December 2003 Indianapolis, Indiana
The instinct for justice is rooted so deeply in the human soul that even the finest law schools can’t eradicate it entirely. Not quite two years after MacKenzie Stewart’s phone call, Rep Pennyworth would find that noble truth highly inconvenient.
“Reppert, I’m calling with bad news,” was how the call started. “Vance Hayes is dead.”
“What’s the bad news?”
This wasn’t a joke and Stewart didn’t laugh.
“He tabbed you for the eulogy,” Stewart explained in his chiseled voice with patrician gravitas. “Last time we updated his estate plan, after the diabetes hit.”
“That bastard,” Rep muttered.
“In re: Hayes, ‘bastard’ has already been done. Try to come up with something a bit fresher for the eulogy. In causa mortis and all that.”
In causa mortis—in contemplation of death. Requests made with the River Styx lapping at your wingtips and Charon’s barge looming into view command special deference.
“They must have caught the diabetes very late,” Rep said. “I didn’t think it was terminal as long as you took care of it.”
“The diabetes didn’t kill him,” Stewart said. “He took a small hours snowmobile ride over something called Lake Delton in Wisconsin Dells. Three sheets to the wind, left the snowmobile, hit a weak spot in the ice, and plunged through. It took them two full days just to fish his body out.”
# # #
“I don’t suppose you could say no?” Melissa Seton Pennyworth frowned when her husband gave her the news. “Considering that Hayes tried to destroy your legal career and everything?”
“Some Indiana lawyer has to give the eulogy, and Hayes did something nasty to every attorney who crossed his path.”
“You’re a saint,” she said, kissing him on the forehead. “Or a wimp.”
“I exclude wimp a priori, without consideration of any evidence.”
“Your dogmatism is charming.”
“I know Ken Stewart has sent you some nice trademark work, but I’ll bet a lot of lawyers would have refused anyway.”
“Stewart is the one who saved my bacon on the complaint Hayes filed against me with the bar disciplinary committee. That was before Hayes took his trust and estate work to Stewart, so he didn’t have to recuse himself.”
“I didn’t think it was that close a question,” Melissa said. “All you did was take a deposition when Hayes didn’t show up. It wasn’t your fault that he didn’t bother to open his mail and read the deposition notice.”
“Hayes denied ever getting the notice, although our file said it was properly served,” Rep said. “They could have spun it Hayes’ way if they’d wanted to. The gentlemanly thing for me to do when Hayes didn’t appear and didn’t answer my phone call would have been to postpone the deposition. But law firms pay second-year associates for zeal, not manners.”
“And Stewart was the one who precluded the unpleasantness and expense of a full-scale inquiry?”
“The way the story came to me, staff counsel summarized Hayes’ complaint for the disciplinary committee. Everyone waited for Stewart’s comment, because he was the senior member. His reaction was what the New York Times bashfully calls a ‘barnyard obscenity.’”
“Two earthy syllables that combine rustic elegance with Midwestern resonance?” Melissa guessed.
“An ear-witness told me that Stewart said it with that genteel, old-money, Groton-Yale-Virginia Law School éclat that no one does better than MacKenzie (please call me Ken) Stewart. Sort of like the Upstairs half of a Masterpiece Theatre presentation. ‘Bulllllshit,’ with the voice going up a bit flippantly on the second syllable. Someone said, ‘Second the motion,’ and that was all she wrote.”
“I see the impossibility of your position,” Melissa said. “But can you come up with anything nicer than ‘bullshit’ to say about Hayes?”
“That will be a challenge. I’ve called Polly Allbright, the secretary who worked for Hayes for over thirty years.”
“Hated his guts. I asked her if there was anything warm or human or decent he had done that I could talk about. She thought for about ten seconds, sighing audibly. Then she said, ‘He let me smoke at my desk.’”
“Not terribly promising,” Melissa said.
“On her thirty-fifth birthday he gave her a Piaget lighter, because he said he wanted her to be thinking of him sometime when she was happy.”
“Well,” Melissa sighed, “that’s a start.”
# # #
The game effort Rep made during the ten days it took to get Hayes’ body back and finalize arrangements didn’t improve very much on that lame beginning. Former Hayes clients whom he managed to track down described the deceased as a soulless legal machine. Hayes’ closest living relative told Rep that she had spoken to Cousin Vance once in the past nineteen years. An attorney who had litigated against Hayes said that if he thought there was the slightest risk of meeting Hayes in hell, he’d step up his church attendance.
