A 23-year old Russian dog walker attacked a competitor twice her age for poaching clients.
The Boston Globe
As I idly surveyed the lucite deal trinkets on my credenza my mind wandered back to the nineties, the go-go decade when leveraged buy-outs and initial public offerings of dog walking companies exploded, keeping me busy and making me rich. For a time.
I was a leader, an innovator in the field. I structured the “Tails in the Wind” deal, a model for the earn-out based transactions that drove prices in the formerly stodgy canine care sector through the roof. I goosed up what started out as simple asset sales into an EBITDA-driven market where a start-up of young dog-lovers with a dream–a four-strand leash that quadrupled productivity, for example–could become millionaires in two shakes of a Labradoodle’s tail.
But then came the crash: “pooper-scooper” laws. Suddenly what had been an industry with low overhead was forced to confront what the economists call “externalities”: to wit, if you take a dog outside, he’s going to drop dog doody where e’er he goeth.
And so I became an expert in dog service company bankruptcies.
That made for a dreary decade; arguing with Chapter 11 trustees that I ought to be able to “abandon” dog poop to him, for distribution to tacky trade creditors. Hey–that’s what bankruptcy’s for, a fresh start! I take the dogs out, they take their respective dumps, and come back refreshed.
But no, that wasn’t good enough for the Pecksniffs of la banca rotta—the broken bench that is the bankruptcy bar. Most of my companies were liquidated, not reorganized, and in many cases I ended up with nothing.
And so I ended up at the very bottom of the profession, drafting non-solicitation agreements that prohibited dog “poaching” from former employers. Penny-ante stuff, a real come-down from the heady days when I’d walk into posh restaurants with my girlfriend Pam and her golden retriever “Schuyler” and no maitre’d in town dared turn us away.
When times get tough you find out who your real friends are, and Pam and Schuyler became the punch line to the old joke:
Q: How do you spot the bride at a WASP wedding?
A: She’s the one kissing the golden retriever.
Pam took me for all I was worth–which wasn’t much at that point–with her palimony claim. Ha–I hod ta loff as the locals say here in Boston. I was her pal, but Schuyler was more–much more–than just woman’s best friend.
I opened my desk drawer and took a pull–a long one–on a pint bottle of J.T.S. Brown bourbon, the kind favored by Paul Newman as “Fast Eddie” Felsen in the movie “The Hustler.” It was the booze of loosers.
I was about to take another hit when I heard a knock on my frosted glass door. I winced–hoping it wasn’t the landlord, the copy machine company or my bank, to name just a few of my many creditors– but emboldened perhaps by the bourbon, I bit the bullet and opened it.
“Can I help you,” I said, as I surveyed a sultry Ann Miller look-alike.
“Are you Myles Decter, Dog Walker-Lawyer?”
“As a matter of fact, I am,” I said, sticking strictly to the facts. I surveyed my prospective client in all her glory: a drop neckline that fell far from her clavicle, demure little pearl earrings in lobes no bigger than kernels of Green Giant creamed corn, and a coy, coquettish look that screamed “come hither.”
“Are you in need of canine-related legal services?”
“Yes–I never thought I’d be ensnared in the tawdriness of our legal system, but sadly I am.”
“Why don’t you sit down and tell me exactly what happened, Ms. . . . .”
“Stief. Ashley Stief.”
She took a seat in a swivel chair, demurely shielding her knees from view the way the girls in the front row of my high school National Honor Society yearbook picture should have, but didn’t.
“Well, I was employed at Madame Ekaterina’s Pooch Patrol . . .”
“Um-hmm . . .”
” . . . but conditions became intolerable.”
“She made us pay for our own poop-scoops, and we had to wash them ourselves at the end of each shift.”
I consulted Massachusetts General Laws chapter 93QQ, the Dog Walking Employee Protection Act. “Go on,” I said. “I’m just looking something up.”
“I told her I couldn’t stand it anymore when she made me stay late one night and handwash the slimy green tennis balls.”
“Did she provide rubber gloves?”
“And was the water heated to a temperature of not less than one hundred and forty (140) degrees Fahrenheit?”
“No, they had to be washed in cold water with Woolite. By the way, how did you do that?”
“That little parenthetical thing, where you gave the number in both figures and words?”
“It’s a lawyer thing. In case there’s a conflict, words control figures.”
“Yes–as Casey Stengel used to say ‘You could look it up.’ It’s in Uniform Commercial Code section 3-118(c).”
