The Executioner


I never imagined that in my first year as a lawyer I would be involved not once but twice in an execution. That certainly wasn’t a career goal when, newly out of law school, I had been hired by Wheelwright and Daley, then considered to be Boston’s preeminent law firm. But until I received official notice that I had passed the bar exam—and was licensed, therefore, to practice law in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts—I served in the interim period as a kind of general assistant to Franklin P. Howell, who was head of the firm’s trusts and estates department.


One of my assignments from Mr. Howell—who was called that by everyone except the firm’s other partners—was to track down people who had been named as beneficiaries in various wills but who, for a number of reasons, could not be found. I thought of my little bailiwick as something like the dead letter office of the postal service, where clerks labored away at getting undeliverable mail into the hands of its recipients no matter how long it took, no matter if those recipients were dead or alive.


Similarly, in a time before computers and search engines were commonplace, I wended my circuitous way through marriage records and real estate transactions and old newspaper clippings trying to find the heirs of those clients who had neglected to update their will documents to reflect marriages, divorces, remarriages and numerous changes of address.


I managed somehow, after false starts and clues that led nowhere, to match up bequests with the people for whom they were intended, which led, I’m sure, to outcomes that were mostly quite happy. I have always wondered, though, what the reaction was of the young man, a college sophomore, who woke up one day to find that the great uncle he barely knew had bequeathed to him a massive pipe organ in an advanced state of disrepair.


The whole time, alas, I chafed, quite frankly (but quietly), at a task that was of lesser importance than the work being done by the firm’s young associates who were only a year older than me but had already been admitted to the bar. That was hardly the opinion of Mr. Howell. To him, anything that affected in any way one of his clients was of world-shaking importance and my job, therefore, was as important in his eyes as that of any attorney who might be preparing to argue a precedent setting case before the U. S. Supreme Court.


Mr. Howell had also taken on the job of inculcating into the firm’s new hires the standards of decorum and professional behavior expected of attorneys who were employed at Wheelwright and Daley. He did this with a fervor that seemed to carry over from his major outside interest, which was tennis.


He had been a ranked player when young and later was instrumental in helping to establish a tennis training center for inner city youth, where he served as a coach and overall guiding light. His work with these young people was commendable, but in talking to the firm’s young associates about the proud traditions they must uphold at Wheelwright and Daley, he couldn’t stop himself from sounding as if he were urging young tennis players to put more power into their backhand strokes.


"Remember, clients come to Wheelwright and Daley because they’re looking for a firm that can provide them with A plus work," he liked to say. "Now having earned that reputation, which is well deserved, by the way, we have an obligation, a sacred one, in my view, to maintain it. And that means, every one of us here, from the boys in the mail room to senior partners, must be at the top of our game, not just now and then, but every hour of every day."


Those little pep talks from Mr. Howell notwithstanding, I yearned for a time when I would finally get to do some real lawyering. My frustration was similar to that of my office mate at the time, Martin X. Cameron, who was also new to Wheelwright and Daley, although he had been an attorney for many years. (At Wheelwright and Daley, office space was considered too precious to be wasted on new, untested employees.)


In introducing himself to me, Cameron, with a wry smile on his face, said that he was engaged in research. The twist he put on the word, research, signaled that it was a euphemism, but then to make doubly sure I didn’t mistakenly think of him as engaged in some scholarly pursuit he switched, in his words, to plain English.


"My job here is quite simple," he said. "They want me to root out information, some of it quite personal, about individuals who are in the process of bringing legal action against some of this firm’s clients. It’s all above board, of course, but nobody likes to go into battle unarmed."


Cameron was particularly suited for this very specialized task. He had been an assistant district attorney for more than two decades and his several years as the lead prosecutor of white-collar crime helped him to make friends with scores of people in courthouses and state agencies who were in charge of compiling and protecting public records.


Because I couldn’t help but overhear his phone calls, it struck me that Cameron was on a first name basis with half the state’s bureaucracy, or at least the half who could provide him with morsels of information that might be helpful to Wheelwright and Daley attorneys conducting dispositions and gathering evidence to use if and when these various lawsuits went to trial.


He also seemed to have a direct pipeline into the gossip that circulated among political figures in Boston and the cronies and aides in their orbit. Perhaps this was simply a hobby with Cameron, but I sensed that the items he picked up from his political friends were also of interest to attorneys at Wheelwright and Daley.


I’ve always thought of Cameron as a matinee idol who had reached a point in his career where he could no longer be cast as the young lover. There was this small piece of wrinkled flesh that hung down between his jawbone and his Adam’s apple and his hair, combed straight back and with a slight wave in it, was more than halfway to turning grey, but, with his dark, deep set eyes, and his startlingly white teeth, he was still quite handsome. When I met him, he was twice my age, but he was still supple enough to be a fierce and unrelenting competitor in the games of squash that we played two or three times each week at the YMCA.


