This seems to be going well, so I thought I'd kick it up to three times a week. How about Saturday, Tuesday, and Thursday? It'll get us through a bit faster, and you don't have to wait as long between posts.
Hope you're enjoying the story so far. More to come on Tuesday.
# # # #
There were four men in the plush living room of the Georgetown brownstone. The room itself looked like something out of a magazine. There were matching leather couches, and a plush recliner surrounding an elegant, long coffee table made of black steel and marble. The rugs were flown in from Pakistan. A flat-screen TV was mounted on one wall, an impeccable fireplace on the other. There was Asian-themed artwork which everyone assumed was original.
Despite the nice living room in the nice house in the nice neighborhood, two of the men looked horribly uncomfortable, desperate to leave, anxious and fidgety. The other two men looked totally stoned out of their minds, because they were stoned out of their minds. The two who were less than comfortable were Kurkel Neekelwender and Ritchie Torres, law partners. Torres, the younger of the two, held his hands firmly in his lap and discreetly picked at his thumbnail, which was becoming just a little bit bloody. Neekelwender blinked a lot and tried in vain to ignore his sweating brow. Stains were beginning to form under his arms, yellowing his white shirt. The smell of heroin tar smoke was killing Torres. The two getting high were their clients, a local crime boss named Hideo Fumiko and his chief lieutenant, Noboru Takagawa. Kurkel Neekelwender and Ritchie Torres had been representing the American branch of the Yakuza, dubbed by the media as the Tokyo Tigers, for just over two years. In those two years, neither lawyer had ever been very comfortable being in the presence of their clients when they were getting high, which lately seemed to be all the time.
Kurkel looked at Ritchie, sighed, blinked an inordinate number of times, looked at Hideo Fumiko who was starting to nod off a little bit, then discretely sighed again. The Yakuza’s Tokyo Tigers were becoming one of the preeminent gangs along the Eastern Seaboard of America and were on track to be one of the largest in the country. The Yakuza itself remained a worldwide criminal enterprise, in recent decades specializing mostly in trafficking narcotics, though gambling, prostitution, and pirating various forms of weapons and contraband were always on their list of activities.
Both lawyers knew that it was going to be a difficult day for Hideo Fumiko and the gang. The Tokyo Tigers had lost three more men, foot soldiers, this time in a gangland-style shoot-out with Russian gangsters, who call themselves the Bratva, or Brotherhood, near Baltimore. It had been a particularly violent battle. Two civilians had died and seventeen more were injured, some seriously. A cop had taken a bullet in the leg. An article in the Washington Post had said they might have to amputate. Another cop was in a coma, probably forever.
It was that newspaper article which had persuaded both Kurkel and Ritchie that perhaps it would be best if Hideo and the Tokyo Tigers reached out to the Russians as sort of a truce in what was rapidly escalating from idiotic turf battle to outright war. Kurkel especially tried not to think of the lives lost and damage done over the course of the last several months between the growing Russian Bratva and the growing Japanese Yakuza. Perhaps, thought the lawyers, they could reach some sort of settlement that saved face – ever important in the criminal world, and especially important to the Japanese. Thinking of it more as a settlement and less of a surrendering truce might make it easier for the violent, quick-on-the-trigger Tokyo Tigers to accept.
A black phone sat on the coffee table in the attractive living room, and Kurkel, realizing that Hideo in his drugged state could take forever to respond, finally leaned over and held down the little gray ‘mute’ button.
“Hideo,” Kurkel’s Dutch accent barely audible now, “I have to advise you again, strongly, to take this deal. It is quite honorable.” ‘Honor’ was a big word with the Tokyo Tigers, Kurkel had discovered. It carried a lot of weight. “Two million is pocket change – you’ll make that up in a few weeks.” In fact, the difficult part of the meeting had come earlier, before Hideo and Noboru had started smoking the black tar heroin, when the two lawyers presented their case to the gang leaders. Both men had already floated the idea past the Russian’s lawyer and he seemed amenable to the notion, calling it ‘war reparations,’ and a ‘clean start.’ Boundaries along the East Coast of the United States had been drawn up, the Russian Bratva keeping most of their distribution area around Baltimore, Philly and Delaware, the Tokyo Tigers, based out of Washington, D.C., with a convenient branch in Richmond, keeping most of those two cities, as well control over a number of budding meth labs in West Virginia, for themselves. Other international crime syndicates – the Italians, the Irish, the Nigerians, others – were not consulted regarding territory.
