May 5 2012 12:00pm
An excerpt of Havana Requiem, a legal thriller set in Cuba by Paul Goldstein (available May 8, 2012).
Fueled by alcohol and legal brilliance, Michael Seeley once oversaw his law firm’s most successful litigation. Until it all fell apart. Recklessness and overreach cost him his wife, his job, and likely the life of his last client, a Chinese dissident journalist. After two sober years practicing small-town law in upstate New York, Seeley has earned back most of what he lost: the partnership in his Manhattan law firm, if not his corner office; the wary respect of most of his partners; the lucrative clients—but not the gin-sharpened passion.
Then the renowned Cuban musician Héctor Reynoso enters his office with a simple request: help him and six other composers who defined Cuba’s musical golden age of the 1940s and 1950s—the music that made the Buena Vista Social Club internationally famous—reclaim the copyright to their work.
When Reynoso goes missing, Seeley’s reluctant promise to help draws him progressively deeper into Havana’s violent underbelly and a decades-long conspiracy that runs from the partners in his firm to the U.S. State Department to Cuba’s security police, who are willing to do anything to suppress the truth. In the heat of Havana, Seeley will lose himself to his worst and best passions as his pursuit of justice becomes a desperate gambit to save not only his composers but the stunning Amaryll, who is playing her own dangerous game.
The man could have climbed from the frame of an ancient newsreel: a sharecropper escaping the Depression-era South with the last scraps of his possessions; a skin-and-bones survivor fleeing yet another sub-Saharan catastrophe. His suitcase, scuffed and worn, was a cardboard imitation of tweed and leather straps, but the way the old man clutched it to his chest, the valise held his most precious belongings. Black but light-skinned, erect as a recruit, he waited inside the office doorway, intelligent eyes darting about, undecided between entering and escaping. Was it apprehension that Michael Seeley detected, or just curiosity? Fear that Seeley wouldn’t take him as a client, or that he would?
Seeley rose and glanced a second time at the yellow message slip on the corner of his desk. Héctor Reynoso. Musician. Havana. Ref’d by H. Devlin.
The trim straw hat was a shade or two darker than the suitcase, and Seeley waited while the musician carefully set it on the bookshelf before extending his hand. Reynoso’s gray hair was cropped close and the fingertips against Seeley’s palm were callused.
“Mr. Herbert Devlin said that you can provide me with legal assistance.” The inflection, measured and serious, gave no sign of indecision. Whatever doubts Reynoso had in the doorway, he had made up his mind.
Seeley indicated the client chair and dialed the number for Elena Duarte, one of the three young associates assigned to him. He had asked her to come to the meeting in case he needed translation. Her Spanish was perfect and, he now thought, her exuberance and lively mind might put Reynoso at ease.
Even sitting, Reynoso held on to the handle of the suitcase. The musician wasn’t so much thin, as Seeley first thought, as he was narrow: his wrists were sturdy, like a farmer’s and, under the neatly pressed cotton jacket and khaki pants, the sloping shoulders, slender hips and long legs would be, Seeley imagined, strong as cable. Repeated laundering had worn the jacket white at the seams. The pants had a razor-edge crease and the starched white shirt, tieless but buttoned to the top, was frayed at the collar.
Elena didn’t answer, and Seeley replaced the receiver. “How did Mr. Devlin say I could help you?”
Green eyes measured the office from wall to wall, floor to ceiling. The beginning of a small smile played at the corners of the musician’s mouth. “Muy caro,” he said.
Seeley guessed at the meaning of the phrase, and wondered what Reynoso saw. Each piece of furniture was either rented or borrowed, and the office wasn’t half the size of the one, a floor above, that he had occupied for years, before the partners at Boone, Bancroft, & Meserve forced him from the firm. It was only five months since they readmitted him to the partnership, and following Reynoso’s admiring gaze as it traveled around the small room gave Seeley the same feeling as when he stopped drinking more than a year ago: that his life had become infinitely precarious.
Reynoso’s eyes stopped at the empty picture hooks on the opposite wall, then dropped to where three picture frames rested against the baseboard, images facing the wall. The pictures were black-and-white still lifes of apples and pears that the artist had fussed up with garish pastels. The stagy colors weren’t the only reason Seeley turned the pictures to the wall; it was the very idea of ruining a perfectly acceptable photograph that way. When Seeley looked at Reynoso, the old man winked, as if to communicate that he sympathized with Seeley’s taste. Was the wink a feint, or just a tic? Without seeing the pictures, how could Reynoso possibly know why Seeley had removed them?
“Very rich,” was Reynoso’s final appraisal. “Mr. Devlin informed me that you represent artists with not so much money... how do you say... ”
“Pro bono publico,” Seeley said. “But I haven’t done that for a long time. Not now.”
