Yacht Party

by Scott Cannon

Craig wondered if Ashkan would ejaculate in the pants of his Giorgio Armani suit when he set foot on the famous attorney’s fabled yacht. His incessant chatter had quieted at their first sight of her in all her glory, the fourteen million dollar 176-foot tri-decked Artemis, strung with lights and gleaming white as a wedding cake at her own private dock at the yacht club, and for now it seemed Ashkan could only gaze in lustful wonder at the teeming wealth before them as they waited in line to be wanded aboard by the two well-dressed security goons at the foot of the wide, brass-railed gangplank. He had soon managed to close his mouth but still wore the wide-eyed smile of a child as they moved ever-closer to glory, occasionally blurting out random observations, about the cars in the parking lot (“Did you check out that black Lambo?”), the people on deck and in line (“I wonder how much those knockers cost her husband?”), and the boat they were about to board. He had read up on it.

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The Artemis had five staterooms with full baths including Jacuzzi tubs. It had a lounge with a bar. Ashkan wondered where the hot tub was. Probably on that upper deck. He had to get up there. “And look at that!” He pointed to a shrouded knife-shaped thing under a crane on the top of the ship. “That’s its tender – a twenty-one foot speedboat!”

Their names were checked on a list, and they had to show ID. “Let ‘em through,” boomed Jake, their boss, who had just been through the same thing. “They’re with me!” The goons ignored him and wanded Craig and Ashkan before thanking them and turning to the next couple. Ashkan noticed they weren’t checking the women’s purses. He thought the blonde goon with the ponytail might have given a squint to the name on his driver’s license, and then to him.

Ashkan was used to that. He followed Craig up to where Jake was removing his shoes at the top of the boarding ramp. They both did the same, handing their shoes to a porter who wrote their names on tags he put in the shoes before handing them to a cabin boy to be racked with the dozens of pairs of those already on board. When Ashkan took his first few steps on the smooth warmth of the teakwood deck he was glad he’d worn the new silk socks his wife had given him for the trip. All around him was the haute couture of the elite plaintiff attorneys’ world, people dressed as he was, talking as he did, wanting the same things he wanted, though perhaps not as much. Ashkan felt he had arrived. If only his father could see him now!

Jake watched his protégés with amusement. They had never seen anything like this before. He was interested in seeing how it affected them, especially the Iranian kid, Ashkan. Craig he had brought along because the associate turned out good work product and he liked him. They shared the same east Texas background. For Ashkan, Jake had hopes that could turn into plans that could become lucre for him. First, he needed to find the master of the vessel.

The master of the vessel was drunk as a lord, holding court on the uppermost guest deck of the yacht. Kendrick Lucas was a man on the short side of average height whose ordinary looks belied his extraordinary accomplishments. His brown hair partly hid large ears pinned close to his head. He had a catfish mouth and small brown eyes that constantly checked for new arrivals on deck without letting whomever he was talking to know they didn’t have his undivided attention. Thirty years of hard work and play had taught him to do this, and made him look older than his fifty-five years.

Tonight his mood and color were high. All day he had been feted by his peers at a ball he put on for himself in the guise of a continuing legal education seminar, attended by invitees only who came to Houston from all over the country. Tuition was steep, but the CLE part made the cost of the trip a deductible business expense for the devotees who came to bask in his glory. And for some favored attendees, or ones Lucas wanted favors from, tuition was waived.

Lucas had been honored at larger venues than the yacht club’s grand room, for his class-action crusades for the common man against evil corporations. He first made his name with a lawsuit against a corporate giant whose product harmed, or could have harmed everyone who came in contact with it. The first judgment and subsequent settlement of the remaining claims bankrupted the company and brought in hundreds of millions, which financed his later elevation to the status of godhood with a settlement in the billions against an entire evil industry. As everyone in the legal profession knew, his take from these hard-won windfalls was something close to half, and his thousands of class-action plaintiffs got something out of it too – not restored life or health, and not money in the seven or often even the six-figure range, but what Lucas and his worshippers thought of as justice, of a sort.

