Bitten by a Shark
It is supposed to be simple, at least in theory. Two strangers are pulled suddenly and somehow into one another’s field of gravity. Their orbits intersect and a relationship or sorts is formed. Now the parties are no longer strangers. Each now in the eyes of the other the bearer of reciprocal rights and responsibilities. The alchemy which transforms strangers is the law, and the law is expressed in rules. Want to see magic? Watch the rule of law at work.
The law often made Jonathan Reardon’s head hurt. It wasn’t so simple. There was harmony in the law, to be sure. But there was so much hurt, and searing pain.
The pain started for Reardon in law school. There were long nights, nights he sat squirreled away in dark corridors of books called stacks. He’d sit reading cases, trying to discern the permanent in the never-ending sea of facts thrown his way. The library would close, and he’d trudge home through the dark streets of Hartford. The trees now mere shapes bearing principles somewhere beneath the bark. Would he ever see the real form animating them? And then at home, reading, reading, reading, and the taking of reams of notes. Sometimes fatigue would yield subtle deception: Is the print on this page really blue, or green or tinged with red? The page now held to a lamp, and the appearances undecipherable.
Something like despair cracks the skull of every law student. So many rules, and an infinity of cases swirling, churning and always beckoning. When has enough been read to really discern the law’s contours? At what point can a confident conclusion be reached?
And then the bar examination. Reardon took a course to prepare for the two-day ordeal. He had graduated from law school, but was still not deemed fit to sit with a client and throw darts at law’s board. To earn that right one must pass another test, the bar exam, a line that separated spectators from participants in law’s dance.
The bar review course taught him a sobering truth. The rules can be stated clearly and distinctly. It took a month or so of cramming these sugar plums down his mind’s gullet to prepare for the test. So long as he did not vomit them out before the bar exam, passing was possible. So why law school, then? Or was it the bar exam that was unnecessary? Another sinkhole; always questions without answers.
Reardon passed the bar exam the first time he took it. Soon, he began to meet clients, and suddenly his world was simple. There was no longer a distinction between that which appeared and an underlying reality. There were no deeper truths or underlying structures yielding patterns or intuitions of the divine. If God was silent, so too were the demons who made him seek a harbor in life’s storm. The world was now rendered in primary colors. He was a painter, a pointillist. Law’s rules were his colors, and his clients came to be painted in the hues of their hopes and dreams. He gauged success not in terms of justice achieved, but rather in his clients’ sense that the law had responded to their visions of themselves.
It was simple. At least it was simple for a decade or so.
"Merlin Shank on line three," Amelia buzzed him. Reardon was typing a brief and the call startled him.
"As in The Shark," Reardon responded. He was surprised. Merlin wasn’t actually a legend. He was a little young for that. But he was notorious. Appearing in court against him was a little like going to a fun house. Sure, each room had walls, a floor and a ceiling. But Merlin’s house was no home to most litigators. He was a wild man, through and through, as inclined to give a closing argument while standing on his table as he was to whisper imprecations into the ears of his adversaries while the jury was present in the room.
"Jon Reardon," Reardon thought it sounded businesslike and self-sufficient to answer in this manner.
"Hey, Jon. It’s Merlin Shank," at once self-important and ingratiating. "I need to see you. Can I come by," a slight crack now in the facade. "It’s, well, it’s a matter of some urgency."
"Sure, Merlin. Let me check my calendar," Reardon said reaching for a diary.
"Well, Jon, I’m just around the corner. I can be there in five minutes," Shank said. No request. A simple announcement.
"Sure, sure," Reardon said, suddenly intrigued and put out at the same time. "C’mon by."
The Law Offices of Jonathon Reardon and Associates was easy to find. It was located on the corner Main and Vine, Katy-corner to the Superior Court. Years before, it had been a clothing store. But Reardon bought it for a song, renovated it and put his name in big letters across a new frosted pane glass window. There was enough space for his secretary, a paralegal and a couple of young lawyers. Reardon’s office was in the very back. He had his own door so that he could come and go without having to engage in small talk with his employees.
"Thanks for seeing me, Jon," as always, Shank was impeccably dressed. A Brooks Brothers’ suit, fancy-looking wing-tipped shoes and a regimental tie. He looked like a barrel of expensive wine.
"I need to engage your services," Shank spoke so quickly, Reardon never had a chance to be gracious about this unexpected imposition.
"Well, what’s the issue, Merlin?" Reardon asked. He made it a point never to take a case until he knew what his client wanted. It was safer that way. Some clients did not want their lawyers to succeed; all they wanted was a whipping boy, someone to scream at who was required to listen. Reardon had learned through hard experience to reject the cases of such clients.
"I want you to hold this in trust," Shank said, sliding an envelope across the table.
"Hold it unless and until something," he paused now, looking somewhere within himself for a word to bridge the gap between bravado and terror, "unless and until something happens to me."
Reardon left the envelope laying on his desk.
"Are you in some sort of trouble, Merlin?" Reardon sensed something like panic.
"Jon, I trust you. I need you to do this for me," Shank said, and he reached into a coat pocket for a wad of bills. "Here’s a retainer. Nine thousand in cash, Jon. No need for a contract in this case." Merlin wasn’t leaving a paper trail. No need to report a cash transaction to the federal government, so long as the sum did not exceed $10,000. And the lack of a written contract meant less bait for other sharks trolling in Merlin’s wake.
"I’m flattered, Merlin, I really am," said Reardon, all the while thinking that $9,000 about covered a month’s expenses. "Can you tell me more?" Was Shank trying to entrap him? Caution, caution always when a fellow lawyer offers cash.
Merlin paused. He shook his head no and began to speak.
"This is privileged, right?" Shank asked.
"It is if you tell me you are engaging me as your lawyer, and not as a mere acquaintance," Reardon caught himself. Never call a client a friend, he reminded himself.
"Have you been reading the papers?" Shank asked, eyes darting in search of ghosts.
"Well, yeah, but ..."
"Lester Fuchs is missing. He was murdered. It is that simple. This envelope would permit the police to close the case," Shank said. "However, you cannot disclose it to anyone unless something happens to me, do you understand?" Shank urgent now.
"Yes, but ..." Fuchs, the son of Associate Justice Harmon Fitzgerald, had been missing now for months. The press reported his disappearance; gossip had concluded that the boy had been murdered.
"There are no buts about it, Jon. I did not commit a crime, nor am I involved in any fraud. There is nothing in the envelope that taints me, or will taint you. Understood?" Shank said. Urgent now. "You have my word."
Reardon was approaching comfort until all was staked on Shank’s word.
"Well, this is most unusual," he said. "Let me think on it." A warning bell was sounding somewhere over the horizon.
"Of course," Shank said, "this retainer," pushing the bills closer to Reardon, "will be replenished with a like sum periodically. I need you to hold this in trust for no more than three, maybe four years."
In the moment Reardon hesitated, Shank was on his feet and out the door. The cash was left on Reardon’s desk. A new client; a new relationship between rules now to be strained and sifted through the law’s rules.