January 26, 2023

Double Bubble Chapter 8: The Ghosts You Chase You Never Catch

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This entry is part 8 of 14 in the series Double Bubble

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Like all good cases, this case is bad.

Not damned to a circle of hell for all eternity kind of bad; more like a severely unpleasant experience resulting in a predictably inferior result kind of bad.

To begin with, the dead guy is dead. And as Dickens said of Marley, this must be distinctly understood, or there is no story. Or something like that. Except, unlike Marley, Danny Quick’s ghost won’t be knocking on my fucking door to confess his sins. Or at least I doubt he will. I impulsively flick my eyes to the door, suddenly overcome with an irrational fear that he might.

I’m sitting with my feet up on my desk, drink in hand, thoughts in tow, and reasonably confident I don’t believe in ghosts. But that doesn’t stop me from breathing a sigh of relief when nothing happens. No knock. No ghost. I shake my head. This case is making me crazy. I’m fucking crazy. That’s all there is to it. I must be.

I take a sip of my drink, lean further back in my chair, close my eyes, and let myself wallow in self-pity. Woe is me and my miserable misfortune. Just my luck to have a good case dropped in my lap that I can’t hope to win. It’s karma. It’s a fucking karmic conspiracy; that’s what it is.

And yes, alright, maybe I should have known that it was all going to be too good to be true. I read the report on Danny’s death. I should have known the fix was in. His nutso mother peddling some exotic story about murder and intrigue and trying to convince me that her idiot son would never have done the unthinkable and killed himself. Because that never happens, right? The deadbeat buried under a mountain of debt he built while chasing a Utopian pipe dream of a world filled with sex-starved robots would never, ever just kill himself. The guy with a nutso mother and a nutso girlfriend would never swallow some pills and die. No, sir, that’s no reason to kill yourself at all.

I hoist my glass in mock salute to Danny and his tiny dick and mutter a toast. Fuck you, and good riddance. I shake my head and take a large swallow and curse my misfortune. Fucking hell.

So now what? Fire Katrina and go back to my other cases? I should. I have other cases. I have easier cases. I have loser cases that are sure winners. Cases so easy I hardly ever have to think. Cases that don’t involve Terry the Terror. I like those cases. I’m pretty sure those cases are why I wake up in the morning and sleep easy at night. Nice easy cases for a nice easy life.

But this case? This case is a fucking dumpster fire that makes me wish I were deader than Danny. It has nothing going for it. From the unlikeable dead guy who spent his life jerking off for money, to his unlikeable girlfriend — assuming she was his fucking girlfriend — who runs a freak flower shop, to his unlikeable mother whose personal brand of craziness probably drove the dead guy to a life of loneliness and isolation, there is nothing sympathetic or winnable about this case.

The most likable character in the entire cast is the dead guy’s business partner. But she’s no help because she also thinks the dead guy killed himself. And why wouldn’t she? Anyone living Danny’s life probably would. Mind you, she also thinks that men should give up trying to romance women and should instead settle for fucking and marrying a female simulacrum that she is hellbent on making in her laboratory. So maybe we shouldn’t take her word for it.

The only thing this case has going for it is the amount of money at stake. With a five million dollar policy on a thirty percent contingency, I’d earn a healthy million five if I can somehow pull a rabbit out of my ass, beat Terrence at his own game, and convince a jury that Danny didn’t kill himself. A one-off fee so large I could hang up the old spurs and ditch the entire practice of law.

And that’s the rub. The entire dilemma in a nutshell. That’s the whole problem. A question of whether I grind out a life on easy cases or take a flyer on a tough one and score a big payoff.

Except, as surely as I know that no ghosts are going to walk through my door, I know there isn’t going to be any damn payoff. Whatever chance I had of beating the Terror’s theory of suicide died under the weight of Danny’s debt. I hadn’t been able to persuade Vivian to share all of the details with me but what she had shared painted a pretty bleak picture.

Danny had borrowed more than a million dollars to prop up his franken-sex robot factory, and when his company failed to turn a profit, there was a demand for repayment. I don’t know why Helping Hand had needed the money or, for that matter, why Danny hadn’t simply had the company file for bankruptcy to deal with the debt.