Today’s celebration, unfettered by strictures of decorum because it was a private affair orchestrated by Lucas himself, had surpassed all the honors and awards ceremonies that came before. It began with a bombastic introduction by his law partner that ended with darkened lights as a scene from a based-on-real-events Hollywood movie featuring Lucas in a heroic supporting role was projected on the screen behind the stage. The scene froze at its climax; a spotlight haloed the head of the actor playing Lucas on the screen, then swept to the back of the room to light up the incandescent entrance of The Man himself, flanked by two beautiful women and followed by a small cadre of security. The thunder of the ovation in the packed ballroom as he ascended to the podium still rang in Lucas’ ears.

Now flushed and sated with adulation, he regaled the partygoers thronged about him with war stories and jokes, hallooing each new arrival as an old friend without missing a beat. His greetings made everyone feel special, but none more so than Jake, who actually seemed to grow in stature before his two young associates at the obscenity-laced welcome Lucas hurled at him across the deck. Along the way Ashkan’s excitement at the wealth and success they passed through working their way up to the master’s deck had amped higher with each stop Jake made to gladhand the many lawyers he knew, nearly all for twenty years he said, as he introduced his boys.

These were two associate lawyers from his firm, he told his friends and colleagues. Craig was a kid from east Texas who had never seen the ocean, Jake said, so many times that Craig thought he might toss his boss over the rail of the ship before they reached the pinnacle of their climb up the decks. He told everyone Ashkan was from Tehran, though you wouldn’t know it to talk to him. They all found this very interesting. “Come to fight the good fight with us,” Jake would say, exchanging with some of the lawyers he had known for twenty years a look like they shared a secret Ashkan wasn’t in on, and fanning within him the coals of a slow fuming burn that began with the first time Jake singled him out this way. He preferred telling his own story to being introduced as an immigrant.

But the burn that never really went out was damped by the enveloping splendor of the yacht party and his sense that he belonged there with the well-dressed men and their gold Rolexes and trophy wives. If he shook hands with a Givenchy-clad attorney, was he not wearing Armani and a gold Rolex too, even if his wife had paid for the suit and his father had given him the watch for graduation? Not to mention the power tie from Harrods’, a gift from a relative with connections, which alone retailed in the hundreds of dollars. You only get one chance to make a first impression, his father said, and Ashkan felt he was holding his own. Some of the lawyers probably weren’t even wearing silk socks. For sure Craig wasn’t. What store rack had his suit come from, anyway? No wonder he looked so uncomfortable and out-of-place.

That was his problem, and never mind because now they had ascended the oak-banistered staircase of the last lower deck and emerged into Olympus, Zeus himself leaving the clot of his retinue for a back-clapping handshake with Jake. “These your boys?” Lucas wanted to know.

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Jake told him Craig was a kid from east Texas who had never even seen the ocean, and Ashkan was his young associate from Tehran, though you wouldn’t know it, come to help them fight the good fight. Lucas held Craig’s handshake long enough to tell him what a crazy sumbitch his boss was before turning his full attention to Ashkan. For a while Craig listened to Lucas encourage Ashkan to pump out his story about how he was five years old when his family had to emigrate from Iran to the promised land during the revolution because his father was one of the Shah’s inner military circle, how he came home from school crying every day because he could only speak Farsi, how he learned to speak English without accent watching Laurel and Hardy on TV, how his father had started over with nothing, earning an MBA and making the American dream come true in the used car business. Craig thought Lucas’ questions of Ashkan were keen, if rather personal. By the time Craig saw he was not part of the little three-man knot that closed in front of him and had begun to back away from it, he heard Ashkan tell Lucas that he was of course a Shiite Muslim, that his ancestry could be traced back a thousand years and further, according to some in the family who claimed their line went all the way back to the Prophet. The rapt interest of the greatest trial lawyer in America in everything he said worked on Ashkan like a drug.

They didn’t notice when Craig drifted away from them and made his way back down the oak staircase to the second deck. There in the open was the buffet piled high with lobster, scallops, shrimp, oysters, and other delicacies of the Gulf. Inside was the famous lounge with the bar at the far end in front of the expansive view of the bow-facing windows. Craig tried to mingle.