Seeley once represented as many impoverished artists as he did paying clients. That wasn’t why his partners fired him, but the dwindling billable hours hadn’t helped. Since his return to the firm, he had stayed close to the arts, taking an art gallery to court for gouging on its commission to a painter and suing a corporate collector that thought that owning a painting entitled it to reproduce the work on the cover of its annual report. He settled a case for a screenwriter, forcing a film studio to change the way it shared profits with writers. But these were wealthy clients, and they paid six-figure fees and more for Seeley’s work. Today if an artist seeking free legal representation called, Seeley would plead overwork and refer him to one of the volunteer lawyer organizations in the city. In the increasingly frequent moments when he let himself think about it, the absence of these struggling artists from his life felt like missing a limb.
“Herbert Devlin said that you are the right man to be our lawyer.”
“Well, he was wrong,” Seeley said. He resented Devlin for setting up two people for disappointment, Reynoso and Michael Seeley himself, and mentally scrolled down a list of other lawyers who might help Reynoso. In twenty minutes he had to be across town to give a lunch talk to Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. There would be dozens of lawyers there glad to represent Reynoso. But they would want to know why he needed a lawyer. “You didn’t tell me what your problem is.”
“Not a problem. Mr. Devlin said it is an opportunity.” Reynoso let go of the suitcase handle. He tilted his head and clapped his hands. “We know each other for many years. Before Fidel. Mr. Devlin came to the clubs where my friends and I played. Always he had a good-looking woman on his arm.” Reynoso’s smile revealed stained but even teeth. “No women today. Only business and music. No americano loves our music like he does.”
Why would Devlin risk his law license by traveling to Cuba? And how had Reynoso contrived not only to leave Cuba but to enter the United States?
“Mr. Devlin promised you would help us.”
Seeley glanced at the phone. Elena was never late for a meeting, but he was glad that she wasn’t here. Difficult as it was to turn down the musician, if Elena were here it would be even harder. Twenty years apart, she and Seeley had studied with the same copyright professor at Harvard, the legendary Felix Silver, and although Elena had her pick of New York law firms when she graduated, Silver told her to take Boone, Bancroft’s offer. He told her that she would have her choice of partners, too, but that she should grab on to Seeley and not let go. Elena hadn’t yet complained that in her time working with him Seeley had not taken a single pro bono case for a hard-pressed artist. But if he didn’t represent one soon, Seeley knew that she would find a partner, or a firm, more promising.
Reynoso still hadn’t answered his question. “What kind of help do you need?”
The musician lifted the suitcase to his lap. Where the varnish had worn away and the tweed print faded, the cardboard pilled like an old sweater. Again the musician pressed the suitcase to his chest.
Seeley said, “Unless you’re carrying body parts in there, you might as well open it up and show me what you have.” If there were legal documents that needed translation, they would have to wait for Elena. Seeley corrected himself: they would have to await another lawyer and another firm.
It took almost a full minute for Reynoso to decide. He set the valise on the desk, carefully squared it with a corner, snapped open the old-fashioned locks, lifted the top, and tilted the case so that its contents spilled out: sheaves of sheet music; a bursting collage of spidery staves, bars, notes, and clefs; packets of staff-lined pages, some tied with faded ribbon, others with fraying twine; CDs and tape cassettes; even a dozen or so black vinyl 45s with their donut-center holes. There was a vague tobacco smell, but Seeley didn’t know if it was from Reynoso or the accumulated scent of the contents. From the bottom of the suitcase, the musician took a manila envelope that had suffered a lifetime of foldings and unfoldings, but he didn’t undo the brown shoelace tie or add it to the pile on the desk.
Long musician’s fingers slid over the pages. “My friends and I made this music in the nineteen forties and fifties,” Reynoso said. “We were just street musicians in Havana. We played in restaurants and clubs for tips when they let us. These were black clubs, not where the American tourists went.”
The two decades, the forties and fifties, were the giveaway. Seeley instantly understood what Reynoso wanted. The musician and his friends had signed away their rights long ago, and now they wanted the music back. Adrenaline pounded through him. He could do this. He had to. He, not one of the volunteer lawyers. Seeley caught himself. This was always how he got into trouble. He remembered the conditions on which his partners took him back into the firm. Seeley said, “There are a dozen other lawyers in New York who can get your songs back for you.”
“Mr. Devlin said you are the best.”
“For this kind of work, best doesn’t matter.” Any competent copyright lawyer could draft, execute, and record the necessary termination documents for Reynoso and later negotiate with his American publishers. “I’m sure there are Cuban lawyers who can do this.”
“No. Mr. Devlin said it must be you. My friends and I trust him. In those days, you didn’t see whites at the black clubs, but Herbert Devlin was always there. He told us we were not just musicians. He said we were composers.” The words tumbled out, as if opening the suitcase had released a catch inside Reynoso, too. “None of us wrote music, so Herbert Devlin brought a man from New York to write out the music for us. He arranged for American publishers to buy our songs. Record labels to record us.”
Devlin was Harry to everyone Seeley knew, but the name on the Los Angeles lawyer’s doorplate was in fact Herbert, and it seemed natural for Reynoso, so formal in manner, to refer to him by his given name.
Reynoso stopped, as if to catch his breath, but instead of continuing he moved away from the desk and adjusted his shoulders as if to take a blow.