What I do know is that a jury won’t care. People don’t think rationally. The Terror won’t have to work very hard to make that point clear. The jury will buy it because Danny was a freak in life, and it isn’t impossible to imagine that a guy like him, a guy who thinks it’s normal to beat off for money, is also a guy who thinks it’s normal to kill yourself to make good on some corporate debt. It’s ridiculous, but that’s the hard truth. The Terror only needed a motive, and now I know he has it.

And that makes this case unwinnable. There will be no sympathy for Danny and no reason for a jury to look past all the bullshit the Terror will be shovelling to hide the truth. As if truth fucking matters in a courtroom. Selling a case to a jury is like selling a new car to a first-time buyer. First, you sell the feeling then you sell the facts. Truth follows emotion, never the other way around. And in the narrative of life insurance litigation, debt and suicide fit an emotional frame that’s easy to erect and nearly impossible to knock down. The common wisdom is that happy people don’t kill themselves; sad people do. And there’s nothing sadder than a middle-aged man who has filled his empty life with wasted sex and mountains of debt. The story practically writes itself.

And let’s not forget that the Terror also has a report confirming that Danny killed himself. Objectively and subjectively, the Terror has a story I can’t beat. And that assumes my client isn’t some lunatic who killed the dead guy.

Granted, I take Vivian’s lack of knowledge about Katrina with a grain of salt. Danny was a buffoon, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t know how to keep secrets. If Vivian only learned of his debt after he died, I have no trouble believing she also never knew about a girlfriend. Maybe he didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Maybe he didn’t want her to know because he was embarrassed to be involved with a nutso like his mother.

Who fucking knows why Danny did any of the things he did.

Not that it matters. Girlfriend or not, Katrina is not at all sympathetic, and no jury is going to be inclined to cut her a cheque for five million dollars. Giving her that much money will feel like a win-fall, and in the all-or-nothing sweepstakes of life insurance, it is easier to give her nothing than to make her rich. A jury will resent her for getting rich off her dead boyfriend.

I shake the ice in my glass, drain what’s left, and sit up. Maybe I’m a bit drunk, but I think I hear someone knocking at my door. My mind immediately runs to Danny and his ghost, and now I’m regretting making any jokes about it. I must be going crazy.

It’s nearly 6:30 at night, and I am not expecting any visitors. I’m only half dressed, pants and a t-shirt. I get up from my desk, steady myself on my feet, contemplate what to do. The lights are all on, so whoever is knocking has probably just made the assumption that someone is here. I could ignore it, but once again, curiosity seems to take over. But not before thoughts of Marley’s ghost start sloshing in my head. Logically I know I’m not about to be visited by a damn ghost, but the alcohol makes logic iffy. I’m not going to take any chances.

I look around my office for anything I can use as a weapon. Yes, I know, a weapon against a ghost is not the height of brilliance. So shoot me.

I settle on a stapler, the best I can find in my run-down office and head out to the reception area to see what I can see. The banging has stopped, and for a moment, I think perhaps I imagined the whole thing. I turn to walk back to my office when another knock at the door causes me to jump so high I think I might have bumped my head on the ceiling. Fucking hell.

I spin around, move over to the front door, and peer out through the glass to see who it is. Not Marley but definitely a ghost from my past. I unlock the door, step back, and Terry the Terror floats into my office.

I’m still trying to process the fact that he’s here at this hour, or frankly at all, when I realize he isn’t alone, and a second figure, another ghost, drifts into my office behind him.

I smile at Ashley. She moves past me so close I can smell the light fragrance of her perfume. My heart is pounding; too many ghosts and not enough alcohol. I close and lock the door, turn around and stare at them, the stapler still gripped in my hand like a baton.

The Terror is surveying my office, his lips twitch like he’s pleased to see how far I have fallen. I ignore him and look at Ashley. Her expression is bright and just a bit amused.

“Defending your office with a stapler?” she says.

“Not just any stapler,” I say. “A Swingline.”

Her smile broadens.

“A Swingline is a good stapler,” she says. “Some might even say the best stapler.”

“It is. It’s the kind of stapler someone might burn down an office to protect,” I say, smiling almost as broadly as her. She looks at the stapler in my hand. Her smile goes crooked.

“If it was red, for sure. A red Swingline is a thing of beauty and grace,” she says.

