By: Russell W. Johnson
A wicked smile creased Lester Williams’face as he watched the prospective client pull into the parking lot. Very out of place. A turquoise Prius lurching silently past all the mufferless hoopties and pimped-out rides. She parked near the video poker joint and got out clutching a Kate Spade to her chest like a child. Walked briskly, giving Luther, the resident mostly-harmless-homeless-man a wide berth, then jumped when the bass kicked on at the speaker store next door.
“Damn,” Lester said. This lady was a stunner. Pure pinup material. Tall and svelte with long brown hair, wearing a grey power suit and doing it justice. Lady like that in a place like this? Can only mean one thing, Lester thought. She’s desperate.
His smile widened.
She reached the front door and made an anguished face. Lester couldn’t tell if it was pain from the car accident she was there to see him about, or disapproval of his shingle.
LESTER “THE TRUTH” WILLIAMS
ATTORNEY AT LAW
THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE.
He turned back to his desk and swept a stack of past due bills into an open drawer just as the bell to the front door jingled.
“Alright, player,” he said, staring into a smudgy mirror, running hands through his thinning brown hair and straightening his tie. “It’s showtime.”
Maria, Lester’s saucy, ninety-pound pitbull of a receptionist, led the prospective client to the conference room, while Lester waited in his office, wanting to make a grand entrance that got shot to hell as he tumbled over Maria, bent over, positioning a box fan, telling the client how, “the piece-of-shit air conditioning wasn’t working again.”
“Goddamnit, Maria! Just leave it, okay?” Lester said, brushing himself off.
“You’re the boss.”
Maria dropped the fan and sauntered off like she had better things to do anyway. Lester did his best to regain his composure and gave the lady his million-dollar smile. “Lester Williams. At your service.”
The woman looked at his hand like it was infected with malaria. “Alice. Alice Franklin.” She shook reluctantly, then dove into her bag for some antibacterial gel that she slathered on.
“I’m up to date on all my shots,” Lester said.
She smiled apologetically.
“I’m sorry Mr. Williams. It’s not you. Even before all the Covid mess, I was always a little OCD, and since the accident, it’s just kind of gotten out of control.”
Okay, Lester told himself, as he watched her furiously scrub down her chair with some Clorox wipes. She’s just a little fussy. One of those germaphobes. I can work with that.
Lester took a seat and indicated to her file in the middle of the table. “I know you’ve been through quite a lot, Ms. Franklin. Been looking over the materials your prior attorney sent over. This accident has really put you through the ringer, hasn’t it?”
Alice nodded and recounted her troubles: the car accident, the surgery and all it’s many consequences. And that’s when Lester saw it. A tear. An actual goddamn tear, as big and shiny as a prized diamond, running down the pretty lady’s cheek, right on cue. Man, he couldn’t wait to get her in front of a jury. Get the OCD stuff under control and they would straight eat that shit up.
“I am so, so sorry, Ms. Franklin. Tell me what the Truth can do to make it better.”
“Well, I have a trial date in just over a week. And as you know, my prior attorney withdrew after I rejected the insurance company’s last offer. So, I’m in a tough spot. I can’t represent myself and every attorney I’ve talked to says they couldn’t possibly step into the case so close to trial.”
Lester shook his head with disgust. “Those callous bastards. I’m afraid, Ms. Franklin, that some lawyers are just in it for the money. Want the easy settlement, is all. Most of them have never even seen the inside of a courtroom. Would wet their pants if they actually had to stare down a jury. But me on the other hand—” Lester started karate chopping the air. “When I get in that courtroom, I’m like a ninja in a necktie.”
Alice smiled. “Yes—when the judge denied my motion to continue, the clerk told me about you. She said you might be able to help.”
That clerk was Lester’s cousin Monica, who sent him all his best cases, and always got an extra special gift come Christmas time.
“You’re in the right place,” Lester said. He pulled out a copy of his contingency fee agreement and slid it across the table when Alice expressed her first hint of hesitation.
“I did want to ask, though—”
“Well, it’s just that I understand you are primarily a criminal defense attorney. Is that right?”
Lester gave her another blast of the pearly whites. “Like the sign says. The Truth will set you free.”
“Well, forgive me, but uh, do you know how to handle an injury case?”
