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Everything isn't as successful as it appears in the life of hard-hitting civil attorney Maxwell Montgomery, who has his own way of tackling demons from the past. His self-appointed crusade to root out corruption in the church has cost him greatly, and the price continues to rise, as his personal life spirals out of control. His former love is engaged to someone else, and his troubles don't stop there. Maxwell is shouldering an unexpected burden of guilt when he is forced to wonder if his pursuits have landed an innocent man in prison. Instead of dealing with his conscience, Maxwell shoves the emotions deep within and presses on to the next case. Along the way, he amasses quite a list of enemies, including his former paralegal, who is desperately seeking retribution. With the weight of his mission becoming too heavy to bear, Maxwell doesn't know where to turn or whom to trust. Despite his high-flying lifestyle, his past finally catches up to him. Maxwell is still unwilling to surrender, however, until an unavoidable set of circumstances forces him to make a life-changing decision. Having fallen so far, his only shot at redemption is through God's mercy, but will the mighty Maxwell Montgomery forego his pride and accept it?
Release date: October 27, 2015
Publisher: Urban Christian
Print pages: 288
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“Make no mistake about it, he’s a snake, just like the rest of them,” Maxwell Montgomery declared as he reared back in his favorite chair, comfortably situated in his private office.
Garrett, his lead private investigator, didn’t respond immediately.
Maxwell carried on with his tirade. “You know I’m telling the truth.” The infamous civil attorney leapt to his feet and approached Garrett, who was sitting across the room. “Name one honest preacher that you know.” Not allowing Garrett ample time for a response, Maxwell continued. “See? You can’t think of one, not a single one,” he said, pointing at Garrett and bursting into a flurry of laughter. “Not one.”
“Whatever you say, boss.”
“Because you know I’m right,” he said, throwing a right jab into the air. “A bunch of self-righteous, money-grubbing, power-hungry hypocrites, every one of them.” Maxwell sailed back to his chair in an animated fashion. “When you think about it, I shouldn’t complain. They’ve all been good to me.”
“How?” Garrett asked, seeming confused.
“Heck, look at this.” He tapped on a stack of files on his desk. “Case after case, they’ve made me a boatload of cash,” he said, rubbing his index finger and thumb together briskly.
Garrett’s head tilted to the side, and his lips tightened. “Can’t deny that.”
“I know you can’t. Man, these cats are a gold mine. Uncovering their sin is as easy as taking candy from a baby. I have more work than I can handle, going after these weasels.” He plopped into his seat and began tossing a foam stress ball into the air. “Some of these cases blow my mind. Remember the priest in Allentown who secretly had three sets of children and wouldn’t agree to pay child support for any of them?”
“I remember. One mother was a nursing student who was struggling to stay in school.”
“Yeah, and he wouldn’t pay her the measly five hundred dollars a month that she needed,” Maxwell said.
Garrett leaned forward and rubbed his head. “I bet if he could do it all over again, he’d gladly pay the five hundred. Heck, he’d probably be willing to pay five thousand a month.”
“I bet he would too, because once I found out about his other two sets of children, who he’d conveniently hidden from the archdiocese, paying that skimpy child support was the least of his worries. Staying out of prison for messing around with a seventeen-year-old girl took precedence.”
“And the church wasn’t too happy about the kind of publicity you were threatening to send their way.”
“That’s right.” Maxwell chuckled. “I did put some heat on them.” He spun a little bit in his chair. “I love my job, and what’s great about it is that there are plenty more creeps out there begging for me to come after them. Take Bishop Jones. He practically dared me to bring him down, and that whole cast of characters at Greater Metropolitan Church.”
Satisfaction washed over Maxwell as he recalled the case. He’d practiced law for fifteen years, and every single day throughout his career, Maxwell had dreamed of bringing down the mighty bishop Ellis Jones, the man who’d single-handedly destroyed the Montgomery household. Nearly three decades ago, his parents had been a cog in the mighty preacher’s wheel of deceit. The mere memory used to be painful and would ignite extreme disdain in Maxwell, but that was before the bishop was sent to prison last year. Now Maxwell reveled in the bishop’s predicament. Jones had lost his church, his freedom, and most importantly, his reputation.