Seeley said, “You didn’t have to bring all of this. A list would have been enough.”
Reynoso swatted the observation away like a bothersome fly. “Mr. Devlin said you are not afraid to fight big companies.”
Seeley pushed the tapes, CDs, and 45s to the side and, untying the ribbons and twine, sorted through a packet of sheet music. The paper was fragile, almost crumbly, and behind the tobacco smell it had the musty, closeted odor of old books. The titles were from another world. “Cara a Cara,” “¿Por Qué Me Siento Triste?” “¿Dónde Estabas Anoche?” “Somos Differente.” So were the names of the composers—Rúben Fornet, Justo Mayor, Onelio Bustamante.
Seeley put down the music. “Buena Vista Social Club.” Seeley had seen their movie when he was still married. Clare had loved the music, he the musicians.
“Buena Vista are good,” Reynoso said, “if you like tourist music. This”—his gesture took in the haystack of paper and plastic—“is not for tourists. It is more than music. But do you know what they do to our work in America? Frozen tacos! They use our music to sell frozen tacos. Mexican food!” The dark fingers scrambled through the paper sheets until they stopped at a yellowed folio. “My friend, Justo Mayor. This is his work: “Tu Mi Delirio.” A work of art. Do you watch television?” Anger flared behind the thoughtful eyes. “My niece who lives here says, day and night, they play “Tu Mi Delirio.” For what? To sell shaving cream!”
“And the reason you want your music back,” Seeley said, knowing that it would inflame Reynoso, “is that these people, these taco sellers, aren’t paying you enough.”
Reynoso’s hands went to the pile on the desk, as if to protect it. “This is not about money!”
“Then what is it about?”
Reynoso looked up and past Seeley’s shoulder.
Seeley turned. Elena was at the door, flushed and out of breath, her arms around a stack of binders, yellow Post-its beetling the pages like feathers on a boa. The deposition transcripts for Seeley’s trade secret trial in Boston in two weeks. Seeley shook his head to let Elena know this wasn’t the time to explain why she was late, then introduced her to Reynoso, who gave a courtly bow.
She nodded in return. “Mucho gusto.”
Reynoso said, “Es un placer conocer a una mujer tan encantadora.”
Seeley didn’t understand the words, but he was certain that Elena’s flush deepened. To Reynoso he said, “If it isn’t for money, why do you want your music back?”
Reynoso stared at them, not blinking, as if he didn’t understand the question.
“Por favor,” Elena said to him, “es necesario que nos diga, para que le ayudemos major,” and, to Seeley, “I told him that we must know if we are to help him.” Elena’s English had no accent, but when she spoke Spanish, even just a word or a name, she turned it into something exotic. The effect matched her looks. She was small and fine-boned, and her hair was as black and thick as a wild woman’s.
The air in the office grew still. Finally, Reynoso said, “This is about history. My people’s history. I cannot explain it to you.”
“Then explain it to Miss Duarte.”
“No. It is not the language. You must be a Cuban to understand. This is about la cultura. Mr. Devlin will tell you.”
“He will tell me the reason?”
“No,” Reynoso said. “He will tell you why it cannot be explained.”
The composer’s expression was contrite, and a glance from Elena told Seeley to let it go. Seeley opened a second packet of music, then another, as if the answer to his question might be secreted among the brittle pages. In the fourth packet, all of the folios had Reynoso’s name in the upper-right corner of the cover page.
“Mr. Devlin said there is little time.”
The composition on top, “Ron de la Habana” was published in 1950. Even if Reynoso was twenty when he wrote the song, that would make him eighty today, at least a decade older than he looked. Seeley made a quick calculation. “You have six months, maybe a year, to get your music back.”
Reynoso said, “But you can do that? For my friends, too?”
Elena watched Seeley expectantly.
Seeley paged through another handful of compositions. Publication dates spanned the early 1940s through the late 1950s. “For some of the music, yes, it is still possible for a lawyer to get your rights back for you. Maybe most of it. But, for the music before 1950, it’s already too late.”
Under lizard eyelids, the intelligent eyes sharpened. “But you can fix that.” Reynoso looked at Elena for support, but she shook her head.
“No,” Seeley said. “The law says that for those songs it is no longer possible to get back your rights. No one can fix it.” He checked his watch. If he left now, he would miss the Volunteer Lawyers lunch but still get there in time to give his talk. The hypocrisy of entertaining a crowd of morally ambitious young lawyers with war stories about the great cases he won for struggling artists depressed him.
Seeley looked again at the cover page of Reynoso’s “Ron de la Habana.” The publisher was Ross-Fosberg Music, a longstanding client. When sorting through the songs of the other composers, he recognized the names of other publishers, too. Several were small family companies that had liquidated years or even decades ago, their contracts taken over by one or another of the large American music publishers still in business. Even if he decided to take on Reynoso as a client, any one of those publishers could object to his working for him.
“Your publisher is one of my clients. So are some of the others. We have a rule in America about conflicts of interest.”