A fair question. The truthful answer to which was Hell No. Lester had never handled an injury case in his life. But why should that stop him? Especially one so lucrative that looked to Lester like a layup—clear liability, big damages, and plenty o’ insurance.
“Shoot,” Lester said. “I know how to talk to juries, Ms. Franklin. Most of my experience has been in criminal law, sure, but when you get down to it, it’s all the same. So whether it’s a beef with the cops or you get busted up by some knucklehead who can’t drive, all you have to do is call the Truth, and he will make it rain, baby.”
Lester fanned an imaginary stack of bills around the room as Maria buzzed in on the speakerphone.
“Lester, can you pick up?”
“‘Excuse me a second.” Lester scooped up the receiver. “What?”
Maria spoke in a harsh whisper. “We’ve got a situation up front. It’s Candido.”
Lester’s stomach dropped. Of all the times. He did his best to maintain his cool. “There’s a pressing matter out front, Ms. Franklin. Will just take a minute. Why don’t you go ahead and look over the fee contract here, and I’ll be back shortly to answer any questions.”
Lester slipped out of the conference room into the hall, where he did the points of the cross—despite not being Catholic—before heading into the waiting room where Candido Solis was seated, admiring a buck knife so long it would have impressed Rambo. The squat little man had on a stained Izod shirt that only partially covered his round stomach. His brothers were with him too—the twins—some fo-real bad hombres who were reportedly hitmen for the Solaris cartel. They were both dressed in paint-stained coveralls, like maybe they worked construction jobs during the day when they weren’t busy killing motherfuckers.
One of the twins leered over Maria at the reception desk. The other took umbrage when Lester said, “Hola mis amigos” and punched the attorney in the gut so hard it dropped Lester to his knees. “Goddamn,” he said, doing his best not to vomit. “What the hell was that for?”
“You late, Lester. You owe me twenty grand.” Candido pointed the knife as he spoke, the razor thin tip just inches from Lester’s eyeball.
“Come on now, Candido. You know those fees were earned. I tried the hell out of that case.”
“Yeah, but you lost. My cousin—he go away for a long time.”
Lester shrugged. “There are never any guarantees at trial. Especially not with the evidence the Feds had against your cousin.”
Candido motioned to his brother who punched Lester in the back of the head so hard it felt like he used brass knuckles. Lester fell face first to the floor then felt a boot on the back of his neck. He could smell the stink of cheap beer on Candido’s breath when he bent down to say, “You told me we was gonna win. Where I come from, that’s a guarantee.”
Lester was clearly in no position to debate. “Listen Candido, I can get you your money. Just give me a couple weeks, okay. I’ll give you a full refund.”
“A couple weeks? I heard that one before. I want my money now.”
“I don’t have it now. But like I said, I can get it.”
Candido looked to his brother. “Tomas, do something to this fucker that will make me feel better.”
Lester felt the boot lift off his neck. He braced himself for the blow that was about to come. “Wait!” he pleaded. “I’m serious. All I need is a little time. I’m sitting on a gold mine case in the conference room down there. Gold mine! It’s set for trial next Monday. All I need—”
Before Lester could finish his sentence, Candido gestured and Tomas seized him by the collar and hoisted Lester to his feet.
“What’s this gold mine?” Candido asked.
“It’s a can’t lose case,” Lester said, trying to catch his breath. “Car wreck with clear liability. Lady had neck surgery and lost a six-figure-a-year sales job. Special damages out the wazoo. And the best part is, the Defendant’s got a million dollar policy.”
Candidio, looked unimpressed. Lester could already feel the next wave of punishment coming his way. “This is for real, man. Just back off me long enough to try this case and I’ll pay you. I swear. I’ll even pay you double.”
“Double, huh?” Candido stroked his clumpy beard. “I like that. Little something for my pain and suffering.”
“Sure,” Lester said. “Whatever. Just get out of here before you scare this lady off.”
Candido looked to his brothers who both nodded affirmatively. But Candido made a sucking sound, still not convinced. “It’s a trial though, right? Like you say, there’s no guarantee.”
