All In Jest
Things were going too well, it seemed to her. Dr. Norcroft was now established officially as the region’s certified skull base and neurovascular surgeon-in-chief. Only four other neurosurgeons in the state were allowed on the panel. It was ironic because Sybil had been one of the most outspoken opponents of the system of regionalization when it had first been proposed by the American Association of Neurological Surgeons seven years previously. Finally, the members of the AANS had had to admit, however grudgingly, that there were far too many neurosurgeons for the population of the United States. Sybil, herself, had come to recognize that the patient pool, especially for the uncommon skull base tumors and aneurysms, was being so diluted that most neurosurgeons did no more than one case of either kind a year or even in two years.
As a result, she and her colleagues were unable to keep their skills honed to the sharpness that the patients deserved. It had been a compromise. Sybil had had to give up back surgery, her bread-and-butter operations, in exchange. Now, she was busy enough with the more delicate and challenging operations that she did not miss the income from the back operations, nor did she miss the aggravation of caring for the people with their chronic pain, narcotics needs, and workman’s compensation hassles.
Sybil Norcroft was the current secretary of the AANS, and in line to become the association’s president three years down the line. With that position came the prestige of the organization and invaluable connections in the neurosurgery world; she was now part of the “old-boy” network, a fact that gave her and her feminist sisters a sweet source of amusement. The previous month, Dr. Norcroft was elected president of the medical staff at JNMH for the second time, indicative of approbation from her local colleagues as well as on a national level. She had not had a new malpractice suit or even the threat of one in the past year, a fact that made her almost unique among neurosurgeons across the country.
Sybil felt that she had matured into her professional success at this point in her career. This was in positive contradistinction to the mistakes that she had made in overemphasizing that segment of her life earlier on, the mistakes that had caused a weakening of her bonds with her husband, Charles Daniels, and had led to his brief flirtation with a stray relationship. She had developed the wisdom to make certain that she gave him a full measure of her time and attention, and he was responding with a spirit of renewal that bordered on being a prolonged second honeymoon.
The ranch was almost on automatic pilot so far as the need for her to be involved in its day-to-day management. Pancho, Jose, and Marcos, ran the place smoothly and had matured into sophisticated businessmen and horse showmen. They were now earning a profit that was better each year than the one preceding. No longer was the ranch business an effort or burden or even a hobby. It was a deeply satisfying avocation that permitted Sybil to participate with love and pride in the nurturing and development of prize Tennessee Walkers, Paso Finos, and Missouri Foxtrotters without any stress being attached.
Although the ranch had been a gift from Charles Daniels, Sybil had taken great pride in paying him back with a twenty percent return on his investment. The two of them had used the occasion of her presenting the final check to have a major celebration. They had included the Rodriguez, Alvarez, and Hernandez families and all the ranch hands in a blow-out fiesta.
It was on the morning following that great party when Sybil, feeling a trifle hungover, conducted a brief review of her life to date and her current standing and found herself nagged by the recurrent thought that things were going too well. Perhaps it was prescience or just serendipitous anticipation that made her flinch when her secretary brought in the day’s stack of mail. She flipped quickly through the pile of envelopes looking for bad news. As if in self-fulfilling prophecy, the bad news leaped off the print on the second to the last envelope she touched. The return address was Bel Geddes and Loughlin, Attorneys at Law. The last envelope bore the return address of her own attorneys.
The text of the letter from Paul Bel Geddes was:
Re: van der Hoef vs Sybil Norcroft and
Joseph Noble Memorial Hospital
My Dear Sybil,
How the time flies! Here it is deposition time again. The date is November 22, a full two months from the date of this mailing, plenty of time to prepare. See you then.
And, incidentally, I was sorry not to hear from you regarding the family illness that caused the cancellation of the last scheduled deposition. I am sure it was just an oversight. Until the 22nd of next month, I remain,
P. Bel Geddes, Esq.
Carter Tarkington’s letter bore the following day’s date:
Dear Dr. Norcroft:
I regret that you have received or very shortly will receive a communication directly from Paul Bel Geddes in clear violation of the long standing rule that attorneys communicate directly with opposing attorneys and never with clients. Rest assured that I will add this breach to the growing list of complaints against Mr. Bel Geddes, as you have requested.
