Chapter 10

The New Year began with another funeral. Miss Inez Perdue died after a lengthy and painful deterioration of her kidneys. She was sixty-one years old, a widow, with two adult children who'd luckily left Bowmore as soon as they were old enough. Uninsured, she died in her small home on the outskirts of town, surrounded by friends and her pastor, Denny Ott. After he left her, Pastor Ott went to the cemetery behind the Pine Grove Church and, with the help of another deacon, began digging her grave, number seventeen.

As soon as the crowd thinned, the body of Miss Inez was loaded into an ambulance and taken directly to the morgue at the Forrest County Medical Center in Hattiesburg.

There, a doctor hired by the Payton law firm spent three hours removing tissue and blood and conducting an autopsy. Miss Inez had agreed to this somber procedure when she signed a contract with the Paytons a year earlier. A probe of her organs and an examination of her tissue might produce evidence that one day would be crucial in court.

Eight hours after her death, she was back in Bowmore, in a cheap casket tucked away for the night in the sanctuary of the Pine Grove Church.

Pastor Ott had long since convinced his flock that once the body is dead and the spirit ascends into heaven, the earthly rituals are silly and of little significance.

Funerals, wakes, embalming, flowers, expensive caskets-all were a waste of time and money. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. God sent us into the world naked and that's how we should leave.

The following day he conducted Miss Inez's service before a full house that included Wes and Mary Grace, as well as a couple of other lawyers looking on with curiosity.

During these services, and he was certainly becoming accomplished, Pastor Ott strove to make the occasion uplifting, at times even humorous. Miss Inez was the backup piano player for the church, and though she played with heavy hands and great enthusiasm, she usually missed about half the notes. And since she was practically deaf, she had no idea how bad she sounded. Recollections of her performances lightened the mood.

It would be easy to bash Krane Chemical and its multitude of sins, but Pastor Ott never mentioned the company. She was dead and nothing could change that. Everybody knew who killed her.

After a one-hour service, the pallbearers lifted her wooden casket onto Mr. Earl Mangram's authentic buckboard, the only one left in the county. Mr. Mangram had been an early victim of Krane, burial number three in Denny Ott's career, and he specifically requested that his casket be hauled away from the church and to the cemetery on his grandfather's buckboard with his ancient mare, Blaze, under tack. The short procession had been such a hit that it became an instant tradition at Pine Grove.

When Miss Inez's casket was placed on the carriage, Pastor Ott, standing next to Blaze, pulled her bridle and the old quarter horse began lumbering along, leading the little parade away from the front of the church, down the side road, and back to the cemetery.

Holding fast to the southern tradition, her farewell was followed by a potluck get-together in the fellowship hall. For a people so accustomed to dying, the post-burial meal allowed the mourners to lean on one another and share their tears. Pastor Ott made the rounds, chatting with everyone, praying with some.

The great question at these dark moments was, who was next? In many ways, they felt like prisoners. Isolated, suffering, not sure which one would be chosen by the executioner.

Rory Walker was a fourteen-year-old who was losing ground fast in his decadelong battle with leukemia. He was probably next. He was at school and missed the Perdue service, but his mother and grandmother were there.

The Paytons huddled in a corner with Jeannette Baker and talked about everything but the case. Over paper plates sparsely covered with a broccoli-and-cheese casserole, they learned that she was now working as a night clerk in a convenience store and had her eye on a nicer trailer. She and Bette were fighting. Bette had a new boyfriend who slept over often and seemed much too interested in Jeannette's legal situation.

Jeannette looked stronger and her mind was sharper. She had gained a few pounds and said she was no longer taking all those antidepressants. People were treating her differently. She explained in a very low voice as she watched the others: "For a while these people were really proud. We struck back. We won. Finally, somebody on the outside had listened to us, all these poor little people in this poor little town. Everybody circled around me and said sweet things. They cooked for me, cleaned the trailer, somebody was always stopping by. Anything for poor little Jeannette.

But as the days went by, I started hearing the money talk. How long will the appeal take? When will the money come in? What was I planning to do with it? And on and on. Bette's younger brother stayed over one night, drank too much, and tried to borrow a thousand dollars. We got into a fight and he said everybody in town knew that I'd already received some of the money. I was shocked. People were talking. All kinds of rumors. Twenty million this and twenty million that. How much will I give away?

What kind of new car am I going to get? Where will I build my big new house? They watch everything I buy now, which isn't much.

And the men-every tomcat in four counties is calling, wanting to stop by and say hello or take me to the movies. I know for a fact that two of them are not even divorced yet. Bette knows their cousins. I couldn't care less about men."

Wes glanced away.

"Are you talking to Denny?" Mary Grace asked.

"Some. And he's wonderful. He tells me to keep praying for those who gossip about me. I pray for them all right. I really do. But I get the feeling that they're praying harder for me and the money." She looked around suspiciously.

Dessert was banana pudding. It was also an excuse to drift away from Jeannette. The Paytons had several other clients present, and each needed to be given some attention.

When Pastor Ott and his wife began clearing the tables, the mourners finally headed for the door.

Wes and Mary Grace met with Denny in his study next to the sanctuary. It was time for the post-burial legal update. Who had fallen ill? What were the new diagnoses?

Who in Pine Grove had hired another law firm?