He didn’t think he was imagining that everyone he talked to, everyone who looked at him was trying to figure out who he was, whether he was ranked in the pantheon of personages there, and what he had done to be onboard the Artemis for the continued celebration of the life and career of Kendrick Lucas. It didn’t take them long to see that Craig was nobody, a kid from east Texas who’d never seen the ocean, as he had begun introducing himself. They could tell it from across the room without even speaking to him. Probably it was his clothes. Maybe Ashkan was right, you only get one chance to make a first impression. If these people judged you on the cost of what you were wearing, Craig wasn’t sure he wanted to know them.

Or maybe he was imagining it. Whatever the reason, he was sitting alone at the bar talking to Larry, the black giant of the ship’s security detail assigned to the lounge, when Lucas and Jake staggered down the staircase, Ashkan in their wake. The two older men were very drunk, and Craig could tell Ashkan had a couple of drinks in him too. He was not a strict adherent to all the tenets of his faith when it came to fitting in with important people, and if fitting in with the august company of Kendrick Lucas meant tossing back a few, then how was that any worse than the keggers in college? Especially when Lucas seemed so interested in him and his background and what family he had and who else he still knew in the Middle East.

Jake dispatched him to find Craig then joined Lucas hobnobbing with the guests in the lounge. Buzzed as much by the attention Lucas had lavished on him as by the single malt they were drinking, Ashkan had to weave his way through the noise and too-loud laughter in the room for a couple of minutes before spotting Craig at the bar.

Larry shoved off when Ashkan joined them. “Hey Craig, life of the party as usual I see!”

“Yeah this is the only place people would stop bothering me,” Craig said. “You look like you’re having a good time.”

Ashkan gave him a giddy grin. “Right, well Ken wanted to talk to me about some things, so how could I turn down a drink?”

“Oh, so it’s Ken now?”

“That man is amazing, Craig. He has a condo in Vail, and one of those beachfront mansions in Galveston. And a Lear jet! You know how much the scotch we were drinking cost? Three hundred dollars a bottle! Those guys can put it away too, let me tell ya. The only reason they didn’t open another bottle is Jake’s got it in his head he wants to go find the best seafood in Houston and have dinner out.”

“Now?” Craig looked at his Seiko. It was after eleven.

“Yeah, you know how he is. Come on,” Ashkan said, grabbing Craig’s arm.

It was true; as they approached their host and their boss Craig heard Jake’s voice above the swelling din of the party. “I don’t care if the best seafood in town is right here on board, I don’t wanna have dinner on your goddamn boat! We’ve been here all night, and besides, I promised my boys.”

Lucas spotted them over Jake’s shoulder and cried out “Speak of them, and they appear! The prodigal returns, with the Waco Kid.”

Jake took scant notice of their return, intent on wringing the information he wanted from Lucas. “So the place you were telling me about, Pier 51 you said? How do we get there from here?”

“All right, you stubborn bastard. Here.” Lucas took a fountain pen from his jacket and began to scrawl a crude map on a cocktail napkin. Ashkan leaned into Craig. “Mont Blanc,” he whispered, nodding toward Lucas’ pen.

Lucas started to give the blotched napkin to Jake, but handed it to Ashkan instead. “One of the things I love about this crazy son of a bitch, he latches onto something he wants, he never stops until he gets it. He ain’t driving, though.” He stopped to peer at Ashkan’s splotchy face and reddened eyes. “Come to think of it, you’re not either.” He snatched the napkin away from Ashkan and pressed it into Craig’s hand. Craig looked at it; other than the boat shape of their starting point, it was an indecipherable spider web of wavy lines. Lucas started trying to explain the thing turn by turn, but Craig pocketed the napkin and said “This is fine. I’ll find it.”

Jake fell into the back of their rented Cadillac when Ashkan opened the door for him. With directions from the club’s gatekeeper, Craig found the restaurant a short drive away in the tony part of the wharf waterfront. Ashkan babbled about his time on the upper deck the whole way, and Jake was snoring by the time they got there.

He woke up when he felt the car stop. “We here? All right young Turks, get ready for the meal of a lifetime,” he said before tumbling out of the car. Inside the dimly lit elegance of Pier 51 there were few diners left, and it appeared the restaurant was about to close. But with a hundred dollar bill in Jake’s handshake and his explanation that they were down from Dallas and had come from Lucas’ Artemis with his guarantee that here they would find the finest seafood anywhere in the world the maître de showed them to a window table with an indulgent smile.

