d rather eat glass than be here today.”
“Think of the show she’s going to miss.”
“She can always see it on television.”
She looked bleakly at her competitors. “As will everyone else. No one will spare time for poor little print journalist like little old me.” She tilted her head in mock sadness.
“So, jump ship. Get on television.”
“Too old and not pretty enough.” She said it simply without self pity, a professional analyzing her own strengths. “So, the big game is today?”
“Looks it. His boys are here and he’s supposed to show up later with his son.”
She sat up. “Really, The Man, himself. Well, that’s good stuff.” She held my forearm for a moment, then rose and rushed over to consult with her photographer. As the hour progressed, I saw her interviewing people, directing pictures, and keeping an eye out for the computer magnet to arrive on the scene.
The sun rose higher, the Lake area become actually quite warm, and the crowd continued to come. No Wentroth, however. Around ten o’clock some middle aged men across the Lake launched a three foot long fiberglass trimaran with a metal ram screwed onto its prow. I suppose they thought its speed would make it a threat. It lasted less than a minute. The crowd cheered Despair in a ragged manner and waited with increasing impatience for the main show.
Two other small boats challenged Despair over the next hour, one sunk quickly, the other scampered back to shore when Despair approached and was held in the owner’s arms out of the water. The next hour four or five additional challengers gathered on the shore but seemed disinclined to enter the water while Despair prowled the middle. One finally did, a tug boat with metal strapped to all of its sides so its speed was glacial and Despair ripped its side apart before it even made it to the middle of the Lake.
The other boats remained on shore. I realized that McIsserson had become so expert that his contests were so uneven as to become boring. I could understand why he welcomed Wentroth and his challenge.
Around noon McIsserson brought Despair back to shore to charge up her batteries and scampered to the bathroom, some reporters following and the cameras recording his every move. My boys were restless and had begun to play a game of chess in the hot sun, shirts off, only looking up when McIsserson would sink a boat. I was in an open necked shirt and sweating on the unprotected shore, kibitzing about the game to their annoyance. We ate our lunch, not enjoying it much in the hot sun.
I wondered how McIsserson could stand it in his metal room. Maybe when old, you don’t get as warm. I was beginning to feel drowsy. I wondered how he stayed awake. Even Ramsey was lying down on the grass near the fort, his hat over his eyes, seeming to nap. Most of the elderly seemed exhausted by the heat, sitting on the benches, not talking much. One of the old women came over holding a tea cup for me. She remembered me from before and patted my hand before she left with the now empty tea cup.
Some of the people began to drift away and one of the two television crews left the Lake. A soft ball game began on the grass behind the fort.
Wentroth finally pushed through the crowd close to one o’clock in the afternoon. McGrew and Axel actually pushed through with Wentroth and his son following. Behind them three other men pulled three covered trolleys-the challengers. There was some cheering and jeers as McGrew and Axel gently but firmly cleared an area near the far shore so that four folding chairs could be brought up. They also pushed away the various reporters smiling politely as they did so. I could see Charlene arguing with McGrew and he ignoring her as he looked over her head to the fort across the Lake. The three men pushed the trolleys to the shore then helped Axel and McGrew keep the area clear of people.
Wentroth was dressed in khakis, sailing shoes, an open necked button down pastel shirt, a Giants baseball cap incongruously on his head. His boy was in the typical jeans and T shirt that every boy wears and slumped into one of the chairs. Even from here I could tell he was dejected and not happy to be there. Wentroth, on the other hand, seemed buoyant, moving quickly among his men as he prepared his launch.
McGrew and Axel both wore their tight fitting T shirts and dark pants, both wore dark baseball caps pulled down low over their eyes. They moved with steady determination, sure in their movements, practiced in their preparations. This was not going to be a toy tugboat operated by a middle aged amateur. I could feel the crowd tensing, the sound they were making diminishing. The softball game continued but its noise seemed out of place now. My boys were quiet, the chess game forgotten as they watched the trolleys moved to launch position.
Despair remained in the center of the Lake, not moving, its motor off. The elderly people were all up now, standing on the shore, watching. Ramsey looked over at me, gave me a victory sign, and then stood near the fort, his log book in his hand.
Wentroth and his son took the two middle folding chairs, McGrew and Axel the end chairs. McGrew and Axel each had a control box in his lap. Wentroth held the third control box and was speaking with his son who seemed to be trying to ignore him. Wentroth shrugged and kept the third box.
