I threw this clumsy tribute to M.R. James together at work today. It’s not much of a Christmas present, but it’s home made.
The Lawyer’s Ghost Story
My college friend Pete, whose personal and professional successes had acted as both inspiration and, frankly, goad, to my own achievements, had picked up lunch at Joan’s on Third and met me at my office across from the museum. He’d had a case at the Beverly Hills courthouse that morning and had texted asking if he could come by after to address something with me. I hadn’t seen much of him or his wife since they’d moved down to Orange County. My interest piqued, I agreed. We exchanged the usual pleasantries as we rode the elevator down to ground level and crossed Wilshire. Normally sharp and focused, he seemed distracted that day.
“Can we sit over there, in the sun?” he asked.
“Of course,” I said, steering us toward one of the tables scattered around the courtyard between the Ahmanson and Resnick buildings.
We sat in a labored silence for a moment before I spoke. “So, what’s going on? Are you and Jen OK?”
“Hmm? Oh, yeah, yes, we’re good, we’re fine. No, it’s…you weren’t at our Christmas party three years ago, were you?”
“No, that was the year Karen and I went to Geneva for Christmas.”
“That’s right. How was it?”
“Beautiful and boring,” I said
“Beautiful and Boring: the Karen and Robert Maitland Story.”
“My wife isn’t boring…oh.” We chuckled at bit, but it was clear Pete was trying to bring himself around to starting his story. “Pete, what’s wrong?” The second the question was out of my mouth, I realized what all this was about.
“This thing I had this morning was the settlement of Greg Watson’s estate.” Greg Watson, of The Watson Group, film producer, power broker, and, as it happened, serial sexual predator, had died hours after leaving the Christmas party Pete was talking about. There had been a year of criminal investigation, and a longer period of dealing with his financial affairs.
I must have been staring at him, because Pete shifted in his seat and looked away, off toward the families and couples taking pictures among the lampposts of Urban Light. After a moment, he turned back and started talking.
We’d moved down to Newport Beach, Corona del Mar to be exact, as a way of creating some distance between us and our work. Jen and I had spent years networking, building up our practice, hosting parties, having people over. Well, we’d both started feeling that we were losing ourselves into our jobs, that the only us that existed was the legal team, and once we started talking about it, we realized we’d need some actual physical distance to rebuild that balance. We’d thought about Calabasas, but we saw this house in CdM, up on a cliff over Little Corona beach and we both knew it was the one. It was brand new, we paid cash, done and done. We moved in October. We decided to have our usual Christmas party, invite everybody on the list, and hope that no one would want to drive all the way down to Orange County. We figured that would be a good way to start that separation.
And it worked, for the most part. Maybe a third of the people who usually came RSVP’d yes. We had a few clients in OC, so they of course came, but the LA contingent mostly stayed away.
Anyway, the guests started arriving around seven. By 8:30, we had maybe 45 people in attendance, lots of them in the great room where we’d set up the catering and the bar, some in the kitchen, some out on the deck over the ocean. It was California cold that night, about 50 degrees, but the ocean air made everything damp and clammy. People would go out to look down at the waves and hurry back inside after a few minutes.
I was holding court in the great room, telling that story about when you and I had three flat tires in one night getting back to school and we had to leave your car at that closed gas station and hitch the rest of the way (I smiled at this memory). Just as I was getting to the part where you stepped into that pothole full of slush, I saw Jen’s face drop. Everybody stopped talking and turned toward the door. It was Greg Watson, of course. He blinked and jerked his way across the room to the bar. I excused myself and moved to intercept him.
“Hi Greg,” I said. “We didn’t expect you. You didn’t RSVP.” We actually hadn’t invited him. He’d been a huge money maker for us once, but by that point people had started talking openly about what he’d done. I mean, the rumors had always been there, but by then, it had gone past rumors. People were starting to figure out exactly how bad he was. In fact, Jen and I had been planning on dropping him after the new year. We had to cut ties. He was a terrible person and a huge liability. We had to cut him loose.
“Pete. Hi.” He was drunk. He looked like he hadn’t slept in days. “Can I stay here for a while?”
“Just a little while. I just need to maybe eat something and rest for a minute and I’ll go, I swear.” This was a new look for him, the groveling stumblebum. Part of me was repulsed, but part of me, and maybe it was the better part of me, liked seeing him in that position. I liked the idea of being able to put a foot on his neck for a few hours.
At this point, Jen had crossed over to us. She stood there just glaring at him. “Why are you here?” she asked.
