What I have learned through my short and disastrous legal career is that in law, as in life, the only rational expectation is calamity. Take my first case as a lawyer.
There were three of us at the start, fresh out of law school, hanging up our shingles together because none of the large and prosperous firms in Philadelphia would have us. We were still young then, still wildly optimistic, still determined to crack it on our own. Guthrie, Derringer and Carl. I'm Carl. All it would take, we figured, was one case, one accidental paraplegia, one outrageous sexual harassment, one slip of the surgeon's knife, one slam-bam-in-your-face case to make our reputations, not to mention our fortunes. We were only one case away from becoming figures of note in the legal community that had so far left us out in the cold. But before that grand and munificent case came walking through our door, we were sitting with our feet on our desks, reading the newspapers, waiting for anything.
"I've got something right here for you, Victor," said Samuel R. Sussman, dropping a document on my desk. He was a bellicose little man who leaned forward when he talked and did annoying things like jab his finger into my chest for emphasis. But he was family.
The document was a demand note, personally guaranteed by a Winston Osbourne, representing a debt of one million dollars. Seven figures was two figures more than anything I had ever seen before.
"I picked up this baby at a discount," said my Uncle Sammy.
"What exactly do you want me to do with it?"
"Collect it," he said with a finger jab. "Osbourne says he's broke and not going to pay me a cent. Get what you can off this societyschmuck, and whatever you find keep a quarter for yourself. You're getting married in the spring, right?"
"That's the plan," I said.
He winked. "Consider this my wedding gift."
That was how my first case out of law school came to be a collection. I had not intended to use my degree to collect debts, I had not gone to law school so I could most effectively foreclose on the houses of the poor, but at the start I was desperate for anything. And besides, Winston Osbourne was not your usual deadbeat.
He was the scion of an old Protestant family, born to wealth, to society, given every advantage withheld from me, and through talent, luck, and sheer perseverance he became bankrupt. Tall, finely manicured, with a prosperous round face and sincere thin lips, he was of the Bryn Mawr Osbournes, an old and revered family, blue of blood, properly Mayflowered through a line of cousins, listed with the Biddles and the Ambers and the Peppers in the Social Register. In every expression, in every gesture, Osbourne's breeding showed. He looked like a somebody, one wasn't sure exactly whom, but a somebody who was a something and I guess that was how he managed to borrow so much money on his personal guarantee, money he invested in a huge tract of undeveloped land in Whitpain Township, seeking to reap the miracle benefits of subdivision. "Real estate is the only sure thing," he used to say, jaw locked, chin up, "because they simply can't make any more of it." As he strode across his glorious acreage in Whitpain Township, planning the location of the fine luxury homes he would build there, he must not have noticed the strange foul liquid, pale and sulfurous, like the earth's own bile, seeping into each of his footprints. Within six months of buying the property Winston Osbourne faced environmental catastrophe, and within a year he was in utter default.
"So you're the grubby little shyster who's chasing my money," Winston Osbourne said to me when I first hauled him into my office in search of his assets. He was wearing a perfect gray suit, Gucci loafers, his sandy hair was trimmed close and neat, a gold Rolex flashed from beneath his cuff, and he actually said that. Well, not in those exact words, maybe, but that's what he was thinking. It was as clear as the cleft in his chin. What he actually said was, "I've lost almost everything I ever had, Victor, and what little I have left is judgment proof. But I'm willing to pay you ten thousand dollars to end this. Believe me, Victor, that is the most you'll ever get from me."
I rejected his offer, and though I had a chip with which to bargain him higher, to Jew him up as it were, I thought the wiser play was to hold onto it, to flash it elsewhere in an effort to pry loose the entire million. I had no intention of letting him off the hook that was buried deep within his properly locked jaw. Winston Osbourne represented something to which I knew I could never ascend but my exclusion from which I could never quite accept. His old-line family name, the glorious prospects handed him at birth, his natural charm, even his bland sandy good looks, I resented it all, and for all of it he would pay. That was why that very day the process server was delivering a subpoena to Osbourne's house in exclusive Gladwyne, ordering his wife to appear in my offices for deposition. I had plans for Mrs. Osbourne.
She was a handsome woman, elegant tweed suit, skin surgically tight around her blue eyes, pearls, hair that was done, I mean really done, a hundred and forty dollars' worth of done, and I had her just where I wanted her, in our conference room, across the table from me, required to answer all my questions and sworn to tell the truth. She had chosen to come without counsel, which pleased me.
"How many cars do you and your husband own, Mrs. Osbourne?" I asked.
"Three," she said in a reedy, masculine voice. "There is the station wagon."
"That's a Volvo, right?"
"Right," she said. "It is a Volvo. Then there is the blue sedan."
"From your tone of voice it sounds like a crime, Mr. Carl."
"And the other?" I asked.
"A vintage car my husband maintains. His toy, really, but quite valuable. It was his father's."
"Yes, that's right. We have an old Lincoln, for transporting our dogs to the shows, but that's hardly worth anything anymore. It's almost four years old."
"So that makes four cars total."
"Yes, I suppose," said Mrs. Osbourne.
"And in whose names are the titles to these cars?"
"Mine and my husband's."
"Even the Duesenberg?"
"Yes, Mr. Carl," she said, confidently stroking her pearls. "Everything is in both of our names and, as you know, I've signed nothing."
I knew that, yes I did. In Pennsylvania, property owned by a husband and wife together cannot be grabbed to satisfy the individual debts of either, so long as they remain married. Mrs. Osbourne, as best as I could determine, owed nothing to no one, not even to American Express. She had not guaranteed the loan and therefore all property she owned jointly with her husband was safely hidden from my grasp, so long as they remained married. And everything Winston Osbourne owned, his house, his cars, his bank accounts, even his damn Rolex, everything he owned he owned jointly with his wife. Well, almost everything.
"You own a house in Gladwyne, Mrs. Osbourne, is that right?"
"Yes. The title is in both of our names."
"Has the house been appraised?"
"For insurance purposes, yes. It was appraised at two and a half million dollars. But that is our house, we live there, we raised our children there, we would never think of selling."
"You're aware, aren't you, Mrs. Osbourne, that your husband owes Mr. Sussman a million dollars."
"I am aware that Mr. Sussman is a speculator who bought that note for an absurdly low amount and now wants to grab his handful of flesh. My husband is a wonderful man, Mr. Carl, and I love him very much. But he is not the cleverest of businessmen, not as sharp, I am sure, as your Mr. Sussman. Anyone who lends my husband money does so at his own risk."
I actually admired Mrs. Osbourne as she sat in our crummy little conference room and so bravely defended her husband's standard of living. If I was in less need of my twenty-five percent share of Winston Osbourne's cash I might have thought twice about what I was planning to do. But even after a second thought I would have continued. My investigation had uncovered information of which Mrs. Osbourne might not have been aware and of which I assumed it was my duty to apprise her.
"You own a property in Aspen, is that right, Mrs. Osbourne?"
"A condominium, yes. The children love to ski."
"And that is in both of your names?"
"And there is the property in Palm Beach."
"Yes, but that is not ours. That is owned by Winston's mother. Winston's grandfather built it, it is a fabulous place, really. Have you been to Palm Beach, Mr. Carl?"
"Where do you winter?"
"In front of the television."
"I see. Well, the house in Palm Beach is not ours. We are permitted to use it, but when we are there we are guests. My understanding is that Winston's mother has willed it to Winston's brother, Richard."
The foregoing is excerpted from Hostile Witness by William Lashner. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins HarperTorchs, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022