Chapter 5: Truly Powerful Men

Downtown, in the supposedly straight-laced Central Business District, the tall office buildings and more conservative hotels looked across Canal Street into the French Quarter like a funhouse mirror: the streets that overlapped had two different names and the grand facades shrank down brick-bound balconies, but the traffic was stop and go in both zones and streetwalkers on both sides had a nose for easy money.  Around lunchtime, from the top floors of a stack of offices, one could watch people in miniature rushing to switch sides.  The marketing agents, executive overseers of oil surveys, and associate partners strode in packs towards the entryways of Galatoire’s, Brennan’s, Antoine’s, their throats dry and their business cards crisp.  The Quarter, to offset the load, gave up delivery boys, returned flier-posting squads with empty satchels, and turned away the graveyard shift bartenders who had been spending their tip money into the morning.  The border was free, unmonitored, and straight.  Paul looked down at it through the giant window in the solvent-scented reception area of Hart, Hinckley, & Lebreton.  After a few moments he uncrossed his arms and turned perpendicular to the window, widened his stance, drew back his arms, hands around an invisible three wood.  He followed through at full speed, twisted his torso and held the position, while an imaginary ball landed two-hundred and seventy yards away, bounced off the roof of the Hurwitz-Mintz building and dropped down to the pavement.

“Yeah,” he said.  “That’s the pace.”

The receptionist, a tiny young woman who seemed to be built into the enormous desk and dressed in colors to match the muted décor, called out to him.  Paul held his pose, trying to muscle-memorize it, then turned.  “Yes?”

“Mr. Hart will see you now.”

“He’s not coming out?”

“Um.  I can take you back.”

“I know the way.”

She held out a floppy visitor’s badge with the number 97 printed on it in the most ostensible block numbers possible.  “Can you sign for this, please?”

“Excuse me?” asked Paul, looking concerned.

“Just sign the sheet.  You can clip this anywhere on your clothing.”

“Ah, I don’t think I will, thank you.”

“Sir, every visitor is required to—”

“Paul Hinckley,” he said as if speaking into a voice-recognition phone directory.

She whispered, “Just sign, please,” like it would be a fun icebreaker for them both.

“Hinckley.  Hinckley.  Who do you work for?  Hart, Hinckley, and Lebreton.”

“Actually, I’m employed by a staffing agency, but—”

“And you expect to get hired on permanently with an attitude like—”

“Or, you can just take the badge.  Don’t sign.  It’s fine, sir.”

Paul grabbed the badge and stuffed it into his pocket.  “Ridiculous.”

The receptionist pressed a button and the door into the main offices buzzed open.  “We just like to take precautions, Mr. Hinckley.”

Paul huffed and pushed through the door.  He walked down a long hallway that ran in a square outlining the entire firm.  Paralegals and secretaries worked in small offices without windows to the right; on the left were the heavy doors of private offices of associates and junior partners.  The entire office smelled like fresh paper pulp and Hugo Boss.  The only decoration came by way of framed black and white lithographs of the Mississippi River spaced evenly along the hall.  Paul turned three corners until he had come all the way around to the pinewood door of an office that shared a wall with the reception area he’d just escaped.  He knocked twice, his knuckles hitting the small space between the carved words Montgomery and Hart.

A young man dressed in a navy pinstripe suit and with a part carved into his thick black hair opened the door, met Paul’s eyes for one second, then dropped his head.  Paul stepped through and approached a silver-haired 2×4 of a man seated behind a large oak desk.  The man stood and reached out a rolling palm.  “Paul, I’m devastated.”

When Paul gripped the man’s hand he felt a root of relief take hold in his own arm and spread deep inside his body.  “Monty.”

“Like I said, I’m devastated.”

Paul broke off the handshake and fell into one of two large cordovan leather chairs.  The young man closed the door, unbuttoned his suit coat, and sat in the other.

“I had some hassles in reception.”