The three other men pulled the cloth covers from the trolleys in unison and the crowd gasped as they beheld the three metal vessels. I had already seen them and was a little surprised at the reaction but then realized that the usual challenger was so obviously ill equipped to deal with Despair that to see a specially built contender was remarkable to them. The boats seemed identical to how they looked at Wentroth’s office. Each was numbered one to three in large red numbers painted on the sides. No other decoration. Two had identical large Greek Trireme rams built into their bows, the third, numbered three, had the more complex barbed ram. The three men placed them in the water side by side and stepped back, moving the trolleys behind the seated men and boy.
Wentroth was enjoying the reaction of the crowd and I could see him lean over to McGrew and instruct him as to let some time pass while the crowd admired the trio of vessels. His boy was staring at his hands in his lap. Then, slowly, two of the boats moved forward towards Despair, the third trailing behind.
One and Two were about six feet apart, moving parallel, Three perhaps ten feet behind. Despair’s engine started but the boat did not move. Suddenly perhaps thirty feet from shore, One and Two accelerated and quickly moved apart, now perhaps a hundred feet apart before swerving towards Despair again. The third boat drifted to a halt in the middle, held in reserve. Despair now faced two boats approaching from its far left and far right.
Despair began to reverse slowly, moving back towards the fort. I felt a moment of annoyance. Was this the tactics that McIsserson planned to use yet again? After all this time to plan? The opponents had seen that trick already and clearly had some maneuvers in mind of their own. I felt increasing apprehension. A few shouts came from the crowd but most were quiet and watching.
“Dad?” Jeremy asked, his voice worried. “Is he just going to retreat?”
Despair continued in reverse towards the fort slowly and One and Two accelerated more, clearly planning to cut Despair off. Suddenly, they swerved even further apart, racing along opposite shores, getting behind Despair before Despair could move close to the fort. As Despair swerved to face them, Three began to accelerate though not to ramming speed. She was simply getting into position so that the three boats would entirely surround Despair.
I found I was standing. So were my boys. The only sound now was the motors of the four boats, the crowd entirely silent. To my surprise, Despair continued to back up towards us even as the circle closed. Now One was directly behind her, directly in the path of her retreat perhaps thirty feet away. Despair’s stern faced One which began to maneuver for a ram into Despair’s exposed stern. Two and Three continued to slowly close the circle now surrounding Despair, Three, with its odd ram, still furthest away.
Despair was still slowly moving in reverse but began to swerve back and forth a little, moving its stern to the right and left as One approached to within fifteen feet, One trying to line up on a straight shot at the stern. One speeded up and moved to its right, hoping to crash into the swaying stern when Despair swerved back, trying to time the move. Despair then made its own move.
With remarkable acceleration, Despair moved in reverse towards One, looped out a little and before One could adjust, accelerated to ramming speed and used its stern to smash into the armored side of One. Despair’s stern shattered on the thinly armored beam of One, its own stern pieces falling away…and then we saw the trick. Underneath the shattered stern McIsserson had built an inner hull…indeed, an inner razor sharp ram. The outer shell stern had been made of thin fiberglass painted to resemble steel.
The actual steel stern was inside and had been made with a small ram which now penetrated the side of One, Despair at full reverse speed shoving the ram deeper into One’s side. From the far shore they probably could not see what was happening, the fiberglass pieces still hanging on though broken. Two and Three continued to slowly approach, and suddenly Despair accelerated forward towards them, pulling its stern out of One which wallowed back and forth and began to fill up with water through the hole Despair has put in its side.
The acceleration forward pulled most of the fiberglass pieces off Despair’s stern and it must have become clear to the far shore that they now faced a double ended ram. But by then McIsserson was close between the two boats and, swerving towards Two, it suddenly stopped and accelerated in reverse towards the slower Three with its strange ram. With a clever twist, Despair swerved to the right and then swirled to the left and its small rear ram sliced into Three’s side.
By now the opponents understood what was happening and Three reversed itself, cutting down the pressure of Despair’s ram, and Three twisted away towards the middle of the lake, it’s armor dented and ripped but the boat not holed. Two swerved towards Despair but seeing Three move off, stopped and reversed, keeping its distance. They were going to have to regroup.
One capsized and sank, its engine stopping as the water covered it. I realized that there was cheering coming from the shore, the tea lady jumping up and down, her arms in the air. Both my boys were screaming, pounding each other on the back. I was damp with sweat. I sat down on the folding chair heavily.
Some minutes passed with the three boats sitting perhaps a hundred feet apart, their engines idling at low power. Across the shore I could see Axel and Wentroth with their heads together, consulting.
