Maestro Keys — Chapter 36

Andy Goldblatt
6 min readMar 11


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Sometimes Arnold wondered whether he really made his own decisions or whether he just went along as some larger, even stupider force like Fate made the decisions for him. Of all the criminal defense attorneys in the East Bay, he chose Toni Lefferts. Would that have happened if Arnold were in charge? And when she all but accused him of fomenting death threats against her, would Arnold have sat there and taken it? No way! Arnold would have categorically denied it in the strongest terms, marched his wife and kid out of that fire trap of an office, and found Rudy an attorney who’d studied someplace other than the Kim Jong-un School of Law.

Oh well. There was still a chance hiring her would prove wise. In two respects it already had: her hourly fee was ridiculously low (Arnold hadn’t billed that cheaply in eight years) and she gave Rudy a job that got him out of the house three days a week. Who knew? Maybe Rodolfo would be inspired to follow in the family line and become a lawyer. It would serve him right.

But no sooner had Arnold reconciled himself to working with Toni than Fate swept him toward his next humiliation: pleading with Shipler to accept the Code of Civil Procedure 998 settlement offer in the Williams case. There were so many obvious and compelling reasons to take the money that Arnold shouldn’t have had to argue for it. But Shipler would make him argue, so he had to predict Shipler’s thrusts and prepare forceful parries.

He didn’t want to do it now, though. There were so many better things to do. He wandered the halls, chatting with Larry awhile (how sad that the 49ers were off to such a disastrous start) before finding an unoccupied conference room. The chairs were more comfortable than the one in his office. Settling deeply into one, he swiveled toward the window and stared at the smog-laden Oakland hills. Every house up there looked the same, a Nineties-vintage McMansion only five feet from the next. All of them were built with insurance money after the 1991 wildfire, which mystified him. Why had the insurance companies paid for such dense construction? Did they think there would never be another fire? These days there was a fire every week.

Insurance companies — ugh. They dragged their feet better than Baryshnikov danced. Arnold was still trying to figure out how to get an insurer to pay the damages in Rudy’s civil case. His own insurer wanted nothing to do with the matter, insisting (in line with California law, he had to concede) that auto policies covered vehicles, and his policy did not cover the vehicle involved in the accident. Ramesh’s parents, whose insurer did cover the Boxster, had been prudent enough to augment their coverage by purchasing an umbrella policy. But in its preliminary determination, their insurer concluded Rudy was not a permissive driver, or if he was, that Rudy abrogated coverage by driving under the influence, or if he didn’t, that the insurance company’s liability was limited to the California minimum of fifteen thousand dollars.

Arnold couldn’t blame the insurer. He’d have argued the same things. His first assignment for Donalson would be to work up a strategy that would persuade the insurer to open its vault. He wished he could talk to Donalson now, but they hadn’t resolved the Albera matter yet, and besides, the Williams case came first.

Although perhaps not right this second.

He found pens and legal pads at a side table and doodled. Arnold was never much of a doodler. He couldn’t draw any better than he could play the clarinet. But of late he’d taken to blocking off five-line segments and coloring in musical notes. He tried to draw from memory the major themes from Lieutenant Kije, an exercise he enjoyed so much he doodled more, until he had to acknowledge that whether he liked it or not, now was the time to hammer out the Williams case.

He turned his back to the hills, tore off the notepad pages he’d scribbled up, threw them in a blue recycling bin, and went back to his office, where he sat in his own lumpy chair and used the legal pad to line up his arguments. The obvious reasons for taking the Code of Civil Procedure 998 offer were one, it was for the full amount the firm was owed. Two, it spared the firm the expense and uncertainty of trial. Three, it avoided the risk of paying the other side’s costs. Four, it freed Arnold for other projects — or, four point one, freed the firm to fire him. (He wouldn’t mention four point one.)

There. Not as hard as he thought. But Arnold wasn’t ready to go to Shipler’s office yet. He needed passion before he could do that. He had to be prepared to fight, to invoke whatever logic or emotion it took to break Shipler’s resistance, even if that meant causing an argument everyone heard. But at the moment Arnold had as much stomach for battle as he did for week-old coffee.

Hey, wait a minute. Didn’t he have his reasons for accepting the settlement? Like one, it put the Williams humiliation behind him, and two, it meant he wouldn’t have to divide his attention between conducting an orchestra and running a trial. And three, it opened up his schedule so he had more time to settle Albera, which in turn led to four, it closed all matters between him and Donalson so Donalson could represent Rudy in the civil suit.

Now he was motivated. He took a deep breath and, prepared for whatever ensued, marched to the corner office, eyes fixed straight ahead. Nothing deterred him from his destiny, not Darlene’s question about some word she didn’t understand, not Hayes’s pitch to play the football pool this week, not Larry’s X-rated banter with a couple of associates in the employment section. “Mars, Bringer of War” from Gustav Holst’s The Planets roared through his brain.

Mary Jean, on the phone, held up an index finger. Would he wait a minute? Sure, he’d wait. But only a minute. Then he’d walk past her and ambush the Big Man.

Sensing danger to her boss, Mary Jean put the caller on hold and buzzed the inner sanctum. “Send him in,” Shipler commanded.

“What is it, Arnold?”

“Williams. We’re close to the deadline on that nine nine-eight. I strongly recommend we accept.”

Shipler scarcely looked up from his print copy of The Recorder, the Bay Area legal journal Arnold had been mentioned in once, back when he was Elliebeth’s lawyer, and Shipler had been mentioned in countless times. Probably he was checking whether he’d gotten a mention in this issue. “Okay.”

No way Arnold heard that right. “Beg pardon?”

“I said okay. Anything else?”

It happened so fast, so painlessly, that Arnold wasn’t sure it happened at all. “You mean okay you accept my opinion, or okay you accept the settlement?”

“Both. Let’s take the offer.” Shipler put down the legal journal. Was that a smirk on his face or an attempt at a genuine smile? “Let’s try to add a stipulation concerning the payment schedule. If they don’t cough up the money within ten business days, we get ten percent interest on the balance. If they have to sell the house to pay the balance, we’ll forego the interest, but the house will be sold by us through our agents or assigns, not theirs. You know the drill. Get whatever you can.”

“You mean you want us to — “

“Play it hard-nosed. Let them think that if they don’t accept our conditions we’ll go to trial. All we have to do is ask the jury to put themselves in our place. What if they had a debt outstanding and they had to go through months of hassle to recover it? Wouldn’t they want to be compensated for their extra time and expense?”

Still incredulous, Arnold took the role of devil’s advocate. (There definitely was some larger, stupider force in charge of his life.) “If you’re certain we’ll win, why are you settling? That’s not the Shipler I know.”

“Because we’re not bad guys, Arnold,” Shipler responded. This time he did genuinely smile, and followed with a laugh. “We’re not out to kill the woman. We just want our money.”

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© 2023 Andrew Goldblatt. All rights reserved. This work may not be used in part or in whole for any purpose without the author’s prior written consent.

English classical music composer Gustav Holst.
English composer Gustav Holst composed The Planets during World War I. Much subsequent “outer space music” (think Star Wars) borrows from the piece.



Andy Goldblatt

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four printed books and one e-novel on Medium, ectomorphic introvert.