The Last Billable Hour Excerpt


The Near Miss

Howard was an unlikely hunter. He thought animals belonged in woods and fairy tales, or else roasted and accompanied by a good wine. He was unprepared for the suggestion that they served another purpose.

“Candy said this was a good time to talk to you about the generation-skipping trust?” he said, standing in Leo’s doorway.

“Marty! How’s it goin’?” Leo said into his phone, gesturing to Howard to close the door. Howard had been waiting more than a week for this audience, and he shut Leo’s door with determination. Leo never even pretended to concentrate on anything Howard said for more than five minutes. Also, Howard lacked the status to get Leo to hold his calls. The five minutes could be spread over an hour, while Leo talked into first one phone and then another and then two at once, winking conspiratorially in Howard’s direction as the only acknowledgment that Howard was there. To contend with this, Howard had so perfected his own concentration that he could be interrupted in midsentence and continue smoothly fifteen minutes later as the receiver left Leo’s ear.

Today the calls were surprisingly sparse. After only ten minutes Howard had asked nearly all his questions. Then Leo looked up wistfully from the draft document and said, “How can I concentrate on this when yesterday I was with the President?”

“It must be difficult,” Howard agreed, glancing at his outline and wondering vaguely which president of what. “What were you and the president working on?” Leo’s dark-framed glasses were on the desk. Without them, his pale blue eyes seemed to recede into puffy skin.

“He was dedicating the new space shuttle! Don’t you read the Chronicle?”

“Oh, you mean the President. As in United States.” He did dimly recall a picture in the morning paper of the President standing in front of an airplane.

“That’s the man. A few of us got together with him for a little barbecue afterward at the base commander’s. The Reagans were there. Sally Ride. I sat with Senator Glenn. I guess John’s quite a fisherman, I told him to use the island for a few days this summer.”

His eyes focused on the invisible distance for a moment, then refocused benevolently on Howard. “You’ve never been to the island, have you, Howard? I’d like to have you join me up there this summer.”

Not very likely, Howard thought sourly. Leo owned an island called Montgomery Island off the coast of British Columbia, and periodically took the boys there to go deep sea fishing. “The boys” were generally partners and presidents of companies, not first-year associates.

“Hey, in the meantime, let’s go hunting this weekend! Harry Vinelle’s got a buncha guys flying down to his ranch, and I think it would do you good. Just regular guys: Harry, Jack Lincoln, me, anybody else I want to bring.” He grinned. “You know, Harry and Jack have some money to put into generation-skipping trusts.”

Howard was unable to form a single thought, much less an excuse. Leo was beaming as he handed back the forgotten trust agreement, deeply touched by his own generosity. “Besides, we can get to know each other better.”

Just what he needed, for Leo to know him better, he thought as he sat in his kitchen at 3 a.m. eating Hostess cupcakes. After all, Leo might still harbor the illusion that they had something in common.

And where was he supposed to get time to chase . . . what did they chase? Ducks? Seemed like the wrong season. Probably not rabbits, not macho enough. Deer? Something vicious that would hunt you back. Wolverines, maybe, with those droolly, pointed teeth. Wild pigs. For Leo’s sake he hoped it wasn’t pigs. Somebody might get phonetic and shoot the wrong boor.

Maybe he wouldn’t have to go. Maybe Leo had forgotten all about asking him by now. You couldn’t count on that. Maybe Howard could get sick. He licked the cream from the center of his last cupcake and relaxed into the fantasy of being sick and not going.

He should go. He couldn’t afford to hide out in his cottage listening to Puccini when he could be trading anecdotes over a campfire with Jack Lincoln. But Jack Lincoln was scary, nearly as scary as some bristly hog who just wanted to root and slobber in peace. And how would he finish the motions in limine, the Casselman estate plan, answer the KashPro interrogatories? Lying in the dark, imagining himself in jodhpurs clutching an elephant gun, Howard actually whimpered.

He got sick. To make it look authentic, he complained of a headache on Thursday and called in sick on Friday, summoning a messenger to his house with files.

That weekend he stayed inside for fear of being seen. He worked. He ate. He worried.

He worried that he had squandered an opportunity to dance with the clients. His job was slipping away from him, he was a technocrat, a detail man. He belonged in some bureaucrat’s job, buried deep in the bowels of some giant organization where he couldn’t do any harm, and all he had to do was dance with the Xerox machine. He was starting to envy Mary Belle. Her job might be boring, but she was always equal to it.

The phone rang. As if summoned by his thoughts, Mary Belle said, “I hope you’re faking, ’cause we got problems. Bonifacio shot Leo.”

“What is this, a bed check?”

“No joke, Howie. Peter fell into a ravine at the Vinelle ranch and his gun went off accidentally.”

“Holy shit. Is he . . . ?”

“Not dead. We don’t know how bad he is yet. But you’re the only guy left who can get the Roy Albrecht papers together by tomorrow at eight-thirty. I’ll meet you at the office in half an hour.”

When he got to the office, Mary Belle reported that the bullet had just grazed Leo’s ear. “Peter cracked his head pretty good, they’re both laid up with the shit scared out of them. You know, if people keep taking little bitty pieces out of Leo, pretty soon there won’t be enough left to make it to court. I hope you’ve got five gears on that pen of yours.”

It was almost, Howard reflected as he settled in with the Albrecht papers, as if Peter had thought up the boor joke and found it too good to resist.