Maxwell’s parents had suffered a similar fate when they blindly served as loyal church members under the pastor. Little did they know back then that their senior pastor was running a get-rich-quick scheme, which ultimately sucked money from the congregation. Instead of Jones taking responsibility when the scheme was exposed, he let Deacon Paul Montgomery, Sr., and the church secretary, Ethel Montgomery, take the fall. They paid a high price. Besides losing their house and their money, Maxwell and his sister were left orphaned when their parents had to spend time in prison for fraud, while Jones spent every night with his family. Worst of all, as soon as Maxwell was old enough, he left home, intent on never returning. So far he’d been very successful with not having to interact with his family in person, except on extremely rare occasions. Unfortunately, he hadn’t been as successful with avoiding their periodic calls, which had become more frequent since his father had a heart attack last summer. The situation wasn’t ideal but necessary. Knowing that Bishop Jones was experiencing his own form of family separation was beyond comforting. For Maxwell, it was justice.
He squished the ball extra hard, feeling vindicated. “They all got exactly what they deserved. They’re locked up in hell.”
Garrett eased to the edge of his seat as his gaze plummeted to the floor. “Everybody, including Deacon Burton?”
Maxwell’s adrenaline careened through his body. He sent a searing stare in Garrett’s direction. “Yes, Deacon Burton too,” he said with such a jagged edge to his voice that it seemed to slice the air.
“If you say so.”
Garrett’s reply didn’t give Maxwell the validation that he would have appreciated, but it wasn’t required. He was at peace with the outcome. Maxwell had taken down a despicable clergyman who’d gotten away with so much for so long that he deserved a lifetime behind bars. If his staff was guilty by association, so be it. There were no regrets. Neither Garrett nor a band of church runners was going to change Maxwell’s mind. He pulled up to his desk and extracted a folder from the top of the pile.
“I can’t waste any more time on Greater Metropolitan. That case is done, and there’s a whole lot more work for us to do, which brings me to Faith Temple and Pastor Renaldo Harris.” His serious tone switched to a lighthearted one. With his thumb up, Maxwell extended his index finger and let his hand slowly rotate forward as he curled his other fingers inward, turning his hand into an imaginary gun. “The so-called mighty man is the next one in my crosshairs.” He shut his right eye and drew his imaginary pistol hand closer. “Pow, pow, and that will be the end of him.”
“I’m not so sure it’s going to be that easy,” Garrett replied. “I’ve been investigating this man and his ministry for seven months, and I haven’t found a single shred of impropriety.” Garrett scratched his head. “You’re not going to want to hear this, but we might have found an honest pastor in the Philly area.”
“Pu-lease! You can believe that he’s hiding something. You’re just not looking in the right places.” Maxwell grimaced. “What’s got you spooked?”
“I’m being careful, unlike you, who’s turning this thing into something personal.”
“Personal?” Maxwell responded in a slightly elevated voice. “This is business. Always has been, always will be,” was the lie Maxwell uttered. Garrett grunted, but Maxwell wasn’t dissuaded. He hurriedly shifted the conversation away from himself. “Usually, you’re on top of your game, but looks like you’re slipping, my man.”
“One of us is slipping,” Garrett said and got up to leave.
Before Garrett reached the door, Maxwell asked, “Aren’t you forgetting something?”
The investigator froze, slid his hand into his pocket, and turned slowly.
“Well, do you have it?” Maxwell asked with slightly more force behind his words.
“Yeah, I have it.”
“Then what are you waiting on?” he said, beckoning for Garrett to approach the desk.
Garrett pulled a business card from his pocket. “I’m not sure this guy is legitimate. I haven’t gotten a chance to check him out yet. Give me a few days, and I’ll run the background check.”
He must be crazy, Maxwell thought as he kept beckoning for Garrett to come closer. Months of no credible leads, and Garrett expected him to wait around for a ridiculous background check. Maxwell was looking for a whistle-blower from Faith Temple Church, not a credible employee. He grabbed the card. “We’ll check him out and see where this goes.”
“There’s always a clown out there seeking their fifteen minutes of fame. Don’t get duped by a liar,” Garrett commented.
“I’m not worried,” Maxwell replied as he toyed with the card. “Besides, I can live with a liar, so long as they can hold up under intense cross-examination in the courtroom.”