“Paul, swap some sweat with my other right hand.  Carter Macintosh.”  Paul acknowledged the young man then put a fist to his temple.  “Hassles, huh?”  Montgomery Hart draped his arms across his blotter.  “Not with a potential client, I hope.”

“No, no.  With your girl.  You know, I can remember when they didn’t let all their forms get in the way of their flirting.  But that was when flirting was SOP, right, Monty?  Anyway, she just had to give me this.”  He withdrew the badge from his pocket and lobbed it onto Monty’s desk.  She’s a temp.  Think you could switch her out?”

“Who, Becky?  She’s a temp but she’s been here seven years.  Ousting her now might upset some routines.  Aren’t you sleeping with her, Carter?”

“It’s hard to tell,” the young man grinned.

“Hard to tell if you’re sleeping with a girl?  It’s a pretty goddamned simple concept.”

“What I mean is it’s hard to define the exact nature of our relationship.  All I can say, sir, is that at this precise moment I don’t seem to be inside her.”

The old man smiled.  “You kids.  You’ve taken it upon yourself to legally un-define everything.  Takes the fun out of lawyering.  But that’s the new paradigm, I guess.”  Hart turned back to Paul with a face of utmost seriousness.  “Paul, I can’t tell you how devastated I am.”

“Of course.”

“I want you to know straight up there are about five swinging dicks out there making all kinds of conjectures and taking blind polls and committing to who knows what kind of alliances because they know this day was long coming—”

“Well, not that long, Monty, really…”

“—and they know that someone gets to move up now.  But you’ve got my word that your father’s name won’t come off the stationery.  At seventy-five I’m now the oldest member of this firm.  But I won’t have any rugs taken out from underneath me or your father’s dead body.”

“I have no doubt, Monty, come on.”

Hart nodded firmly.  “Okay, Carter, switch seats with me and load up my iPod with some appropriate songs.  I’ll talk to Paul.”

The two men stood and walked in opposite arcs.

“I can’t keep control of that thing, Paul.  But I can’t stand talk radio either.”

“Sure.  Now, listen, Monty.”

“God, am I damned sorry about your Pop.  He was the best counselor I ever saw.  I can’t say he taught me everything I know, but he definitely tried to.”

“I’m not trying to take up too much of your time.  I just came to collect whatever personal effects there might be.”

“How’s that kosher little pickle of yours, Liza?  You going to settle down with her anytime soon?”

“Oh, we tried that, remember?  Didn’t take.  It takes two houses for us to work.”

“Ha!  It took me three wives to figure that one out, and look here, the Kid gets it on the first try.”

Paul leaned in.  “Actually, Monty, I was thinking.  Maybe…maybe if you’ve got any room you could bring me on here.”

Hart matched Paul’s posture like a bet and narrowed his eyebrows.  “You’re still doing tax preparation?”

“Yes, but I’ve kept my status with the bar current.”

“How many degrees do you have again?”

“If this were a light-hearted day, I’d say ‘three and a half.’”

“The Kid.  So studious.”

Paul could begin to smell the stale, floral scent of gin pushed forward by Hart’s thick breath.  “You don’t have to give me an answer today.  But I’ve always thought of this as a family business.”

Hart sighed.  “Kid, kid, kid.  You’ve never practiced a day in your life.”

“Tulane Law.  That counts for something.”

“It’s going to be hard.  Not having your father around.  Some days I thought he carried this whole town in his pocket and jangled it like change.  But you’re not James Hinckley, Paul.  You’re the Kid.  Maybe twenty-five years ago, if you’d let us, we could find a square hole for you to fit in, but, come on.  Your father and I didn’t build this firm by relying on fifty-year-old rookies.”

“Is Mr. Lebreton in his office?”

“Paul, I barred my own sons from these doors.  I forced them to DC and New York.  That was hard, but necessary.  Look, this is Louisiana, son.  We can’t keep spinning gold out of straw forever.”

“Just think about it, Monty.  I’m not asking for a Pop’s office or to handle major clients.  Just let me put my foot in the door.  This place needs a Hinckley.”