Jake was passed out face-down on the table when the waiter returned with the bottle of wine he had ordered. “Is he all right?” the waiter asked. Craig and Ashkan looked at each other over the slumped form of Jake between them and laughed. They had his AmEx card. “He’s fine,” they said, “don’t worry about him.” Then they ordered, and ate and drank like kings.

Jake called their room early the next morning. When they had bundled him away in his suite the night before, they figured he would need to sleep his drunk off the next day, but he sounded sharp as ever when he told them to meet him for breakfast downstairs. They should not have been surprised; like Lucas, Jake had the reputation of one who could party hearty into the wee hours then show up in court at nine the day after, impeccably dressed and ready to kill.

They showered and dressed in a hurry and were still a little groggy when they found Jake in the hotel breakfast grill, shoveling away at eggs benedict and a stack of pancakes, a pot of coffee, a glass of orange juice, and an empty bloody mary glass on the table. As they waited for their food, Jake told Ashkan they were returning to the Artemis that evening. “There’s something Ken needs to talk to us about,” was his explanation.

Ashkan’s face lit up at this, but Craig said “Hold on, Jake, I thought we were supposed to have dinner with the Senator tonight.”

“Change of plans,” said Jake. “This is more important. You take the Senator out, make some excuse, show him a good time. I’ll give you my card. Ashkan will be with me.”

Craig thought he saw the twitch of a smirk in Ashkan’s beaming smile.

After breakfast and another bloody mary, Jake thought he needed a nap. Craig and Ashkan spent most of the afternoon by the hotel pool, charging everything they ate and drank to their room.

Early that evening, Craig dropped off Jake and Ashkan at the yacht club. Before they left, Jake had sent Ashkan back to their room to change out of the other Armani suit he’d brought into something more casual. This was to be a comfortable private affair, Jake explained. He told Craig not to worry about them, Lucas would have them driven back to the hotel, and reminded him to show the Senator a good time and make up some excuse for his absence. “Tell him I was at Kendrick’s yacht party last night and I’m under the weather today,” he laughed. “He’ll understand.”

The Senator did understand. “He’s with Lucas, isn’t he?” he asked when Craig made the awkward excuse. Craig could only smile with embarrassment and repeat Jake’s instruction that he was to show the Senator a good time. The Senator shook his head with a knowing smile of his own, and slapped Craig on the back as they headed for the car. “Well,” he said, “I know how to have a really good time.”

And so they did. The Senator wanted to dine at Mark’s American Cuisine, a place with vaulted ceilings built as a church in the 1920s. There he studied the wine list and menu with ferocious intensity and began ordering one after another of the priciest items from each for the both of them. Dinner lasted over three hours, and Craig felt he was near to bursting when the waiter brought the jaw-dropping tab. Seeing his look, the Senator laughed and said “We were supposed to have a really good time, right?” Craig slapped Jake’s AmEx card on the bill and added a generous tip. He had enjoyed his time with the Senator, a friend of Jake’s since law school, and enjoyed even more not being on the Artemis with Ashkan, Jake, and Kendrick Lucas.

Craig, tired by the revelry of the past two days, was asleep in bed with the television on when Ashkan returned, in a fever. He turned on all the lights and sat with a six-dollar bottle of water while he poured out his disjointed story of the private audience he and Jake had aboard the Artemis with its famous owner, as though Craig had been waiting up to hear it instead of sleeping. When Craig saw Ashkan’s account would go on for some time he put on a hotel robe and got a six-dollar bottle of water to drink for himself while he heard it through.

He could see Ashkan had been at the single malt again, but also that he was near delirium on some other intoxicant. There was a crazed gleam in Ashkan’s eyes as he told Craig of the wonders of the ship (gold plated fixtures in the master suite!), which he beheld during the tour his host had given them before getting down to business. Surely they had not been doing cocaine, Craig thought.

No. Ashkan was high on an opportunity Lucas had offered him. Everyone in the legal profession knew of Lucas’ latest crusade, something no stick-up-the-ass Tea Party defense attorney could criticize: a class-action lawsuit whose core comprised the estates of two thousand people who died in the worst terrorist attack ever launched on American soil. Dead people! And hundreds of others who had been injured or harmed or affected in some other negative way by the havoc and horror of that day. When Craig first heard of it, he thought Lucas was trying to sue airlines, architects, builders, screeners and anyone else a negligence claim would stick to, including the government. But no, that avenue of recovery had been effectively shut down by the massive victim compensation fund the Feds had cleverly put in place to keep the lawyers’ hands out of it.

