Ergo Propter Hoc

by Scott Cannon

A wash of dry sunlight flooded the darkness until the door hissed shut. Eddie did not look up from his drink, even when the guy who came in took a place two stools down from him.

“Hot enough?” the guy said to no one in particular. The bartender served him his order, a Miller Light, then looked over at Eddie.

“Yeah but it’s a dry heat,” Eddie said. Bar talk.

“Not so bad then,” the guy said. In the dark of the mirror, Eddie saw the guy was big and had red hair.

The bartender had gone back to the game on television. The guy wasn’t looking at anything but he was taking up a lot of space all of a sudden and he wouldn’t shut up. “That’s what I love about the desert. No humidity so the sweat dries right off. Keeps you cool. Makes you think you’re cooler anyway, even if it’s 110 out.” He looked up at the TV. “Who’s winning?”

“San Francisco,” the bartender said.

“Coldest summer I ever spent was in San Francisco,” the guy said. He glanced at Eddie. “Mark Twain,” he said.

Eddie nodded at his drink without thinking and then wished he hadn’t.

fist

The guy half turned to him. His hand on the bar next to Eddie was the size of a small ham. Dime shaped scabs covered the first three knuckles. “Ever been to San Francisco?” the guy asked.

“No.”

“Ever read Twain?”

“No.”

“Funny cause you look like the literary type to me.” The guy was turned full around toward Eddie now. He was smiling. “You look like a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court.”

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” Eddie stared back at the guy.

“Take it easy,” the guy laughed. “Just making bar talk.” He took his beer to the jukebox and started flipping through the selections.

The bartender heard Eddie finish his drink and turned from the game to pour another. The guy came back from the juke without playing anything and took the stool next to Eddie.

“It’s just that you don’t look like you’re from around here,” he said. “I got a second sense about these things. You from Vegas?”

“No.”

“Me neither. I like it here though. The weather.”

Eddie wasn’t interested in bar talk with this guy whose arm was bigger than Eddie’s neck, but he didn’t want to leave the bar either. It was where he came to get loaded every day after trying to serve process and take pictures of philandering husbands or unfaithful wives and it was seven o’clock and he was done for the day and only on his second drink. He liked the place because it was dark and quiet and nobody bothered him there. But here was this guy who wouldn’t shut up. He looked like any other beefy sunburnt tourist and Eddie wondered what he was doing on the north side of town where the losers hung out because they had no place else to go.

The guy called for another beer. Eddie sighed. The other dive he liked was more than walking distance from his place and he couldn’t afford another DUI. What the hell. “Me too,” he said to the barman.

They guy seemed encouraged. “Where you from then?”

“Texas,” Eddie lied. “Houston,” to save the guy his next question.

“Houston’s a swamp. Like they say, it ain’t the heat, it’s the humidity. Know what I mean?”

Eddie did know. He was from Oklahoma.

“Me, I’m from Oklahoma,” the guy said as if he’d read Eddie’s mind. “Summers there, it’s miserable because your sweat don’t dry. Humidity like ninety percent all summer. And seems like summer almost all year long. Four seasons: almost summer, summer, still summer, and Christmas.”

Eddie didn’t want to hear any more about Oklahoma, so he smiled and said “That’s Houston too.”

“Ever go to the Red River Shootout? You know, the OU-Texas game.” Eddie said he didn’t follow college football. “That’s good,” the guy said. “Otherwise, we might have to take this out to the parking lot.” He laughed to show he was joking, then slapped Eddie on the back, hard. Eddie’s hand was on his drink and some of it slopped out on the bar. “Bring this man another, and one for me too.” He laid out a twenty for the barman.

Eddie had about a dozen reasons for not wanting to talk about where he was really from, but the guy had just bought him a drink so he tried to change the subject. “What brings you out here?” he asked.

“I’m looking for someone.”

“What’re you, some kind of bounty hunter?”

“Nah. Long haul trucker. What about you?”

“Process server. Little P.I. work on the side.”

“So you work for the courthouse?”

“No- lawyers, mostly. Suspicious wives or husbands sometimes. Usually the wife.”

“Lawyers. Hate ‘em.”

“Who doesn’t?”

