Monday, May 21, 2018

Hit and Run by Paul Michael Dubal

A renowned lawyer specialising in wrongful death must face up to his own past transgression; by Paul Michael Dubal.

Over twenty-eight torturous years had passed, but for Rick Sanders the memory of that terrible rainy night was as vivid as if it were yesterday. Time seemed to have frozen, so that there was only that terrible moment in the past and the melancholy reality of the present. Everything in between was just detail. Yet in the past quarter-century he had built an extraordinary career as a litigator, savagely shredding companies and individuals in the civil courts.

The irony was that his specialty was wrongful death. Cases where manufacturing companies had caused death through a failure of their systems, resulting in ugly industrial accidents. Some of them were like scenes from gory horror movies, including chemical burns, being caught in machinery or crushed by a forklift truck. He had savaged the culprits as much as the company's work environment had savaged the injured plaintiff.

Then there were individuals, usually careless drivers who had mowed down cyclists or caused devastating accidents because they were impaired through drink or drugs, texting, or were just plain reckless. It did not matter. The end result was usually the same. Death or serious injury was common, a lawsuit inevitable, a sizeable payout for the victim or his family often the end result.

Rick pursued these transgressors with a zeal and passion that had made him one of the most feared litigators on Toronto's Bay Street. As soon as a legal rival heard they were up against Sanders, they were already mentally preparing to lose. If he were a tennis player, his reputation would have given him a three game advantage. That was the irony of it. One horrific mistake on a dark, rainy night north of Nipissing, in the bleak north of Ontario had propelled him into a highly charged career, driven by an obsession that had brought him success beyond his wildest dreams.

That night had never left him, however. It was always there, in the back of his mind. No amount of work he could do to make reckless drivers accountable for their actions could ever make up for his own conduct. While he ensured that others did, he had yet to pay the piper for his transgression.

Rick glanced at the clock in his study, gently ticking away like the hypnotic beat of a metronome. One in the morning and a court case at nine. In the dim light, lit by a single desk lamp, he pored over the statement of claim, finalizing the questions he would ask during the cross-examination, building his case against the reckless motorist. The true plaintiff was absent, having died from her injuries shortly after being struck at speed by the defendant. The woman was fifty-seven, a daughter, wife, mother, and soon to be grandmother. The family had brought the action on her behalf, but even when he won some huge settlements, he would hear the same response. No amount of money could ever bring their loved one back. The defendant was a pampered college kid who drove too fast and smoked too much marijuana, at least that was to be his line of attack.

These cases appeared straightforward on the surface but there were always complications. Just how negligent was the motorist? What was the contributory negligence of the deceased? How fast was the car travelling at the time of impact? Was it over the speed limit? What other factors played out? Weather conditions, visibility, distracted driving, drugs or alcohol? There were never any winners in these scenarios, and there were almost always mitigating circumstances. He as well as anyone knew that.

Rick thought of his wife Miriam, who had resigned herself to his nocturnal habits before a major court case, and ceased nagging him to come to bed years ago. Almost twenty-five years into their marriage, she understood it was pointless. Rick knew she would be fast asleep upstairs. He appreciated the sacrifices she had made to support his meteoric rise through the Toronto litigation circuit. Inevitably, however, his thoughts turned to that fateful night, as they always did. As harrowing as it was, he accepted it as his own pitiful form of penance, and had ceased long ago to battle his subconscious mind when those dark thoughts came rushing in.

The first thing that always popped into his mind was the weather, because it had played such a decisive role in the events that followed. The rain was lashing down with an intensity that made any shapes in front of the windscreen distorted and blurred. His wipers were hammering at full force, swinging wildly in an attempt to repel the water that seemed to fall in buckets from the sky. Why the hell did he not stop? He couldn't remember. All he remembered was that he had to get back to the motel.

At the time he was a young lawyer just starting out on his career. Exhausted from the long hours of his training contract, he had fled for a long weekend to the tranquility of the shores of Lake Superior. The partners delighted in putting their young associates through hell, treating them like serfs in their kingdom, belittling and humiliating them. The attitude was "we had to go through it; why shouldn't they?" As he toiled in the dark office, copying another discovery document way past midnight, knowing that when he finally went home he would have to be back at the office by eight, he had doubted many times whether the law really was his calling. It felt brutal and nasty, but he knew nothing else. His parents had made huge sacrifices to literally drag him through law school. He could not quit now. Even the partners had recognized his potential. The senior partner, an old fossil called Snyder, had gruffly acknowledged that "the boy Sanders has potential."