Without the usual courtesies among attorneys and clients, Mr. Bel Geddes has gone ahead and scheduled another date for a deposition in the van der Hoef vs Norcroft suit. As it turns out, that date is entirely acceptable to Hyrum Willis and me. You most certainly have the right to refuse that date, even to convey the unspoken message to the plaintiff’s attorney that you refuse to be manipulated. I have no good idea whether or not this date is serious or whether we will be exposed to more of Bel Geddes’s capers.
In responding to this announcement, please communicate only with me, and I will convey your message to the plaintiff’s attorney and will do all of the necessary negotiating and scheduling so as to suit your schedule.
The taunting quality of Paul Bel Geddes’s letter infuriated Sybil. She gave Carter’s suggestion of refusing the date for spite several minutes of consideration. However, the fact was that November 22nd was one of the few free days she would have before the end of the year. She had originally planned for that to be her Christmas shopping day, but she had already done most of her shopping, and her secretary could attend to the rest. November 22nd was as good a day as any. She dictated a letter back to Carter:
Dear Mr. Tarkington,
I received your letter and also the communication from Paul Bel Geddes regarding the proposed date of November 22 for the next scheduling of my deposition in the van der Hoef case. Although I, like you, take exception both to the fact of his writing directly to me and the unprofessional manner of over familiarity that he adopted in his communication, the date is not the worst he could have picked. I accept the date, but will have to ask that the formal deposition begin promptly at eight o’clock in the morning on that day. I have several very important appointments that day. I will reschedule them for the afternoon.
On your advice, I am making a strong effort to avoid allowing Mr. Bel Geddes and his antics to provoke me. I believe that I have been successful, so do not concern yourself over much about the state of my psyche. Until the 22nd,
Sybil Norcroft, M.D., PhD, F.A.C.S.
Sybil felt calm about her decision to cooperate with Paul Bel Geddes. She did not feel any inclination to curse him, or to play games of scheduling and continuing the proceedings to still another day seemingly endlessly. She planned to allow Bel Geddes free rein in that game. She had another plan
On the 15th of November, Sybil drove out to her ranch and met with Pancho, Jose, and Marcos in the ranch’s kitchen after first arranging with them by telephone. They were in the kitchen where Carlita and Maria Innocenta were cooking. Carlita was making jalapeño fritatas, frying the hot chilies with Muenster cheese with never a thought for fat or cholesterol, the ingredients that gave the delicacy its unique flavor. Maria Innocenta was making her specialty, Mexican chocolate soup. When Sybil entered the kitchen, Maria was filling the soup pot with the vegetables she had chopped–onions, carrots, celery, zucchini, green peppers, and jalapeños.
“Greetings, Patrona,” said Jose. “I am most pleased to see you. It has been a while, I think.”
“You’re right, Jose. And it has been too long. My excuse is that I have been too busy. “
Carlita passed a platter of fritatas, still sizzling in the frying pan. Maria Innocenta added tequila and cinnamon to her soup and sniffed it professionally.
“You had something of importance to discuss with us, Patrona?” asked Marcos who was uncomfortable with his country’s exasperating preliminaries to every serious discussion.
He was like Sybil. He liked to get down to business and to have the social amenities afterwards. He did pause to take his share of the fritatas.
“I do. I know you men are busy, so I won’t keep you long. I think you all remember that I told you about the attorney, the abogado, who has been making my life difficult, no?”
“The one who was attorney for the Mexican woman…Juarez, I think,” Pancho said.
“That is the one, Pancho.”
Maria Innocenta caught Sybil’s eye.
“Taste this, Patrona, you theenk eet needs mas sal o pimienta?”
She ladled in the final ingredients, cilantro and cocoa.
Sybil tried a spoonful and sighed. She was hungry, and the smells of the specialties of the house were intoxicating.
“Perfect. Just let it simmer a few minutes,” she said.
Maria smiled broadly.
