Historical Note: In 1348, a great mind of the Florentine Renaissance, Giovanni Boccaccio, experienced The Black Death first hand. He survived and the muse sang to him dark music. So much so that he composed a work of short stories that were told over ten days while a fictional group of survivors self-quarantined to avoid Bubonic Plague. While I’m on exile from my office, I’ll see if I can pound out some stories of my own in honor of the scholar and survivor who, along with Geoffrey Chaucer, helped make the short story collection a staple of fictional literature.
The New Enterprise Building seemed a spectral derelict in the early morning hours. It normally had a fairly steady stream of people. Older, stooped men waited on the elevator to see the urologists, the chiropractors, proctologists, and oncologists who rented the vast majority of the second floor. Professionally dressed younger people trooped in like a platoon of imps to man the phones and cold-call insurance prospects for the firms renting both the first and third floors. The top floor, a veritable crown jewel of cubic zirconium, belonged to The Law Firm of Harris, Toller and Wayans.
The building stood nearly empty except for the four Full Partners and three Senior Partners of the storied and famous legal business that rented veritable acreage on the 4th and final floor. Oh, and there was one other person coming to work that morning. A Gentleman from Southron Bank. Emil Peterson.
The attorneys showed up in the predictable mix of of Lexi, BMWs, and even a fairly high-end Porsche. Peterson arrived in his Audi. Wayans flaunted his eminent position by making his entrance in a well-beaten Nissan Titan, with a trailer-hitch drubbed from the weight of hauling his fishing boat to and fro from the Gulf of Mexico. They all sized one another up and tried to politely space themselves as they made their way to the door. In the six weeks of quasi-enforced work from home, the building had become a bit unfamiliar again to the law firm members.
Peterson had only passed it from time to time as he traversed High Point Boulevard. He was actually hoping this morning’s work-out session would work. He had no particular fondness for lawyers as a professional class, but he also didn’t think Southron Bank would make out well if Harris, Toller, and Wayans couldn’t liquidate well under the current set of circumstances.
The elevator arrived far more swiftly than was the norm. A few were still at work at other firms, but they mostly had reduced to nothing at all. Phones were rerouted to someone sitting at home in a bathrobe maybe as they played the role of Virtual Receptionist. The floors still held some portion of the sheen they’d received from their last full waxing about thirty days ago. The birds of early May sang sweetly outside. Inside, a lot of scared people who were unfamiliar with not wielding the power in a room, hoped the bird named Peterson wouldn’t be quoting “Nevermore.”
The eight of them made their way to a large conference room, designed to hold thirty; that just sufficed with a skosh of room extra for eight people enclosed in separate, non-intersecting cones of social distance. The Full Partners were Bart Axtell, Leon Harris, Jr., Tal Hemeyer, and Nora Ruth. The Senior Partners were Leon Harris, Sr., Michael J. Toller, and the Avuncular Pater Lex Familia Jason Wayans. In apposition, was the mysterious Emil Peterson who held twenty-five or so years of legal lineage at the mercy of his decision or whim.
Pleasantries were shared and then Mr. Peterson got down to some unpleasant business. “I regret to inform you all that we were unable to extend a requested bridge loan. This is not a reflection of your firm, but rather more the current state of the financial markets. We have literally received a year’s worth of loan requests from enterprises similar to yours in size and capitalization in the past two weeks. We haven’t received anything near the revenue into our vaults to make this volume of loans available.”
Harris, Sr. remarked. “We’ve banked with you for over a decade and have never missed a financial obligation. If I recall correctly, we represented you in a rather unpleasant circumstance involving an issue of a customer’s hand getting broken in your drive-thru as he reached for a dropped ATM Card and another car ran over his appendage. Us keeping you out of a certain level of penury should perhaps encourage you to return the favor.”
“Banks, Mr. Harris, are not eleemosynary organizations. Nor are Legal Firms. I’m certain the records of that case will show that you weren’t representing our interests pro-bono.” Peterson riposted. “This situation requires a more factual conversation. The more you can inform me, Mr. Harris, the more options can be at my disposal. Right about now, you need to give me more options, not fewer. The ones in tow right now are fairly draconian from your firm’s perspective.”
Peterson continued. “Talk me through how your firm’s income went down by 45% month-over-month. You are on track to cover the rent, but only if you stop paying several of the attorneys that fill the space up here. Can someone talk me through where the revenue went?”
Axtell, both Harrises, and Nora Ruth all began to extol the virtues of the hours their sections were putting in via telework. Hemeyer sat quiet as if he were mentally searching for the weapon that would turn a hard battle in his team’s favor. YHWH knew they sure needed something at this point. Peterson had not-so-subtly indicate a willingness to take their assets in return for some stream of obligations the Senior Partners hadn’t seen fit to brief him in on. He didn’t want to let himself wonder too much whether Wayans’ fishing yacht was one of those obligations.
“Mr. Wayans,” Peterson half-gloated. “Perhaps you could shed some light on why you still have outgo without the offsetting income. I’ll wait patiently.”