McGrew must have been operating the now sunken One and had put the now useless control box down next to him and was contemplating the water morosely. Wentroth’s son was looking directly back at me or perhaps my celebrating boys. From this distance I could not see the expression on his face.
I walked over to the fort, shoving through the crowd and came to Ramsey who was writing in the log book at the card table next to the fort. “More tricks coming?” I asked. He looked up, grinning. “Had you worried, didn’t he?” He looked down and continued writing. I touched the metal of the fort. It was hot…almost too hot to touch.
“Does he have any ventilation in there?”
“There’s some slits on the roof. But must be hot as Hell in there.”
I didn’t want to knock on the fort and distract him but I hesistated. “Do you think we should open the hatch. At least let some air in?”
Ramsey looked up at that. He rose and touched the side of the fort. He then leaned towards one of the viewing slits in the front of the fort. “You OK in there?”
McIsserson’s voice was harsh but strong. “Get away from the slit. I can’t see the bastards.” Ramsey straightened, grinning. “I’d say he’s just fine.” He sat down at the table again and finished his entry. I went back to my boys.
Another ten minutes passed. Across the Lake I could see Wentroth, Axel and McGrew standing clustered together now, heads close together, apparently arguing about tactics. And while they argued I noted that Despair was slowly moving towards Two. They looked up just as Despair roared into life heading directly towards Two.
The men raced to their control boxes but not before Despair was in ramming position fifteen feet off the beam of Two roaring towards the unmoving boat. I saw Axel literally dive for his box, push a lever and Two swerved to its left just as Despair hit and what would have been a killing blow only ripped away at some side armor which now hung loose in the water. On his knees, with the control box held at his stomach, Axel accelerated Two close to Three which had yet to move. Despair paused and then slowly motored to the center of the Lake again.
I could see McGrew now arguing with Wentroth. Even from here I could see McGrew wanted the control box and Wentroth was not going to surrender it. Wentroth’s boy was looking at the ground in front of his feet.
“The dangers of divided command,” I muttered.
The divided command must have been extreme for although the two men now sat on their chairs facing the Lake, control boxes in their laps, they were not moving their boats and continued to argue in increasingly loud voices though I could not make out what they said. At last McGrew walked away, his shoulders hunched. I looked at my watch. It was close to two thirty. I looked up as Despair tried another surprise attack, this time at Three but the watching men moved their boats far apart and McIsserson apparently judged the risk too great and reversed back to the center of the Lake.
Another twenty minutes passed, this time with Axel and Wentroth arguing. This was getting boring.
Despair finally motored back to the fort, apparently to recharge its batteries. Several of the men, with Ramsey directing, pulled the boat from the water and attached the battery to its terminals. Ramsey pulled off the last remaining piece of torn fiberglass from its stern.
The hatch to the fort opened and McIsserson pushed past the crowd and reporters to the bathroom. His clothes were dark with sweat, he had not even removed his thick sweater or watch cap. Cameras flashed and I could see Charlene and her photographer close to McIsserson, following him to the Men’s Room. He ignored them, waving his hands in their direction as if they were flies.
I moved to the hatch and was waiting for him when he returned. He didn’t seem to see me, his eyes glued to the hatch. I put out my hand and grabbed his shoulder. His sweater was sopping wet. “Take off your sweater, McIsserson. Are you nuts?”
He stopped and looked up at me. His voice might have been strong, but his face was blotched and shiny with sweat. He blinked at me, not quite focused. “Take off your sweater, damn it,” I repeated.
“Later,” he muttered, and shoved by me into the fort.
I looked up and saw Charlene looking at me. She shook her head with a slight smile and moved off. Despair was back in the water now and McIsserson quickly motored her to the center of the Lake. Across the Lake Axle and Wentroth had apparently devised their tactics since they now sat on their chairs watching Despair. McGrew now stood behind them, arms folded across his chest.
With only two boats they could not really surround Despair who would accelerate out of danger the moment they divided up to try to get on both sides of her. After twenty minutes of this maneuvering I noted that Despair was letting them slowly get closer and closer to her. By then I knew enough of McIsserson to realize that another trick was planned. When the boats were each about twenty feet off on either side of Despair, McIsserson began to spin Despair in her own radius, the water spraying high in the air, the other boats slowing their approach to Despair, not sure what was happening.