Kurkel raised his finger off of the ‘mute’ button and sat back. The two head gangsters had yelled, threatened death to anyone who surrendered to the Russians, threatened the lawyers, threatened the world, all to no avail. Hideo knew that in the end he’d have to take the deal. The Bratva were too entrenched in Baltimore, and he’d never be able to move enough resources up from Richmond, and certainly not from other branches of the Yakuza on the West Coast. They had in fact discussed hitting up other branches of the Yakuza for help – unusual, but not unheard of – trucking in guys from as far away as Chicago or the particularly vicious bastards out of Miami to help combat the Russian problem. It didn’t seem like the right time, especially since they were in a growing period. Ultimately, making overtures for peace – even temporary peace – was seen as a sign of a strong negotiator, a good businessman. Hell, ultimately, it wasn’t about winning a war. It was about bad publicity being bad for business.
When he first heard it, Ritchie had thought it was an absolutely terrible idea. Gangs making legal settlements, making reparations – and using lawyers to negotiate the deal – seemed to him like bad business, which of course it was. It was a ripe opportunity for misunderstanding and miscommunication, which in the business of international crime could only mean more wanton violence and unnecessary death. It was a risky proposition at best.
Besides, Ritchie had argued, from the lawyer’s point of view war was remarkably profitable. During times of increased street violence they billed the Tokyo Tigers double, citing their own safety concerns. This side of the argument especially appealed to Ritchie Torres. But Kurkel had argued that war was profitable for their firm only to a point. What could he do, he’d asked, let them all kill themselves? Who would they work for then? Clients as profitable as the Tokyo Tigers didn’t come along every day. It was better to save them from themselves before Hideo started his Porsche one day and blew up.
The turf war with the Russians had lasted several months, beginning in the spring. Prior to that there had been a number of even more violent skirmishes with the Felix Brother’s gang, originally out of Mexico. Kurkel and Ritchie had their contacts within the Tokyo Tigers management chain, too, and morale was beginning to wane on the front lines. And bad morale meant that drug sales would decline. It meant hookers would get lazy, number runners would get greedy, and smugglers would get ideas about skimming – or skimming more than they already did. All of that – especially the declining sales of narcotics – meant less money for the law firm of Neekelwender and Torres. Ritchie followed the logic and bought in to the plan.
Their strategy was to present the problem to Hideo and Noboru as a public relations issue, not a line in the sand with the Russian Bratva. The local citizenry of the Nation’s Capitol were beginning to make noise having read about increased violence in the streets. The Attorney General had been on TV denouncing street gangs and the havoc they caused. Both lawyers were sure she would create a task force. This was also bad for business, very bad. If no one was reading about overt violence, about innocents dying on the streets, about wounded cops, then the problem would essentially be ignored and the Tokyo Tigers could go back to the lucrative business of peddling narcotics, pimping whores, and illegal gambling.
During their preliminary conversation, Ritchie pointed out that this turf war had been instigated by the Tokyo Tigers. It could be a sticking point with the Russians, or at least drive up their price for a settlement. In fact, the initial offering by the Tokyo Tigers – a price agreed upon by both Neekelwender and Torres – was low-ball to the point of near absurdity. Eight Russians were confirmed killed, and there was no telling how many had been injured over the course of the war. Half a million dollars was conjured out of thin air. The Russian’s counselor hung up on them. They desperately called him back offering one million. He returned with an astronomical price of ten million. Kurkel and Ritchie explained that they simply couldn’t take that to Hideo as a serious offer. Finally, a price was agreed to: two million dollars and a call from Hideo Fumiko himself. In fact, both Neekelwender and Torres were thrilled with the final settlement price. It was a bargain.