So he had fled north to get his head together. He told no-one and got in his battered old Ford and drove into the grey, pressing clouds. The trip had been cathartic, but the day before he was due to drive back he stayed out too long, enjoying the expansive scenery. He had no provisions to stay overnight, so he pressed on, racing through the isolated pastures and valleys which quickly disappeared into murky shadows as the sun dropped. Night fell quickly and even as the sun dipped he still had a hour and a half drive back to his motel through remote, unlit roads skirting black, silent lakes. It was not long before heavy drops of rain beat against his windows. Within minutes it had increased in intensity so that it felt like he was driving through a lake. The road shimmered in his headlights but it was hard to tell where it ended. These country roads were narrow and had few markings. The wheels slipped on the slick surface and he leaned forward, forcing himself to focus, squinting at the short patch of road his lights managed to pierce. The sensible thing would have been to pull over and wait for the storm to subside.

He was impatient, however, and the forecast was not good. If he stopped he would be stuck in the cold, forbidding dark in bear country all night. No, he had to press on. Who in their right mind would stay out in this weather? The answer came soon enough, and with it his life changed irretrievably in a split second. The beat-up old Ford hit a rock or a piece of fallen trunk and, tyres squealing, jerked to one side. He fought to regain control, grappling at the wheel. Suddenly in the glare of his headlights a figure emerged like an apparition, right in front of his car. Rick slammed on the brakes but it was too late. The wheels locked and the car skidded into the apparition with a solid thump that was very real. It was more of a glancing blow, but enough to send the figure spinning through the darkness. He swore that in darker moments he could still hear the sickening snap of metal crunching flesh and bone.

The car lurched to a stop and the engine cut out. He immediately jumped out, ignoring the icy, driving rain and scanned the dark surroundings, the flashlight wobbling in his shaking hands. Lying in a crumpled heap on the edge of a ditch, the injured pedestrian twitched like a wounded bird. Rick rushed over, fearful for what he might see, and his worst fears were confirmed. He carefully turned the torso over. It was hard to tell precisely in view of the injuries, but it was a man who could have been no more than thirty. His body was broken, limbs twisted at odd angles, blood-soaked face a network of gashes like some crazy map. The man gurgled blood and his breath came in short, wheezy gasps. He tried to talk but all that spewed from his mouth was a dull rasp and thick crimson liquid bubbling round his quivering lips.

Rick was paralyzed with fear, inertia dragging him down, smothering his ability to think. There was cold comfort in knowing that whatever action he took would make little difference. The man was too badly injured to be saved. He probably knew this, because the haunting, desperate look in his bloodshot eyes sent chills down Rick's spine. It was a look of pain and horror that would invade many of Rick's sleepless nights in the years to come. The stabbing rain smeared the blood over the man's face. He gave one last wheeze before his eyes dulled and his body seemed to flop, head lolling to one side.

It was over. The man was dead. There was nothing you could have done, he kept telling himself over and over. It was not your fault, his inner voice comforted him. The man had appeared in front of a speeding car. There had been no time to react. Where the hell had he come from anyway? There was no car around. It was not your fault, his mind repeated, demanding that he believe it.

Rick cried bitterly, oblivious to the streams of cold rain soaking through his clothes. His inner voice took charge again, commanded that he pull himself together. Jesus, his life was over. Killing another human being, no matter what the circumstance, was a jail sentence that would end any chance of a legal career. He had to seek help. He scanned the darkness. Nothing but his battered car, sidelights dimmed, insidious rain, the pitch black of a moonless night and a mangled corpse.

A thought popped into his head. His conscience tried to dismiss it but it resurfaced, as nagging and persistent as those bastard lawyers that loved to put him through hell. This place was so remote it would probably be days before they found the body. He had a deep appreciation for evidential law. It would take forever to find him, almost impossible for a prosecutor to prove it was Rick. He had a promising legal career ahead of him. Why ruin two lives? It was a horrific accident caused by the man's negligence. Admittedly Rick was rushing and probably driving too fast for the conditions, but even so.

