(Read the other chapters here.)
When I caught up with Benny the following week, I told him about seeing the woman and her little foster charge, about the Church’s foster parent orientation, and how once I completed the home study and the criminal background check, I could have a child in as little as two weeks if everything checked out.
“You should have seen that little girl, Benny, soooo cute.”
Benny laughed, “And you said to yourself, ‘I got to git me one of ‘em.’”
He was right. I had spent the last several days getting medical and background clearances and trailing after a home inspector as he checked everything from the temperature of the refrigerator to the fire extinguisher’s charge to whether the carbon monoxide and fire detectors were properly mounted. He even flushed the toilets. So yes, I had done everything required to insure the speedy delivery of my child.
“And Benny, once the inspector handed me the certificate of compliance and I handed him the check for $120, you know what he said?”
“Don’t forget to pay Benny back his $120?”
“No. He smiled and said, ‘You have a lovely home, ma’am. Good luck.’”
“Good luck,” Benny smirked, yawning. “When’s the cherub due?”
“In about two weeks.”
“I asked to be fast-tracked. It’s a lot of running around to get things in order, but she could actually be here in two weeks!”
“You already know it’s a girl; and you didn’t even have to have a messy sonogram. Sweet.”
“It’s the foster parent’s choice. I always wanted a little girl.”
Benny nodded. “Your very own mini me… someone to dress up, show off…”
“Someone to teach. We’ll go to museums, the theatre…mommy and me yoga,” I said, smiling.
“Yep, a special little person you can nurture, love, and, most importantly, help you pay back my $120.”
I scoffed at this. “The fact that the City gives foster parents a stipend for opening up their homes to children in desperate need of a place to live is win-win. –And I’ll pay you back when I get my first check.” My deflection of “black guilt” was interrupted by a knock on the door. I signed for the certified letter, paying no mind to the return address, a law firm.
I opened the letter. Benny studied my face. First blank then the squint then my mouth, a perfect “O.” He would tell me later, I looked like a choir soloist only there was no overly long high note. He watched my body waver ever so slightly, then as I dropped the papers, taking a seat in the armchair practically disappearing into mahogany leather.
Benny picked up the papers from where they landed. The letterhead read Law Offices of Klein, Smithers & Mathers. Benny mumbled the first paragraph out loud then plopped down onto the sofa. I was being sued. The Minnesotans wanted $30,000 to be compensated for, among several things, being forced into servitude and placed in harm’s way. Benny fell onto the sofa. He would stay there for several minutes, his arm thrown across his eyes, rapidly fanning himself with the papers.
Though in shock, I was in no mood to be patted up and pitied by Benny. I placed a call to Taiwo, who in turn placed a call to Kehinde, his twin brother, a lawyer specializing in litigation. Or as Taiwo once described him: “When it comes to the law, Kehinde is low down and dirty. He doesn’t know the meaning of fair play. But this is of no matter to Ken, because he only plays to win.”
Hearing this, I hoped Taiwo was only talking about his brother’s business acumen, and not speaking in general about his brother’s character. But this was of no consequence, because I just needed to win.
“But don’t let that put you off. One of the reasons he’s so good at law is because he spent so much of his youth trying to find ways to break them.”
I nodded. Why take a penknife to a street fight. Kehinde sounded exactly like what I needed to hack away at the Minnesotans – a machete.
When I first set eyes on Kehinde, it was as if a rock had exploded, splitting precisely down its middle. Except one half (Taiwo) landed perfectly on its flat side, content to become part of its new environment as if it had always existed that way. Where the other half (Kehinde), having fallen, continued to skid and skip, only to eventually land hard and rough on its edge. Sure they looked exactly alike. They were after all identical twins, but as he stood there in my living room, clearly this was where the resemblance ended. Where Taiwo was calm, cool, and collected – continental as I always think of him. Kehinde was commanding and calculating, giving off an air of being in on if not the orchestrator of the con.
“Estella? Pretty,” he said at our first meeting.
“Thanks,” I said, watching his eyes do a panorama sweep of the living room, and then as he raised a hand slightly, pointing to the sofa, gesturing for me to take a seat in my own home. I took a seat, picking up the notepad on the coffee table, sure that this arrogant SOB was just what I needed to take care of the Minnesotans.
“Now, Estella,” he began, removing horn rimmed glasses that did little to underplay the fact that he was from the streets. “I’ve looked over the plaintiffs’ papers. Clearly, what we have here has no merits. It’s a nuisance suit plain and simple.”
“The idea of these people thinking they can say you placed them in servitude is just out and out ballsy.”
“Then the other bit about them fearing for their lives,” he laughed, “this is exactly why the court system is so overwrought, with this kind falderal; it’s why so many crooks go free, and believe me I know what I’m talking about.”
“So, how should we proceed?”
“There’s only one course of action when dealing with plaintiffs like these. I suggest you settle.”
I nearly fell off the edge of the sofa. “Say again.”
“Yeah, offer them say, $10K, sure they’re asking thirty, but if we put something on the table fast, then they just might bite in order to be done with it – Oh, and that doesn’t include my fee.”
I was confused and hoped it showed on my face. “If this is a nuisance case, with no merit, then why in the world would I consider paying them?”
“You pay them because if this thing goes forward then right there, not counting any money you might have to pay if they make their case –and you have to assume if a mid-size firm like Klein, Smithers & Mathers has decided to take it that they’re pretty confident they can win –you’ll be paying me at least 10k to present your side. And we’re not talking about how much you’d have to pay if – God, forbid – you lose. That’s why.”
I stood up from the sofa motioning for him to do the same. I then walked over to the door, beckoning with my outstretched forefinger for him to follow. I opened the door, and extended my hand to shake.
Kehinde laughed, shaking my hand, saying as he took steps to the other side of the door, “You may think that I’m trying to shake you down, but I’m not.” He then reached into his pocket to give me several business cards.
I ignored his outstretched arm, saying, “I’m pretty sure I won’t need even one of those.”
Kehinde put his glasses back on, that now with the addition of sunlight appeared to be darker, obscuring his eyes altogether. Turning, he noticed Miss Pauline who appeared to be asleep under her Trident Maple. Then facing me again, he leaned in, softly whispering into my ear, “Most lovely Estella, I don’t mean you any harm. My brother said to take care of you, and that’s what I came to do.” No hint of a smile, he extended his hand again. I took the lavender colored cards.
“How much?” I asked.
“Oh, the cards are free,” he said with a straight face.
“How much for this initial consult?”
“Hmm, I’d say $175, give or take – but for you, Taiwo’s friend, we can probably work something out.”
“Let me take you to dinner, and we’ll call it even.” As he said this, Miss Pauline shifted positions, causing her snoring to become even more pronounced. “Com’on, what do you have to lose?” he said, nodding in Miss Pauline’s direction. “Besides, a little change in scenery might do you some good.”
I fingered the cards, looking over at the woman slouched and snoring in her plastic chair, then back again at the man standing in my doorway, not smiling, but looking like any he second he might.
“Fine, but absolutely no pasta,” I said, closing the door on him, but not before noticing the beginnings of a smile.
to be continued…
Willett Thomas is the president of Write of Passage, Inc. She earned her MA in writing from Johns Hopkins. She has received artist fellowships from Blue Mountain Center and the Millay Colony. She was selected as a Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation fellow for the District of Columbia, and is the recipient of the 2008 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange award for fiction.