It also had a lovely fringe benefit. Hideo Fumiko operated the American branch of the Yakuza’s Tokyo Tigers only under strict supervision from Japan. The Yakuza godfather was a man of great mystery named Kodama whom it was said was a direct relation to the same Kodama who had united the Yakuza factions in the 1930s and 40s. Word was he hated traveling, hated to leave Japan, and Neekelwender and Torres, as well as the Tokyo Tigers, were more than willing to oblige him. Still, the organization based in Japan kept Hideo on a tight financial leash and his independent credit limit never exceeded five million dollars. It became evident to both lawyers that the larger Yakuza structure envisioned their East Coast American enterprise as something of a testing ground. Both had heard that if Hideo Fumiko pleased the leadership structure back home through a successful venture in his branch in Washington, DC, he’d be first in line to run the operations for all of North America. After that, he might even be considered as the next godfather of Yakuza enterprises worldwide. Thus, Hideo tended to keep himself conservative, restrained. Except for the rampant drug abuse. And violent gang wars.
After more than thirty minutes of verbal wrestling with Hideo and Noboru, the lawyers convinced the two that a straight payment, preceded by a phone call, would be in their best interest. In fact, it was less the money that bothered Hideo, but more the phone call. It stung his over-inflated sense of dignity, but he was not a fool, and knew that at two million he was getting a bargain. They’d be back up to full speed in their drug dealing enterprises by the end of the week.
Hideo leaned over the phone in the middle of the table and Ritchie silently thanked God that the man was finally about to say it, get it over with and move on. But before the gangster spoke, he picked up a little black pipe along with a lighter. Ritchie’s heart sank. There were two or three good hits of the processed heroin left in the bowl of the pipe, and Hideo intended to make the most of it. All Kurkel Neekelwender could think was that it was a blessing, at least, that they trusted their lawyers enough to use drugs in front of them.
“Very well then, Sergei,” Hideo spoke as he held the thick gray smoke in his lungs, addressing his Russian counterpart who was somewhere in Baltimore. “Two million, as agreed upon by our lawyers. Four payments. You’ll have the first half million by next Saturday. You have my word.” He paused to exhale, and then he seemed to be thinking, pausing even longer. “We’ll let the lawyers arrange the rest.” This suited both Neekelwender and Torres just fine, though Torres discreetly rolled his eyes. This, he thought, is not what I signed up for when I went to law school, which had been Georgetown Law. It didn’t take him long, though, to begin to remember all of the fringe benefits of representing an international crime syndicate: his two bedroom apartment on the Hill, his shiny gold Rolex, the new BMW Roadster, not to mention the semi-regular services of a pricey hooker he had enjoyed the weekend before.
“Very good, Hideo,” the voice on the other end spat out, not sounding exactly sober either. “Half million next Saturday. Have the lawyers call Moisha and work it out.” The voice was thick, phlegmatic. Ritchie tried to conjure what the scene on the other end looked like. Probably much the same as it did in Hideo’s living room, except that their lawyer was far too bright to associate directly with the criminals he represented. He was extremely powerful; he didn’t have to.
“Peace, Sergei,” Hideo said with a wicked smile. It was the one word, the only word he needed to say that cinched the rest of the deal. No more killing by either side was to be had. He would hold the men of the Tokyo Tigers to it, too, and he expected the same of Sergei and the Bratva.
Sergei grunted, “Good-bye,” and the phone disconnected.
Hideo closed his lips around the mouthpiece of the pipe and flicked the lighter again. The light grating noise of the spark wheel seemed to force something in both Neekelwender and Torres to snap, a signal, and both men abruptly stood.
“Very well,” Kurkel Neekelwender grabbed his briefcase off the floor and straightened his jacket, buttoning it just so. Business had concluded. “Is there anything else, Hideo?” A question more for the sake of politeness than anything else. These were not men who looked to spend recreational time with their clients.
“No,” Hideo breathed out the toxic smoke, “no, Kurkel, Ritchie,” he pointed lazily to both men individually, one after the other, looking them over with half-closed eyes. “Our business here is completed today. Please keep me posted as necessary. Arrange to withdraw the money from our narcotics account, but do it in individual withdrawals… But I am telling you your job. I am sorry.” He began to laugh, as did Noboru. Kurkel looked at Ritchie and nodded. It was very much time to go.
“We’ll keep you posted.” Ritchie said, already making his way past the two drugged out gangsters and towards the door.
“Please do. Please do.” It was doubtful Hideo had even processed the comment, now almost fully lost in a haze of narcotic stupor.