Cameron hadn’t gone into much detail about his background when I first met him, but eventually, during our walks to and from the Y, and when we stopped at a nearby cafeteria for a quick lunch, he revealed the circumstances that had brought him to Wheelwright and Daley. He professed to have loved his work in the district attorney’s office, but as he approached his fiftieth birthday, he told me, he began to feel stale and worn out.


He was tired, too, he said, of being taken for granted by district attorneys who counted on prosecutors like him to help them get elected to higher office. Cameron was also just then going through a divorce that was, as he put it, anything but amicable.


"I turned fifty the day a new DA was elected," he said, "and since it’s always a pain for people like me to break the new guys in, I decided to give myself a birthday present, which was to resign from the DA’s office."


Cameron held his head in his hands and shook it back and forth, as if he was in considerable pain, when he talked of the enormous mistake he had made in joining a law firm that had been started by two former colleagues. His two partners, he soon discovered, didn’t like each other, and within a year, they became enmeshed in a bitter feud over who should receive the largest share of a large personal injury suit they had won. By the time that dispute was settled, which involved one attorney suing the other, as well as threats of violence from both sides, three years had passed, and the firm had essentially destroyed itself.


Fortunately for Cameron, two old friends from law school, who were partners at Wheelwright and Daley, offered him a chance to join their firm. Yes, Cameron considered the job they arranged for him as somewhat of a comedown, but he spoke with confidence of being moved, quite soon, he seemed to think, into a position that was more suited to an attorney with his years of courtroom experience.


I never knew whether Cameron had been misled about the possibility of his eventual promotion, or if he simply didn’t have any understanding of the mysterious inner workings of Wheelwright and Daley. But it turned out that he was, in effect, on probation. He had no inkling, either, nor did I, that I would end up playing a pivotal role in determining his future.


But one day, when Cameron was at lunch, there was a quick knock on my office door, and almost simultaneously Mr. Howell entered my office. Then, with a quick hello, he announced the purpose of his visit. He wanted to have a talk with me, he said, one that would be, "off the record."


I confess that I was a bit flustered since it wasn’t an everyday occurrence for one of the firm’s senior partners to visit my office, but now facing me, with his arms crossed and his legs stretched out before him—and with his rear end resting against the edge of Cameron’s desk—was the formidable Mr. Howell.


I say formidable because while bad knees had curtailed Mr. Howell’s tennis playing and caused him to put on some weight, he had a way of squaring his shoulders and pulling in his gut that made him seem rugged rather than overweight and left you feeling, even if you were his height, that he towered over you. He was also important enough to get away with looking as if he didn’t waste too much of his valuable time fussing over his appearance. He would start the day with his sandy colored hair neatly combed, but he had this unruly forelock that often broke loose and dangled across his forehead, and his attempts to flip it back into place usually left him looking a bit disheveled. Likewise, he tied his bow tie so loosely that I used to bet with myself on whether this would be the day his tie, on its own accord, would become undone.


"I’m going to be blunt with you," he said, taking a quick look at his watch. "I want you to keep me apprised of Cameron’s performance and his work habits overall. Entre nous, you understand, extremely entre nous."


Though caught off guard by Mr. Howell’s visit, I was about to ask him why he had chosen me for this assignment when he volunteered some additional information.


"Some younger fellows here had a few run-ins with Cameron when he was in the DA’s office, and according to them, he wasn’t very fussy about the quality of evidence he used in trying to get convictions. He didn’t seem to care, either, if some of his biggest cases were overturned on appeal. In short, he’s one of those prosecutors who’ll cut corners so long as he can grab a quick headline. That’s not the sort of person we want at Wheelwright and Daley so I expressed my strong opposition to his joining our firm. Some office politics and an old feud, neither of which I’ll get into just now, entered into the picture and I was overruled, but I did come away with one concession. One false step by Cameron and—"


Rather than complete the sentence, Mr. Howell aimed a quite vigorous karate chop against the side of his neck with the edge of his hand and made a guttural sound that indicated quite clearly what the consequences for Cameron would be if he made a misstep.


"Keep me informed," he said, when leaving my office as abruptly as he had entered it.


I was a bit uneasy about my new role as Cameron’s secret overseer, but it didn’t affect my relationship with him in any way. We continued playing squash at the Y, joked about Boston’s overpaid, overrated professional athletes and waited, each in our own way, for the day when we would move on to more important and challenging work.