“Yes. Of course. Mr. Devlin said you would have this conflict of interest. He has this conflict also. That is why he cannot help us. But he said your clients will trust you.” Reynoso clapped his hands. “And my friends and I trust you. So, you see, there is no problem.”
Seeley still had his partners to appease, but what if a publisher client, just one in a weak moment, waived the conflict and let him represent Reynoso and the others? The possibilities opened like an unfolding parachute. “I’ll talk to the publishers and see if they’ll waive the conflict—”
“What does this mean, ‘waive?’ ”
“I’ll see if they’ll let me be your lawyer.” The publishers were loyal clients, but they were demanding, and none had a good reason to let him represent an adversary in negotiations to give up their rights to the music. Still, if there was even the smallest chance that one of them would give him a waiver, he would never forgive himself for not asking.
“You are a good lawyer,” Reynoso said, not moving. “You will explain to the publishers why it is right for you to help us.”
“Let’s see,” Seeley said, even as he regretted raising Reynoso’s hopes. “I need a list of your friends if I’m going to ask for waivers.”
Beaming, Reynoso handed Seeley the much-folded manila envelope that he had taken from the bottom of the suitcase. Inside were sheets of paper neatly ruled in pencil, and on each line, also in pencil in a plain but elegant hand, were the names and addresses of the composers and, for some, a telephone number. Behind Seeley, Elena picked through the pile of sheet music.
One name on Reynoso’s list had no address. “What about Maceo Núñez?”
Reynoso hesitated. “He is in prison. It is not always possible to speak with him.”
“What does a composer have to do to get himself put in prison?”
“I am sure that he wants his music back.”
Seeley waited. Reynoso’s English was too good for him to have misunderstood the question, and the old composer’s evasions were beginning to wear on Seeley. Reynoso looked away. “He played his music. He performed it in public.”
“Do you still perform?”
“Not for many years.” The smile faded. “I used to play some guitar, bass, piano.”
Sooner or later, most of Seeley’s clients lied to him, but few did about something so unimportant. If Reynoso had stopped playing, the calluses would have disappeared from his fingertips in a month or two, not years.
“Are you sure the other composers want their music back?”
“Some of them think it is wrong to break a contract. They think, once you sign a contract, you must honor it.” Reynoso studied his fingertips. “Herbert Devlin said you could come to Havana and explain to them why this is not a wrong thing to do. That in America this is the way business is done.”
“Oh my God!” It was Elena. Her hands rapidly sorted through the music. “I don’t believe this.”
Seeley shot her a hard look and turned back to Reynoso. “Even if the publishers waive the conflict, there is no way I can go to Havana. I told you, a Cuban lawyer could do this work. You didn’t have to come here.”
“You are afraid to leave this fine office of yours.”
“You couldn’t find a Cuban lawyer who would do this, could you? There’s someone in Cuba who doesn’t want you and your friends to get your music back.”
Reynoso brushed the words away, and Seeley glimpsed anger as well as bravado in the dismissal. The gesture drew Seeley’s eyes to the straw hat on the bookshelf. A neat pucker creased the crown and the front of the narrow brim was snapped down gangster-style. The hat was as plain as the rest of the man’s clothes, except for a bright madras ribbon around the base of the crown that could have been plucked from a young girl’s hair.
Elena was arranging the sheet music into two piles, one taller than the other.
“Mr. Devlin said it must be you who represents us. No Cuban lawyers.”
“Is it your government that doesn’t want you to get your music back? Are you in danger, just coming to see me?”
Reynoso’s smile was sly and came with another wink. “There is no danger. Mr. Devlin says we are so old that we are ghosts more than we are flesh and blood. He says we pass through buildings and airports and no one sees us—they only feel a cold wind.”
Of course. That’s how the two of them crossed borders illegally so easily. They were ghosts. “It’s my job to help my clients, not to make their situation worse.” I have ghosts of my own, Seeley thought, and again regretted his promise to ask the publishers for waivers.
“I made a mistake,” Reynoso said. “I am sorry to take your time. Herbert Devlin told me you are someone who fights for artists. But I suppose he was wrong.”
The attempt at manipulation was so obvious that Seeley felt embarrassed for Reynoso. Elena, absorbed in her sorting, didn’t hear. He looked at Reynoso’s list. “Is your telephone number here?”
Reynoso rose. “My niece has a telephone.”
“No. New York. Queens.” Pride lit Reynoso’s eyes. He had a niece who lived among royalty. The musician fumbled a stub of pencil from an inside jacket pocket and, on the legal pad that Seeley handed him, wrote his name and a telephone number with the same easy strokes as on the list of composers. “I am staying with my niece.”
Seeley began placing the spilled contents in to the suitcase, and nodded to Elena to do the same.
“No,” Reynoso said. “You keep this. You are our lawyer now. That is why I brought it.” He nodded in the direction of the suitcase. “This music is older than the Revolution. My friends and I trust you to keep it safe.”
Safe from what, Seeley wondered.