Jason Wayans didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Emil Peterson’s sort of a person. There were no manners, no respect, and bloody little in the way of humility to him. Wayans never really enjoyed it completely when he helped one of his clients sue the ass off some trucking firm. Even if his client first discussed the case in 50-50 traction. There was another side to these things. Every winner made some loser a certain amount worse off. Peterson just came off as a guy who wouldn’t care if that loser set himself on fire amid a dumpster full of garbage.
He bestirred himself in a dignified fashion and deliberately moved slowly towards addressing Emil Peterson. This would happen on his timetable and his manner of decorum. There were more subtle ways to assert power in a room that didn’t at least violate the spirit of municipal decency statutes.
“Well, sir,” Wayans began. “It works like this, Mr. Peterson. We run two sorts of operations at our firm. We work specific cases in several areas of civil law and we collect retainers.”
Wayans continued: “Like the New York Life Office downstairs we insure people to a certain extent. They pay us monthly, we would show up when they were in what I like to refer to as delicate situations. We charge a certain monthly fee based on our internal calculations of risk and likelihood.”
“Recently, Mr. Peterson, this entire Covid thing has forced a lot of our reliable old friends to reduce expenditures while hedging a different portfolio of risks. This makes them call off their arrangements with our firm. This month, the checks no longer came in from Crest View Municipal Police Officers Union, Etowah County Youth Sports and Recreation, The Madison County Sanitation Union, Mercymount Hospital Doctors Association, and a number of other people who keep us on speed dial in the event of sudden, unforeseen legal jeopardy,” he finished.
“Well, I’m certainly sorry to hear of your distress, Mr. Wayans.” Peterson intoned with a deliberately calibrated formal insincerity. He tried hard not to smile at the fact he was getting to make a room full of attorneys squirm. Banks were like God in a land of fake money and liquid rivers of conditional credit. Having your hand on the credit spigot was akin to holding the injector when the clock struck 11:59 PM for some reprobate out of last-ditch appeals.
He told evil jokes in his head. “May God have mercy on these poor lawyers’ souls. Oh, wait…”
“Are you really going to foreclose on the people who fight in court for Manatees injured by drunken power-boaters?” Asked an aggrieved Bart Axtell.
“Would you like it if your wife needed a seasoned representative to hold accountable some corporate big-shot with wandering hands?” Pleaded Nora Ruth. “Mrs. Peterson has needed that since he married this son-of-a-Rottweiler?” Thought Hemeyer to himself.
The Harrises spoke of the rights of immigrants and minorities. Toller boasted of his exploits on behalf of abused runaways. Every social cause celebré in the book had been taken up by The Law Firm of Harris, Toller and Wayans. Peterson listened politely for the better part of half-an-hour. He alternated between empathy and envy. These people lived in some fantasy world where they actually got to do what they believed mattered. Finally, he could stand no more.
“Mr. Wayans,” he inquired. “What portion of your income actually comes from fighting the evils of society?”
“I’m not sure I take your meaning.” Said Jason Wayans in a slow, directive tenor that intoned intense dislike for Emil Peterson.
“What percent of your till is billable hours, Mr. Wayans? What percent is retainers?”
“I see.” Replied Wayans in a crest-fallen manner. “We take about 70% of our steady income from retainers.”
The rest of the partners now turned on Wayans. “We defend bent cops?” “We are a threat point to prevent sloppy doctors from being sued for malpractice?” “I thought this firm meant so much more!” “I came here to not be Alexander Shunnurah and say ‘Cawwwwl me, Alabama.'”
Peterson looked at Wayans with an uncommon amount of actual sympathy and compassion. He addressed him with respect. Perhaps because Wayans was the only emotional adult in the room, he addressed him with the manners necessary to conclude his role here and get out before he heard anything else ridiculous. “Sir, when do you expect this situation to improve?”
“With school called off for the rest of the year,” Mr. Peterson continued. “A lot your other clients may not be coming back any time soon. I don’t see a near-term improvement in your revenue stream.”
Jason Wayans honestly didn’t either. His menagerie of partners were not here to generate that for him. They Larped at fighting trumped-up dragons. The real ones were only visible under a microscope. “So what does this mean, Mr. Peterson? I can promise you our firm has a name and reputation that will draw people back, but only when they return to the market.” Wayans concluded sadly. It wasn’t a close that would bring him back a verdict of “Not Guilty.”
Peterson looked up with a sober expression. He felt a bit like a vulture for having enjoyed what he was going to have to end up doing. “We’ll need to finalize a work-out. I can’t represent your position in a positive enough manner to my upchain reviewers to avoid having to establish a stake in your holdings for the bank or a foreclosure involving a wind-up.”
Wayans looked utterly crushed. “Mr. Toller, Harris The Elder, I need you both. The rest of you unfortunately will have to now leave. We will contact you with what details need to be shared with your subordinates.”
Peterson looked sadly at the three men he was about to professionally defenestrate. “We’ll need to have a look at the asset portfolio. I’m fairly familiar from your loan app, but I’m trying to decide if there is a way for us to take a stake rather than demand liquidation. Nobody wins with this disease, gentlemen. I’d vastly prefer to collect from you each month and you’d rather continue to chase your crusades. It appears to me neither of us will get what we want here this morning.”