“And I take it that that same mal hombre is still doing bad things to you,” Jose pushed on in the conversation, not so much as a question as a verification of what they all presumed.
“It is true. All too true.”
“I once told you that I would be happy to assist you in the matter of thees serpiente. I believe I speak for Jose and Marcos when I make the offer again. Is there anything you would have us do?”
Pancho spoke, and all three Mexican men nodded their affirmation.
“I thank you for asking. The time has come when you could do me a service. It would involve doing something illegal. No one has to do this, but it would be important for me.”
“It would be important for us as well, Patrona,” Pancho said in all earnestness.
The other two men nodded in accord.
“Thank you, amigos. I will not forget,” Sybil responded.
She then laid out her plan including the reasons and expected results.
The men were all smiles when she finished. They all then sat down at the round hacienda kitchen table and shared the chocolate soup and the business of the ranch without again discussing the Sybil’s plans.
The deposition was to be on the 22nd at eight in the morning. The night of the 21st-22nd was densely black, and visibility was further reduced by a drizzling rain. There were only scattered travelers on the main arterial thoroughfares at two in the morning on the 22nd, and no traffic at all on the quiet streets near the law offices of Bel Geddes and Loughlin. There was no one about to see three men in dark ponchos open the front door of the building with its flamboyant facade. Even if someone had noticed, the interest would have been only cursory since the door was obviously being opened with a proper key.
Pancho, Jose, and Marcos stood on the rug in the large entry foyer until they were no longer dripping on the floor.
“Eighth floor, says the Patrona,” whispered Pancho.
“Si,” answered Jose who was running his gloved fingers down the list of offices posted in the lobby. “Let’s get eet done.”
The men took the elevator to the eighth floor and stepped quietly into the well-lit hallway leading to the suite of offices occupied by Paul Bel Geddes and his partner Martin Loughlin. They stood stock still listening for sounds of cleaning women or security guards. When they were sure they were completely alone, they walked briskly to the ornately inscribed front doors–used the key Dr. Norcroft had provided them–and stepped inside. They moved into the main office corridor where the light was more subdued. Pancho pointed down the hall, and the three men crept silently along the plush carpet to the office marked, Paul Bel Geddes, Attorney at Law, Director.
They paused briefly one more time to detect any noise, checked the doors for any visible alarm system, then used their key and slipped into the darkened office. They turned on their flashlights and scanned the room. The outer office, obviously Bel Geddes’s personal receptionist and secretaries, was scrupulously neat, ready for the action of the upcoming day. Pancho motioned the two other men to follow him. They walked through the door marked, Private, and hurriedly looked around. As Dr. Norcroft had suggested, a large leather brief case stood on the top of the huge desktop that was covered with papers in a welter of disarray.
“Get the files out of the case, Marcos, I’ll get the other file from the cabinet. Jose, watch the door and leesten for guards.”
Pancho turned towards the filing cabinet, adjusting the fit of his rubber gloves. He looked at his compatriots to see if they had remembered to wear latex as well. They had.
“Thee notes, too, Pancho?”
Marcos removed the contents of the case and laid them on the desktop. Pancho found a file at random, under F, and removed it. He brought it to the desk, switched the papers in it for the papers in the file from the briefcase, and placed the mismarked files into wrong places. The file labeled Ferranzo vs. Webster Corp., but containing the documents for the van der Hoef case, he placed at random in the filing cabinet, this time in the C’s. The file labeled van der Hoef vs JNMH & Norcroft but containing the documents for the Ferranzo case, he placed back in the briefcase. He took pains to be sure that the meticulously handwritten notes on yellow legal paper that contained the attorney’s questioning sequence for the deposition were switched as well. He had memorized the exact position of the brief case on the desktop and replaced it with care. He and the others scanned the room for any telltale evidence that they had been there, and finding none, slipped quickly out of the offices, down the elevator, across the lobby, and through the main doors, and into the dark wet street. They were back home at the ranch by three-thirty in the morning.
“Déjà vu,” muttered Hyrum Willis as he, Carter Tarkington, and Sybil Norcroft stood waiting for the elevator in Bel Geddes’s building shortly before the eight am starting time.