So this was a lawsuit against the perpetrators themselves, and their aiders and abettors. The defendants included princes of royal Middle-Eastern families, regional bankers who moved money for the terrorist group, and, of course, its leader. Needless to say, not much recovery could be expected from him, even if he were still alive, but his name looked good at the top of the long list under the “vs.” in the three-page style of the suit. And imagine the depth of the pockets of some of the other malfeasants! The potential here could dwarf the recovery Lucas had brought in on the case they made a movie of. “He was talking in the nine, ten figure range, Craig.” The decimal point confused Ashkan for a moment, so he added “A hundred billion dollars, that’s what he said,” to make it more clear.

“Where do you fit in?” Craig asked.

The problem was, Ashkan explained, that the lawsuit had been going on for more than ten years and Lucas hadn’t got anywhere with it. Many of the dozens of motions that had been filed had not gone Lucas’ way. His legendary antics, like showing up for a doctor’s deposition in scrubs with a toy stethoscope or squirting a water gun at defense counsel in court, failed to intimidate the Semitic Middle Eastern people he tried to depose, or would have failed had he been able to take their depositions. It was hard getting a prince to come to the U.S. to be harangued by a lawyer in front of a court reporter and a room full of people, though, and Lucas was clearly afraid of going over there to do it.

This was where Ashkan came in. He knew people. He had hundreds of family still in Iran and scattered throughout the countries in the region. His father had friends still there too: not all of the Shah’s inner circle had fled to America with the coming of the Ayatollah and the Revolutionary guard; many had relocated to other countries in the region, or Europe. Lucas had done his research, Ashkan said with pride, and believed some of the people he would be able to talk to over there knew things, or knew others who did.

“I don’t understand,” said Craig, now wide awake with a growing sense of alarm. “You’re telling me you’re going under cover for Lucas, he’s signing you up as a spy?”

Ashkan’s tone was haughty. “Nothing like that. I’m going to investigate evidence. I’m going to help make his case for him.”

“And your father is going to help?”

“No, he can’t know about this. He wouldn’t allow it.”

“And you’re going to do it anyway?” said Craig, amazed. Ashkan revered his father as a hero and never went against his wishes. “So what about Janet, and little Dari?” Janet was Ashkan’s blonde American wife and the mother of his son.

“She would be against it too. That will need some. . .”

“Finesse?” Craig finished for him.

“Finesse, yeah. I could use your help with that.”

“Well don’t look at me. I don’t like it either. It’s insane. I don’t want any part of it.”

Ashkan’s face hardened. “You don’t have to have any part of it Craig. I don’t need your help.” The embers of the fire he carried in his stomach grew hot within him. What was wrong with this big lug of an American? He had no ambition, no vision. And now he was refusing to help Ashkan on his quest for glory, when Ashkan hadn’t even asked him to do anything. His attitude was beyond Ashkan’s comprehension. Did he not want wealth and fame, like everyone else? Envy, that’s what it had to be.

Deep down, Ashkan knew that Craig was a better lawyer than he. They were about the same age, had been licensed to practice the same year, and had been hired one after the other at Jake’s firm. Now three years in, it was Craig who got the more important research and briefing assignments. Ashkan liked to think that was because even though he could speak English without a trace of his parents’ accent it was still a second language to him. Still it bothered him that Craig had second-chaired more trials than he. And, most recently, Craig had tried one of the firm’s lesser cases solo, and brought back a reasonable judgment for the client and firm. Ashkan had never been turned loose by himself in front of a jury. Sometimes he wondered how much faith the partners had in his abilities. Sometimes he wondered if some of them were secret bigots who didn’t like Muslims. This was Texas, after all.

In any case, it was Ashkan who had the personality everyone liked, and the gold Rolex and the Cadillac Escalade and the McMansion his parents had helped him buy when Darius was born, just around the block from where they lived in north Dallas. Craig drove a Honda and lived with his wife and three kids in one of those mock-Tudor style houses in a less upscale part of the city. How could he not be envious, even if he knew Ashkan’s lifestyle was mostly financed by his parents and the three-hundred thousand dollars a year his wife brought in as the marketing vice-president and rising star of one of the biggest IT firms in Dallas?