“Not to mention that it doesn’t bind up as much as the Boston,” I say.

She laughs, and for a minute, it is like old times. But it isn’t. Terrence is here. He’s irritated with the banter. He’s impatient to start. He looks at us, and I can see his contempt.

“Maybe you should have grabbed your clothes instead of a stapler,” he says.

My face burns with embarrassment. I try not to look at Ashley.

“To what do I owe this pleasure, Terrence?”

He looks over at Ashley before sweeping his arm in an arc across the room, drawing attention to the shabby decor. He turns back to look at me.

“I like what you’ve done with the place,” he says, smirking.

“I’m glad you think so,” I say. “Dorothy does wonderful work.”

His eyes narrow, his smirk disappears.

“Dorothy,” he says with a hint of confusion and uncertainty. “You hired Dorothy?”

Dorothy is Terrence’s ex-wife. She’s an interior decorator and not one of my favourite people. I didn’t hire her, but he doesn’t know that. Maybe he never will. I smile pleasantly at that thought and wait him out. Ashley clears her throat and points to the sofa and chairs.

“Maybe we should sit down,” she says as though I’m hosting a dinner party and we still have to wait for the other guests to arrive. I look at her and smile. It’s difficult not to.

“Sure,” I say. “Let’s do that.”

We move awkwardly through my office to the sitting area. The sofa isn’t quite as big as a row boat but seats about as many. The two of them take up spots on either end, looking about as comfortable as a pair of soaked hounds after a thunderstorm. I take a seat in the wingback chair. The green leather is cold and causes me to shiver involuntarily. Terrence smiles. I hate that fucking smile.

“So,” he says, with a wave of his thin dainty hand. “This is where you ran off to is it?”

Terrence isn’t capable of masking his contempt or his glee, and it takes every ounce of willpower to resist the impulse to get up and beat him with my Swingline stapler. I don’t. Instead, I bite hard on my teeth and hold myself in check. It isn’t easy. I remind myself that he’s in my office and, at this hour, I’m pretty sure he isn’t here just to gloat. But maybe he is. Or maybe something has happened. I only wish I knew what the fuck it was.

When I don’t say anything, he continues. “After you left the firm…well…you don’t know how I worried about what would become of you William.” He smiles wide, all teeth. “I’m relieved to know you landed on your feet. But then you have always been a survivor haven’t you,” he says.

He looks over at Ashley, but she isn’t smiling. This flusters him a bit. But only a bit. He’s her boss, but I can see from the looks being exchanged that his being an asshole wasn’t part of the plan. Assuming there was a plan. They both look back at me sheepishly.

“Anyway,” he says, trying to reset. “You’re probably wondering why we are here?”

“You mean it wasn’t to discuss my interior decorating choices and reminisce about old times?”

It’s my turn to smile at him, a big old grin from ear to ear. My grin annoys him. I’m delighted. I can feel his irritation. I feed off of it. It’s a deeply satisfying feeling.

“No, William, it isn’t,” he says.

“Oh,” I say with a shrug. “I thought maybe you missed me, Terrence. I’ve missed you. It’s been so long.”

I keep on smiling, all warm and insincere.

“Yes, well,” he says. He rubs his chin with his hand as if contemplating his next words carefully. He’s no longer looking at me, his eyes focus just off to the side of my head, somewhere in the middle distance. He’s got on his actor’s face now, ready to start delivering his lines.

“We reported to our client this afternoon after meeting with yours. My client is sympathetic. He feels badly about this unfortunate situation. He has decided to make an offer. So I guess you could say that we’re here to negotiate,” he says.

I hear his voice constrict like he’s sucking air through a straw. He’s nervous or unhappy or both but trying desperately to hide it. I’ve witnessed his act before but never as a member of the audience. Something is off. Maybe it was Katrina yelling at him. Or, I wonder vaguely whether he got cold feet after seeing me. Is he scared? Is that what’s happened? I look over at Ashley, she offers a small smile, one that is not at all reassuring. I’m obviously missing something. I’m behind again. There’s no way Terry the Terror is here to make an offer unless they know something that I don’t. He’s looking at me intently, waiting for me to respond.

“I see,” I say, trying to keep my voice neutral.