The guy rattled off three lawyer jokes. Eddie had heard them all when he was practicing law in Oklahoma but laughed obligingly anyway. The guy’s change was still on the bar.

He looked up at the sound of crowd noise from the TV screen. “What happened?”

“Bonds just ripped another one,” the barkeep said. It was 2007, and Hank Aaron’s 33 year old non-steroidal home run record was nearing its end.

“Then bring us another round. Let’s drink to that cheating son of a bitch.”

They did. “That guy might as well have stolen the record.” Eddie nodded. Something was bothering him, but he couldn’t pin it down through the buzz coming on with his fourth or fifth drink.

The door opened and two working girls came in. It was dusk out. “Hi Eddie,” one of them said as they walked to their booth in the corner. They came in together every working day to get loose before heading for the strip. Eddie waved at them as the bartender made their drinks.

“Hey Eddie.” The guy’s face, the color of tomato soup, was very close to Eddie’s now. It filled his vision, and all the joviality was gone from it, replaced by something else. “You know the only thing I can think of that’s worse than a cheat and a thief?” Eddie couldn’t think of what to say.

The guy answered his own question. “A cheat and a thief who’s a lawyer. Can you think of anything worse than that?”

Eddie exhaled all the air from his lungs a couple of times before answering. It was a trick he learned that kept you from hyperventilating in court. “No, that has to be the worst.” He drained the rest of his drink and the ice came loose from the bottom of his glass and hit his mouth but the bartender didn’t look around this time.

So close to him now, the guy seemed to have doubled in size. “Well that’s what I’m here looking for,” he said. “A lawyer and a cheat and a thief. I got this sister back home in Pryor, see? She met this guy, got all messed up on meth, had a baby, didn’t know who the daddy was, and we kinda fell out of touch, you know? And one night late she was in a wreck with a semi on Highway 69. I went to see her in the hospital. She said she was coming home from a party and it was raining and she hydroplaned in front of the truck and he ran her over and broke her back. She said she was clean then but I knew she was lying. That’s another thing I can’t stand- a liar. But she’s my baby sister and I said I’d help out any way I could because I knew she didn’t have any health insurance and she had this little kid with no one to support them.

“Next thing I knew, though, she’d hooked up with some sleaze ball lawyer one of her meth-head friends turned her onto, and he’d filed a lawsuit. I was on the road but I kept in touch. It took a year, but the lawyer scraped together enough shit on the trucking company to make the insurance want to settle. You know, logbook violations, bad brakes. I’ve been driving 27 years and I know that kind of shit doesn’t make a wreck happen when some woman driver loses it in front of you. But this lawyer, he was clever, he was smart, and he got some accident investigator to say it wouldn’t have happened if the trucker had braked harder or longer, or something. Anyway, that was enough to make the trucking company offer $250,000. It wasn’t even half her medical bills but I thought it was pretty good considering what her blood tests showed. And so what if it wasn’t the trucker’s fault? That’s what they have insurance for. And the lawyer promised he’d get the liens negotiated down and she’d have fifty or a hundred thousand left over after his fee. Forty percent.

“Forty percent of two-fifty, that’s 100K right? Not bad for a day’s work but I figured he earned it. So I told her to do it. I was right here in Vegas when I told her that. Well, you know what?”

Eddie didn’t know what.

“Turns out this lawyer owed more than my sister’s medical bills for gambling or drugs or I don’t know what all, and she signed the check but never saw a dime of that money. Not a nickel, even. It was months and I’d come through town and she’d say he’s still working with Medicaid or some shit. And she’s living in this trailer and now she’s in a wheelchair on SSI and my folks are taking care of her kid. So I started trying to call the guy but they always said he was never in and he never called me back. So finally I said enough is enough and I called the bar association because she wouldn’t do it.

“Come to find out, this sleazebag owed money to all kinds of clients and he had about a dozen grievances against him. Before they could disbar him he resigned and before they could prosecute him he disappeared. Before I could find him. Some system, huh?”

The guy’s eyes were suddenly wet and he turned back to his beer. Eddie stole a glance at the door as the ladies of the night went out into it. The only light outside now was from the parking lot floods.

The guy’s beer was only half empty but he didn’t touch it or speak for a few minutes. When he talked again his voice was flat.