Reynoso’s smile opened to a grin and he patted Seeley lightly on the arm. “It is hotter on your streets than in Havana, and your client is an old fellow. You don’t want to send him out like a mule with a pack, do you?” He drew closer and with a darting gesture reached up and twisted Seeley’s ear. “I know you are going to take good care of Héctor.”
The movement was so unexpected, yet so astonishingly familiar, that if not for the tingling left by the callused fingers, Seeley would have questioned that it happened. He leaned out the door and asked his secretary to show Reynoso to the elevators, then went back to his desk to collect the notes for his lunch talk. He unclenched his jaw. The last half hour hadn’t been a client interview. It was more like the cross-examination of a difficult but life-or-death witness.
From behind the piles of sheet music, Elena said, “Do you know what this is?” Her breathlessness was that of an excited child.
“I don’t have time.” Seeley started out the door. “I was supposed to be at Volunteer Lawyers a half hour ago.”
“The music in this pile?” Elena lifted her hand from the shorter stack. “Every one of them is a standard. The classics they play on all the Spanish-language stations. All the Latin groups today record them. Los Van Van, Orquesta Melaza, Los Tainos. You can’t turn on the radio and not hear these songs.”
“Or buy a frozen taco,” Seeley said, “or lather up your cheeks with shaving cream.”
“This is your case, right? I want to work on it.”
“It’s not a case,” Seeley said.
“Then what is it?”
“Nothing. There’s a conflict with our publisher clients.” Seeley added numbers in his head. If Elena was right, between performance royalties and advertising licenses, Reynoso and his friends’ songs were bringing in millions of dollars a year, and would continue to do so for the next thirty or forty years. With that kind of money at stake, there was no chance that the publishers would let Seeley represent Reynoso. If anything, the publishers would want to hire Seeley to find a way to stop the Cubans from reclaiming their music.
Elena said, “But if they waive, I can work on it?”
Seeley nodded, just to be able to leave.
Elena said, “Héctor looks like he’d be fun to work with.”
Seeley thought back over the last forty minutes of feints and evasions, winks and handclaps. “Sure,” he said on his way out the door, “like juggling razors.”
Seeley pushed Reynoso to the back of his thoughts in order to concentrate on the black ball coming directly at him off the brilliant white surface, but the composer elbowed his way forward. Why in fact did he want his music back? Why couldn’t he get a Cuban lawyer to represent him? At the last possible moment, Seeley stepped back and swung at the ball. Had he put Reynoso at risk just by meeting with him? By letting him leave the music-filled suitcase in his office? Was he so desperate to retrieve his old practice that he would take an engagement even at a client’s peril? When the hubbub in Seeley’s head gathered momentum like this, alcohol was the only off switch that he knew. An abstinent year had won him back his partnership, but this wasn’t the first time that he questioned the wisdom of the exchange. And what was Reynoso hiding?
Seeley shifted, spun, spooned the black ball off a side wall and lobbed it overhead.
Nick Girard took the lob without a bounce and stepped back to center court. He was as tall as Seeley’s six feet, but thicker around the torso, and the tiny sports goggles gave him a froggy look. Girard said, “Did you know Clare’s wedding is Sunday?”
Months ago, Girard told Seeley that his former wife was remarrying, and Seeley knew that he had timed the latest news to distract him from his game. Seeley gripped the racquet tighter and calculated where the ball would zig-zag next. “The mailman must have lost my invitation.”
It was Girard and his wife Maisie who’d introduced Seeley to Clare and, though Girard never said so, Seeley knew that the two blamed him for the failure of the marriage. “Wish her luck,” Seeley said. The words didn’t come out as casually as he wanted.
“You mean, better luck than last time.”
Seeley bit back his lower lip, the ball landed in a dead spot, the volley ended, and he lost the point.
Girard served before Seeley returned to position, forcing a lunge for the ball and a flailing, easily destroyed return. The two had been playing for forty minutes and, although Girard barely moved about the court, his shirt was soaked through and his breath came in gasps.
“You know,” Girard said, exertion strangling the words, “Hobie’s going to make you drop your Cubans.”
It was another distraction, but this time Girard also positioned his bulk to block Seeley’s path to the return. Seeley stepped forward, shot a hard elbow to the base of his partner’s spine, staggering him, then slammed the ball home. His point.
Hobie’s interest in the Cubans surprised him. Seeley had no hope that the publishers would waive the conflicts, but since he’d promised Reynoso, and himself, that he would ask, he had filled out the standard new-business memo. Hobie—Hobart—Harriman, the head of the firm’s litigation department, had apparently seen the memo. “It’s me Hobie doesn’t want at the firm. He’s pissed that my old clients are leaving him to come back to me.”
