Mr. Chin was the smallest man Harry had ever seen. The phrase “the elegant Mr. Chin” formed in his mind as he half-bowed to welcome his new client. The finely cut, light silk suit hung from Mr. Chin’s delicate frame in exactly the correct fashion. Harry ushered him to his office.
At the door, Harry surveyed the scene. For years, he had regarded the décor as warm and inviting. Now he saw it through Chin’s eyes. It was tacky.
“Please have a seat, sir,” Harry began heartily.
Mr. Chin never stopped smiling as he neatly arranged himself in the chair across from Harry’s desk. Glancing briefly about, he betrayed no reaction to his surroundings.
“Mr. Jenkins, I am grateful you have been able to see me on such short notice. If my business is to be transacted, it must be done speedily.”
Harry nodded. “You said you were referred to me?”
“Indeed, Mr. Jenkins. Mr. Niels at Cheney, Arpin recommended you.”
Surprised, Harry could not imagine why such a major Toronto law firm would direct any business his way. Yet, he had worked briefly with Peter Niels on a bar association matter. Perhaps there was a conflict of interest which could only be solved by completely independent representation.
“What would you like me to do?” he asked.
“There are several parcels of land that I wish to purchase near Highland Avenue, at the intersection of Mount Rose.”
Harry stiffened. Marjorie Deighton’s house was right near that corner. The coincidence was worrisome.
“Are you familiar with that area, Mr. Jenkins?”
Albert Chin placed a slim leather case on the desk and extracted a sheaf of papers. Carefully, he unfolded a survey. Harry stood to remove files from his desk. He had seen the survey many times before.
“I am wishing to purchase the three lots fronting on Mount Rose.” Chin outlined them on the plan with his gold Cross pen. “And also the three immediately behind them.” Chin’s smile never faltered.
Harry considered the situation. None of the lots belonged to Marjorie, but
with Chin’s purchases, she would certainly be surrounded. So would St. Timothy’s Church. He had to tell his new client that he acted for an adjoining landowner, but he decided to wait for more information.
“Are these offers to be conditional?”
Mr. Chin smiled broadly. “No, that will not be necessary. We will pay for the properties from our cash resources. Also, Mr. Jenkins, we will seek an option to purchase from the owner of 42 Highland Avenue and the church at some future date.” Setting down his pen, he smiled at Harry. “I trust you will be able to act for our conglomerate.”
Harry knew Marjorie would never sell to a developer. A conflict was looming. But his new client breathed money, body and soul. His work could be the start of new lifeblood for Harry’s teetering firm. He couldn’t afford to lose either client.
“I gather this is some sort of land assembly. Are you planning to rezone?”
Mr. Chin became all business. “That, sir, remains undecided. If we do, we trust you will act on our behalf in such applications.”
Holy God! The value of Chin’s work was escalating by the minute.
Harry said, “There are other interests I must consider, Mr. Chin.”
Harry could act for Chin in the purchase of the lots, but any option to purchase on Marjorie’s house or rezoning of adjacent lands would pose a direct conflict. Of course, he could send both clients to other lawyers, but Marjorie would feel abandoned.
His discomfort grew. “I have to tell you, Mr. Chin, that I act for the owner of 42 Highland.” He pointed to Marjorie’s lot on the survey. “Of course, you would require separate representation for any option to purchase on her land.”
Nodding slightly, Chin slid two checks across the desk. “I have a retainer payable to your firm in the amount of two hundred thousand dollars, and another check, for one million dollars, to be used as a deposit of ten percent on each of the six lots.”
Harry’s mouth went dry.
“I trust the amount is sufficient. If not, more will be forthcoming,” murmured Chin.
Harry held the checks, but did not speak. He feared that if he moved, the dream would be dispelled. He stared at the survey still spread on his desk. Large sums of money were at stake, but he could not dismiss the looming conflict. Marjorie had a major development on her doorstep, but if he warned her, he would be in immediate conflict with Chin. Something had to be worked out.
Chin lowered his eyes. “I find, sir, that many problems disappear, provided there are sufficient funds. If you require more, please let me know, and you will have it immediately.” Chin handed him his card.
As if suddenly awakening, Harry said, “Mr. Chin, would you care for some coffee?”
Chin nodded, and Harry lifted the receiver to buzz Miss Giveny.
“When do you need these offers?” he asked.
“At your very earliest convenience. Say tomorrow at noon?”
Tight, but not impossible, thought Harry. With any luck, Marjorie’s business would be fairly simple. “Certainly,” he assured his new client. “But I’ll need some more details from you, of course.”