Hart reached out and dropped his hand down on Paul’s shoulder.  “I’ll chew it over.  Now, come on, you go clean out that office.  Take anything that doesn’t have the letterhead on it.  I’ll have some boys fold some boxes together.  God, am I blasted sorry.  Carter, will you stop fiddling with that thing and get the Kid some damned boxes?”

*          *          *          *

James Douglas Hinckley’s door bore no inscription.

“Truly powerful men,” he’d once said, “don’t need anything external to remind them that they are so.”  This proverb informed the understated measure of his office as well.  There was a roll top desk he’d bought after it was old but before it became an antique, the same one he’d had moved from building to building as the firm grew and changed locations.  Its back was to the wall opposite the door.  Whenever someone visited, Hinckley would turn his chair, leaving no officious barrier between him and the client.  There were two wastebaskets on either side of the desk.  One for used up yellow sheets of legal paper, empty pens, and scraps and the other for “true trash”: interoffice protocol memos, appeals or brown-nosing letters dictated by lower associates, and duplicate copies of non-germane briefs, affidavits, and proposals automatically forwarded to him as partner from all corners of the office, an automated redundancy caused by the incurable Army staff mentality that Lebreton brought home from the war.  “If he can’t duplicate it, he’ll triplicate it,” Paul’s father had told him.  “And if there’s no time for that, he’ll just de-abbreviate it.”  Despite the fact that the office doubled as an informal conference room, there were only the two auxiliary chairs besides the one that belonged with the desk.  Anyone else had to stand, and did, men in dark suits stacked two deep against the walls watching Hart gesticulate, Hinckley think, and Lebreton clean his fingernails.  Two paintings hung opposite each other, original Winslow Homers.  Aside from these things, a red brick regularly employed as a doorstop, and an ashtray, the room was covertly bare.  Paul walked across the hardwood floor and sat in the chair like he did as a child, waiting for his father to return.  He withdrew a pencil from a cubbyhole in the desk, leaned back and balanced it between his nose and upper lip, then pushed off with his feet before curling them under and spinning.  He finished two revolutions before sapping his inertia.

Carter Macintosh came in with a waxy cardboard box designed to hold hundreds of manila file folders, thousands of words and numbers, but few details.

“Here you are, Mr. Hinckley.  I just wanted to offer my condolences as well.  Even as old as he was he never needed to recheck his facts.  A really incredible memory.  We’ll miss him.”

“Thank you,” Paul said.  He rose and put the box down on the chair before opening up the drawers of the desk and pulling out assorted letters and mementoes.  The small pile barely covered the bottom of the box.  From the bottom drawer Paul pulled a brass ring with a dozen or so keys looped around it, a leather-bound ledger, and a half-full fifth of Knappogue Irish whiskey.  On top of these Paul placed a few framed photos of himself and his siblings, the clay ashtray bearing the emblem of the old Roosevelt hotel, a pearl-handled jackknife, and a small spray-bottle of St. John’s Bay West Indies Lime cologne.

“Could you send in someone to carry the paintings?” Paul asked.  “They’re my father’s property, not the firm’s.  Just to be clear.”

“Of course.  Someone’s coming down the hall now.”

“Thanks.”  Paul placed the lid down on the box, displacing air out through the side handle holes then lifted it up against his gut.  “By the way, are you a golfer?”

Harry Lebreton, the third and final partner, strode into the room flanked by two similar men with darting eyes and matching fleur-de-lis cuff links.  His high-and-tight haircut seemed to be a biological accessory of his crisp khaki suit and high-collared shirt, starched and bleached as white as the Virgin Mary’s soul.  “Hold!  Right there, Paul.”

“Mr. Lebreton!  Hello, yeah?  What’s with the security?”

“Put the box down.”

“I was just leaving.”

“Put it down!”

Paul placed the box on his father’s desk.  The two men immediately pushed him a yard aside, opened the box, and proceeded to dig through the contents.

“What gives?”