"This Clyde Hardin thing is out of control," Denny said. "They're advertising on the radio and once a week in the paper, full page. They're almost guaranteeing money.

People are flocking in."

Wes and Mary Grace had walked down Main Street prior to the service for Miss Inez.

They wanted to see firsthand the new screening clinic next to F. Clyde's office.

On the sidewalk, there were two large coolers filled with bottled water and packed with ice. A teenager with a Bintz amp; Bintz T-shirt handed them a bottle each. The label read: "Pure Spring Water. Compliments of Bintz amp; Bintz, Attorneys." There was a toll-free number.

"Where does the water come from?" Wes had asked the kid.

"Not from Bowmore," came the quick retort.

As Mary Grace chatted up the boy, Wes stepped inside, where he joined three other potential clients who were waiting to get themselves screened. None gave any indication of being ill. Wes was greeted by a comely young lady of no more than eighteen, who handed him a brochure, a form on a clipboard, and a pen and instructed him to fill out both front and back. The brochure was professionally done and gave the basics of the allegations against Krane Chemical, a company now "proven in court" to have contaminated the drinking water of Bowmore and Cary County. All inquiries were directed to the firm of Bintz amp; Bintz in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The questions on the form were all background and medical, except for the last two: (1) Who referred you to this office? and (2) Do you know anyone else who might be a potential victim of Krane Chemical? If so, list names and phone numbers.

As Wes was scribbling on the form, the doctor entered the waiting room from somewhere in the rear and called for the next patient. He wore a white physician's office jacket, complete with a stethoscope around his neck. He was either Indian or Pakistani and looked no older than thirty.

After a few minutes inside, Wes excused himself and left.

"It's small-time stuff," Wes said to Denny. "They'll sign up a few hundred cases, most of them frivolous. Then they'll file a class action in federal court. If they're lucky, it'll be settled years from now for a few thousand bucks each. The lawyers will skim off some nice fees. But there's a better chance that Krane will never settle, and if that happens, then all those new clients get nothing and Clyde Hardin will be forced to go back to drafting deeds."

"How many from your church have signed up?" Mary Grace asked.

"I don't know. They don't tell me everything."

"We're not worried about it," Wes said. "Frankly, we have enough of these cases to keep us busy for a long time."

"Did I see a couple of spies at the service today?" Mary Grace asked.

"Yes. One was a lawyer named Crandell, from Jackson. He's been hanging around since the trial. He's actually stopped by here to say hello. Just a hustler."

"I've heard of him," Wes said. "Has he hooked any cases?"

"Not from this church."

They discussed the lawyers for a while, then had their usual conversation about Jeannette and the new pressures she was facing. Ott was spending time with her and was confident she was listening to him.

After an hour they wrapped up their meeting. The Paytons drove back to Hattiesburg, another client in the ground, another injury case now converted into a wrongful-death suit.

The preliminary paperwork arrived at the Mississippi Supreme Court in the first week of January. The trial transcript, 16,200 pages, was finalized by the court reporters, and copies were sent to the clerk of the court and to the lawyers. An order was entered giving Krane Chemical, the appellant, ninety days to file its brief. Sixty days after that, the Paytons would file their rebuttal.

In Atlanta, Jared Kurtin passed the file to the firm's appellate unit, the "eggheads," as they were known, brilliant legal scholars who functioned poorly in normal circles and were best kept in the library. Two partners, four associates, and four paralegals were already hard at work on the appeal when the massive transcript arrived and they had their first look at every word that was recorded at trial. They would dissect it and find dozens of reasons for a reversal.

In a lesser section of Hattiesburg, the transcript was plopped on the plywood table in The Pit. Mary Grace and Sherman gawked at it in disbelief, almost afraid to touch it. Mary Grace had once tried a case that went on for ten full days. Its transcript had been twelve hundred pages long, and she read it so many times that the sight of it made her ill. Now this.

If they had an advantage, it was because they had been in the courtroom throughout the entire trial and knew most of what was in the transcript. Indeed, Mary Grace appeared on more pages than any other participant.

But it would be read many times, and procrastination was not an option. The trial and its verdict would be cleverly and savagely attacked by Krane's lawyers. Jeannette Baker's lawyers had to match them argument for argument, word for word.

In the heady days after the verdict, the plan had been for Mary Grace to concentrate on the Bowmore cases while Wes worked the other files to generate income. The publicity had been priceless; the phones rang incessantly. Every nutcase in the Southeast suddenly needed the Paytons. Lawyers mired in hopeless lawsuits called for help. Family members who'd lost loved ones to cancer saw the verdict as a hopeful sign. And the usual assortment of criminal defendants, divorcing spouses, battered women, bankrupt businesses, slip-and-fall hustlers, and fired employees called or even stopped by in pursuit of these famous lawyers. Very few could pay a decent fee.

Legitimate personal injury cases, however, had proven scarce. The "Big One," the perfect case with clear liability and a defendant with deep pockets, the case upon which retirement dreams often rest, had not yet found its way to the Payton law firm.

There were a few more car wrecks and workers' compensation cases, but nothing worth a trial.

Wes worked feverishly to close as many files as possible, and with some success.

The rent was now current, at least at the office. All past-due wages had been paid.

Huffy and the bank were still on edge but afraid to push harder. No payments had been made, either on principal or on interest.