“This time there is,” Lester assured him. “The driver that caused the wreck is the lady’s own goddamn father. The guy will say whatever we want so his girl can get the insurance money. Shit, he wants her to have it. And once the jury knows how much coverage he has—it’ll be like taking candy from a baby. Everybody hates the fucking insurance companies.”
Candido studied his reflection in his long knife blade.
“Plus,” Lester said, “this lady is like model pretty. Get a couple of men on the jury and we’re home free.”
Candido raised an eyebrow. “So, let’s see her.” He started down the hallway toward the conference room and Lester nearly shit his pants, imagining the scene if Candido were to charge in on Alice, his neurotic, golden goose client.
“Woah, woah, woah.” Lester had to think fast. “I got a closed circuit, camera in there, okay. Maria can pull it up on her computer here, and you can see her that way.”
Candido looked a little disappointed but nodded to Maria who started moving her mouse around. Lester prayed that once she pulled up the right app, the camera wouldn’t reveal Alice doing something crazy like hyperventilating or clawing the walls.
Fortunately, it showed her in all her glory, tossing her hair back then crossing and recrossing her shapely legs. No Sharon Stone action, but enough flesh to impress Candido who bit his fist and slapped Lester on his back. “You weren’t lying,” he said.
Lester breathed a sigh of relief. “So have we got a deal?”
Candido smiled. “For this lady here? Yeah, we got a deal.”
The morning of trial Lester was examining himself in the mirror again, this time in the bathroom of the Durham County Courthouse, wearing a navy blue suit, crisp white shirt, and a bright red tie. “That’s right,” Lester said, tamping down an unkempt tuft of hair with a handful of water. “Looking like truth, justice, and the mother-fucking-American-way, baby.” He practiced his high-watt smile a couple of times, then pushed out into the hall to rejoin Alice who was the ultimate image of elegance in a classy black dress. Skirt hemmed just above the knee to interest the men without alienating the women. As instructed, Alice had also upped her meds over recent days and made a firm commitment to keep her OCD under control until the end of the trial.
The two walked arm-and-arm into the courtroom where opposing counsel was waiting. A hard-as-nails, alpha-bitchnamed Dixie Colson who had spent thirty years representing insurance companies. She didn’t bother introducing herself before shoving a document under Lester’s nose.
Motion in Limine
The defense hereby moves to prohibit Plaintiff from mentioning, referencing, or otherwise informing the jury that the defendant has liability insurance.
“The hell?” Lester said.
Dixie gave him a perplexed look. “It’s a standard motion,” she said.
Lester watched her closely. He prided himself on his ability to smell bullshit but Dixie’s face was so heavily botoxed it was hard to get a read. “Well, I’m gonna oppose it,” he told her.
Dixie shrugged. “Good luck.”
There was some commotion near the entrance and Lester turned to see Candido and the twins sliding into a row along the back wall. Candido pointed two fingers at his eyes then one back at Lester. The barrister’s stomach made a gurgling sound. Just stay focused, he told himself. Don’t let them throw you off your game.
Lester turned to his client. “Don’t you worry, Alice. This motion is bullshit. Trying to keep us from telling the jury about the insurance—no way that’ll fly.”
“But that’s what my prior attorney told me too,” she said.
Lester’s stomach gurgled louder. “Come again?”
“My prior attorney. He told me the jury will never know about the insurance. They’ll think I’m actually suing my dad for all this money. And they’ll hate me for it.” Alice’s left eyelid began to twitch. “I mean, what kind of person would sue her own father?”
What kind of person, indeed? Lester thought. Alice was right. If the insurance got excluded, a jury was sure to hate her.
While Lester pondered that conundrum, Alice’s father entered the courtroom. A kind, gentle looking man who’d lost an arm in Kuwait during the first Gulf War.
“Shit,” Lester grumbled.
“I know,” Alice said. “His insurance company said he’s required to sit through the trial. If he doesn’t cooperate it would void his coverage. So now the jury will think he’s actually the one on the hook for whatever they award.”
Or don’t award, Lester thought, but didn’t say it.
His mind raced trying to think of a way to spin this development, but was drawing a complete blank. His whole trial presentation was crafted on arguing that Alice’s dad purchased his insurance policy for exactly this purpose—to compensate a loved one in the event of an accident. Now, he didn’t know what in the hell was he going to do.