He inspected the front of his car, his flashlight playing over the rusty old bumper. Yes it was dented, but it was an ancient, battered pile of garbage. It had lots of dents. He could have hit a small moose or elk. They often wandered onto the road in these parts. He had to make a choice quickly in case someone appeared. He looked back at the bloody corpse, and then made his life altering decision. Acting swiftly in case his nerve failed him, he climbed into the Ford. He tried the engine. It sputtered and died. He tried again, hands shaking. Same result. "Come on dammit!" he cursed. He tried again. This time the engine roared into life. He sighed deeply, composed himself and gently steered the car back onto the road. There was no other traffic and the rain began to dissipate, making the drive back easier. Less than an hour later he was at the motel, where he gently pulled in, went straight to his room and fell into an exhausted sleep full of nightmares.

In the days that followed he scanned the papers and found nothing. Every time the doorbell rang in his apartment he stiffened, expecting the police to be assembled outside his door, the inevitable caution followed by the handcuffs. Days passed and nothing happened. He immersed himself in his work. The days turned into weeks and months and finally years. It was as if that fateful night had been a bad dream, a one-off incident that blurred the line between vivid dreams and reality. Yet he knew it was very real. He may not have gone to jail, but he was a prisoner to his conscience. He never found out about the deceased stranger. Who was he? Why was he there? Did he have a family? God, that was a sobering thought. They were just two strangers on a dark night whose fates had collided for a singular shattering moment.

In those intervening years Rick had raised a family of his own, a strong handsome son now in his early twenties, and a teenage daughter determined to emulate his path as a civil litigator. He never told them what happened. Not even Miriam. This was his burden. It belonged to no one else.

Rick sipped his malt whiskey, the burning taste in the back of his throat keeping him alert. He forced himself to focus on the case in hand, Almost immediately he was distracted by a sharp hammering on the door, amplified by the late hour. Rick nearly jumped out of his skin. Who the hell was calling in the dead of night? He tiptoed warily to the front door, afraid that Miriam might be woken. Through the frosted glass he spotted several dark figures moving impatiently. He flicked on the door's intercom.

"Who is it?"

"The police," came the curt reply. "We need to speak to you urgently."

Rick's body involuntarily tensed, the feeling just as familiar as it was a quarter century ago. After all these years, it couldn't be could it? His body broke out into beads of sweat, and he tried his best to compose himself. He opened the door, struggling to appear calm and relaxed. The two male officers on the doorstep looked stern, grim-faced.

"Evening, officers, or should I say good morning. It's a bit late for house calls isn't it?" His voice betrayed a slight tremor.

The shorter, stocky officer with the flat nose of a pugilist spoke first. "It's about a hit and run," he said simply, in a gruff English accent.

Rick's heart sank. They had caught up with him at last. At a subconscious level, he felt almost relieved. No more dirty secrets to hide.

The officer continued. "I'm Officer Davies and this is Officer Khan." He pointed offhandedly to his lanky Indian colleague. "I'm afraid we have bad news," he continued, in the serious tone police officers adopt when imparting bad news.

Rick could not help interrupting. "I'm so sorry officer, it was a complete accident...."

Officer Davies looked at him quizzically. "Yes I believe it was. Can we come in?"

He invited them in and they sat at the breakfast table, sipping water, the only drink they would accept while on duty. Davies and Khan saw the open bottle of malt on the kitchen worktop, and exchanged brief glances. Davies turned to Rick. "Your son Lionel was at traffic lights just east of the 401 when a car shot the lights, lost control and smashed into his car. I'm very sorry..." His voice trailed off.

Rick reeled in shock, slumping in his chair. "How, how is he?" was all he could gasp, hyperventilating.

Officer Khan got up and gently grasped his shoulder with empathy as Rick fought to regain his breath, body shaking.

"He sustained serious injuries but I'm told he'll survive. The driver that struck him immediately sped away. Fortunately a passing motorist saw everything and rushed him to Mount Sinai hospital. Without that young man's intervention he may have died on the spot. The paramedics wouldn't have reached him in time. They took your son immediately into surgery and he's now in intensive care. I've been instructed to take you to the hospital."

Khan interjected. "Shall we wake your wife?"

"No, leave her. She'll be traumatized. Take me now."

The police car sped through the rain-slicked streets, the only other traffic a random taxi and early morning shift workers. It was hours before the day commuters hit the road on their daily grind. Even so, Davies insisted on flicking the lights and sirens on. As they raced along, Davies explained that they had footage of the incident on CCTV and were actively looking for the car.

"Looks like a BMW. Bloody boy racers I reckon," said Davies gruffly.