“Act III, scene iii,” replied Sybil. “Doesn’t it fill you with wonder to contemplate what Paul will come up with today?”
“I’ll lay you seven to three that we have another continuance.”
“No takers,” said Carter. “The continuance is a given. I am just waiting to see what ingenious excuse he comes up with today.”
“So you can send in another complaint to the court and to the bar?” Sybil said to Carter, giving him a little verbal jab since they both knew how much effect the last complaint had produced.
“Makes my day,” sighed Carter.
The elevator opened, and they stepped in.
“Eight, please,” Carter asked a balding man in a three piece suit who was standing nearest the row of floor indicator buttons.
The trio announced themselves to the receptionist and were escorted into the now all too familiar conference room. Ten minutes later the court reporter appeared. They waited thirty-five minutes for the plaintiff’s attorney to appear.
“Hi, all,” came Bel Geddes’s jaunty greeting as he burst into the room in a typical grand entrance.
“Paul,” Carter nodded.
Evidently, he spoke for them all because no one else responded to the cheery salutation from Bel Geddes. The plaintiff’s trial attorney did not appear to notice or chose not to consider the lack of response as a snub. When he extended his hand to the attorneys and to the court reporter, they responded with insipid clasps. Sybil sat on her hands when Paul stood in front of her with his arm outstretched. After a brief incommodious moment, he shrugged and took his seat directly across from her.
“Everyone here?” he asked unnecessarily.
“So far as I know,” answered Carter. “Unless you have someone else coming.”
“No, I’m all here,” laughed Bel Geddes.
The opposing attorneys politely responded with wan smiles. Sybil remained expressionless.
“I have a treat today…warm bagels…whipped garlic cream cheese…capers…lox.”
He looked as expectantly as a cat presenting a mouse to its master with the mention of each new delectable. His audience was luke warm. Paul laughed out loud for some inexplicable reason. He was in an indestructibly good mood that day, probably because of the destruction he had planned for the arrogant doctor and her overconfident attorneys.
“Fine, Paul. I hope we won’t have to wait. We are busy, as we know you are. We want to get on with the deposition. There have been several continuances already, and it is time to get this done and to get on to other steps in the discovery phase.”
Carter’s voice was brusque.
“No delays today, Carter, old friend. I intend to decimate your client fully today and to talk settlement before the close of business. I think you will be amenable to my suggestions after you’ve seen what I have in store for her.”
He looked pointedly, and malevolently at Sybil. She returned his gaze with a calm, almost disinterested look. Paul knew better than to try and stare the famous feminist down. She was a soulless expert. He returned his attention to Carter.
“But first, the amenities.”
He pressed a buzzer near his place at the conference table.
A secretary marched through the doors almost immediately. She had to have been waiting right outside. She carried in a huge platter of steaming bagels with all the trimmings. Sybil noted that this woman was new, just as buxom and underdressed as the earlier model, but new. She had a bubbly voice that did not bespeak great typing ability. She looked darkly exotic, foreign, but Sybil could not place her origins.
“Here we are, Paul. Hot off the griddle.”
“Thank you, dear. I’ll give you a buzz if I want anything else.”
Paul pushed a paper plate loaded with assorted flavors of bagels and generous dollops of cream cheese, capers, and lox to everyone in the room. Sybil moved hers to the middle of the table without sampling a bite. There was a pause while Paul finished off three of the more exotically composed confections followed by a small satisfied burp.
“Excu-uuse me!” he apologized, dabbing his lips with a shiny monogrammed linen handkerchief.
The defendant’s attorneys and the court reporter each took a small courteous bite of one of the bagels sitting before them, sharing glances that said they were not about to get seduced into being Paul Bel Geddes’s dupe again, no matter what he had planned.
“All right, now. Let’s begin,” Paul announced, with his hunger temporarily sated.
He took Sybil through the now familiar introductions, explained in annoying detail the process of the deposition, asked about her curriculum vitae, even asked her current occupation, as if he had never seen her before, and explained her rights. He was elaborately polite, sometimes courtly; and Sybil, in kind, maintained civility throughout the preliminaries.