Montogmery Hart came into the room, breathless.  “Harry.  Come on.  You think the Kid’s gonna try to pull anything?”

“We need to cover the bases.  Paul, what the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“Mostly I’m trying to cope, but I’ve got a few other errands to run today.”

“Harry,” Hart said again.  “I gave him permission.”

“That was before we got this,” Lebreton said.  He lifted a sheaf of papers bound by a pinch clip in a motion not that dissimilar to a color guard’s rifle drill.  Paul, what in the blue fuck are you up to?”

Monty separated the papers three pages at a time and scanned them.  “What is this?  Letters of intent?”

“Arrived by courier just twenty minutes ago.  Damned if it didn’t take twice as long as it should have to reach my desk.  Paul, just how far up your leg in shit are you with Remo MacQuincy?”

“Remo?  I don’t know.  What?”

“He’s sent us this bundle of signed statements and letters apparently as proof of character witnesses in some kind of alpha dog move.  Utterly scurrilous.  Yours is page one.”


“If you were involved in any way with this firm, I’d have you fired and forcibly dismissed.  As it stands, I’m just going to have to settle for the latter.  This is a gigantic conflict of interest.  We can’t have any associate of Remo MacQuincy in any way involved with this firm.”

“Now look here—” Paul said.

“Harry!  Have a little heart.  His father, our partner just passed.”

“And the same day this pissant signs an accord with the most disrespected attorney to ever pass through the doors of an Orleans courtroom?  The apples don’t fall far from the tree, but sometimes they roll downhill.”

“Nothing here,” one of the bulky men said.

“Double check it.”

Harry!” Hart pleaded.

Paul held out his hands while watching the men rifle through his new belongings.  “Look, I know Remo’s never seen eye-to-eye with everyone, but what’s the deal?  You gotta believe me when I tell you I haven’t even spoken to him in five years.”

“He’s a one-man litigation wrecking ball.  He’s a walking countersuit.  And besides the fact that he initiates more cases than he could possibly finish in a lifetime and has tagged every firm in town with a strand of red tape, MacQuincy is off his fucking rocker.  Exhibit A, his behavior during Katrina.  Which, need I remind you, was so extravagant it made the Wall Street Journal.”

“Look, I went to school with the guy,” Paul explained.  “He’s eccentric, but that’s par for the course with his family.”

“Frankly, Paul, I find it not only improbable but absolutely incredible that you inherited none of your father’s guile.”


Lebreton put his hand up against Hart’s chest.  “I mean it Monty.  That cute his-master’s-voice shit wore old twenty years ago.  Somewhere in that head of yours is a true Hinckley brain that never got activated, and now every firm, judge, and assistant district attorney in the parish has a statement of brotherhood between you and this maniac like you were Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer.  We can’t have any seeming toleration.  Even your father would agree.”

“Look, I can explain.”

“It’s clean sir.  Just junk,” a snoop said.

“Escort him out of the building.”

“Paul, I’m sorry,” Hart said while looking at the ground.

The five men all stood stuck in their poses, the gravity of hot temper keeping them all in stationary orbit.  Only Paul’s eyes moved, taking in the walls, the corners, and the cracking leather of the two matching chairs where hundreds of supplicants had made obeisance to his father’s wisdom.  It was as if the entire room was a slinky heirloom sliding down a gutter into a dark storm drain, its glint no longer enjoyed but feared for.  Paul replaced the lid on the box and lifted it again.

“I thought you were supposed to kiss me before the betrayal,” he said.  Lebreton matched his stare for a moment, but ultimately looked away and clasped his hands behind his back.

“Go be with your family, Kid,” Hart suggested.  “I’ll see you at the service.”

The two security men followed close behind Paul as he backtracked through the corridor.  His heart beat like a faulty piston and his guts seized up in want of gin, vodka, bourbon, or any other lubricant.  Exiting through reception, he heard the girl call out but did not process the words, “Sir, I’ll need you to return your visitor’s badge.”

Continue Reading! Chapter 6: Houses