The car flew up an almost deserted University Avenue and screeched into the emergency department parking area, narrowly avoiding an ambulance that had just begun its own mercy dash. They pulled in, jumped out and were ushered to the intensive care ward. A mature duty nurse led them to the ward, striding purposefully. The ward itself was deathly quiet, lights turned low.

Lionel was in a private room. Rick lingered outside, anxious to see his son. The nurse urged caution. "Mr. Sanders, he has just come out of surgery in the last hour. The surgery went well but he's under sedation. The resident surgeon will be along soon to fill you in. He's out of immediate danger but it's too early to say what the long term prognosis will be."

Rick sighed, fatigue pressing down on him like a suffocating wave. "Thank you, nurse," he murmured.

The police officers were about to leave when an athletic Hispanic man with kind but brooding eyes and black curly hair, sauntered down the corridor. He was dressed casually in jeans and leather jacket and held a steaming coffee. He was tall and upright, and his swarthy good looks suggested a young man of around thirty. The duty nurse checked him over with little hint of subtlety, despite the twenty years plus that separated them.

Rick had to admit he was a good looking guy, confident and poised. The odd thing was that he looked vaguely familiar. Rick was certain he had never seen the guy before, but as he approached, Rick could not shake the feeling. It was like some kind of weird deja-vu.

Officer Davies beamed at the man and extended his hand. "Hello son, you're a bloody hero. The doctors told us what you did. You deserve a medal."

The young man smiled and nodded sheepishly, shaking the officer's hand firmly.

Davies clapped him on the back and steered him toward Rick. "Son, this is the father of the man you saved." The young man smiled, showing even, white teeth, and fixed his dark eyes upon Rick. His friendly gaze somehow bore deeply into Rick's soul, as if he were searching for secrets. A chill passed through Rick's spine. He dismissed it instantly. The man was gentle and amiable, and Rick owed him more than the young man would ever know. Lionel was everything to him.

"Carl Antonio Rodriguez," smiled the man, shaking Rick's proffered hand warmly.

"I really don't know how I can thank you enough Carl," he began.

They chatted a while and Rick hardly noticed the officers leave. Carl wanted to stay around to make sure Lionel was going to be okay. He had already given a statement to the police.

"The police told me that lots of cars passed by when my son was lying injured in the car. I'm so glad you didn't just drive on. Do you mind me asking what made you stop and help him?"

Carl paused, looking reflective. "I had to, I couldn't just pass by, not after what I went through."

"What do you mean?" Rick was now deeply curious and a little afraid.

Carl sighed deeply. "Many years ago, when I was just a young boy, barely three, I lost my father to a hit and run driver that left my father dead. In a ditch on the side of the road." His nose wrinkled with disgust and a shadow passed over his dark eyes. "They never found the driver. My mother never really recovered from it. My older brother was six and he was devastated. Our family was torn apart. We had not long moved from Mexico for a better life when it happened."

Tears began welling in his eyes and when he spoke again his voice cracked with emotion. "It was difficult growing up. My mother struggled on as best she could but she was heartbroken, and so was my brother. He idolized my father, did everything with him. I was a little too young and never really got to know him properly. That didn't stop me missing him. The hardest moments were in school when the kids used to talk about the stuff they did with their dads."

Carl paused for breath, sipping at his coffee, hands trembling. "My mother constantly kept his memory alive by reminding us what a wonderful man he was and to aspire to be like him. I took that to heart. She did the parenting for them both and taught us strong values. I can't say it was a happy childhood, but my mother did a good job. I vowed that if I ever got the chance, I would try and save someone like my dad so that his family did not have to grieve like we did. We still haven't got over him. His absence still affects us twenty-eight years later."

Rick felt a constriction in his throat. "Did you say twenty-eight years?"

"Yes, he was up north looking for work when it happened. It was up near the big lake." He was lost in thought for a second. "What do they call it? Like a nun. Oh yes, Mother... Superior. Lake Superior. The date is imprinted on my brain. October twenty-fourth, nineteen eighty-nine."

A wave of nausea passed over Rick. The date was imprinted on his brain too. The familiarity became apparent. He had seen the man for barely seconds but that was enough for a permanent impression in his mind's eye. The irony was almost inconceivable. Wasn't there supposed to be an unwritten law of the universe - what goes around comes around? Karma? You reap what you sow?