“So, basically, you don’t care about the truth?”
“Truth . . . Now, I guess that depends on whose truth you’re talking about.” Maxwell grinned. He didn’t fault Garrett for being naive. Maxwell had handled enough cases to know that sometimes the truth needed a nudge, and he was precisely the man to do the nudging. “I’ll catch up with you later,” he added, eager to end the meeting.
As soon as his office was empty, Maxwell called his administrative assistant. “I need you to drop everything and get a meeting set up with a potential client this afternoon.” He stared at the business card before him. “Let me know when you’re ready, and I’ll give you Mr. Layne’s number.”
“Your schedule is pretty full this afternoon, all the way until seven thirty.”
He pinched his lips and made his expectations clear. “This is top priority. Make it happen. Move my meetings around if you have to. Just get this guy into my office this afternoon.”
Maxwell cut her off and said, “Do you hear me? Get it done, no excuses. If he’s alive, I want him in my office. Send a limo, a paycheck, whatever is required to get him here. Do you understand?” He said it in a way that must have enabled her to process the information accurately, because his assistant didn’t offer any other resistance. Good for her, because Maxwell was growing weary of paying people who weren’t getting the job done. Betrayals weren’t to be tolerated in his world. He hadn’t allowed it from his own parents during his childhood in Chester, Pennsylvania. Twenty-some years later and nothing had changed, which suited him just fine.
Noon had come and gone. As 5:00 p.m. approached, Maxwell emerged from a conference room, with a young lady and an older woman on his heels, as his assistant stood nearby, poised to interrupt.
“Don’t you worry one bit,” Maxwell told the women as he shook the older one’s hand. The younger woman was wiping her eyes with a tissue and sniffling. “I’ve seen this more times than I care to admit. Your granddaughter is not at fault, and I’ll see to it that the church administrator pays handsomely. He won’t do this to anyone else. I can promise you that,” Maxwell said, with bravado oozing. “Dry your eyes, young lady. You did the right thing in coming forward. I’ll take care of this.”
His assistant came a few steps closer but didn’t interrupt.
“We trust you, Mr. Montgomery,” the grandmother said, grabbing Maxwell’s hand. “At first we didn’t want to say anything, because I don’t feel quite right taking the church to court.”
Maxwell was used to his clients being reluctant to expose failures in the religious community. Some had even stated that suing the church and clergymen was the same as suing God. Maxwell didn’t agree, but it wouldn’t make a difference if he did. He wasn’t particularly interested in suing God, but Maxwell wasn’t running away from the challenge, either. With his assistant anxiously waiting to give him an update about his next meeting, Maxwell had to cut his wrap-up short.
“Trust me, you’re doing the right thing. Wrong is wrong, and your church leaders should know that better than anyone. I’ll be in touch next week,” he said, shaking their hands hastily and ushering them to the door.
Once they left, Maxwell’s assistant rushed toward him. “Mr. Layne is in your office.”
“What? How long has he been waiting?” Maxwell asked, briskly walking toward his private office.
“About twenty minutes,” she answered, keeping stride with him.
“I told you this was top priority. You should have told me twenty minutes ago that he was here,” Maxwell muttered, lowering his voice to barely a whisper before he got to his office.
“I didn’t want to disturb your other meeting,” she stated timidly.
About a foot from his door, Maxwell faced her directly. “When I tell you something is a top priority, that means everything else comes second. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” she said as her gaze dipped.
“Good, because if you want to keep your job here, you need to be clear on how I work and what I expect.” He placed his hand on the doorknob. “Are we clear?”
“Hold all my calls and cancel my remaining appointments.” The assistant nodded in affirmation. “Oh, and, uh, unless the building is burning down, don’t interrupt me, period.”
As Maxwell turned the knob, he turned on his convincing appeal, determined to capitalize on the potential plaintiff sitting in his office. “Mr. Layne, thanks for taking time to meet with me,” Maxwell said as he closed the door.
The guy rose for the greeting.
“Sit, sit,” Maxwell said in a jovial fashion as he took a seat too. “I hope you didn’t have to take too much time from work to meet with me.”
“Oh no. I haven’t worked in almost two years, not since I left Faith Temple.”