The spray became almost a shower of water now, forming a mist in the hot air, and I realized he was creating a “smoke screen,” but with spray. The far shore was going to have difficulty seeing his movements. Axel must have realized it at the same time since I saw Two backing away from the swirling Despair but Three continued towards Despair and suddenly Despair accelerated in its now classic swerving loop and smashed into the slowly moving Three which had not been able to see the sudden movement. This time Despair hit Three hard near its stern, ripping deep into the boat. Two immediately accelerated towards Despair and before Despair could push its bow ram very deep into Three McIsserson had to reverse back and away from Three to avoid Two’s own ram.
Despair whirled about and motored towards the middle of the Lake. Two stayed near Three which wallowed in Despair’s wake. Three was getting low in the water, slowly sinking though the hole was relatively small. I saw Axel shouting something to Wentroth who accelerated Three in a circle, raising its beam higher off the water as the boat heeled in the circle, raising the hole above the water line. Now Wentworth had to keep the boat moving in a circle to keep the boat afloat.
McIsserson saw it at the same time and immediately moved Despair closer to his two opponents, Three moving in a fast circle, Two trying to stay between Three and Despair. Across the Lake I could see that Axel was standing now, leaning forward towards the Lake in concentration. Wentworth still sat and McGrew was leaning over Wentworth’s shoulder and saying something. Wentworth shook his head. McGrew stood straight, shaking his head in disgust.
Despair moved back and forth like a shark waiting for a chance to attack, Axel keeping Two between the wounded boat and Despair. I wondered how long Three could keep going in its tight circle before it ran out of power…and when it did it would sink in minutes. Would McIsserson just wait it out?
I doubted it. No cheap victory for Admiral McIsserson. And I was right. He kept moving forward then back, forcing Axel to keep his boat paralleling his as Three continued its circle. Axel had to watch both Despair and Three at the same time, Three circling, Despair maneuvering in closer and closer swerves to launch another attack at Three. McIsserson suddenly made a dash towards Three, and Two accelerated to its right to block Despair’s path. In doing that, Two’s beam was momentarily facing Despair and Despair reversed hard, made a tight loop, twirled on its axis, and used it stern ram to smash into Two’s exposed side.
Axel had seen his mistake the moment Despair began its reversing movement and was reversing back when the impact came, Its backward movement stopped the relatively small stern ram from penetrating the armor, both boats bouncing away from each other, both accelerating away to get their bearings. A piece of Two’s armor fell off its port side. Wentroth’s Three kept in its tight circle.
“Score one for Axel,” I muttered.
“No way, Dad,” my youngest said. “He still hit Two hard. He’s winning. He always wins.”
I looked at my boys, both standing, intent on the match. My son’s voice was triumphant. Why would he be rooting for that mean old man in the box?”
The roar of engines on the Lake drew my attention back to the battle.
Axel had apparently decided he couldn’t waste his maneuverability protecting Three. He slowly moved towards Despair, clearly planning to challenge the boat in a one on one duel. McIsserson seemed to accept the challenge, reversing away from the circling Three. This was Show Time.
And the crowd knew it. Dead silence on the shore, the only sound the motors. A small wind had come up, was rippling the Lake, but the temperature was still in the low eighties. I reached down and used my sweater to mop my brow and looked at my watch. The match had been going on for over two hours. I didn’t remember any match lasting a third this long.
Two approached in S curves not letting Despair line up for an attack, Two increasing and decreasing the size of its loops at random so McIsserson could not anticipate. Seeing this, Despair twirled on its axis and moved away from Two, though in a straight line. With its stern an armored ram, Despair could afford to expose it to Two and need not back away. Only Despair’s sides were vulnerable and McIsserson was careful to keep the sides facing away from Two. The boats slowly moved in a large circle, Two still swerving as it followed Despair, Despair easily outdistancing the swerving boat in its wake.
Despair and Two both ignored Three who would sink as soon as its batteries ran down and it could no longer circle. I looked across the Lake at Wentroth who was forced to keep his boat moving in a tight circle. His son was saying something to him. He shook his head. McGrew had moved away from Wentroth, was standing near Axel.
McIsserson made his move. He slammed into reverse heading directly towards the swerving Two which also sped up towards Despair. Both seemed to have the same tactic in mind, each waiting until about five feet from collision then swerving to its own left to loop to get a beam shot of the other so that they suddenly each shot away from each other at the same moment. There was some laughter on the shore as the boats increased their distance after the aborted attacks. Axel immediately began swerving again towards Despair. I then realized they had not recharged Wentworth’s fleet. Axel must be worried about his amount of power left and figured he had to move quickly. Did McIsserson realize that? Would McIsserson back off and let Two run out of power along with Three?
