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The Broker(6)
Author: John Grisham

Joel Backman had been given a full and unconditional pardon at the eleventh hour!

There were no details of his release. When last heard from, he'd been tucked away in a maximum-security facility in Oklahoma.

In a very nervous city, the day began with the pardon storming onto center stage and competing with a new President and his first full day in office.

The bankrupt law firm of Pratt amp; Boiling now found itself on Massachusetts Avenue, four blocks north of Dupont Circle; not a bad location, but not nearly as classy as the old place on New York Avenue. A few years earlier, when Joel Backman was in charge-it was Backman, Pratt amp;. Boiling then-he had insisted on paying the highest rent in town so he could stand at the vast windows of his vast office on the eighth floor and look down at the White House.

Now the White House was nowhere in sight; there were no power offices with grand vistas; the building had three floors, not eight. And the firm had shrunk from two hundred highly paid lawyers to about thirty struggling ones. The first bankruptcy-commonly referred to within the offices as Backman I-had decimated the firm, but it had also miraculously kept its partners out of prison. Backman II had been caused by three years of vicious infighting and suing among the survivors. The firm's competitors were fond of saying that Pratt amp;. Boiling spent more time suing itself than those it was hired to sue.

Early that morning, though, the competitors were quiet. Joel Backman was a free man. The broker was loose. Would he make a comeback? Was he returning to Washington? Was it all true? Surely not.

Kim Boiling was currently locked away in alcohol rehab, and from there he would be sent straight to a private mental facility for many years. The unbearable strain of the last six years had driven him over the edge, to a point of no return. The task of dealing with the latest nightmare from Joel Backman fell into the rather large lap of Carl Pratt.

It had been Pratt who had uttered the fateful "I do" twenty-two years earlier when Backman had proposed a marriage of their two small firms. It had been Pratt who had labored strenuously for sixteen years to clean up behind Backman as the firm expanded and the fees poured in and all ethical boundaries were blurred beyond recognition. It had been Pratt who'd fought weekly with his partner, but who, over time, had come to enjoy the fruits of their enormous success.

And it had been Carl Pratt who'd come so close to a federal prosecution himself, just before Joel Backman heroically took the fall for everyone. Backman's plea agreement, and the agreement that exculpated the firms other partners, required a fine of $10 million, thus leading directly to the first bankruptcy-Backman I.

But bankruptcy was better than jail, Pratt reminded himself almost daily. He lumbered around his sparse office early that morning, mumbling to himself and trying desperately to believe that the news was simply not true. He stood at his small window and gazed at the gray brick building next door, and asked himself how it could happen. How could a broke, disbarred, disgraced former lawyer/lobbyist convince a lame-duck president to grant a last-minute pardon?

By the time Joel Backman went to prison, he was probably the most famous white-collar criminal in America. Everybody wanted to see him hang from the gallows.

But, Pratt conceded to himself, if anyone in the world could pull off such a miracle, it was Joel Backman.

Pratt worked the phones for a few minutes, tapping into his extensive network of Washington gossipmongers and know-it-alls. An old friend who'd somehow managed to survive in the Executive Department under four presidents-two from each party-finally confirmed the truth.

"Where is he?" Pratt asked urgently, as if Backman might resurrect himself in D.C. at any moment.

"No one knows," came the reply.

Pratt locked his door and fought the urge to open the office bottle of vodka. He had been forty-nine years old when his partner was sent to prison for twenty years with no parole, and he often wondered what he would do when he was sixty-nine and Backman got out.

At that moment, Pratt felt as though he'd been cheated out of fourteen years.

The courtroom had been so crowded that the judge postponed the hearing for two hours until the demand for seating could be organized and somewhat prioritized. Every prominent news organization in the country was screaming for a place to sit or stand. Big shots from Justice, the FBI, the Pentagon, the CIA, the NSA, the White House, and Capitol Hill were pressing for seats, all claiming that their best interests would be served if they could be present to watch the lynching of Joel Backman. When the defendant finally appeared in the tense courtroom, the crowd suddenly froze and the only sound was that of the court reporter prepping his steno machine.

Backman was led to the defense table, where his small army of lawyers packed tightly around him as if bullets were expected from the mob in the gallery. Gunfire would not have been a surprise, though the security rivaled that of a presidential visit. In the first row directly behind the defense table sat Carl Pratt and a dozen or so other partners, or soon-to-be-former partners, of Mr. Backman. They had been searched most aggressively, and for good reason. Though they seethed with hatred for the man, they were also pulling for him. If his plea agreement fell through because of a last-second hitch or disagreement, then they would be fair game again, with nasty trials just around the corner.

At least they were sitting on the front row, out with the spectators, and not at the defense table where the crooks were kept. At least they were alive. Eight days earlier, Jacy Hubbard, one of their trophy partners, had been found dead in Arlington National Cemetery, in a contrived suicide that few people believed. Hubbard had been a former senator from Texas who had given up his seat after twenty-four years for the sole, though unannounced, purpose of offering his significant influence to the highest bidder. Of course Joel Backman would never allow such a big fish to escape his net, so he and the rest of Backman, Pratt 8c Boiling had hired Hubbard for a million bucks a year because good ol' Jacy could get himself into the Oval Office anytime he wanted.

Hubbard his death had worked wonders in helping Joel Backman to see the government's point of view. The logjam that had delayed the plea negotiations was suddenly broken. Not only would Backman accept twenty years, he wanted to do it quickly. He was anxious for protective custody!

The government his lawyer that day was a high-ranking career prosecutor from Justice, and with such a big and prestigious crowd he could not help but grandstand. He simply couldn't use one word when three would suffice; there were too many people out there. He was onstage, a rare moment in a long dull career, when the nation happened to be watching. With a savage blandness he launched into a reading of the indictment, and it was quickly apparent that he possessed almost no talent at theatrics, virtually no flair for drama, though he tried mightily. After eight minutes of stultifying monologue, the judge, peering sleepily over reading glasses, said, "Would you speed it up, sir, and lower your voice at the same time."

There were eighteen counts, alleging crimes ranging from espionage to treason. When they were all read, Joel Backman was so thoroughly vilified that he belonged in the same league with Hitler. His lawyer immediately reminded the court, and everyone else present, that nothing in the indictment had been proven, that it was in fact just a recitation of one side of the case, the government's heavily slanted view of things. He explained that his client would be pleading guilty to only four of the eighteen counts-unauthorized possession of military documents. The judge then read the lengthy plea agreement, and for twenty minutes nothing was said. The artists on the front row sketched the scene with a fury, their images bearing almost no likeness to reality.

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