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In Firm Pursuit
By Pamela Samuels-Young
BETCopyright © 2007 Pamela Samuels-Young
All right reserved.
Karen Carruthers had never thought much of women who filed sexual harassment claims. A woman who couldn't hold her own with a man--any man--simply didn't have balls. But now, Karen was one of them.
Gripping the gearshift of her convertible Mustang Cobra, Karen pressed down hard on the gas and didn't let up until the speedometer hovered near eighty-five. At this time of the day--only minutes before sunrise--L.A.'s 405 Freeway resembled the flatlands of some Midwestern highway. The road was all hers, so she took it.
Whenever trouble loomed, Karen did the one thing that soothed her. She drove. For the past few weeks, anxiety had crept into her every thought and buried itself there. But during her freedom drives, as she liked to call them, she felt fearless. Invigorated. Fulfilled. All those empowering words her therapist insisted that she embrace.
As the Mustang glided past ninety, the crisp air fanned Karen's face and she inhaled a healthy gulp that a New Yorker would have considered warm for a February. Despite the cool temperature, she felt a hot exhilarating rush. Not all that different from what she experienced during sex. Really great sex.
Zooming past the Santa Monica interchange in a nearly drunken state of euphoria now, Karen almost missed the Mulholland exit. Imitating a stunt she'd seen in a Bruce Willis movie, she laterally zipped across three lanes, just in time to makeit to the off-ramp. As Karen ascended the short incline to the traffic light ahead, she combed her fingers through her thick mass of strawberry-blond hair, then rubbed her emerald-green eyes.
When Karen first reported her allegations of sexual harassment against Henry Randle, she had expected that the man would be fired. But she had not anticipated that Randle would turn around and sue Micronics Corporation. Now Karen was her company's star witness in his wrongful termination case. A case she wanted nothing to do with.
Leaning forward, Karen pressed the CD button and began singing along with Faith Hill. Not until she had made a left onto Skirball Center Drive and a right onto Mulholland, did she notice the black sedan a couple of car lengths behind. A longer glimpse in her rearview mirror told her that the car was a BMW with a lone occupant inside. Karen punched off Faith mid-chorus and picked up speed. Her pulse did the same. She passed the University of Judaism at close to seventy. The sedan sped up as well.
And then it hit her. The documents! Karen snatched her purse from the passenger's seat, fished out an envelope and stuffed it down her sweater and into her bra. She had known all along that they would eventually come looking for the documents. Feeling them against her skin sent an icy chill through her body.
Karen inhaled and tried to think clearly as trepidation gradually sucked the air from her lungs. The two-mile stretch of Mulholland that lay ahead was interspersed on both sides with outrageously expensive homes and cliffs with made-for-Hollywood views. A sharp turn down one of the long driveways would leave her trapped, making her an easy target for her pursuer. A wrong turn in the opposite direction could send her into a nosedive off one of the cliffs, finishing the job for them.
Though fear now coursed through every vein in Karen's body, an odd smile graced her lips. There was no way the BMW would be able to keep up. Her breathing slowed ever so slightly after another glance in the mirror confirmed that her pursuer was losing ground. Karen had cruised Mulholland so many times she could almost drive it blindfolded. She only had to make it down the hill to Beverly Glen. Somebody was bound to be walking a dog or taking an early morning jog. They would not want witnesses.
Karen patted her breast, confirming that the envelope was still there. Still safe. Just then another car shot out of a driveway several hundred yards ahead and Karen's heart slammed against her chest. Instinct told her the BMW to her rear was not working alone. She anxiously felt for the envelope again and concentrated on her next move.
She took another quick glance in the rearview mirror. The BMW wasn't there. When she looked to her left, her eyes bore across the empty passenger seat of the BMW and directly into the barrel of a gun.
Time froze for a second, then a piercing scream left Karen's lips, reverberating into the early morning air. Karen stomped on the brakes and the BMW, unprepared for her sudden stop, darted ahead, just as she had anticipated.
What happened next, however, had not been part of Karen's plan.
She jerked the steering wheel sharply to the left and hit the gas. But instead of making a full U-turn, the Mustang headed off the road, straight toward a thin patch of bushes where a guardrail should have been.
Karen's hands flew to her face, barely muffling her futile screams.
For what seemed like minutes rather than seconds, the Mustang floated across the reddish-orange sky like a wonderfully woven magic carpet. After a moment of calm, Karen felt the sharp pull of gravity, then braced herself for a landing that turned daybreak into darkness.
"This case should be settled," barked the Honorable Frederick H. Sloan. The judge's demanding baritone required a response even though no question had been posed.
I looked over at Reggie Jenkins, my spineless opposing counsel, seated to my left in the judge's private chambers. The petrified expression on his face told me I would have to speak for the both of us.
"Your Honor," I began, knowing how much judges loved to hear that salutation, "we're just too far apart. My client is ready and willing to try this case."
Judge Sloan rolled up the sleeves of his crisp white shirt, revealing more of his flawless tan. Most of the federal judges who sat on the bench in California's Central District did not fit the typical stereotype of a jurist. Sloan was both tall and handsome and had probably hit the gym during the lunch hour. If it weren't for his lush gray hair, it would have been hard to tell that he had bypassed sixty a few years back.