Hobie joined Boone, Bancroft soon after the partners had forced Seeley out, inheriting Seeley’s entertainment and publishing clients. He had been in and out of government service, mostly in the State Department, through Republican and Democratic administrations and was never more than an intermediary or two away from the Secretary’s ear. According to rumor—which he did nothing to suppress—Hobie regularly served as liaison between State and the C.I.A. Between government posts he’d worked at Wall Street law firms, but never returned to the same one. The partners on Boone, Bancroft’s executive committee thought that Hobie’s political and social connections could bring more Fortune 500 clients to the firm, as well as lucrative work from the downtown investment banks, and had agreed to consider him to head the firm when the current chairman stepped down. In the meantime, the committee made Hobie head of the litigation department even though, so far as Seeley knew, he had never tried a case.
When Girard saw that Seeley was holding his serve to let him catch his breath—penance for the elbow a minute ago—he said, “Hobie thinks you’re gunning to take his office away from him.”
“Give me one reason I shouldn’t have my old office back.”
That office had been the war room from which Seeley orchestrated hundred-million-dollar intellectual property lawsuits, trying them back-to-back with his pro bono cases, finishing one trial on a Friday, starting the next on Monday, using alcohol to lubricate the passage between. The office had belonged to founding partner Ed Meserve, a lion of the New York trial bar, before he retired and handed the office over to Seeley, its wet bar still fully stocked.
“That was my deal with Daphne when I came back. I build up my billable practice again and the firm gives me back my office. I’ve held up my end.” The office was the last piece of his old life that Seeley had not regained, and the craving for it was visceral.
“You’re forgetting there was another part to the deal. Your work for the deserving poor. You might want to think about dropping the Cubans.”
“They’d be paying clients.”
“Well, paying or not, Hobie put them on the executive committee agenda for this afternoon.”
“Then I’ll have to be there,” Seeley said. He served, and for a while the two men rallied easily, friendly rivals, Girard placing his returns precisely, off one, two, three walls, forcing Seeley into constant movement, the graceful but animated marionette of a fiendish puppeteer. In Seeley’s year away from New York, the University Club had renovated its squash courts, and the turpentine snap of fresh paint in the boxlike room mingled with a funky bouquet of floor wax, stressed rubber, and old sweat. For as long as they knew each other, Seeley and Girard played squash two or three mornings a week, first when they were young lawyers in Buffalo, and then, when Seeley moved to New York and Girard followed for partnerships at Boone, Bancroft, at the University Club, off Fifth Avenue. But this was only the second time they played since Seeley’s return to the city.
“You don’t want to push Hobie away.” Girard returned an easy lob. “Remember what Michael Corleone said.”
For a confused moment, Seeley tried to place the name among the firm’s lawyers.
“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”
“That was Sun-tzu.”
“Oh.” Girard slammed the ball across court, forcing Seeley to circle around him for the return. Girard had played since prep school, and Seeley only picked up the game after starting out as a lawyer. A quarterback in high school and college, Seeley was the better athlete, but he’d learned that mastery of squash, like playing the violin, started not far from the cradle.
Seeley’s next return was hard and, he thought, well placed, but Girard scooped up the ball and, for what seemed like a full second, willed it to a dead stop on the face of his racquet, then tipped the sleeping missile into a corner so that it rolled lazily across the floor.
The game was over. “I have a City Bar meeting downtown,” Girard said. When he lifted his goggles, his eyes were red from strain. “I won’t be able to run interference for you with the executive committee.”
“I can handle it,” Seeley said. They were at the dollhouse-sized door in the back wall of the court. Along with the mechanical whir of the ceiling fans, the echoes of play from other courts bounced about the white room.
Girard said. “Hobie’s trying to build his own practice. Banks, investment companies. Big retainers, lots of billings, long-term work. He thinks your street people are going to set the wrong tone for the firm.”
“Fourteen penniless musicians are going to scare off an investment bank?” Seeley toweled his hair. “Who wins when the two of you play?”
“What do you mean?”
“You and Hobie.” Why did Seeley assume that the two played squash together? “He beats you, doesn’t he?”
Girard looked around the court, as if he might have left something behind. When his eyes returned to Seeley they were veiled; Seeley couldn’t read them.
“Hobie’s strategic.” Girard swatted his racquet back and forth. “He plays the long game. He’d play with knives, if he could. That’s why you want to be careful with him. Keep the peace. Get someone else to represent these people.”
“Fifty years ago, the American music publishers ran over them like a truck. They paid them a few bucks a song.”
“And now Michael Seeley has appointed himself to be their savior.” Girard swatted the racquet again. “I hope this doesn’t turn into a train wreck like the last time, with that Chinese girl... ” He let the rest of the sentence hang in the air between them.
“This is different.”
“Why, because you’re not drinking?”
“That’s part of it.”
“You think you can make up for what you let happen to her.”
“Like you did when you got the partners to take me back?” In a firm of 650 lawyers it is easy to get lost, and in the weeks before the partners forced Seeley out, Girard disappeared. Squash dates were canceled by a secretary and phone calls were not returned.
And, when the decision was finally made and Daphne Hancock, the firm’s chair, gave Seeley the news, Girard was in France, on vacation with his family.
“No, taking you back was just business.” Girard pulled open the door and Seeley ducked to go through. “We always need good lawyers.” When Seeley turned, Girard’s eyes met his and he was the hearty friend once again, “Sober, you’re the best lawyer I know. I want to keep you here.”