Whether he did or not, he was not about to avoid battle, that was clear. He accelerated towards Two but as the boats came within five feet of each other, suddenly twirled on his axis so that his smaller stern and stern ram faced Two. Two had apparently planned on a head on collision into Despair’s broad bow and missed the direct hit against the slimmer stern ram. Instead, Two’s large ram scraped along the side of Despair, ripping much its side armor off but sliding past the boat due to its own momentum. At last Two now exposed its lightly armored stern to Despair as Two scraped alongside and then beyond Despair which, already facing the right direction for the ramming, was lined up for the perfect stern shot.
Despair accelerated full speed before Axel could turn his boat away and Despair smashed full tilt into the stern of Two. The two boats floated together locked, Two already beginning to fill with water and sink.
The crowd cheered and shouted. But I was watching across the Lake where Wentroth now stopped circling and moved his water logged Three as fast as it could go towards the two boats locked together.
The crowd quickly realized the battle was not over and quieted as Three accelerated to its maximum waterlogged speed while Despair, still locked together with the sinking Two, tried to wiggle free. Just as Despair came loose Three hit its side. But by then Three was so low in the water it could barely go at half speed and instead of a smashing hit, the boat simply bumped hard against Despair.
But this was the ram with the barbs and they easily penetrated the thin and damaged side armor of Despair and held tight. As Two filled and sank, Three used its weak power to push harder against Despair’s side, working the barbed ram deeper into the boat. No longer with its holed side above the water, Three was lower and lower in the water and I wondered if both boats would end up being pulled under. McIsserson must have wondered the same thing since he was starting and stopping Despair’s motor, trying to shake loose of Three. With the wild gyrations of Despair, Three began to shift further back alongside Despair and its side was bouncing against the aft beam of Despair, its barbs bending the armor of Despair, pulling it further from the hull as the two boats bounced together.
That’s when Wentroth blew the boats up.
The papers later called it a massive explosion from a device inside of Three. It wasn’t like that at all.
Indeed, it was a relatively weak explosion which didn’t sink Despair at all, though it blew Three in half and that boat immediately sank. Despair heeled far over on its right side away the explosion and wallowed there, its entire port side blackened and with armor peeled back in all directions. But she had no large holes beneath the waterline and did not seem to be immediately sinking.
The crowd had been silenced by the sound of the small explosion except for someone screaming on the other side of the Lake. I looked up and saw Wentroth’s boy standing in front of his father, hands down at his side, screaming “Cheater, cheater cheater,” at the top of his voice, over and over. Wentroth was staring at his son, the control box still in his lap, just staring. The boy’s voice became even shriller and louder.
I heard a moan from the crowd. I looked towards Despair. She was not sinking but the explosion must have jammed her rudder over. She now could only move in a tight circle and her engine seemed to have been damaged as well, she was barely making headway. Another piece of her side armor fell off and sank.
Wentroth’s boy kept screaming but now his words had become one long wail. Sometimes they were interrupted by gasping sobs. He just stood there, hands still down at his side, wailing at his father who had stood up and was holding him by the shoulders trying to calm him down. Axel and McGrew stood nearby, watching.
Some minutes passed. My boys were quiet as was the crowd, watching Despair helplessly circle. She wouldn’t be able to get to shore, I realized. She would circle in the middle until out of power.
No she wouldn’t. Already I could see several of the challengers who had stayed out of the Lake before Wentroth arrived scrambling to get their boats launched, scrambling for the honor of being the boat to sink Despair.
“Assholes,” my eldest said, watching them. I realized he was crying. I reached out and held his shoulder. That’s when we heard a single clang from inside the fort. I looked over and Ramsey was looking at me. I ran to the fort and he rose from the table so we came to the hatch at the same time.
I yanked it open. The reek inside was overpowering, the smell of vomit, urine, feces. The sound had been the control box hitting the side of the fort when McIsserson dropped it. He lay huddled in the far corner, the side near the Lake, face pressed against the wall of the fort, almost in a feudal position, his stool knocked over. It must have been over a hundred degrees in that box, his water bottles were empty and laying on the floor.
There was no room for two inside the box so I reached in and pulled him back from wall and he fell back onto his back, his shoulders half way out of the hatch. Vomit and spittle was on his chin, his eyes rolled back in his head, his clothes sopping with sweat. Ramsey and I pulled him out of the hatch and onto the ground. I heard my oldest start to scream, “No, no, no.” Several in the crowd around us were saying the same thing.