Before Lester could come up with any contingency plans, the bailiff commanded them to rise.
“Oyez, oyez, oyes. This session of the Durham County Superior Court is now in session. The Honorable Judge James Parsons presiding. God save the state and this honorable court. You may be seated.”
Judge Parsons entered the room straight out of central casting. A balding, gray-haired man who waddled like a penguin in his long black robe. He had half-lense reading glasses perched prominently on the end of his nose and an annoyed expression as he called Lester’s case.
Dixie Colson took control right from jump street, springing to her feet, introducing herself, and telling the judge about her motion before Lester had even managed a Hello.
“Mr. Williams?” the judge said. “I assume you have no objection.”
Lester stood awkwardly. “I…I do…I do object, your honor. Most strenuously.”
The judge looked bewildered. “You’re objecting to a Rule 411 motion?”
Lester didn’t know the rule, had never read it, but that did nothing to lessen his conviction as he said, “Yes, sir. I very, very, strenuously object.”
Judge Parsons looked to Dixie Colson who turned up her palms like she couldn’t believe it either, then back to Lester. “Mr. Williams, it’s right there in the Rules of Evidence. Rule four-one-one. In an injury case, the jury is not to know about whether and to what extent the defendant has insurance.”
There was a rustling in the back of the courtroom that drew Lester’s attention. Candido was trying to come after him but the twins were holding him back.
“Mr. Williams?” the judge asked.
Lester whipped around. “Yes, sir?” he said, unsure if he was about to get knifed in the back with that Crocodile Dundee blade Candido carried around.
“On what basis are you opposing the motion?”
Not knowing what else to do, Lester fell back on panache. He gestured grandly. “On the basis that a trial is supposed to be a search for the truth, your honor. And in this case, the defendant has a million dollar insurance policy. That is the truthand I think the jury needs to know it. Otherwise—”
The judge raised a hand. “Mr. Williams, the law on this matter is clear. If juries knew about the existence of insurance they might be inclined to award the plaintiff great sums of money, purely out of sympathy, without regard to the facts.”
Exactly, Lester thought. That was what he’d been hoping for. Of course, the converse was true too. If the jury didn’t know about the insurance, they might deny the plaintiff a recovery out of concern for the economic impact they, incorrectly, presumed it would have on the defendant.
But neither the law nor the judge seemed to care about that. “I’m sorry, Mr. Williams,” Judge Parsons said. “The motion is granted. If anyone breathes a word about insurance, then this case is over. Now bailiff, please call in the jury.”
After jury selection was over, Lester found himself staring into the bathroom mirror yet again, this time feeling like he was about to throw up. In less than five minutes he would have to give his opening and had absolutely no idea what to say. He was splashing cold water on his face, praying for inspiration, when Candido and the boys entered.
“Things not looking good, Lester,” Candido said. “I’m getting worried. Worried for you. Know what I mean?”
Years as a trial lawyer had earned Lester a pretty good poker face. He dried it with a paper towel that he crumpled into a ball and swished in the trash can. “Not to worry, Candido, my man. I’ve got everything under control.”
“Yeah, right,” Candido said. “The judge says you can’t talk about the insurance. Can’t even say the word. You do and that hot-shot lady lawyer will be all over your ass. Looks to me like you outclassed in this one, Lester. She’s the goods.”
“Well, she’s tried a million damn cases,” Lester said, defensively. “They send her all over to—” he stopped short. An idea, a fucking brilliant idea, had just slapped him across the face. “That’s it,” he said.
Lester didn’t have time to answer. He had work to do. “Thank you, Candido. Thank you. Thank you.”
Lester was so excited he kissed the dangerous little man on the forehead and left the three narcos shocked and confused as he stormed out of the bathroom.
Back in court, Lester barely had time to scribble a few notes about how to change his opening before the jury re-entered.
“What are you going to do?” Alice asked.
Lester winked at her. “Don’t you worry,” he said. “I got this.”
“Mr. Williams,” the judge asked, “would you care to make an opening statement?”
“Yes, you honor.”
Lester stood and moved into the well of the courtroom. He took a deep breath then started talking, going slow at first, the way he’d planned, discussing the facts of the accident, then laying out all the medical treatment his client had received and the myriad of ways it negatively affected her.
