D. Evan van Hook

Ascent

Valhalla.  They stick your portrait here on the 67th floor when they make you head of the Firm.  I drag my ass to Valhalla almost every night, nodding as I watch security lights reflect off the brass name plaques on the portraits.  A hundred years of rapacity glimmer before the plaques disappear into the abandoned dining room at the end of the hall. 

It’s past three in the morning but commerce still hums, an itch beneath the skin of this decorous law firm.  Late-night copying, orders barked to overtime secretaries.  Pizza delivery men pound on service doors.  Insults flip between litigators drafting overdue briefs.  The sounds merge to keep the Firm vibrating dully throughout the night. 

I love this free-wheeling relationship to time.  Meetings are routinely scheduled in the middle of the night or on weekends, while mid-week lunches sidle through a second bottle of wine into cocktails, dinner and a tacit conspiracy of procrastination. 

It’s the power that draws me to Valhalla.  I have to understand it, where it comes from, what it was about these men and women that let them wield it.  Sought after by Presidents and CEOs.  Exercising  authority of will.  Irresistible.  Maybe it’s the poor light, fatigue or the stress of the past day, but this time as I look from face to face I see a hardness, a dead core to the eyes.  A set to the lips or jaw I hadn’t noticed before.  Even the fat ones have a sharpness, as if you had pushed your finger into a ball of dough and found a razor hidden inside.  

Then agan, maybe my mind’s playing tricks after the day’s events.  Poor Martucci.  Adam, the partner we both worked for, called him and me the “Bobsy Twins” because we were both named Bob.  Other than the name we were like pepper and salt.

He was an athelete, Italian, always looking sharp.  His father was a mechanic, and Martucci was one of those people who could fix anything.  He had a degree in engineering from a hot shot school where he played football and screwed all the girls, at least according to him.  I can believe it though; I’ve spent my life hating people just like him.  He had also taken a couple of years to work at a biotech firm before law school, which gave him an edge with our “new industry” clients.

I was two inches taller than Martucci, but he still had twenty pounds on me.  I’ve got this hair that floats around my head as if my hands were glued to one of those electrified balls at a childrens’ museum.  And clothes never made sense to me.  In college, three mornings in a row I took my coat off and found I had forgotten to put on a shirt at all.  After that the professors started sending me for random drug tests.

It wasn’t drugs, though, it was genetics.  As far as we know, no one in our family has ever done anything practical.  My father was “ABD” — All But Dissertation — in Middle English.  That was dad all over — pick something useless and then fail at it.  He runs a little historical society outside Philadelphia.  No one ever goes there, so he spends his days reading and daydreaming, and watching the sun wash through the windows onto the dark wooden floors.  After mom died, when I was ten, he practically lived there.  I used to wake up in the middle of the night and wander from room to room, thrilled to be alone.  When things broke in our house dad would just stare at them, and then make do with something else.  Now the neighbors tell me that whole sections of the house stay dark for months until someone comes by and changes the light bulbs. 

Martucci said his relatives were awed by his decision to go to law school.  Mine were disappointed.  On both my parents’ sides they are professors, poets, massage therapists, artists, herbalists, and musicians.  You know, pixies — a bunch of balloons floating along above the ground.  My whole life I’ve hoped someone was holding onto the string.  To help myself out I invented a “mentor” when I was about sixteen, a cagey old guy who gives me advice in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep.  It’s stupid, but it beats talking to a balloon.

I was lucky I did really well at law school, because otherwise I would not have survived.  There’s no place for a mediocre lawyer who looks like a geek, but if a geek does well they peg you as a “mad professor.”  In that case the stranger you look the better.  Most lawyers carefully hone their appearances.  Slick hair, stylish suits, French cuffs, expensive shoes.  Another group is less confident.  They promise “no surprises” and shine their shoes out of duty, not style. 

But all big firms have a handful of “mad professors.”  We get away with minimal concern for our appearance while still wearing button-down shirts, ties, suits, shoes and (usually) socks that match.  One legendary “mad professor” met an important client with an entire scrambled egg stuck to the front of his shirt.   