“You are a fascinating man,” she said breathlessly.
She leaned into me, but not in the phony-baloney way that Fortune 100 babe means. She was all-woman, and I was pretty sure I could make her all mine–if I played my cards right.
“That’s a subject on which reasonable people can differ,” I replied.
“You’re just being modest.”
“I have a lot to be modest about. So anyway–you decided to leave Ekaterina. Then what?”
“Well, I have to eat, and the only profession I know is dog walking. So, I contacted some of my old clients.”
“You talk to dogs?”
“I mean their owners, silly.”
“I figured as much. And they agreed to switch their business from Ekaterina to you?”
“Is there something wrong with that?”
“It depends on what you signed when you went to work for her.”
“Well, there was a little something . . . I didn’t think too much about it. It was called”–here she stuck her little tongue out of one side of her mouth and looked dreamily off into space as she searched her memory–“a Non-Disclosure, Non-Competition, Non-Solicitation, Non-Circumvention Don’t You Dare Try to Steal My Clients Agreement.”
“I’d say that probably covers all the bases,” I said wearily. I don’t mind taking the field against a tough opponent, but I like a fighting chance. “Do you happen to have a copy of it?”
“Why yes, I believe I do,” she said as she rummaged through her purse, tossing out tissues, lipsticks, a compact, nail polish, an emery board and a Black & Decker HT-22 hedge trimmer, with dual-action pre-hardened steel blades that cut quickly and cleanly through even the thickest hedges and shrubs. “Here it is,” she said finally, and handed me a legal document wrapped in one of those old-fashioned blue backing sheets.
I perused the text and found it to be airtight. There was no way out of it for Ms. Stieff–unless, I could convince a judge it was onerous, unconscionable, extortionate, an assault on human liberty that usurped the role of oppressor more properly fulfilled by elected officials.
“This Ekaterina woman–does she know you’ve been . . . walking the dogs?”
“Take a look at this!” she said as she hiked up her skirt to show me an ugly bruise and a visible dent in an otherwise gorgeous gam.
“Yoiks,” I said, and I meant it–whatever it meant. “She did that to you?”
“On the nosey,” she said over a lump in her throat.
“Has she threatened you with legal action?”
“I thought you’d never ask.”
“We hardly know each other.”
“I got this today by Certified Mail, Return Receipt Requested.”
“You picked up on proper legal correspondence style quickly.” I looked at the envelope and had to allow myself a mirthless little laugh.
“What’s so funny?” she asked.
“I know her lawyer well. All too well.”
“Who is it?”
“The Law Offices of Jeffrey R. Cusgrave, Esq., PLLC.”
“That’s just the envelope talking. Who is Jeffrey Cusgrave?”
“The most successful dog-walking lawyer in the whole darn state. He’s outside general counsel to Mutts on the March, Canine Companions, The Jim the Wonder Dog Foundation.”
“From Sedalia MO?”
“That’s the one. Anyway, he’s going to be a tough nut to crack.”
“Are you allowed to talk like that on the internet?”
“I was speaking literally. I suggest I repay his kindness with a suitably nasty letter, then we sit down with your adversary to negotiate a mutually-agreeable separation.”
“I wasn’t married to her.”
“Shifting meanings are the hallmark of modernist fiction. In the meantime, you and I are going to need to spend some serious time together preparing for what may be a very intense encounter.”
She stood up and took the measure of the man who was me. “I’m up for it if you are,” she said in a sultry voice. I noticed she had some romaine lettuce between her right canine and first bicuspid–probably a Caesar salad for lunch–but I didn’t care.
“Kiss me, you fool,” she said, channeling Theda Bara.
And so I did.
And so we became more than attorney-client, with the lousy excuse for privilege that comes with it, we became lovers, with real privileges. I hoped it wouldn’t interfere with the stone-cold aspect I like to take on as a brittle carapace for tough negotiations; on the other hand, I thought a little mad passion might serve as the tobasco that would set my tongue to burning with rage at the handcuffs, the straitjacket, that the overreaching NDNCNSNC Agreement had bound my client with.
“Hello–Jeffrey,” I said archly as we entered the conference room at his luxurious offices.
“Hello–Myles. How’s business?” he asked, knowing full well that for me it stank, while for him things were obviously going swimmingly.
“Fine, busy,” I replied.