They were in the narrow corridor leading to the showers before Seeley said, “How long is my probation going to last?”
“Do you really think the partners are watching you?”
“No.” Seeley walked in the direction of his locker. “Only when I breathe.”
Three columns divided the sheet that Elena handed to Seeley. In the first column were the names of the composers, with Reynoso’s at the top, and under each name an address in Havana; for a few, there was also a telephone number. Across from the composers’ names were the titles of their compositions and the publisher that today owned the rights to each song. It must have taken Elena hours just to trace the chain of ownership from the small publishing companies, now defunct, to the larger and then still larger firms that had gobbled them like fish in a food chain. In all, seven publishers presently owned the Cuban composers’ songs. Five were Seeley’s clients.
Seeley nodded at the pile of deposition transcripts for the Boston trade secrets trial tabbed with Elena’s yellow Post-its that was still on the corner of his desk, unread. “How do the depositions look?”
“Our witnesses are solid,” Elena said. “A lot better than theirs. I marked the weak points for attack on cross.”
“That’s good,” Seeley said, “because I just talked to our client. They’re rejecting the other side’s last settlement offer.”
Their client was a medical device manufacturer in Boston, one of the world’s leading developers of vascular stents. The company had been hosting a delegation of scientists from Beijing at its research facility in Waltham when a security guard found two of the Chinese visitors in a restricted area. The company’s general counsel moved quickly, calling Seeley within the hour. Seeley, too, wasted no time, and the next day, while the two researchers were having drinks in a departure lounge at Logan Airport, a process server handed each a subpoena and a hastily drafted complaint for trade secret theft. After the investigators Seeley hired returned from Beijing and reported their findings, he amended the complaint to request an award of $100 million damages to compensate his client for its loss.
Seeley said, “You can tell the other partners you work for that you’ll be in trial in Boston starting August third.”
A dazzling smile lit the serious face. After months of library research and document review, poring over depositions and interrogatories, this would be Elena’s first trial. Seeley didn’t like to overstaff his cases and, in addition to Elena, he had assigned only a younger partner and a litigation paralegal to the team. Lawyers from the Boston firm that was acting as his local counsel would provide whatever backup Seeley needed.
“That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?” Like Seeley, Elena had gone to a blue-collar college on scholarship and then to Harvard Law, taking loans and part-time jobs to get through. And, like Seeley, she wanted nothing more than to be a trial lawyer, even for a medical device manufacturer, if that’s what it took to pay the firm’s overhead and keep her skills sharp for the pro bono clients who really mattered.
She said, “What about Héctor?”
Seeley took the list off her desk. “I’m calling the publishers now.”
Ross-Fosberg Music owned the rights to Reynoso’s compositions, as well as those of three other composers on Elena’s list. Seeley dialed the number for Joel Simkin, the company’s general counsel. A year ago, Seeley would have told the publishers to give him the waiver or to find another lawyer to do their work. Today, he didn’t give ultimatums to paying clients, but while he waited on hold, Seeley considered what he would do when Simkin refused to waive the conflict. I should cheer, Seeley thought. Celebrate my release from a doubtful client who, he guessed, needed a bodyguard more than a lawyer.
Simkin came on, but he wanted to complain about Hobie. “I know he’s your partner, Mike, but he doesn’t understand the first thing about our business.”
“Give him a chance. He’s learning.”
“Then he can pay me for my time, instead of me paying for his.”
Seeley said, “I want to know if you can waive a conflict for me—”
“As much as I love you, Mike, you know our policy on waivers.”
Seeley said, “I have four of your writers who want me to terminate transfers for them.”
“You mean it’s not an Internet case? No file sharing? Pirates?”
Seeley’s heart skipped as it occurred to him that Simkin might actually waive the conflict. “They’re Cubans. There’s not a pirate in the lot.”
“Who are they?”
“Héctor Reynoso,” Seeley said. He glanced at Elena’s list. “Justo Mayor. Onelio Bustamante. Jorge Garcells.” He liked the sound the names made, the abundance of vowels and soft consonants.
There was a silence at the other end, then Simkin said, “Sure, why not?”
Simkin was a brusque man whose pride thrived on his ability to make quick decisions, but Seeley didn’t know if he was joking. “Can’t you give me a quicker answer?”
“What’s to think about? We don’t have a problem here. We love our composers like family. Any one of them you want to represent, we’ll waive the conflict. You just have to give us first crack at negotiating a new deal with these boys.”
For someone to call Reynoso a boy amused Seeley, but he distrusted Simkin’s casualness in giving him the waiver. “I know every one of your weak points, Joel. Don’t think I won’t exploit them when I’m negotiating with you for my clients.”
“You’re forgetting,” Simkin said, “I know your weak points, too. Maybe that’s why I’d rather negotiate with you than someone I don’t know.” When Seeley didn’t respond, Simkin said, “Look, Mike, the publishers fought this thing in Congress decades ago, and we lost. If we have to deal with these notices, I’d rather have you representing the composers than some amateur. But no free rides. Your clients already missed some deadlines. I don’t know what you did to get the judge to push back the date in your case for that science fiction writer, but if you try that with us, we’re not going to roll over.”