A “mad professor’s” standing at a firm is directly proportional to the bizarreness of their appearance.  When we stumble into clients, shoes untied and hair askew, other lawyers whisper “that’s so-and-so.  He’s brilliant.”  Clients then ask us to sit in on meetings on their cases to provide “high level” insights.  So we escape the menial tasks of the law profession, which are reserved for journeyman attorneys in expensive suits.  The worst things a “mad professor” can do for their career are to go shopping or comb their hair.

Surprising, but I guess you could say Martucci and I were friends, at least until last year.  Probably inevitable given the number of nights we spent cooped up together in document rooms around the country.  If we didn’t like each other we would have killed each other.  But we knew the decision that was hanging in the air.  Law firms offer a select few associates a partnership, and tell the rejects not to let the door hit them on the ass on the way out.  We knew at least one of the Bobsy Twins was going to end up looking for work elsewhere.  

Martucci dealt with it better than me.  “Look,” he said, peeling a sheet of cementacious choclate icing off a birthday cake left over from a party earlier in the day.  He folded the icing into a block and stuffed it into his mouth.  “Let’s make a pact.  I’m going all out to make partner.  You should too.  It’s a game.  Whoever wins will help the other one find a job.  Deal?” 

I said he should warn the spectators before he began feeding, but I said OK to his “pact.”  But maybe because I never played sports, I had no idea what the limits of “all out” were.

A year ago Martucci barged into my office asking  “Yo, you busy?”  I told him I was trying to figure out whether the new associate had opposable thumbs, and asked him if he wanted to tell me what he and Judy Moskowitz had done after they left together in a cab the night before.  Judy had joined the Firm about six months earlier.  Like an ass I thought we would have a bond because she went to my law school.  When I asked her out, though, she said she’d rather give masturbation one more shot.  Before long I started seeing her and Martucci slipping into cabs together.  I would watch them from my fifth floor office window with my forehead pushed against the cool pane, pressing my skin to a matching smoothness, ironing myself into glass.

Martucci replied that he tried to discourage prurient interest, but he seemed serious, watchful.  “Actually,” he said, “I have to tell you something.  You remember I worked at that biotech firm before I went to law school?  Well I’ve been keeping in touch with my buddies there.  The company’s been taken over by some venture capital shmucks, but I still know most of the top researchers.  They’ve been working on vaccines for HFVs to cash in on the terrorist scare but they are getting sued for patent infringement.” 

“What the hell are – what did you say again?”  I asked.  “HFVs.  Viruses like Ebola that get into your body and chew it up from the inside.  They can be spread fairly easily so people are afraid terrorists might use them.  Any company that comes up with a vaccine will make a mint.  To cut to the chase, VisionTech wants me to handle the patent infringement case.  Should bring in about a million a year.”

My life slipped through my hands like a greased snake.  Martucci tried to sound casual, but his bringing in a large client killed my chances for making partner.  I saw myself at a desk beside my father at the historical society, each of us bald with those beards with no mustaches that the Amish wear.  “Wow,” I replied.  “So now I’m supposed to be your bitch?”  Martucci said it was nothing, all he did was have some beers with old friends, and this could happen just as easily to me.  Except I don’t have any old friends.

The comfortable work rhythms, six years in the making, vanished overnight.  Rather than teaming up under Adam’s supervision, Martucci led strategy meetings and even began giving Adam assignments.  The VisionTech case was complicated by the animosity between the science geeks who had started the company and the financial types who had recently purchased it.  Martucci spent much of his time trying to broker a truce, at least until the threat of the litigation was over.  I was left alone to handle the scut work, filing documents and bitching at the new associates.  I could feel their eyes behind me and sense the damp weight of conversations cut mid-sentence when I walked into the room, wondering when I would wake up and leave the Firm.