Now Ashkan had his shot at the bona fide big time, and Craig was less than enthused for him. He was against it in fact, if Ashkan had heard him right. Well no wonder then. The Waco Kid, Lucas had called him. No way could Craig attempt what Lucas had asked of Ashkan. Lucas knew a big galoot from Texas would only have his head handed to him if he tried to stick his nose in the Byzantine intrigues of Ashkan’s people. Ashkan had the winning ways and the connections and the confidence of Kendrick Lucas that he could find the golden key to his massive lawsuit. If Ashkan could pull it off, he would be a true hero, not a phony big shot, as he suspected some people thought. As he thought, at low times.

As he headed for the bathroom he heard Craig say “I’m just afraid for you, buddy. You know how it is over there.”

Ashkan stopped in the doorway, half turned and said “Don’t be – buddy. I know what I’m doing. Ken can’t get what he needs from our own government, so he’s going after it himself. He has his own intelligence operation, his life has been threatened because of the questions he’s asking. Remember the party? He has security like – well, forget it. I can see how you feel, so don’t ask me any questions. And spare me your concern.” He closed the bathroom door between them, harder than he meant to.

The door stayed shut for a long time. Craig heard the toilet flush, and water running. Craig turned off the TV and most of the lights and got back in bed. He was still awake when Ashkan came out at last. He heard him throw off the bedspread off his own bed, saw the room go dark and heard the rustle of sheets. They lay awake for some time, each knowing the other had not fallen asleep. Neither of them spoke anymore that night.

On Southwest’s short hop from Houston to Dallas the next day, Ashkan was his usual cheerful charming self. As if by agreement between him and Jake, neither said a word about Lucas’ grand scheme.

Back in the office, Ashkan avoided Craig as much as he could. When an assignment brought them together, he was polite and friendly, in a cool sort of way. A few days after their return, Craig was in Jake’s office talking through the finer points of a brief he was working on in one of Jake’s products liability actions. When they were done Craig asked if they could talk about something on his mind. Jake gave him a guarded nod, and Craig shut the door.

“So are you really going to let him to this?” Craig asked.

“Let who do what?” Jake said, all innocence.

Craig exploded. “Let Ashkan go back to Iran to snoop around for Kendrick Lucas!”

“So that’s what’s been bothering you since we got back?” Jake leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms. “I’m not letting him do anything. Ashkan is a grown man, Craig. This was his decision.”

“Sure it was. And was he of sound mind when he made it?” Jake cocked his head and made to look like he didn’t understand. “He was out of his head when he came back to the room that night. And it wasn’t just on that scotch or whatever you were drinking. It was like he was under a spell, like he’d been seduced.” Jake’s puzzled look gave way to the briefest of smiles, quickly suppressed. In that moment, it was all clear.

“That was the plan, wasn’t it?” Craig said, his voice rising again. “I couldn’t see why you took us down there with you in the first place, but I get it now. You and Lucas had it all worked out right from the start. Bring him along to the yacht party, show him all this gold-plated stuff he wants, get him a drunk on your hundred year-old liquor and visions of grandeur, and then spring it on him. How could he say no?”

“You don’t give Ashkan much credit. Why are you so upset? What are you, his mother?”

“I’m his friend, or was. I don’t know about that anymore. What I do know is that you and Lucas are using him like a cheap tool.” Craig’s words were getting away from him. He knew he was talking to his boss, but he couldn’t stop himself. “You’re sending him to the most dangerous part of the world, to ask questions about the most dangerous people in the world. Have you given one thought to what could happen if he talks to the wrong person?”

“Now you listen to me, young man.” Jake put his elbows on the desk and pointed a finger, his voice stern and his face tight set. “Don’t forget your place here. This is my firm, and Ashkan works for me. So do you – remember that. If Ashkan wants to stick his neck out for a great cause, it’s none of your concern what I have to say about it.”

“Even if he gets his head cut off?”