Ramsey and I knelt on either side of McIsserson. For a moment his eyes seemed to come back to consciousness, he began blinking rapidly and for a moment I think he saw me kneeling over him. Did he smile? Was it a grimace of pain? I don’t know. He said nothing. His eyes rolled back again. Ramsey pushed me aside and ignoring the vomit and spittle began mouth to mouth resuscitation. I looked up at the crowd. “Call 911, I shouted. “Now. Now!” Several of the elderly women were crying but the tea lady waved at the same cop I had first met who was standing nearby.
“911,” she screamed.
He pushed through the crowd, saw McIsserson with Ramsey giving him CPR, and pulled out his radio.
I looked back towards my boys but could not see them in the gathering crowd. I pushed my way back to them. They both were standing near the chairs, shifting from foot to foot, eyes wet and wide. My oldest grabbed my hand, looking at me.
“It’s going to be OK Dad, Don’t look like that. It’s OK.”
And I was supposed to comfort them. I found I could not easily talk. I mumbled that we should pack our things. We folded the chairs and moved them a bit further from the increasing crowd gathered around McIsserson. We stood there, doing nothing, seeming incapable of doing anything. Across the Lake I noticed that Wentworth and his people seemed to have left. I couldn’t remember when I stopped hearing his son screaming.
After what seemed a long time, I told my sons to stay put and pushed my way through the crowd again.
Ramsey had been replaced by the cop who was giving CPR. Ramsey sat at the card table, hands loose in his lap, face dead white. He looked up at me. He shook his head slightly and looked down at McIsserson who seemed to be inert. In the distance I heard a siren.
Chapter Twenty Three
It wasn’t like in the movies.
The earth didn’t stop because McIsserson died two days later.
Wentroth didn’t give up his business and join a Monastery. Instead he built his business into the fifteenth largest computer manufacturer in the world and sold out to one of the biggies and was rich beyond imagining.
His son didn’t become a basket case. He graduated with an MBA and went into his father’s new business, a software design company. True they had a falling out later, fighting in the courts for years. I doubt if the incident at Shaw Lake was the motivating factor.
Helen treated me with tender regard when the boys and I staggered in that evening. She looked at my face and held it in both hands. “I heard on the radio. It is not your fault. Do you hear me, not your fault.”
Then she hugged me tight. Four years later we were divorced anyway. Her dreams didn’t seem to be mine.
My boys and I stayed close but they never brought up McIsserson and neither did I. They both ended up in college then in the professions so I guess Shaw Lake had little lasting effect on them.
Nor was there really that much of a furor in the press despite the exploding boat of the famous business magnet. Maybe it would have stayed alive as a story, but the United States invaded Iraq for the first time a few months later and that monopolized both the news and the attention of all the people.
The State did ban motorized boats from Shaw Lake the following year but no one seemed to care much.
I certainly didn’t.
I never heard from or saw Ramsey again. Perhaps a year later during a commute home, on a whim I stopped the car and walked up to the Lake. It was a Fall day, wind cold, fog beginning to come in from the Ocean, half the sky white. The trees swayed in the cold wind, the Lake was a maze of ripples.
The Lake was largely deserted. A few elderly people sat on the park benches, staring out over the Lake, some talking quietly to each other. Across the Lake, near where McIsserson had kept his fort, a small child and her nanny were trying to retrieve a toy sailboat near the shore, using a stick they had found. I didn’t recognize any of the old people. Helen and the boys were waiting at home so I left.
It was during the third year of the second Iraq War when I received the letter and enclosure from Axel. It was postmarked from Baghdad and the return address showed he was a sergeant now. I had heard somewhere that he had reenlisted but had never expected to hear from him.
Greetings from the pit. Pretty bad here and getting worse but so it goes. You will find enclosed a Purple Heart. It’s my third so I figure I can spare one. I know it’s an imposition but I’ve been thinking a lot about that old man. Bothers me during the night sometimes. I think we brought a gun to a knife fight, right? Don’t feel right about it and told McGrew and he agreed. Don’t know what happened to him, he stayed on with Wentroth after I quit. Anyway, I think I owe something to that old man and you’re his lawyer so maybe you could put this on his grave or something? I think he would like that, maybe. My dad would have. If not, no big deal, just keep it and I’ll pick it up someday.
He was one hell of a fighter, you know. He sure took us down. And we weren’t slouches. Bet he liked that. See you around."
I think Axel was wrong. I think McIsserson would have thought the medal was foolish and a waste of time.
I put it on his grave anyway.