That eats into you.  I’ve always had a hard time sleeping but over this past year it’s been getting worse.  Every morning now I’m up before dawn, sitting in my underwear on my bed chatting with my mentor, with my weight pressed into my arms and my bare feet doodling on the wooden floor.  The dawn squirts jets of light into the toxic air above New Jersey just to see what colors come out.  Whores, crack heads and club kids slouch home with their chemical and human booty in the street below. 

That’s where I was yesterday when the 6:00 alarm bleated from my phone.  Given how restless I am during the early morning hours, you would think I would jump at this, but I don’t.  Instead, the sound makes the whole night’s fatigue wash over me as I contemplate the start of another draining day.  I reached out angrily to shut it off, and saw that I had an e-mail waiting for me.  Just as I clicked it open to read I hit the electronic trifecta: alarm, e-mail, and now my cell was ringing.

“Did you get the e-mail from VisionTech?”  Martucci’s voice crackled into my ear.  Characteristically, this question was not preceded by either “hello” or any self identification.  “May I ask who is calling?” I asked.  “Blow me” Martucci replied.  “Did you get it?” 

“Yeah, I got it.  Meeting in our offices at 7:00 am.  What kind of lunatic clients did you bring to the Firm?”

“I told you they were `excitable.’  Maybe I should have said `psychotic.’” 

“Hey, by the way, what the fuck are you calling me this early for?” I asked, realizing I had almost missed a chance at a verbal smack.

“I need you to cover for me at the 7:00 meeting,” Martucci said.  “I can’t get the financial assholes running VisionTech to communicate with the researchers.  We need to show that VisionTech was working on this vaccine before the plaintiffs.  I want to spend some time in the lab and have my friends walk me through exactly how this work relates to earlier projects.  I have my own card key so I figured I can get over there this morning and spend three or four hours alone with the lab geeks while you guys are at the meeting.”    

“Seems risky” I told him.  “The top dogs might get pissed if they thought you were going behind their backs.  Why don’t you come to the meeting and we can both go over there later today?” 

“Can’t” he said.  “I’m on the L.I.E. already.  I should be there in ten minutes.”  Unspoken, of course, was that if Martucci managed to find anything important, he wanted it clear that he, and he alone, deserved the credit.  “What you have to do is cover my ass at the meeting” he continued.  “Nothing very important could have happened over night, so they must just need hand holding.  Get Adam to give them his `I’m the grey hair who’s really in charge’ routine.  Let them whine and feed them a lot of legal mumbo jumbo.  If I find what I’m looking for then by this afternoon we’ll make them forget all their problems.”

 “Well, O.K., you’re the boss,” I agreed.  If his plan worked, he really would be the boss.  “That’s my boy.  Tell Adam you tried to reach me but I’m not answering my phone” Martucci replied.  “I wont answer it while I’m at VisionTech unless I see it’s from you.”  He pushed the button ending the call.  There wasn’t much time before the 7:00 meeting so I pushed the button on my phone that automatically dialed Adam’s cell.

“Yes, I saw the e-mail” Adam grumbled.  He was in the midst of another attempt to quit smoking, this time by having needles jabbed into his scrotum each morning.  He no longer craved cigarettes, but he would give anything for the chance to castrate an accupuncturist.  I took a deep breath, preparing to deliver Martucci’s message. 

“Those assholes.  They deserve our outrageous legal bills.  First they screw up their patent protection and now this.  We’ll need to get a good PR firm, just in case this becomes public.”

I shut my mouth, not having spoken a word.  “Sorry, you lost me.  I thought this meeting was about the patent case.  What’s happened now?”

“Oh, that’s right; I told them not to put this in the e-mail.  No, it’s not about the patent case.  Something happened in the lab last night.  Their investors were shitfaced.  They called the technician and made him open up the lab so they could look at what was going to make them all millionaires.  Apparently they screwed around and broke some things.  Anyway, this morning VisionTech got remote sensor readings indicating some of the virus samples may have been released in the lab.  They told their employees not to come in, but they want to talk to us before doing anything so they can figure out how to minimize bad publicity.”

 “No, I hadn’t heard that.  It’s too bad, but is it really such a big deal?”