“I just have to rest for a minute.” Just at that moment, both Jen and I turned our heads to the right, toward the door. Later, as we talked about the night, we both said that we had detected some bit of movement at the door and had turned involuntarily. Neither of us had seen anything. We both turned back to face Greg and he let out a groan. His hands shook and he moved toward the bar. I put a hand on his shoulder and steered him away from his target and toward a hallway connecting to a shut up spare bedroom.
“You’ve had enough tonight. You didn’t drive, did you?” I wasn’t going to have him killing himself, or someone else, driving drunk away from my new home.
“I…yes,” he said, turning his eyes down like a 6 year old caught with his hand in the cookie jar. A palpable wave of repulsion came over me then. I felt myself forming a fist when I saw Jennifer slap him across the face with an open hand. Every head in the place turned at the sound.
“Give me your fucking keys you asshole,” Jennifer said. “I’m calling Barry and I’m having him come down here and pick you up and drag your fucking sad ass back to Beverly Hills.” Barry was Greg’s assistant, crony really, a sleazy loser who somehow had the juice to make things happen.
“Barry’s dead, Jen.”
“Put him in that bedroom,” she told me. “I’m going to call Barry and get him out of here.”
“Barry’s dead,” Greg shouted. He started to cry. It was repulsive.
I pushed him into the guest room and closed the door behind me. “Jesus, Greg, what the fuck is wrong with you? You can’t come into my home and act like this. We don’t want you here.” It took all my determination to not just punch him in the face. Instead, I patted him down and found the key fob to his Mercedes.
“It’s bad, Pete, it’s bad. I’m scared. Something happened. I’m scared.” He blubbered and slobbered as he sat, slumped, on the edge of the bed. “She got Barry and she’s coming for me.”
“What? No. No. I don’t want to hear anything. I’m calling the police. I don’t want you in my house.”
“She’s going to get me too, Pete.” He started crying. I realized that I had left my phone in my jacket, which was hanging over a chair in front of the sliding door to the balcony.
“Just sit there and don’t move. I’m calling the cops,” I said and opened the bedroom door. I felt a rush of cold air go past me as I started out. Greg yelped but I didn’t look back.
Out in the great room, no one was speaking. Everyone stood around in silent groups of three and four, glancing from me to Jennifer, who was shouting into her phone in the kitchen, to the closed door to the guest bedroom. “I’m sorry, everyone. We’re getting this taken care of.”
“I can’t get Barry, I’m getting his fucking voice mail,” Jennifer said. I had never seen her so angry, and I hope I never see her that angry again.
“I’m calling the police,” I told her. “He’s drunk and trespassing.” Just then, a wail broke from behind the closed door of the bedroom. It rose and fell, and the door whipped open. Greg exploded out of the room, dashed through the hall, the great room, the foyer and, throwing open the front door, out into the night. The whole thing took three seconds, and he was gone.
And here’s the thing. This is the part that’s causing all this anxiety for me. I swear, I absolutely swear, that something, some shape, some thing was with him. It was white or off-white, it flapped like a towel a kid wears like a Superman cape, and it either hung on his back, or maybe carried him along in its arms, but by God, I swear there was something with him. Jen saw it too. I think we all did.
Anyway, you know the broad strokes of what happened after. Eight minutes after leaving our place, Greg got picked up by an Uber on PCH, and seven minutes later he jumped out of it while it was doing 70 on the 405 North and went under the wheels of an Orange County Sherriff’s SUV. What you don’t know is that both the Uber driver and the sheriff testified, under oath, that there was someone else in the back seat with Greg. The driver didn’t see that other person get in, but swore that he saw a shape in the back seat just before Greg jumped. The sheriff swore that when he saw Greg go out the passenger side rear door of the Uber, he was clutching, or being clutched, by something white and billowing that could have been a person, although, of course, no other body was found on the freeway, only what was left of Greg Watson.
There wasn’t much to say after Pete told me his story. I went back to my office and never said a word about it to Karen or anyone else. Pete got back in his car and drove back to Orange County. I didn’t hear from him again for a few months, until one day he texted me a link to a story in the Los Angeles Transcript-Telegram.
HUMAN REMAINS FOUND IN WAKE OF FIRE IDENTIFIED
Los Angeles, December 24, 201X
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s investigators announced yesterday that human remains found in the wake of the devastating Las Flores Fire have been identified as those of Brenda West, who was reported missing in May 2016, after leaving a meeting with Gregory Watson, the late Hollywood producer. Although never charged in connection with West’s disappearance, the identification of the remains found on property once belonging to Watson’s associate Bartholomew O’Brien, who himself died the same day that Watson took his own life by leaping from a moving automobile, give weight to the accusations that Watson and O’Brien were involved with West’s disappearance. Because of the advanced state of decomposition and the damage to the remains as a result of the fire, the cause of death remains undetermined.