“You know Chaucer’s Sergeant of the Law always seemed busier than he was.”
Good old Cusgrave–never one to wear his erudition lightly, especially if he could put it to good use busting my chops.
“Is that from the Classics Comics edition?” I muttered by way of riposte. “This is my client, Ms. Ashley Stief.”
“How do you do,” Cusgrave said with affected courtliness. “Is that Stief, like the stuffed animals?”
“Yes, but no relation,” Ashley replied with a cool, detached air. I’d warned her that Cusgrave might try to throw off her sense of composure by asking her apparently irrelevant question about stuffed animals.
We were ushered into a conference room where the villianessa was sitting, cold as the Russian steppe, trying to disguise suppressed fury by appearing bored. It might have worked on a rookie, but not on me. I’ve seen that look on the faces of dozens of high-handed dog walking impresarios. They give my gals a leash, and they think they can keep them on it.
Our adversary was, I have to admit, an impressive young woman. She had taken a public company, International Dog Walkers, Inc., private in a reverse-double-bank shot recapitalization that had won “Deal of the Year” at the Canine Finance Association’s annual chivaree in Vegas. Where she got the money to pull the whole thing off was a mystery, as was so much else about her, but then she was Russian.
“Now,” Cusgrave began in his unctuous fashion, “since your client is under contract not to compete with my client, and not to solicit her canine customers, why don’t we begin by talking about how big a settlement payment she’s going to make to mine.”
“Not so fast, Cusgrave,” I snapped.
His client erupted at my effrontery. “You will never walk a dog in this town again!” she said through clenched teeth to Ashley.
“There’s a little matter of unfair business practices,” I continued, unperturbed.
My adversary emitted a little snort, like Old Faithful warming up for the afternoon show. “My agreements have been tested and approved by courts from coast to coast.”
“Oh yeah? Well do they also approve of this?”
I lifted Ashley’s leg up on the conference table, having previously marked it with one of those little exhibit stickers.
“What is this, Ekaterina?” Cusgrave sputtered.
“I hoff never seen that bruise before in my life,” she hissed, although with less authority than she possessed just a moment before.
“Can I have my leg back now?” Ashley asked.
“I have to maintain a clear chain of custody for all evidence,” I replied. “Now, Cusgrave, why don’t we just agree to tear up those iron-clad contracts of yours and we’ll be on our way.”
“You have no proof it was my client who kicked her,” Cusgrave said, at which point I dove under the table and, with as much professional dignity as I could muster under the circumstances, pulled off one of Ekaterina’s come-fuck-me pumps.
“Let’s just try a little experiment,” I said.
Cusgrave gave me the best steely-eyed look in his repertoire. “If the pump don’t fit, you must acquit,” he said, channeling Johnny Cochran.
“You’re on,” I said, and I placed the toe of the pump on the leg of my lover–and try saying that five times fast.
“Be gentle,” Ashley said. “It still hurts–badly.”
“Actually,” I said, “in this case you use the adjective ‘bad’ not the adverb ‘badly’ because we’re talking about your condition, not the manner in which you . . .”
“Would you get on with it councillor?” Cusgrave shouted.
“Sure, sure.” I took out the Kodak Instamatic I’ve been using to record personal injuries since I first got out of law school, and snapped a shot of shoe next to bruise. Like two peas in a pod.
Cusgrave turned to the young Russian and proceeded to quiz her sotto voce. “Dogs were my dogs,” she said in a voice that recalled Natasha from The Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons of my youth. “Like Crimea, they have always been mine! She is poacher–I take back!”
“Um, Ekaterina, that’s not how things work here in America,” Cusgrave said with a weak smile as he looked over at me. “Perhaps we can settle this . . . amicably?”
“As Amicably as a low six-figure check to enable my girl . . . I mean my client to begin her life anew in a well-capitalized dog walking business, free to roam the streets of the western suburbs of Boston.”
Lawyer looked at client–client looked back. “Have you got that kind of money?” he asked.
“I find money like that behind sofa cushion–let me be rid of her!”
“O-kay,” then Cusgrave whimpered. “How much were you thinking.”
I paused for a second, calculating in my head the purchase price for Tails in the Wind, the biggest deal I’ve ever done. “I was thinking . . . $9,999.95.”
Cusgrave exhaled a sigh of relief. “That–sounds reasonable. I thought you said six figures.”
“I did,” I said. “But two of them are to the right of the decimal point.”