I lock my eyes on his, trying to pierce his facade. It’s no good. This whole meeting is off. I need to rattle him. I need to get under his skin. Fortunately, I know his triggers.

“After seeing me today, I figured you might,” I say.

His eyes flash with anger. He doesn’t like that I’ve just implied that he is a coward and afraid to square off against me on this case. But I need to twist the knife a bit deeper. I shrug and lean back. I cross my legs as though I’m indifferent.

“I mean,” I say, “we both know you aren’t a trial lawyer. I’m not surprised you want to settle. It’s what you do, right?”

And just like that, I’ve rattled him. Before he can regain his composure, he starts stammering.

“You…you….you…li-li-li-t-t-t-le fucking…fucking weasel,” he says through clenched teeth.

I laugh with delight.

“Terrence,” I say. “I’d forgotten how much I enjoy our chats.”

He’s positively fuming now. I watch him with amusement, still laughing, happy to turn the screw for a change.

“Will,” Ashley snaps, her voice cool and unamused.

I look at her. She’s disappointed. I’m forever disappointing her. I stop laughing. It’s my turn in the doghouse. I look back at the Terror. His mouth is clamped shut, his face red, his eyes are raging. I should apologize, but I don’t. I sigh instead.

“Alright,” I say. “I’ll bite, what’s your offer?”

Terrence struggles to regain his composure. He forces his face to relax and twists his lips into a fake smile. He looks exhausted from the effort.

“Ten thousand dollars,” he says through clenched teeth.

The offer is insulting, but only if I have a case. Insurers always start with ridiculous offers. If you start with a low number, you never overpay. And overpaying is one of the seven sins of insurance defence work. If you start too high, you’ll never know if the other side would have taken less. If word gets around that you paid too much, you’ll have every chiseler in town at your door with their hand out. Insurers love overpaying like I love small talk.

They’re both staring at me, waiting for my reaction. I’ve logged years of my life in negotiations like these. We all know it. I don’t break a sweat keeping my face a mask of boredom and indifference. But I still don’t know why they are making any offer at all. While it’s true the Terror doesn’t like to be in a courtroom, Ashley is no slouch, and I can’t forget that from where I’m sitting, I still don’t have a case. They have motive and they have means. I have a policy and a whole lot of crazy. And rattling the Terror doesn’t change the fact that I’m still negotiating from a position of weakness. My case is still shitty, I’m still behind, and there’s no guarantee I will ever catch up.

“Ten thousand dollars,” I say, repeating the offer back to them and watching their expressions.

Ashley smiles. She knows I’m trying to play for time. She’s on to my game. If she had been sent here to deliver the offer on her own, I wonder whether I would have taken it. I’d like to think I’m stronger than that. But then, doesn’t every man?

Fortunately, the Terror is a buffoon. A rattled clown who can’t resist the impulse to fill the silence with his blather and bravado.

“It’s a good offer,” he says. “You’re lucky to get it.”

“Am I,” I say with a grin.

“Yes, William, you are,” he says. “The policy is quite unambiguous. Suicide is excluded. The police report is clear. Mr. Piggott killed himself. If your client pursues this she won’t see a nickel.”

“Yes,” I say. “I heard you tell my client that earlier today. And yet, here we are.”

“Here we are,” he says, echoing my words with a defiant air he hopes masks his insecurity.

I can see from his face that he is bluffing. I laugh. This is absurd. I know he hasn’t turned up at my office at this hour to make a ten thousand dollar offer unless his case has fallen apart. He must know that I know that. And yet, he plainly doesn’t think that I do. I look over at Ashley. She looks at me and down at the floor. She’s not here to help me. I have to remember she’s not on my side. I feel a pang of sadness. And jealousy.

I turn back to him. He has given me a renewed sense of hope. I don’t know what’s happened to their case, but I do know that whatever it is, he wouldn’t be here trying to negotiate if it wasn’t bad. Still, it’s been a long day, and I’m tired. The alcohol has worn off, and I’ve had my fill of ghosts from my past haunting me today. Whatever game we are playing, I don’t want to play anymore.

“Why are you really here Terrence,” I say.

“I told you,” he says. “Our client is sympathetic. Our—“

“Spare me the bullshit, Terrence. We both know that Tim Steward has about as much sympathy for my client as a farmer does for pigs. You’re not here out of sympathy. No, you’re here because this wasn’t a suicide and you know it.”