“Yeah, and the lady who called me from your office said there was a hundred dollars in it for me if I could come in today. Is that true?”
Maxwell hadn’t been made aware of the payment by his assistant but had no problem with her tactics. As a matter of fact, he’d applaud her tenacity later. “Uh, yes, of course,” he stammered. “Cash or check?”
Mr. Layne squirmed. “Cash is king.”
“Cash it is,” Maxwell replied. “Now, let’s get down to business. What do you know about Pastor Harris and Faith Temple?”
The man leaned back. “How much time do you have?”
“As much as you need.” The possibility of getting incriminating evidence was too exhilarating for Maxwell, and he had trouble containing himself.
“I don’t half know where to begin.”
Maxwell wished there was a way to plop a memory stick in the man’s head to extract the necessary information and then send him on his way with the hundred dollars. Dreaming was a waste of time, and he knew it. Truth was, Maxwell could already tell this was going to be a painful extraction. He braced himself for the man’s long-winded recounting of the story, which seemed to be in the making.
“That Pastor Harris needs somebody to kick his behind.”
“Would that be you?” Maxwell asked.
“Nah, not me. He kind of has a restraining order against me. I can’t go near him.”
Maxwell struggled not to show any reaction. He didn’t know whether to burst out in laughter at Mr. Layne’s predicament or kick him out for being stupid. He’d reserve judgment until after hearing more. “Do you mind telling me what happened between you and the pastor?”
“Long story short, Pastor Harris fired me because his wife had a soft spot for me.”
“You heard me right. I lost my forty-three-thousand-dollar-a-year job as director of music because that Pastor Renaldo Harris is the jealous type.”
Maxwell still couldn’t quite figure our Mr. Layne. Desperate to believe there was substance in his revelation, he was forced to block out the mounting red flags and kept listening.
“That man ruined my life. I’ve been unemployed for two years, while the pastor drives around in his fancy car. I thought the church would block my unemployment benefits, but they didn’t. I’ll admit that helped out for six months, but that ran out months ago. Since then I’ve been doing odd jobs here and there. Nothing permanent.” The man finally paused, but his silence was brief. “I can’t stand being broke like this. Pastor Harris probably eats steak and lobster every weekend, while my family gets by on cereal, beans, and hot dogs.”
The story sounded eerily similar to Maxwell’s past. He knew too well how it felt to be starving while the church leader lived lavishly on the sacrifices of a bunch of gullible followers. Maxwell’s compassion kicked in. “You have a family?”
“A wife and three kids. I’m ashamed to say that my wife has been juggling two jobs to make ends meet while I’ve been out of work.”
“You haven’t been able to find any job in two years?” Maxwell asked.
Mr. Layne took offense. “None paying that kind of money. Pastor Harris robbed me of my blessing. That job was made for me, and he took it away, just because he could. This isn’t right, and there ought to be something I can do to get my job back. I know you’re that big-time attorney that helps people get paid. Think you can help me?”
Maxwell didn’t respond rapidly. His internal struggle was raging. Although in his desperation, he had committed to overlooking the red flags, his instincts didn’t allow him to be as accommodating. Something was off with Mr. Layne. Maxwell felt it, but he didn’t have anyone else sitting in his office with a beef against Faith Temple or, better yet, Pastor Harris. Maxwell lowered his expectations and played along. “I’ve been known to settle a few hefty civil cases when circumstances warrant that level of action. To be honest, Mr. Layne, as ethically and morally wrong as it might have been to fire you, Pennsylvania is an at-will employment state.”
Mr. Layne had a bewildered look, which Maxwell picked up on.
“Basically, that means an employer can fire you for no reason.”
“But that doesn’t make sense. How can you fire somebody when they have a family to take care of?”
Maxwell didn’t care to give Mr. Layne a legal course. “Doesn’t have to make sense. It’s the law. And unless your civil rights were violated when you got fired, I doubt that you have a case.”
“Seriously, you’re going to let him get away with this?”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t see how I can help you, unless your rights were violated.”
Mr. Layne pondered this. “Can we get him on anything else?”
“Anything . . . You know he’s not perfect. What if I know about some other stuff?”