Oh God, thought Harry. Does Miss Giveny have the sense to get out the decent cups? She’d better not be using those ridiculous Styrofoam things.
“Could you excuse me a moment, while I check on something with my secretary?”
“Of course, Mr. Jenkins, please take your time.” As soon as the door closed, Albert Chin rifled through a stack of files on the credenza behind Harry’s desk and found the file marked Deighton. M.\will. In moments, he had scanned the most recent copy of Marjorie’s will.
Harry found Miss Giveny in the kitchen unplugging the kettle. There they were: two Styrofoam cups on the counter, with those dreadful plastic stirrers sticking out of them.
“Really, Miss Giveny. Get the proper cups out, please! Make some real coffee, if you don’t mind.”
The cups and saucers rattled in her hands when she took them from the cupboard. Glaring at her employer, she sniffed and said, “As you wish, sir.”
“And by the way,” Harry continued to grumble, “we have some excellent work, courtesy of Mr. Chin. And, I’ll need you at Miss Deighton’s at four today for will instructions. Mr. Chin’s offers are for noon tomorrow.” Abruptly, he turned from his secretary’s glare and headed back to his office.
Opening the door, Harry saw his new client examining the prints on the far wall. Swiftly, Chin seated himself. “I was admiring the framed sketches. Are they the law courts?”
“Yes, and they’re of some historical significance. Are you interested in art?”
Chin nodded. “Indeed, Mr. Jenkins, I am fascinated with the history of this beautiful city. In developing lands, we must always be sensitive to the history and architecture.”
A sharp rap came at the door. There stood Miss Giveny, tray in hand, laden with coffee cups, silver spoons, and even some biscuits.
“Thank you, Miss Giveny. Now, would you please ask our conveyancer to check the ownership of these lots at the registry office?” Harry handed her the list of properties.
He tried to glean information about his client’s background and the land assembly scheme as they sipped their coffee. While Chin answered all questions carefully and with the utmost politeness, Harry felt just as much in the dark as before.
“Have you many real estate investments in Toronto, Mr. Chin?” he asked.
His new client spoke softly. “A few.”
Mr. Chin flashed a broad smile. One incisor was neatly capped in gold. All the other teeth gleamed with impeccable whiteness. “As I said, it is beautiful and one of the safest and cleanest cities in the world.”
“We have our share of crime too,” said Harry. Briefly, he wondered at his comment.
Mr. Chin nodded. “Naturally, Mr. Jenkins. Every country does. It is part of human nature.” He rose to go.
Harry sensed that his new client was not forthcoming. Something lay in the background. He remembered his own angry words when he had argued in endless circles with Laura: “You have to watch some clients. Their moral landscape is as surreal as the face of the moon. But there is a line, which most people can see. Some traipse back and forth across it, calculating all the risks of getting caught. Others don’t even know or care the line exists. Sure, they pay big money to lawyers, who get them out of scrapes, but I’m not one of them.”
Glancing at the two checks on his desk, he decided to withdraw from the deals if Marjorie’s interests were compromised.
Within half an hour, Miss Giveny entered his office, struggling with reams of curled-up fax paper containing the conveyancer’s search of title. Harry smiled. The fax machine was almost the last straw for the poor woman.
After he had spread the search results on the library table, his smile faded. The chain of ownership for all six lots was an ugly tangle. Over the past few years, the lots had been transferred back and forth among at least six or seven companies at ever-escalating prices. No names were assigned to such companies, only numbers. It was a strange pattern for residential and small commercial lots. But at the bottom, in a footnote, was penciled one corporate name: Zaimir.
Usually the search revealed the titles as they passed down the generations from one individual to another. Harry loved to trace a whole family tree through three or four generations. It would be tough to figure out the real owners in this swamp of faceless companies, identified only with numbers. Some help could be found at the corporations branch, but only the names of appointed directors were recorded, not the names of the shareholders, who were the real corporate owners. Ownership was often disguised in this fashion. Picking up his pen, he sought the root of the title—the starting point, required by law to be at least forty years back from the present.
He found simple beginnings in 1955, when the lots had been owned by the Deighton and Garvey families. Starting with the root, Harry’s drawing of the chain of ownership rapidly began to take on the appearance of an ancient and gnarled tree, with branches twisting out in all directions. A black snarl of confusion, he thought.
Staring out the library window, he contemplated the maze of rusted-iron fire escapes and rows of paint-chipped windows. He shook his head. There was no reason to stay in such abysmal quarters. Surely he could afford much better than this. Tomorrow, he would check the papers for new office space—something light and airy.