He shakes his head slowly as though he’s saddened by my response.

“William,” he says. “Daniel Piggott was up to his ears in debt, was being investigated for fraud, and was running a failing business. He did what all losers do when pressed against a wall, he swallowed some pills and took the easy way out. We aren’t going to have a hard time convincing a jury that he killed himself. Have you even read the police report?”

I force myself not to react to the news that Danny was being investigated for fraud. This case just keeps getting better and better. I look at him and smile. He’s been on the file longer than me and has more resources at his disposal. I have no doubt that what he says is true. But he wouldn’t be here trying to settle if that’s all there was. I’m just missing something, is all.

I shrug.

“You say so Terrence. I wish I had known you were going to drop by though, I would have called my client and gotten some settlement instructions.”

He smiles.

“I did call,” he says. “You didn’t call me back. I worried you were still harboring resentment toward me. That’s why I suggested we deliver the offer in person.”

He starts to chuckle, a low growl, a sound like two gears grinding from the back of his throat.

“And,” he says, still looking at me. “I won’t lie; I thought maybe you could use the money. I had heard the rumours about…well, all of this, and I felt sad for you. Seeing you here, seeing all of this, well, honestly, William, it’s worse than I ever imagined. A ten thousand dollar offer isn’t much, but I know every little bit helps. Am I right?”

He says it with mock sadness. He’s delighted with himself.

“I mean when I suggested to Ashley that we deliver the offer in person on our way to dinner tonight,” he says, “I never imagined it would be this pathetic. So sad. And to think she didn’t know…that you didn’t tell her…well…you understand…I don’t need to tell you that she didn’t realize you were living like this. It’s positively dreadful. To be honest, William, I wasn’t sure I believed it either but, well, here we are.”

His chuckle grows into a full-throated laugh. He’s grinning so widely that I feel like I’m Jonah about to be swallowed by the whale. He’s watching me for my reaction. I clench my jaw. I can feel my face flush with embarrassment that quickly evolves into anger. He’s still laughing. The impulse to kill him is nearly overwhelming. I fucking hate him. I grip the arms of the chair with my hands and have to dig deep to hold back my rage. If I dig any deeper, I’ll be in China.

He continues to laugh as he moves to stand up. He looks at me and says, “I never would have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself.”

He gestures to Ashley and starts moving to the door. He’s accomplished his mission. He’s delivered the offer. Humiliating me in front of Ashley was just an added fuck you. Delivered free of charge. He brought her along so that he could gloat. To show her how far I’ve fallen. He thinks he’s got me beat. He thinks I won’t figure this case out. Seeing me here, he thinks he doesn’t have to be afraid of me. He’s wrong.

“Well William,” he says. “We have to press on. We’re meeting a client at the golf club and we don’t want to be late.”

He’s moving to the door, still quietly chuckling. Ashley rises and looks at me. I can see the sympathy in her eyes, and it cuts me to the quick. I don’t even know what to say. She touches my arm lightly as she walks past me to the door.

I feel a surge of rage well up inside me. If this is going to be war, let it be war.

“Tell me Terrence,” I say, my heart pounding in fury. “How much did you pay him this time to doctor his report?”

It’s a shot in the dark but not a blind volley. It’s the only explanation that makes sense. He knows that I know how he operates. That’s what prompted the offer. That’s why he’s here. I’m certain of it.

Terrence stops and turns slowly back to look at me. He’s not laughing now. His eyes narrow, and his tongue darts out and across his lips before beating a retreat. Ashley hovers at the door, but I can’t look at her. Not now. The Terror and I stare at one another. I have never hated anyone more.

“You should take the offer, William. It’s the only one that is going to be made.”

“And you should have resigned when I gave you the chance, Terrence. It’s clear I’ve let you carry on for far too long.”

His tongue darts out and back again. We go on staring at each other. The hate radiates out between us like the fire of a furnace about to explode. Neither of us moves. And then he smiles. It’s a weak smile. I can see the fear in his eyes.

“Time will tell,” he says.

And before I can respond, he sweeps past Ashley and out the door. She looks at me briefly, tries to smile, shakes her head, and follows after him.

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