The comment garnered Maxwell’s undivided attention. Now they were getting somewhere. “Are you talking about mismanagement of church funds, sexual harassment, fraud, or what?” Maxwell questioned. Then he mentioned a few more of the usual infractions.
There was a knock on the door. Maxwell ignored it.
Mr. Layne peered around the room, as if he were searching for notes on the wall, and then spoke. “Actually, I do know more, a lot more.” He started cracking his knuckles. “I didn’t want to put the pastor’s business out there, but there’s a whole lot more to tell if the money is right.”
There was a second knock on the door.
“Hmm,” Maxwell groaned. “Well, I’m definitely interested in hearing what you have to say.”
The knocking persisted.
“Excuse me for a second.” Maxwell was more than irritated. Unless the building was on fire, Mr. Layne wasn’t the only one who’d be in the unemployment line. Maxwell yanked the door open and stepped out, then eased the door shut behind him. “It doesn’t look like the building is on fire. So why are you interrupting me?”
His assistant struggled to speak up.
“I asked you a question. Why did you interrupt me after I gave you specific instructions not to bother me during this meeting?” He spewed his words like nails as his fury mounted.
“Your mother called and insisted that I let you know your father is back in the hospital.”
“I didn’t know what to do. She was very upset and begged me to get you on the phone. She was hoping you could come down to Delaware this evening.”
Maxwell shut his eyelids and rested his forehead in the palm of his hand. When would he catch a break from those people called family? As angry as he should have been, it wasn’t his assistant’s fault that his mother had stirred a panic. “It’s okay. Call her back and tell her I’ll stop by in the morning,” he said, sounding totally drained.
Just then Mr. Layne pulled the door open and pushed past Maxwell.
“Mr. Layne, we aren’t finished. Where are you going?”
A bit cagey, he replied, “The wife is going to be home in an hour. She’ll be wondering where I am if I’m not there. So I’m out of here.”
Maxwell wanted to scream amid the rising chaos but stayed calm. “I understand.”
“Yeah, you know how those wives can be,” Mr. Layne said, chuckling.
Actually, Maxwell had no idea and considered it a gift. “Go on home, and we’ll follow up with you. You’ll get a call either from me or from a man named Garrett in the next couple of days.”
“Cool. I’m glad to finally get some help. Money has been tight.” Mr. Layne cleared his throat. “Speaking of money, can I get my hundred dollars?”
“Sure. Wait here.” Maxwell went to get the money from the petty cash envelope in his desk drawer. When he returned, Mr. Layne snatched it out of his hand.
“Appreciate it,” he said, folding the five twenty-dollar bills and sliding them into his pocket. There was an awkward pause, and then Mr. Layne continued talking. “Mr. Montgomery, there’s no way I’m going to get home in time on the bus. You think I can get that limo to take me back home?”
“Why not?” Maxell turned to his assistant. “Can you arrange the ride for him?” he asked. “Tell them Mr. Layne is in a hurry, and I’ll pay extra.”
“I like the way you work,” Mr. Layne commented.
“Thanks again for coming in. We’ll be in touch,” Maxwell smirked and then retreated inside his office. He leaned his head against the door, wanting to vanish. Between Pastor Harris and his father, peace was nowhere to be found. Time stood still as Maxwell rested in the moment. Eventually, he’d move away from the door, call Garrett, and put him in touch with Mr. Layne. But for now, he’d cling to his imaginary solitude, which was evaporating with each breath.
Maxwell pressed the accelerator, anxious to get the last few miles behind him on his reluctant drive to Wilmington Hospital. It was nine thirty Tuesday morning. He would have already been planted at his desk for at least two hours had his mother not pleaded with him to come to Delaware.
Why was she insistent about him coming to the hospital? Didn’t she know he had no interest in being there? He wasn’t willing to come and play the caring son role each time his father had a heart episode. A stable bridge hadn’t been built over the valley of distance between him and his father. He’d told his mother and sister to call him only in the case of a dire emergency. He doubted that this run fit the criteria. So why did he need to be at the hospital twice in the same month?
He looked into the distance, beyond the white dashed lines on the expressway. Far off in the haze, he could see the twenty-three years that had dawdled by since he’d run from the crowded two-bedroom apartment his parents called home. Back then he’d changed his name from Paul to Maxwell and . . .
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