“That’s not going to happen. He’s going to Beirut, with two of Ken’s best security guys, to talk to one of his uncles and some people there his father knew. Then he’s coming back, maybe with some information Ken needs for his case.” Jake stopped, feeling he’d said too much. This conversation with Craig wouldn’t even be happening, if Ashkan had kept his mouth shut like he was supposed to. Jake should have known better. Little twerp.

“Beirut?” said Craig, astonished. “I thought he was going to Iran. Where else is he going? Syria? Afghanistan?”

“Enough!” Jake thundered. “Who do you think you are, cross-examining me like this? I don’t want to hear another word. Get out of here and get back to work on that brief. I want it on my desk first thing tomorrow. And while you’re at it, take a minute to think how lucky it is that I like you and the work you do. Otherwise you’d be packing your shit into a box right now.”

Craig sat for a moment, his chest heaving, then stood to leave. When he reached the door Jake said, “Craig.” He turned.

“You have a future here; Ashkan didn’t.” Jake was standing at his desk. “The kid can’t write worth a damn, he moves his lips when he reads, he can’t think on his feet in the courtroom. But he’s good at talking to people, winning their trust. Everybody likes Ashkan. Now he has a chance to make an important contribution towards justice for all those families Ken is representing. He wants to do this for his career, his family, for America, for freedom. Don’t begrudge him for it.”

A contribution to the further enrichment of Kendrick Lucas, and probably Jake too, thought Craig. And for Ashkan, a chance for a place at the table with the great and near-great. But he didn’t say it.

Ashkan didn’t come to the office the next week, or the week after that. None of the associates knew anything. He hadn’t been fired. He was just gone, working on something important, they heard. As mysterious as this was, Craig’s silent exits whenever they started again with their wild speculations was stranger still. He was Ashkan’s buddy; didn’t he know anything?

Craig didn’t answer their questions and didn’t ask any of his own, and Jake volunteered no information about Ashkan’s expedition. Another week passed, and Ashkan’s wife called Craig at home. She had not heard from her husband in four days. Did Craig know anything?

He did not. Janet talked on, and Craig gathered that Ashkan had told her he was taking a trip abroad on firm business, and that he’d lied about where he was going and why. He thought it best to leave that alone.

Craig mentioned the phone call to Jake the next day. “I didn’t know anything to tell her,” he said. “Has anyone heard from him?”

Jake didn’t answer his question and wouldn’t look him in the eye. “Everything’s fine,” he said. He had a meeting to get to.

Ashkan still had not returned when Craig gave his notice a week later.

His wife knew everything, and didn’t object when they left Dallas and moved to a place on a few acres outside of Nacogdoches, Texas. Craig found work at a small general practice firm whose senior partner he had known as a friend of the family from childhood. Soon he was doing the heavy lifting on all of the firm’s few small personal injury cases, as well as taking on his share of the wide variety of other legal matters handled by any small town practice. He brought in some decent judgments and settlements in the PI cases, and made the clients happy helping them with their wills and probates, mineral rights and property line disputes, DUIs, and the petty criminal troubles their kids got into. He made partner in three years.

Between the demands of work and family, he was busier than he had ever been. The years passed quickly. His family grew; he and his wife now had a fourth child, and another was on its way.

The client whose ranch he was on one night liked to kid Craig about not yet figuring out why those babies just kept coming. They had ridden out on horseback with a couple of ranch hands early that morning to round up and brand some new additions to the rancher’s herd. He was an old-timer who liked to do it the old way, in a corral with a big fire heating the irons.

Now it was a moonless night. They had eaten and passed a bottle around the campfire. One of the cowboys was playing a harmonica. Craig said he was going to take a leak and walked far away from the light of the fire to sit on a flat rock while his eyes adjusted to the country dark. There were no clouds in the sky. When he looked up, the stars were so bright and sharp they almost hurt his eyes. He remembered campouts with his father and brother when he was a kid. He thought of Houston, and the yacht party, and Kendrick Lucas’ great lawsuit. Lucas had died before seventy, having never achieved the justice and retribution he sought in his cause celebre. Ashkan had not been heard from again. Craig wondered what the stars looked like wherever Ashkan was, and if he could still see the sky.

****

(See our examination of Scott’s work, part of our opening installment of an overview of today’s lit scene, “Hyper-Talents of the New Literary Age.”)

 

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