“The evidence will show,” he said, “that my client’s life has been truly turned upside down by this car wreck. And it will be your job to determine what is fair compensation for all she’s been through.”
This was the part where Lester initially planned to talk about how fortunate it was that Alice’s dad purchased a very expensive insurance policy. But he obviously couldn’t say that. So, instead, Lester pointed to opposing counsel.
“Now, in just a minute Ms. Colson will stand up and give her opening statement. And I’m sure she’ll do an excellent job because she’s very experienced. Has tried cases like this all over the state. In fact,” Lester said, pausing like the idea just struck him, “ you could say, she’s an all-state attorney.”
Lester paused and cupped his hands together like the Allstate emblem and winked at the jury.
To his surprise, Dixie Colson didn’t object. But, of course, she didn’t have to because the judge was all over it. “Mr. Williams!” he bellowed. “Approach.”
Shit, Lester thought. He sheepishly walked to the bench, doing his best to look innocent and confused. Dixie Colson met him there, ready to eat his damn lunch.
“You were warned, sir,” Judge Parsons said. “I told you there was to be no mention of insurance, and you just told the jury she’s an AllState attorney.”
Lester did a double take. “Judge, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was just paying opposing counsel a compliment.”
“Please,” Dixie Colson said. “We’re not stupid. Far better lawyers than you have tried to get the insurance hint to the jury.”
Lester put his hands on his hips. “I take great umbrage at that, Ms. Colson. I did no such thing. I merely—”
“Quiet down,” the judge said. He looked past counsel to the jury, all of whom were gawking, then stared Lester dead in the eye. “Mr. Williams, I am going to give you one more chance to try this case, but you are on notice, sir. Any more references to insurance and I am declaring a mistrial.”
Lester held up his palms like he still didn’t know what the judge was talking about.
“No more of the AllState business, got it?”
“Of course, judge,” Lester said. “Of course. No more AllState.”
Everyone resumed their places after that and Lester faced the jury again, picking up where he left off.
“So, all I was trying to say earlier is that Ms. Colson is a good lawyer. That’s all. But, that was wrong. Cause honestly, I was really selling her short talking about how she’s tried cases across the state when she’s really handled cases like this across the whole country. What I should have said was, she’s a nation-wide attorney.”
Judge Parsons brought his gavel down with a crack like a high-powered rifle. “Bailiff,” he roared. “Remove the jury.”
Lester turned to the bench with as much faux surprise as he could muster. “Judge? What’d I say?”
The judge pointed the gavel at Lester like it was a loaded pistol. “I warned you twice, Mr. Williams.” He slammed the gavel down again. “Case dismissed!”
Alice gasped. Lester turned and saw tears welling up in her eyes.
“Judge, no, please,” Lester said. “Please, don’t punish my client for something I did. I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong. You’ve got to believe me. Please, judge. I beg you.”
The judge looked at Alice, who was now openly weeping.
“Your honor,” Dixie Colson said, “there is no way to fix this. The jury is obviously tainted at this point with two such obvious references to insurance. It’s not possible to proceed without unfairly prejudicing my client.”
The judge sat his gavel down. He removed his reading glasses and rubbed his temples for what seemed like forever. Finally, he said, “Okay, this is what I am going to do. I am going to give you one more opportunity, for your client’s sake, Mr. Williams. But not with this jury. Bailiff, you can go ahead and send those folks home.”
“What does that mean?” Alice whispered, tugging at Lester’s suit jacket. He brushed her back, saying, “I’m not sure.”
“We will bring in a new venire,” Judge Parsons said. “Start jury selection all over again. And, I am fining you, Mr. Williams. One thousand dollars for contempt.”
You’ll have to get in line, Lester thought, then thanked the judge profusely. “Thank you, judge, so, so much. I promise you, you’ll have nothing more to worry about from me. Scout’s honor.”
Lester sat down and started flipping through his trial notebook, a big, white five-inch three-ring, binder, trying to figure out what to do, while Alice obsessively rearranged the legal pads and sticky notes.
“Keep it together,” Lester said.
Alice scratched at her neck until it turned red. “But what are we going to do?”
Before Lester could answer, the next round of potential jurors started filling the courtroom. “Trust me,” he told her. “I’ll think of something.”