Two weeks later, when Mr. Howell again dropped in on me, I found it easy to inform him that Cameron was always punctual and always well groomed. I went on to say that while I wasn’t in a position to say how useful he was to Wheelwright and Daley, I was impressed with the way he could be both jovial and glib but yet exude a sense of command and authority.


I also mentioned in an offhand, somewhat humorous way, that I hoped Cameron might soon be given an office of his own because I couldn’t stand the overpowering odor of the aftershave lotion and/or cologne he doused himself with each morning.


"He’s not slacking off in any way, is he?" Mr. Howell asked. "That’s my fear, that a fellow like him, with his years of experience, might decide that he can coast through the day."


Oh no, I said, everything I saw indicated that Cameron approached his work with diligence and enthusiasm. That part about Cameron’s enthusiasm may have been a slight exaggeration, but I didn’t think it more serious than neglecting to report that Cameron the week before had been out for two days with a bad cold but seemed, strangely enough, to have recovered from it almost overnight. I didn’t mention, either, that the previous day he had left the office before noon because he claimed to be suffering from a migraine headache.


I noticed, too, that Cameron seemed to spend half the day looking for files he had misplaced and I heard him a number of times apologizing to people he had called because he had forgotten that he had spoken to them about the same matter just the day before. But I didn’t feel that was much of a problem since I assumed—remember, I was only 25 years old—that it was natural for people Cameron’s age to be a bit absent minded.


I couldn’t very well ignore, however, that at Christmas time Cameron came in quite late, almost at noon, three days in a row. Explaining, after the third day, the reason for his tardiness, he chuckled when he told me that he had a new neighbor across the hall from him in his apartment house, a widow a few years younger than he was.


"Of all the apartment houses in all the towns in all the world, she had to rent a place in mine," he said, in a pitch perfect imitation of Humphrey Bogart’s lament about the sudden appearance of his old flame, Ilsa, in Casablanca.


Cameron’s mimicking of Bogart didn’t hold up as well when he went on to explain that his neighbor’s husband had died young of a heart attack and that he, out of sympathy, had no choice but to console her.


"I’m doing my best, particularly during the holiday season, to brighten her spirits," he said, "but now I’m beginning to think that my new friend may have been responsible for putting her husband in his grave. Jesus, what a firecracker!"


The day after that Cameron didn’t come in at all, and the day after that, though he came in early, he left at noon time, claiming that he had a doctor’s appointment. That’s the day I also noticed that he had acne-like splotches on his forehead and that his hands seemed to have developed a tremor. Now, too, his cologne and aftershave lotion blended in with the telltale smell of breath fresheners.


I knew that I could no longer put off telling Mr. Howell of my concern about Cameron, but that week, between Christmas and New Year’s Day, Mr. Howell was in Florida visiting with his grandchildren. By then there was no mistaking the change in Cameron. His face was puffed up and had taken on the hue of a ripe tomato and he sounded, when he cleared phlegm from his throat, as if he was on the verge of retching.


On Friday morning of that week, when Cameron stumbled and just barely stopped himself from falling by grabbing onto the edge of his desk—and the cologne and aftershave and breath fresheners did little to conceal the odor of gin—I suggested that it might be best if he took the rest of the day off.


He seemed to agree, but before he left, he took a moment to shake my hand and thank me. The handshake lasted longer than I expected, and while holding onto my hand quite tightly, he said he wanted to give me a few words of advice.


"Hey, someday you’re going to be a great lawyer," he said, sounding as if he had marbles in his mouth, "but first you’re going to have to toughen up. Once you learn to put this firm and its clients before anything else in your life, and to screw anyone who gets in your way—in other words, once you become a prick like everyone else around here—then, and only then, will they allow you into their sacred fucking partnership."


Because of the New Year holiday, our offices didn’t open again until Tuesday morning, and when I got there, I saw that Cameron was already at his desk and appeared, from the curt good morning he gave me, to be fully absorbed in his work. No doubt he was trying to catch up on matters that he had neglected the week before. Neither one of us had spoken to each other when, at 10:30, I received a call from Mr. Howell. He wanted to see me immediately.


When I got to his office, Mr. Howell was reading some papers on his desk, but once I was standing in front of him—almost but not quite at attention—he looked up and greeted me with a question to which he already seemed to know the answer.


"Didn’t I ask you to keep me apprised of how Cameron was doing?" he said. "It saddens me that you haven’t. But because you’re young—and because we think you show promise—I’m going to give you a chance to redeem yourself. One word answer, yes or no, is Cameron drinking?"


It was foolhardy of me, but I hesitated a moment before telling Mr. Howell that I couldn’t say for sure if Cameron was drinking. I had never seen him drink when I was with him, I said, but I did notice this past week that he seemed to be somewhat under the weather. I was about to say something about the migraine headaches Cameron had complained about and the bad cold he had had, but before I could continue, Mr. Howell cut me off.