“Nobody knew where he went. Not my sister, not her meth head friend. But he knew who the slime ball’s runner was, an orderly at the hospital there. The runner said he didn’t know where he’d gone either, but I thought he was lying. And I was right. I spent some time with him, you know? So he told me this lawyer used to kick him five hundred bucks for every tip that turned into a money case. He even bitched about the lawyer owing him money too. He shouldn’t have done that.”

He drank down his beer and then crushed the can in his ham of a fist with its dime-sized scabs on the first three knuckles.

“He finally told me the lawyer had come out here. So here I am.”

Eddie drew as much air as he could into his empty chest and asked, “What do you want?”

“What do you think? I want to find this man, talk to him, see if we can work out some kind of payment plan.” He laughed.

“What if he doesn’t have anything?”

“Then we’ll work something else out.”

The guy fell silent and his last words tolled in Eddie’s head as the minutes went by. Eddie’s eyes were fixed unseeing on his empty glass. He could not move or speak, and there was nothing to say or do anyway.

Eddie’s head jerked up when the guy slapped the bar with the flat of his hand and the sound of a pistol shot. “Hell, I got to go,” the guy said. He stood up. “Things to see, people to do. Time gets away from you in here.” He pulled a five from his wallet and put it on the bar next to Eddie. “One more on me for my man here,” he called to the barman. He turned to go, stopped. “You gonna wish me luck, Eddie?”

“Luck,” Eddie heard himself say.

The guy stopped at the juke on his way to the door and fed in some coins. He turned once more to Eddie and said, “Maybe I’ll run into you again before I leave town, hey?” Then he punched in his song and was gone.

Eddie dimly registered the first four bars of the song, the quiet but menacing tremolo of an electric guitar, joined by percussion, wordless vocals and a deep piano chord in the second. Then a harmonica announced drums and the bass, playing the same three chords over and over. And then that so-familiar voice, warning about war, the mad bull, rape, murder.

Gimme Shelter. At this moment, it wasn’t Eddie’s favorite rock and roll song of all time anymore. He put his head in his hands.

The bartender took away Eddie’s empty glass and put down a full one. He picked up the five the guy left and made change. “Something wrong Eddie?”

Eddie looked up. The bartender looked down at him with contempt. Eddie remembered the bartender’s glance at him when the big guy first sat down. Maybe there had been a slight nod to the big guy too. So that’s the way it was.

“Is there a back way out of here?”

“Sure, we got a back door. Employees and delivery only.”

“Listen, Jim, would you mind if-”

“Name’s John, Eddie. John. You been coming in here a year now and you can’t get that straight? Not that you give a damn.” He turned his back on Eddie and walked toward the other end of the bar. “Yeah, you can leave out the back if you want,” he said over his shoulder.

The relentless song faded away and the bar was quiet. Eddie sat and drank and tried to remember the name of the paraplegic girl who was the big guy’s sister. Then he tried to remember her face.

There had been so many and each one different but they all looked the same in his memory. They all looked like fear and pain and hope and sometimes greed but always trust. Always trust. He had been good at that, getting their trust and making them think he cared. He had cared too, and yes he was clever and yes he was smart. He started out 25 years ago as an insurance defense lawyer but it didn’t take long to figure out that the big money was on the other side of the fence. So when he had enough trials under his belt he took everything he had saved and rented office space and bought furniture and stole his secretary from the defense firm and set up shop to do what the plaintiffs’ attorneys called the Lord’s work. Helping the sick, the hurt, the halt and the poor on a forty percent contingency. A third if the case settled before pre-trial conference, half if it went to appeal.

Some discrete advertising and a seven figure verdict in the newspaper was all it took. In five years Eddie had the house and the Mercedes with wipers on the headlights and all that came with success in personal injury law. He donated to worthy causes and he and his wife bought and spent and spent and bought until she found out about the mistress and filed for divorce. It cost more than three hundred thousand dollars to be awarded a mountain of debt in the decree of dissolution.

He had worked hard to get where he was but just when he should have been able take it easier and enjoy the fruits of his labor he found he had to work harder than ever. He needed help. For him it was not methamphetamine but cocaine, the rich man’s speed. He was rich, after all. At least that’s what everyone thought. And he had to keep up appearances for the sake of his practice.