But Lester had nothing. No ideas at all on how to try the case legitimately and get the kind of verdict both he and Alice needed. The judge didn’t give him much time to think, either. He began the second round of jury selection right away and pushed the attorneys to complete it quickly.
Lester decided to embrace the haste. Get it over with as soon as possible. For one, he didn’t know how much longer Alice could hold it together. Plus, he figured if he could get a verdict by the end of the day, at least he could get a deputy to escort him to his car, and maybe make a run for it before Candido and the twins got a hold of him.
So Jury selection went by in a flash. Then they broke for lunch. Lester stayed in the courtroom, pulling pages from his trial notebook, paring the case down to bare bones. It really was fairly simple. The facts of the accident were stipulated to and Alice’s prior attorney had already taken a video deposition of her treating physician that discussed the spinal decompression procedure she’d endured.
When the jury returned, Lester decided to just give a very brief opening statement, after which he read the stipulations into the record, played the doctor video for the jury, got his client up and down from the stand as quickly as possible, and then rested his case, all in under two hours.
After the Plaintiff’s case in chief was complete, Dixie Colson announced that the defense was not putting on any evidence, which meant Lester had to go first with closing arguments. He stood and gave a furtive glance back at Candido who made a knifing gesture across his throat. Then Lester turned and faced the jury as though it was a firing squad. He gave them the shortest, most half-hearted argument of his career. It consisted of exactly one sentence: “All we ask is that you do what you think is fair.”
Dixie Colson followed him by arguing eloquently for thirty minutes before the jury began deliberations.
They were out for less than an hour. The whole time, Lester stayed glued to his chair, afraid Candido and his brothers would jump him if he left the watchful eye of the courtroom bailiff.
As the twelve-member panel returned to their seats, Lester who sat at the table nearest the jury box, leaned on his big white trial notebook and did his best to look each juror in the eye, but they remained unreadable up through the time the clerk read the verdict.
“We the jury, award the plaintiff damages, in the amount of one million dollars.”
The courtroom was silent at first. Then Alice shrieked. As did Dixie Colson. Then Candido let out some kind of high-pitched trilling sound that prompted the judge to call for order.
Lester started to cry. Real tears that poured until he could taste their saltiness at the corners of his mouth.
Dixie Colson insisted upon polling the jury and one by one each member stood and confirmed the verdict. One million dollars. A third of which would go to Lester. More than enough to get out of hock with all his creditors—especially Candido.
Lester looked back and winked at the boys like he never had any doubts. They were all smiling. Candido even gave him a thumb’s up.
Then Alice was hugging him—germs be damned. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you so much.”
They remained in their seats, basking in the glow of their victory well after the judge excused the jury and the courtroom cleared out.
“I was really worried,” Alice said, once they were alone.
“Me too,” Lester admitted.
“I mean it didn’t feel like the trial had gone that great. It was so short. And I thought for sure the jury believed I was actually suing my dad.”
“What?” she asked.
“Come on, seriously—what?”
Lester looked around to be absolutely certain they were alone. Then he reached in his bag and retrieved his trial notebook. The one he’d kept positioned on the far end of counsel’s table throughout the day, right next to the jury, far away from the judge and opposing counsel. Spine out. Now he flipped it around so Alice could see where he’d written on the back of the binder: “HE’S GOT $1 MIL IN INSURANCE. HELP A GUY OUT.”
Alice covered her mouth. “Oh, my God,” she said. “I can’t believe you did that.”
But Lester just smiled. “Hey,” he told her. “It’s like I always say. If you’re going to trial—all you need is the Truth.”
Russell W. Johnson is a North Carolina attorney who got so sick of billable hours he began writing crime fiction. His debut story, “Chung Ling Soo’s Greatest Trick,” was published by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and won the Edgar Awards’ Robert L. Fish Memorial prize for best short story by a new author. Since then he has been published in places like Thuglit, Tough, Rock and a Hard Place, Econo Clash Review, Broadswords and Blasters, and Out of the Gutter, and been a finalist or nominee for the Pushcart Prize, Claymore Award, and Screencraft’s Cinematic Novel Competition.
Russell W. Johnsonwww.russellwjohnson.com