"Please, I asked for a one word answer. Suppose you were in court and the judge made such a demand of you, how would you react? I trust that you would comply rather than try to find a way out. So, once again, yes or no?"


Having hesitated once at swinging the executioner’s axe, I tried now to take a more decisive swipe, but even then the yes I uttered was a halfhearted and meek capitulation to Mr. Howell. It mattered not to him that my reply was less than robust. I had said the word he wanted to hear and that was quite enough for him to rise up immediately from his desk and head towards the door of his office. Walking past me, he said, "Wait here. This isn’t going to take me very long."


Less than five minutes later, Mr. Howell returned, and with unmistakable satisfaction in his voice he said, "Well, that’s over and done with. It was unpleasant, but necessary. It’s my hope that you now have a better understanding of what I mean when I say that at Wheelwright and Daley we don’t do things half way."


And here, once again, but this time with a little laugh, he struck the side of his throat with the edge of his hand and made that awful guttural sound.


A moment later, he added, "By the way, I had a good idea of what was going on with Cameron, but since I asked you to keep an eye on him, I wanted you to confirm what I had picked up from some other people."


"I had hoped it was a passing thing with him," I said, "maybe just a lapse during the holiday season."


"You weren’t doing him any favors," he said, "and you were taking an awful risk because you came close to endangering your own position. And now, I hope a few people around here will realize I was right in the first place when I tried to tell them that Cameron wasn’t the kind of person who could live up to our standards. As for poor Cameron, he’s probably finished as a lawyer. I can’t imagine any firm picking him up once people hear that he was booted out of this place."


Mr. Howell then went back to reading the papers on his desk, which was his way of telling me, apparently, that I was excused. On the way back to my office, I had to pass through the reception area, and there, though I was some distance away from him, I saw Cameron waiting by the bank of elevators. He had a brief case in one hand, and next to him, was a security guard who was carrying a carton that seemed to contain Cameron’s personal belongings.


Cameron was obviously in a hurry to leave because while he had one arm in the sleeve of his overcoat, the coat itself was hanging down in such a way that, though he was trying, he couldn’t slip his other arm into it.


Whether Cameron could see me, I don’t know. In any event, he was preoccupied with wiggling his coat, trying to get it into a position where he could get his free arm into the sleeve. Alas, the more he wiggled the coat, the harder it was for him to fit his arm into it. Finally, the security guard, placing the carton on the floor, reached over and held Cameron’s coat so that he could finish putting it on.


As Cameron began to button his coat, I drew close enough for him to spot me, and for a moment, just before the elevator bell rang, it looked as though he was going to come over and wish me farewell. But as soon as the elevator doors opened, the security guard picked up the carton and used it to nudge Cameron’s arm, indicating that he wanted him to board the elevator. Cameron complied and the elevator doors closed before he could turn and wave goodbye.


Because of my upbringing—my mother was a Sunday school teacher and was forever quoting bibical verses about universal love and brotherhood—I kept telling myself that I should feel some sympathy for Cameron, but this was a man who had come close to damaging my career.


Almost as bothersome to me was the backhanded compliment he had given me when he said that I had the makings of a great lawyer but lacked, for now, the mean spiritedness that would be required of me if I expected to become a partner at Wheelwright and Daley. Better, I thought, to reject that kind of advice and better still to forget completely my brief time as Cameron’s office mate.


Six months later, after I was admitted to the bar and had taken my place with the other associates at Wheelwright and Daley, I received a call from someone who identified himself as the owner of a travel agency. The caller said he was about to take on as his assistant, Martin X. Cameron, and he wanted to talk with me because Cameron had given me as a reference.


"Look," he said, "I know the guy has had some bad luck, but he’s also pretty impressive. So I decided, what the heck, I’ll put the bad luck aside, and if he checks out, I’ll take him on. What say you, then, about Mr. Cameron?"


Before I could get an answer out, the caller explained to me what specifically he wanted to know about Cameron.


"Let me tell you what I want to know," he said. "I’m away a lot. Can’t be helped. If you’re going to send people places, you check them out yourself. That means the person I hire for this job has to be someone I can trust to keep things going while I’m out of the office, sometimes for a week or more. My question, then, is whether Cameron is someone I can trust when I’m not here."


I didn’t answer right away so the caller said, "Is that a yes or a no I’m not hearing from you?"


"You’re away often?" I said.


"I sense a no."


"Yes," I replied. But then to make sure I was understood, I added, "I mean, yes, I was about to say no, by all means no."


"Well, that’s a bit confusing, but I know what you’re getting at. I thank you, my good man, for helping me to avoid a problem that I didn’t need."


This time the blow I struck was savage and true.  End of Story