Hayes’ brother had died in Vietnam, and Rep thought he might use that to soften the edges of the caricature. But hundreds of thousands of Americans had lost loved ones in the Vietnam War without turning into bastards. In a sense, Rep had lost his own mother to the conflict.
Nine days later Rep was still poring through three manila folders worth of Hayes files. His legal pad held only thirty-seven words, none of them promising. Rep leafed again through the top folder. A bullying letter to a local bookstore threatening a class action unless he were given the Loyal Patron Discount despite his paltry actual purchases. Pamphlets from anti-tax organizations. Travel agency billing records. Three pages of—
Whoa. He turned back to the billing records. In the last twenty-two months of his life Hayes had made seven trips to Singapore, Hong Kong, and Bangkok—not obvious off-season destinations for an Indianapolis attorney with a bread-and- butter litigation practice. A tiny gleam of hope briefly flickered. Something interesting? A late-blooming fascination with Eastern religion? An unsuspected taste for Southeast Asian art?
The phone rang and Rep grabbed it.
“Hank Llewyellen, returning your call,” the voice said briskly. “Thanks for calling back.” Rep recognized the name of a lawyer who years before had managed to last eight months as Hayes’ associate. “I’m looking for something decent I can say about Vance Hayes for his eulogy.” “Good luck. Can’t help. Goodbye.”
The next day, Rep fell flat on his face before the eighty members of the Indiana bar who bothered to appear in one of the courtrooms where Hayes had browbeaten scores of witnesses. After twelve minutes of thudding and leaden banalities he abandoned the lectern to damn-with-faint-praise applause, wondering if Hayes himself wouldn’t have preferred that Rep offer instead several examples of the small-minded pettifoggery and mean-spirited malice that had studded his career.
“I’m surprised you didn’t mention the Leopold order,” Allbright said, to Rep’s mystification, when she bumped into him on the way out. “But I guess you can’t put lipstick on a pig.”
Rep found little consolation in the well-meant (if baffling) comment, and still less in the reassurance Stewart offered him on the way to the cemetery.
“No one could have surpassed the presentation you gave,” Stewart said as his Chrysler Imperial joined the funeral procession.
“That’s the most elegant D-plus I’ve ever gotten.”
“You have to play the cards you’re dealt.” Stewart shrugged. “Your task would have been challenging under any circumstances, but the existential absurdity of the way he died made it impossible. A plunge through thin ice during a midnight joy ride, with Jim Beam as accessory before the fact. It was as if Hitler had been run over by a bus. You were like a Greek chorus pushed on-stage during a French farce.”
“You’re right. He died in Nunn Bush dress shoes and a Brooks Brothers sport coat, with a shoehorn in one pocket and nine thousand soggy dollars in another. As accidents go, it was absurd.”
“And suicides aren’t terribly useful eulogy material.” “Suicide?” Rep asked in surprise. “Drowning yourself in icy water seems like a pretty complicated and unpleasant way to take your own life.”
“Not conscious suicide, maybe,” Stewart said. “Hayes hated the idea of living with diabetes while he played out his string. The police report computed his blood-alcohol level that night at point-oh-nine—legally drunk. In that condition he sometimes tended to pull off-the-wall stunts, death defying in the literal sense—challenging Death to come dance with him if it dared.” “The wrong guy gave this eulogy,” Rep said. “That was better than anything I managed.”
Rep didn’t buy “legally drunk.” He remembered Hayes at half-a-dozen Judges’ Night receptions and State Bar Convention cocktail parties. Hulking, leather-skinned, owl-eyed, all but bald, two hundred thirty pounds of muscle, bluster, and bad manners, downing a Jack Daniels neat, immediately ordering another, and telling the bartender to have a “traveler” ready for when the chimes summoned everyone to dinner. In a Wisconsin police report, Vance Hayes with a point-oh-nine blood-alcohol level was legally drunk because a statute said so. But in real life Vance Hayes at point-oh-nine was stone cold sober and meaner than a New Orleans madam on the first Friday of Lent.
Twenty-five minutes later, Rep watched as Hayes’ mortal remains were consigned to the dreamless dust. Watched junior ROTC cadets present arms and expertly fold the flag that had draped the coffin. Heard “Taps” played on a boombox, buglers being hard to come by these days. Watched the funeral party straggle uncertainly away.
Nagging at the back of his brain was a pesky whisper that something was wrong, some detail a bit off. But he brusquely expelled the notion from his disciplined mind. Not because the cold or the emotion of the day distracted him. He just didn’t care. He’d failed and he wished he hadn’t, but now it was over and he just didn’t care.