The clients kept coming and he started taking cases he would have referred out a couple of years earlier. Instead of concentrating on the few choice catastrophic injuries he now had to handle scores of soft tissue cases as well. He settled everything he could. The drugs and booze began to show in his trial work and it wasn’t long before the defense bar smelled blood in the water. They started offering him pennies on the dollar instead of multiples of damages. When Eddie couldn’t scare his clients into settling he would have to face opponents twenty years his junior in the courtroom.

And lose. Losing was expensive in the kinds of cases he had to try. Costs and expert witness fees in a good med-mal or products liability case could run into six figures. Losing was nothing new, either- it was part of personal injury work. The client contracts said they owed him his expenses if they lost but they could never pay. In the glory days, though, he could lose five big cases a year and make enough on the sixth to pay for everything, buy a fancier car and vacation abroad. After the divorce, it seemed he was always playing catch-up. Get a decent verdict or settlement, pay down his line of credit, pay off the hired-gun experts clamoring for their money for the last few cases, and then start borrowing again because there was never enough left over.

Associates came and went. They came fresh out of law school or after a couple of years of solo practice and their names would be on his letterhead for a while. They went after they started to suspect he was a has-been and after winning enough soft-tissues cases to believe they were the next Gerry Spence, usually trying to steal some clients on their way out. At first he sued them for this, but soon tired of lying in response to embarrassing questions when he was deposed. Word about him was getting around.

The first breach of his trust account was an accident. He hadn’t been keeping track closely enough and got confused about what money belonged to which client and didn’t realize he was short until the one he settled up with was gone. That night he did well playing Texas Hold “Em at the Creek Nation Casino and the next day he put the account right again first thing.

Commingling clients’ funds with your own was the lawyer’s cardinal sin. But he had violated the sacrosanct client trust account and nothing happened. Nothing would, he realized, unless he got audited. The next time was no accident. Just a small payday loan to finance the Lord’s work, promptly repaid and no one the wiser. It was too easy for it not to happen again and again. He held self-loathing at bay with various anesthetics and carried on. Or tried to, because the numbness also paralyzed him and made it hard to work.

He saw it coming like the headlights of a truck but he couldn’t make himself get out of the way. The first letter from the general counsel of the bar association was almost a relief. Several followed. He contested none of the complaints. The last thing he prepared as a lawyer was his affidavit of resignation admitting to everything. The state Supreme Court accepted it in a published decision striking his name from the roll of attorneys and forbidding him from applying for reinstatement for five years and a day.

He could tell people he resigned and retired instead of being disbarred if he wanted to. He didn’t tell anybody anything, and fled to the desert instead. He took writing samples with him and found work in Las Vegas ghostwriting briefs for the lawyers there who were too stupid or lazy to do it themselves. He got his process server’s license and bought a good camera with a long lens. He got by. He drank. Sometimes drinking he was able to get to that place where it felt like he was sliding down a greased pole and nothing mattered. Sometimes not.

Tonight he was very drunk but the big guy had been in his face when the greased pole went by. Midnight had come and gone and the bar was empty but for one old regular down at the end. The barman brought him another and said it was on the house. He emptied the ashtray and said “Eddie, it’s about that time.”

Eddie finished the drink in two long swallows. “Yes, it is,” he said and pushed himself up from his stool. The barman took up the empty glass and wiped the bar clean. He waited to see which way Eddie would go.

Eddie leaned on the bar and looked toward the back. He let his head sink down below his shoulders and took a breath. Then he straightened and turned and walked past the jukebox and out the front door.

His place was in the direction of the far end of the parking lot. A couple of cars were parked in pools of light from the floods. The lights at the end of the lot were broken and it was dark there.

Eddie stood for a moment swaying slightly with the closed door behind him. Then he walked across the asphalt and into the darkness.

****

Scott Cannon has appeared at New Pop Lit previously. See our recent profile on him: https://newpoplit.com/hype/interview-with-scott-cannon/.

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One thought on “Ergo Propter Hoc

  1. Very real. This story draws you in to a menacing atmosphere of doom. Good ending, that allows the reader to imagine the vengeance awaiting.

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