"How about you, counselor?" The judge swiveled his chair away from me and zeroed in on my opponent. "Are you prepared to try this case, too?"
Jenkins inhaled and scratched the back of his neck. A chubby, middle-aged black man, he had chronically chapped lips and wore a short Afro that always looked uncombed. His beige linen suit needed a good pressing and his tie was as crooked as he was.
"Oh, no, Your Honor." Jenkins cracked the knuckles of his right hand against the palm of his left. "I don't like wasting the taxpayers' time and money."
I wanted to bop Reggie on the head with my purse. He settled all of his cases because he was too incompetent to go to trial.
Judge Sloan swung back to me and smiled heartily. "I've seen very few cases that were slam dunks. You sure you want to try this case, little lady?"
Little lady? I hated it when judges talked to me like I was some bimbo. After only eight years of practice, I had some pretty impressive stats on my Bar card. I was a senior associate at O'Reilly & Finney, one of the most respected trial firms in L.A. I had also won a five-million-dollar verdict in a race discrimination case and defended a high-profile murder case. But taking crap from judges was par for the course.
Before I could respond, the judge returned his focus to my rival.
"Mr. Jenkins, what's your client looking for?"
"Your Honor," I interrupted, "my client really wants to try this--"
Sloan held up a hand the size of a dinner plate, but did not look my way. "I'm talking to Mr. Jenkins right now." He grabbed a handful of roasted almonds from a crystal dish on the corner of his desk and tossed a couple into his mouth. "W-well, Your Honor," Jenkins stuttered, "my client, Henry Randle, was fired based on trumped-up charges of sexual harassment. He was really terminated because he's a black man and because he refused to turn a blind eye to the company's fraudulent billing practices. He--"
I couldn't contain myself. "That's not true. Your client was fired for grabbing Karen Carruthers in an elevator and trying to kiss her. And there's absolutely no evidence that--"
This time the judge cut me off with a raised hand and a stone-hard glare. "Ms....uh..."
"Henderson," I said, annoyed that he couldn't even remember my name. "Vernetta Henderson."
"Ms. Henderson, you will speak only when I ask you to." I locked my arms across my chest and slumped a little in my chair. When a federal judge called for order, he usually got it.
"Mr. Jenkins," the judge continued brusquely, "I know the facts. Let's cut to the chase. Make Ms. Henderson an offer."
Jenkins looked timidly in my direction and took a long moment before speaking. "I believe I could get my client to accept five hundred thousand," he nearly squeaked.
"Out of the question," I said, ignoring the judge's gag order.
Judge Sloan leaned forward and stroked his chin. "I'm afraid I would have to agree. Give us a more realistic number, Mr. Jenkins. What's your bottom line?"
Reggie looked down at his hands. "I...uh...I guess if my client received something in the neighborhood of thirty thousand, he might accept it."
Thirty thousand. I mindlessly doodled on the legal pad on my lap. That was a good offer. My client, Micronics Corporation, would easily spend ten times that in attorneys' fees by the time the trial was over. But Micronics's litigation philosophy mandated trying winnable cases, even when they could be settled for nuisance value. They firmly believed that if a plaintiff's attorney litigated a case for months or years and netted nothing for his efforts, he would think twice before suing the company a second time, knowing the battle that awaited him.
Truth be told, I was psyched about trying the case for reasons of my own. If everything remained on schedule, my anticipated victory in the Randle case would come about a week before my law firm's partnership vote. Having another big win under my belt days before the vote would cinch things for me. I would soon become O'Reilly & Finney's first African-American partner. I was not about to let Judge Sloan steal my thunder.
"Your Honor," I said, looking him fearlessly in the eyes, "my client isn't interested in settlement."
Sloan propped an elbow on the desk and pointed at me with a finger the size of a wiener. "You and your client are making a big mistake," he said with a controlled fury.
I swallowed hard and said nothing. Pissing off a judge, particularly a federal judge, would mean hell for me the next time I appeared in Sloan's courtroom. He could be as retaliatory as he wanted with no fear of repercussions. One of the many perks of having a job for life.
Sloan snatched a legal pad from his desk and started writing. "You want to try this case?" he said with a cruel smile, "then you've got it. I'm expediting the filing of the pretrial documents. I want the trial brief, the jury instructions and all motions filed by Monday morning. And I'd like to see you two back here Tuesday afternoon for another status report."
"Your Honor!" Jenkins whined, cracking the knuckles of both hands this time. "I'm a solo practitioner. There's no way I can get all those documents drafted in four days." He took a Chap Stick from his jacket pocket and nervously dotted his lips.
"That's not my problem, Mr. Jenkins. Perhaps you'll be able to talk some sense into Ms. Henderson before Monday morning." The judge grabbed another handful of almonds. "You can leave now."
As I followed Jenkins down a long hallway that led back to the main courtroom, a flutter of apprehension hit me. What if I didn't win?
Luckily, the flash of self-doubt did not linger. Reggie was a lousy attorney. Going up against him would be like trying a case against a first-year law student.
The Randle case was going to trial and I was going to win it.
Excerpted from In Firm Pursuit by Pamela Samuels-Young Copyright © 2007 by Pamela Samuels-Young. Excerpted by permission.
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