“These viruses eat through your organs like termites.  VisionTech has been breeding superman strains in order to develop the vaccine.  They could rip someone up pretty bad if they got at them.  We don’t need any negative stories while we are trying to get rid of this lawsuit.  VisionTech wants us to take care of the whole thing, avoid press, square things with the regulators if necessary.  The good news is that’s a lot more billable hours.  By the way, is Martucci already in the office?”

I hadn’t anticipated having to respond to such a direct question.  My mind locked and raced at the same time.  The only decision I could make was that I couldn’t make a decision, so I punted.  “I’m on my way but I’ll call him from the cab.”  Before Adam could respond I ended the call.  Fifteen minutes earlier everything was so calm.  Now doors opened and shut, flapping before my eyes.  I felt dizzy and sick to my stomach.  I sat down on my bed and stared at my cell phone.

Participation in the 7:00 meeting was not taxing at first.  The financial team that owns VisionTech is not a pleasant bunch during a crisis, even one of their own making.  However, all I had to do was listen, take notes, and occassionally run out to get quick answers to preliminary legal questions.  That was the upside of having become a nobody since Martucci brought in the VisionTech case.  No one took much notice of what I did. 

Adam’s grey hairs helped impose a degree of calm.  At least, that is, until the meeting was interrupted by a call from the VisionTech plant guard that someone appeared to have entered the lab early that morning.  When it was later reported that there was a body in the lab temporary pandemonium broke out but, again, Adam’s experience helped bring things under control. 

Adam did not become completely useless until the report came back that the ID on the body said Robert Martucci.  Later, the VisionTech researchers explained that Martucci’s death would have been a convulsive, spasmodic and intensely painful affair, during which much of what had originally been inside of him would have ended up liquified and outside of him on the lab room floor.  At the news of Robert’s death Adam slumped down in his chair and remained dazed for the rest of the morning.    

Seeing this, I had to take charge, organizing notification to the appropriate officials.  I suggested that all we really knew at this point was that an associate from a firm representing VisionTech in the patent case had made an unauthorized entrance into the VisionTech lab, and appeared to have suffered a mishap.  No one from VisionTech knew why this attorney was in the lab at this unusual hour, although the possibility of collusion with the plaintiffs would be investigated.  I could see no reason, I told them, to refer to the antics of the investors the night before.  For all we knew, this incident had been the result of Martucci’s vandalism.  The VisionTech guys really bought this, banging their hands on the table, saying I had “saved their bacon,” and asking Adam why he hadn’t given me more to do on the case before this.  I wasn’t crazy about the way Adam looked up at me when they said that, but I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it.

With securing the site and dealing with the regulators and police, the day passed in a blur.  I didn’t stop until my desk clock said 2:45 am.  I leaned back in my chair and put my feet up on the desk like I often do when I’m alone, pretending I’m a slalom skier as I swivel myself from left to right.  All in all, things seemed O.K.  I didn’t know why Judy kept calling my cell.  Probably just wailing for her demon lover, but what if Martucci had told her he was going to call me?  Was he sleeping at her apartment the night before? 

As with Adam’s look I couldn’t think about Judy now.  I was too tired.  I can’t say I felt great about the day’s events, but I felt more confident.  More self aware.  I swung my feet off my desk and sorted papers to take home.  When these were packed I pulled on my coat, took a last look around the room, and shut off the light.

The contrast between the darkened office and the brazen neon hall lights jolted me.  I cursed gently and shielded my eyes.  Oblivious to the day’s events, the office remained a hive of activity.  A lawyer I barely know brushed past me, asking “taking a half day Wellstone?”  “Yeah, I’m beat.  I’m getting the hell out of here.”  I shuffled to the elevator, and hovered my finger over the down button.  After a moment I smiled at my ritual joke to myself, and pushed the up button instead to look at the portraits before going home to bed.  In my head the voice of my imaginary mentor whispered “My boy, you’re headed to Valhalla.”

D. Evan van Hook is a recovering lawyer currently working in environmental management and land conservation. He loves to write, ride his horse Splash, and think about what makes us all so damn peculiar.