“Now, that behind us, we can get down to the nitty gritty, if you’ll pardon my informality,” Paul announced airily, but with a hint of menace.
He opened his large leather briefcase and extracted the file folder marked van der Hoef vs. JNMH & Norcroft. The letters were bold enough for Sybil to be able to read them upside down.
“I am sure other attorneys like to do this off the cuff, so’s to speak, but I am a stickler for details and order. I have to rely on my notes, so we get just the right questions in just the right order.”
He gave a quick, insincere apologetic smile. Once again, Sybil had the distinct impression that the attorney was toying with her, displaying small hints of the personal vendetta that existed between the two of them over and above the professional adversarial relationship that was the core purpose of their present dialogue. Paul took a moment to put on half glasses, then he began to thumb through the yellow legal sheets. A cloud passed over his face. He took out the bound copies of medical chart history. A few glances at the documentary materials caused him to abandon the facade of hale-fellow-well-met. He murmured a curse under his breath.
“Excuse me,” he said. “A small problem.”
He pushed the secretary button. In a second, he pushed it again. In a third second, he pushed down on the button and kept his finger there. The new secretary rushed into the room, wiping something from her mouth.
“Yes, Paul?” she asked.
“Mr. Bel Geddes. And would you come here? I need to say something to you in private.”
She walked over to him, bent her ear down; so, he could whisper. The others could hear the rustle of sound coming from Bel Geddes, something like hearing the ocean from a conch shell. The secretary blanched and stepped back, as if he had hit her. She did an agile about face and hurried out of the room.
She was gone five minutes. No one spoke. It seemed the usual Bel Geddes scenario–the initial trappings of a standard deposition with all participants settling into a familiar process and preparing for the thrust and parry of the anticipated questions and answers, then the outlandish shenanigan. She was gone ten minutes, then ten minutes more. Bel Geddes’s face was at first bland, then taciturn, then began to grow pinker. He was struggling to keep emotion out of his expression; but as the time passed by at a glacial pace, he demonstrated, by degrees, a morose, then wrathful, then ill concealed rage in his countenance. His face grew dark, his eyes narrowed, and his lips thinned into a flat hard line.
The intercom carried the voice of the secretary.
“Please come to your office, Mr. Bel Geddes. We have a situation you will need to deal with.”
Bel Geddes arose and left without excusing himself. Carter Tarkington, Hyrum Willis, Sybil Norcroft, and the court reporter were left without explanation in their places. They shared questioning looks.
“Now, what?” growled Hyrum. “What’s your best guess about what the excuse will be this time?”
Carter shook his head. His face was set in what looked like a permanent frown. Sybil looked as if she had seen it all before and was not all that surprised. The only indication of her displeasure was a slight clenching of her jaws.
The court reporter spoke after a few minutes.
“I was warned about this. I am going to wait five more minutes then I am going to march right out there and demand my money, and I am going to file a protest with the bar.”
Her face was flushed. She was young and inexperienced and had obviously drawn the short straw when the day’s work was being divvied out by the members of her group. Sybil noted with slight amusement that she never saw the same court reporter twice in Paul Bel Geddes’s depositions.
The threatened five minutes passed. The court reporter made an elaborate display of checking and rechecking her watch. She looked from one of the remaining people in the room to the other for some sort of signal. Finally, with a flourish, she gathered up her machine and materials and marched defiantly for the door.
“Does this seem vaguely familiar?” asked Hyrum, more rhetorically than for any concrete purpose.
On her way out of the conference room doors, the court reporter encountered Bel Geddes on his way back in.
“Mr. Bel Geddes, I’m leaving. I will thank you to have your staff prepare a check. Our minimum is $300 for cancellations with inadequate warning. I have waited more than the maximum time required.”
Bel Geddes surprised everyone with the benignity of his reply.
“No problem, dear. You’re right. We find that we must cancel. You will have your check by mail this afternoon.”
“I’m sorry, Sir, that won’t do. I need to take a check with me now.”