Kurkel and Ritchie stepped into the early evening sunlight, both visibly relieved, if only to be breathing air not polluted with the residue of second hand drug smoke and defeat.
“This settlement was a good thing.” Kurkel spoke, putting his forefinger to his lower lip as though deep in thought.
“Jesus, I thought we’d never get out of there. Goddam it, they do a lot of drugs.” Ritchie was virtually huffing and puffing. Finally, his partner’s words sank in. “I don’t know, Kurk, it’s not a corporate malpractice suit we just settled, here. It’s blood money. Worse than blood money. I don’t even know how, but it is.” He bit the last remaining piece of his thumbnail and realized it was bleeding into the palm of his hand. He worked to keep the blood off of his clothes by sucking the tip of his thumb.
“There is no comparison between corporate malpractice and what just took place, Ritchie. We have saved many lives today.” That was one thing that bothered Ritchie about Kurkel Neekelwender, his law partner: everything Ritchie said, Kurkel seemed to take as literally as could be interpreted.
“Never mind. I’m starving. Let’s go to Lem’s.” He turned towards his car, a light blue BMW.
“We saved many lives.” Kurkel couldn’t seem to let the point go. For Kurkel Neekelwender, law school had been a three-year epiphany. To the young Dutchman, everything suddenly related to the law. The rule of law, or at least legalistic thinking, guided everything he did. And he made the order of the law the order of his life.
Prior to representing the legal interests of ruthless Japanese Mafia members, Kurkel had worked as legal counsel for a defense contractor. His job was to set up dummy companies that directly countered the work of peace activist organizations. If the corporation planned on announcing a new missile, a new tank, some kind of gun, for example, and expected a few too many peace marches or annoying protest rallies near their publicity events, Kurkel would engage his considerable legal services. Usually the fake company would, under bogus pretenses conjured from thin air, sue the peace activists if they were organized enough, or the city or local government that had given them the permit to assemble. After that, Kurkel would ensure that the protesters were legally tied up enough that the event could go off without a hitch.
Prior to doing the Lord’s work for the defense people, Kurkel was with an international law firm with offices in New York, D.C., Los Angeles, Miami, London, Paris and Brussels. His crowning achievement at the firm had been the merger of an American defense contractor with an investment firm of dubious background, or at least low character. It was to become the company he’d later work for muzzling peace and environmental activists. Kurkel had been good at both jobs, both of which he’d done for more than a decade each. He had mastered the subject of the law and risen to the top of a very tough, very competitive field.
Ritchie Torres was less experienced, but no less savvy a lawyer. After graduating from Georgetown, he went to work for a congressman as a committee lawyer. Several rude rumors about the congressman came to light and he was defeated soundly in his re-election bid. After only a few years, Ritchie’s political experiences seemed to quickly be winding down. Ritchie and Kurkel met at a reception in the Capitol Hilton, hosted by lobbyists for the defense contractor that had employed Kurkel. Ritchie was looking for work, and Kurkel had long entertained the idea of starting his own small firm. For more than three years the two had run the firm of Neekelwender and Torres. And their only current client was the Tokyo Tigers. The lawyers had been approached by Hideo directly, and he made no bones about the nature of his business. He laid out the activities of the American Yakuza in alarming detail. Drug import and export, large-scale gambling, international prostitution rings, money laundering, gun-running, smuggling. The Tokyo Tigers, he explained sitting in their small office in a basement on Capitol Hill, needed lawyers, good ones. Lawyers who were intimately familiar with attorney/client privilege. Neekelwender and Torres, he further explained, had been chosen based on their previous legal work. Neekelwender had gone through rigorous security screenings and background checks before going to work for the defense contractor. He had proven himself trustworthy in the name of national security, or at least profitability. Torres, under great pressure, had never uttered a word to anyone about the dirty but pretty much true rumors surrounding the defeated congressman. Years later, Ritchie would still get the occasional call from a nosy reporter doing a ‘what happened to them’ piece on the disgraced congressman. He finally just started hanging up the phone without a word. While it bothered the lawyers that they had been investigated by Hideo and the Tokyo Tigers, the amount offered them as a fee as well as the fairly attractive signing bonus made them both feel much, much better. In fact, it simply couldn’t be refused.
Coming soon : : Part II of The Beginning of Everything