Seeley had represented the writer’s estate in the first lawsuit after Congress changed the law to let authors get their works back decades after they first sold them. The estate’s lawyer had overlooked the statutory deadline and filed the termination notice three weeks late. Seeley won the rights back anyway, convincing the judge that Congress meant the change to protect authors and not to penalize them for failing to comply with formalities.
Seeley said, “How much do the songs earn?”
“Our whole Cuban catalogue?” The wariness in Simkin’s voice was what Seeley expected to hear earlier, when he asked for the waiver. “Latin’s big these days. All in all, I’d say maybe fifteen to twenty million.”
Seeley’s earlier estimate had been too conservative. “How much do you send Reynoso?” The composer may have disclaimed any interest in money, but if a publisher sent him a large check every six months Seeley didn’t think that he would send it back. And since the money would keep coming until the copyrights expired, for the Cubans and their families it would be like winning a good-sized lottery.
This time, Simkin made no effort to hide the edge in his voice. “Ask your client if you need to know.”
“Reynoso’s clothes looked as old as his music. Do you know if he’s even getting your royalty checks?”
“I’m waiving a conflict for you, Mike. That doesn’t mean you get to see our books.” Simkin couldn’t have made the point more clearly. If Seeley continued to press he’d take back the waiver.
“I have a trial in Boston, but I’ll get you the termination notices in a week or two.”
Elena looked up from the computer keyboard when Seeley came in. Behind her, as elegant as a tapestry, a gold, blue, and red striped banner with an elaborate medallion at the center covered one wall of the tiny office. The flag of Ecuador, where her parents were born. Although she and Seeley both came from immigrant blue-collar families and paid their own way through school, the fact that mattered most about their origins couldn’t have been more different. Through her four years at college, Elena lived with her parents in their apartment in Washington Heights at the northern tip of Manhattan. When Harvard and Columbia offered full law school scholarships, her parents had to plead to get her to make the move to Cambridge. Seeley had abandoned his parents’ house at fifteen and never returned.
Seeley said, “I don’t know why, but the publishers are going to waive.”
After talking to Simkin, Seeley reached the general counsel at two of the other publishers, and the conversations went much like the first. No waivers for Internet pirates, but for Cuban composers, why not? Seeley was certain that when the last two publishers returned his calls, they, too, would waive the conflict. He was skeptical when Simkin said that he’d rather deal with him than with an amateur, and when the others gave the same reason, he disbelieved them all. And, like Simkin, neither would say where the tens of millions in royalties and license fees were going. These were lawyers who rarely agreed on anything. If one said that the music industry was dying, another would say that it was already dead, and the third would argue that it was on the brink of a renaissance.
Seeley glanced at the stacks of files on the floor. “What’s your workload like?”
“I still have to mark up the party depositions for Boston, and I have a couple of small projects for Barry.” Unlike the other young associates at the firm, Elena wasn’t self-conscious about calling even the most senior partner she worked for by his first name. Also unlike the others, she ignored the casual dress code and was always in a skirt and heels. She pushed back from the desk. “But if something needs to be done for Héctor, I can do it.”
“I don’t know how good the mails are in Cuba. See if Reynoso can get you phone numbers for the rest of his friends.”
“I already tried. I called his niece in Queens, but she hasn’t seen Héctor since yesterday morning.”
Seeley said, “There should be a blank termination form in the copyright files. Translate it into Spanish and then make copies and start filling them out.” Elena flipped the densely filled page of the legal pad on her desk and continued on the reverse side. In twenty-four years of practice, Seeley had never seen a lawyer write on two sides of a page. “Also, translate one of our retainer letters. I don’t want anyone complaining that Reynoso and the others didn’t know what they were signing.” Seeley glanced at his watch. In ten minutes, he would have to persuade the executive committee to override Hobie’s objection to the Cubans, but now that he had the waivers he was sure that he would prevail.
“Let’s call our client and tell him we’re working for him.”
Elena took a file from a desk drawer. Stapled to the inside was the start of a phone list. At the top, Seeley saw his office extension and the telephone number for his rooms at the University Club. Below that was a number for Dolores Moncada, Reynoso’s niece. Elena dialed and handed the phone to him. A machine answered with a scratchy recording in Spanish, giving what sounded like a standard message. The message ended, and Seeley was about to hang up when the same woman’s voice came on again, but louder and more urgent, the Spanish words colliding like tenpins, Reynoso’s name among them.
Seeley pressed the redial button and handed the receiver to Elena. After listening to the two messages she put down the receiver. “The second message said, ‘If this is Uncle Héctor, please leave me a message. Your niece loves you and she is worried about you. Where are you?’ ”
Copyright © 2012 by Paul Goldstein
Paul Goldstein is the Lillick Professor of Law at Stanford University and the author of two previous novels.