“No trust for an eminent officer of the court? Don’t think I’m good for it, dear?”
“I am no one’s dear. My name is Ingrid Housfeld. You may make the check out to me or to the Court Reporter’s Bureau, whichever you wish.”
“I will send a check to your office this very morning by courier. Will that satisfy you? You can see that I have to deal with other matters for the moment.”
Sybil silently gave a hearty “bravo” for the plucky girl. She was standing her ground, and that brightened Sybil’s day.
“Then, for heaven’s sake, take a seat in the waiting room. I’ll have my secretary…my new secretary, deal with you when I’ve finished here.”
He and the court reporter had a short staring down contest that he won. She trotted out to the waiting room, still determined not to relent.
“I have a terrible confession to make,” said Paul to the defendant and her attorneys.
He was forcing an unconcerned smile.
“What is it this time, Paul?” Carter Tarkington asked snappishly.
“Ah, Carter, try for some of that Christian charity for which you are so renowned,” Paul replied.
Carter emitted a small groan.
“My imbecile of a secretary has completely destroyed my filing system. Nobody can locate the van der Hoef file or my notes. I can’t go on without them.”
“What was that file I saw come out of your brief case? If I am not mistaken, it was entitled van der Hoef vs. JNMH & Norcroft, was it not?”
“Yes…mistakenly. Somehow, my newest attempt to assist the unemployment among the ethnics has proved to be my undoing. She seems to have managed to misfile several key cases. I can’t find anything pertinent to this case.”
“How about running off your records from your computer?”
“I could do that, but it would take two or three hours before I could sort it all out. My notes are another thing altogether. They are my work product in my handwriting and are irreplaceable and there are no computer copies available.”
“I am not going to sit around here on my dime while this man plays another of his endless games with us, Carter,” said Sybil with calm aridity.
It was the first time she had spoken since Bel Geddes had left off his preliminary questioning of her.
Carter gave her a resigned nod. He made one more unenthusiastic effort.
“You are perfectly welcome to use our copy of the medical chart. Surely you can get your questions asked and answered by referring to that copy as well as to yours. They are identical.”
“I must have my own work product to be able to go on. This is a case of great subtleties, and I have prepared to counter any evasiveness on the defendant’s part with adroit and well prepared queries. You would require no less. I am unable to go on. Write another of your famous letters to the court and to the bar for all the good it will do you. This deposition is at an end. Good day. Until next time…”
He gave a dismissive back hand wave and walked out.
Hyrum rolled his eyes back in his head.
He said, “Doesn’t it bug you that this state lets this sort of crap go on year in and year out? This guy and half a dozen like him give the whole profession a bad name. We mitch and bone about doctors for not policing their own, isn’t that the height of hypocrisy?”
He was not expecting an answer, just ventilating.
“Sorry, Dr. Norcroft…again,” Carter said, his voice heavy and angry.
“Is there anything you can do to prevent this happening another time?” Sybil asked. “I mean, something that matters, something with teeth. This is ridiculous. It is a calculated insult to every one of us. To say nothing of his total disregard for the system, for all those formal rules that we are supposed to abide by that govern how we deal with disputes in our supposed civil society.”
Her face looked angry. She felt quite calm and unruffled, however. She did not think it would do to allow Carter and Hyrum to see her momentary inner placidity in that angry situation. She had no desire to invite questions.
“As a matter of fact, I think there is something I can do. I want you to write a formal protest. Hyrum and I will do the same. I think I can easily convince a court reporter or two, or three, to join the campaign as well. Then, I will make a formal request that the arbitration hearing judge be present at the next deposition, so we can terminate the nonsense and get onto the substance of the deposition. Maybe, eventually, we can get beyond this step and on to other depositions and inquiries.”
“Umm- hmm,” mused Sybil doubtfully.
“Don’t become entirely cynical about the process, Dr. Norcroft. It is still the best one in the world, despite the Paul Bel Geddeses in it. I am confident that I can get the judge to attend. He gets a fee, after all. I will do everything in my power to see to it that Bel Geddes pays for that fee. That ought to frost his nubbins a little.”