Since that terrible incident on a rainy October night in the late eighties, his life had taken only one trajectory, and that was upwards. Now, this very evening, the man who saved his son's life had done so because of a burning desire which had germinated through the death of his father, a death at Rick's own hands. Yes, it was a tragic accident, but this fine young man was twice the man he was. He wrestled with his inner conflict. Should he blurt it out right there and then?

"Sir, are you alright?" Carl said with concern, gently guiding him to a chair.

Rick fought to keep himself from hyperventilating. "Yes I think so," he gasped. Carl ran and grabbed him some water.

"He'll be alright I'm certain. It must be very traumatic for you," said Carl with genuine empathy.

If only he knew how traumatic. "Thank you, thank you," said Rick tearfully. "For everything you've done. I cannot tell you how much this means to me."

"You're most welcome," said Carl. "I think I should go. The surgeon will be here shortly and you should hear what he has to say in private." Carl slipped him his business card. "Please let me know if he is going to be okay? I really want to know."

Tears welled in Rick's eyes and he embraced Carl like his own son. This Good Samaritan departed, leaving Rick staring at his business card. Rick could now phone, text, email or message Carl any time he wished. There was no excuse. At any single moment, day or night, he could call or write to confess to Carl that it was he who had killed his father and ravaged his family all those years ago. If the weight of conscience was heavy before, it had just become unbearable.

The surgeon soon arrived and explained that they had operated to remove a blood clot causing pressure on the brain. They had also operated on a number of broken bones, although these were not life threatening. He concluded by telling Rick that in time, and with plenty of care, Lionel was expected to make a full recovery. "If it hadn't been for the swift intervention of that fine young man, we would probably be telling you a different story. We got him to the theatre just in time. I suggest you come back in the morning to see him. He should be awake then, once the medication has worn off."

Rick nodded and thanked the surgeon, who marched off snapping his surgical gloves theatrically. Rick stared after him, alone again with his thoughts. It was way past two and he had a case to work on. There was no way he could focus on it now. He would ask the court for a stay in proceedings on compassionate grounds. They could hardly refuse.

He left the hospital, quiet and shadowy in the dead of night, and began walking along University Avenue. The rain had dissipated and the road still glistened with dark puddles. It was deserted apart from the insistent hustle of taxis ploughing up and down the street, slowing as they passed Rick in the hope of catching a fare. He wanted to walk for now, to be alone with his thoughts. He would be back at the hospital for nine with Miriam and together they would wait for Lionel to regain consciousness. They would spend every available moment caring for their son, to nurse him back to health. It was an opportunity that had not been allowed the Rodriguez family.

He walked and walked through the streets of Toronto. First he passed the quiet, sentinel-like presence of the police station, open 24/7. He had to stop himself going in right then and there. Pensive, he continued across town past the Church of St James, its majestic grey spire stretching into the sky until it merged into the darkness. He wasn't terribly religious, but maybe after tonight's events he could truly believe in a guiding force.

The burden was too great. In the morning, after he had seen Lionel, Rick would leave Miriam with him and take another walk. It would either be to the church or to the police station. Which one, he had yet to decide.

10 comments:

  1. Karmic elegance, and an ending which leaves the reader pondering. A compelling tale.
    B r o o k e

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  2. The story moves along effortlessly and with a growing sense of inevitability. I also like the ambiguity of the ending. I myself think he should go to the police.

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  3. Odds - million to one?

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  4. Whilst the premise is far-fetched, the story carries its mythic weight well through engaging and skilful writing.The moral dilemma at its heart is compelling and challenges the reader to imagine walking in the protagonist's shoes. Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  5. first class story and wonderfully descriptive. OK it´s a coincidence, so what. I wonder if revealing his secret will lift the burden. either way I thoroughly enjoyed this fine piece of writing
    Mike McC.

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  6. Predictable? Yes, but deserves your read. Builds suspense. Stimulates conversation among readers regarding this contemptible crime.

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  7. Sometimes life does its best to imitate fiction. Here's a wild one from today's paper: https://www.sfgate.com/news/crime/article/Woman-accused-of-fatal-hit-and-run-at-field-due-12965407.php

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  8. "ALFRED, Maine (AP) — A woman with a history of drunken driving convictions drove her car onto a baseball field in Maine during a game, striking and killing a Vietnam War veteran who confessed five years ago to killing a 4-year-old girl in an alcohol-fueled 1968 hit-and-run, police said."

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  9. Go to the church! Repent is in order, haha!

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  10. It might be coincidence, but it's a believable one. I really enjoyed this story. Thanks!

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