Justice McCarthy eased into her office late Saturday morning and found it deserted.
She flipped through her mail as she turned on her computer. Online, at her official e-mail address, there was the usual court business. At her personal address, there was a note from her daughter confirming dinner that night at her home in Biloxi.
There were notes from two men, one she'd been dating and one who was still a possibility.
She wore jeans, sneakers, and a brown tweed riding jacket her ex-husband gave her many years ago. There was no weekend dress code at the supreme court because only the clerks showed up.
Her chief clerk, Paul, materialized without a sound and said, "Good morning."
"What are you doing here?" she asked.
"The usual. Reading briefs."
"Anything of interest?"
"No." He tossed a magazine on her desk and said, "This one is on the way. Could be fun."
"What is it?"
"The big verdict from Cancer County. Forty-one million dollars. Bowmore."
"Oh yes," she said, picking up the magazine. Every lawyer and judge in the state claimed to know someone who knew something about the Baker verdict. The coverage had been extensive, during the trial and especially afterward.
It was often discussed by Paul and the other clerks. They were already watching it, anticipating the arrival in a few months of the appellate briefs.
The article covered all aspects of the Bowmore waste site and the litigation it created.
There were photos of the town, desolate and boarded up; photos of Mary Grace peering at the razor wire outside the Krane plant and sitting with Jeannette Baker under a shade tree, each holding a bottle of water; photos of twenty of the alleged victims blacks, whites, kids, and old folks. The central character, though, was Mary Grace, and her importance grew as the paragraphs flew by. It was her case, her cause. Bowmore was her town and her friends were dying.
Sheila finished the article and was suddenly bored with the office. The drive to Biloxi would take three hours. She left without seeing another person and headed south, in no particular hurry. She stopped for gas in Hattiesburg and, on a whim, turned east, suddenly curious about Cancer County.
When she presided over trials, Judge McCarthy often sneaked to the scene of the dispute for a furtive firsthand look at the site. The murky details of a tanker collision on a busy bridge became much clearer after she spent an hour on the bridge, alone, at night, at the precise moment of the accident. In a murder case, the defendant's claim of self-defense was discounted by her after she ventured into the alleyway where the body was found. A light from a warehouse window glared down, illuminating the spot. During the trial of a wrongful death at a railroad crossing, she drove the street night and day, twice stopping for trains, and became convinced the driver was at fault. She kept these opinions to herself, of course. The jury was the trier of fact, not the judge, but a strange curiosity often attracted her to the scene. She wanted to know the truth.
Bowmore was as bleak as the article said. She parked behind a church two blocks from Main Street and took a walk. It was unlikely that she would see another red BMW convertible in the town, and the last thing she wanted was attention.
Even for a Saturday, traffic and commerce were slow. Half the storefronts were boarded up, and only a few of the survivors were open. A pharmacy, a discount store, a few other retail merchants. She paused at the office of F. Clyde Hardin amp; Associates.
He was mentioned in the article.
As was Babe's Coffee Shop, where Sheila took a stool at the counter in anticipation of learning something about the case. She would not be disappointed.
It was almost 2:00 p.m. and no one else was at the counter. Two mechanics from the Chevrolet place were having a late lunch in a front booth. The diner was quiet, dusty, in need of paint and refinished floors, and apparently hadn't changed much in decades.
The walls were covered with football schedules dating back to 1961, class pictures, old newspaper articles, anything anybody wanted to display. A large sign announced:
"We Use Only Bottled Water."
Babe appeared across the counter and began with a friendly "What would you like, dear?" She wore a starched white uniform, spotless burgundy apron with "Babe" embroidered in pink, white hose, and white shoes, and could have stepped from a 1950s movie.
She had probably been around that long, though her teased hair was still aggressively colored. It almost matched her apron. She had the wrinkled eyes of a smoker, but the wrinkles were no match for the thick layer of foundation Babe caulked on every morning.
'Just some water," Sheila said. She was curious about the water.
Babe performed most of her tasks while gazing forlornly at the street through the large windows. She grabbed a bottle and said, "You're not from around here."
"Just passing through," Sheila said. "I have some kinfolks over in Jones County." And it was true. A distant aunt, one she thought might still be alive, had always lived next door in Jones County.
In front of her, Babe placed a six-ounce bottle of water with the simple label "Bottled for Bowmore." She explained that she, too, had kin-folks in Jones County. Before they went too far down the genealogical road, Sheila hastily changed subjects. In Mississippi, sooner or later, everyone is related.
"What's this?" she asked, holding the botde.
"Water," Babe said with a puzzled look.
Sheila held it closer, allowing Babe to take charge of the conversation. "All our water here in Bowmore is bottled. Trucked in from Hatties-burg. Can't drink the stuff they pump here. It's contaminated. Where you from?"
"You ain't heard about the Bowmore water?"
"Sorry." Sheila unscrewed the cap and took a swig. "Tastes like water," she said.
"You oughta taste the other stuff."
"What's wrong with it?"
"Good Lord, honey," Babe said and glanced around to see if anyone else had heard this shocking question. There was no one else, so Babe popped the top on a diet soda and sidled up the counter. "You ever heard of Cancer County?"
Another look of disbelief. "That's us. This county has the highest rate of cancer in the country because the drinking water is polluted. There used to be a chemical plant here, Krane Chemical, buncha smart boys from New York. For many years-twenty, thirty, forty, depending on who you believe-they dumped all kinds of toxic crap-pardon my language-into some ravines behind the plant. Barrels and barrels, drums and drums, tons and tons of the crap went into the pit, and it eventually filtered into an underground aquifer that the city-run by some real dunces, mind you-built a pump over back in the late eighties. The drinking water went from clear to light gray to light yellow.
Now it's brown.
It began smelling funny, then it began stinking. We fought with the city for years to clean it up, but they stonewalled us. Boy, did they ever. Anyway, the water became a huge fight, and then, honey, the bad stuff started. Folks started dying. Cancer hit like the plague around here. Folks were dying right and left. Still are. Inez Perdue succumbed in January. I think she was number sixty-five. Something like that.
It all came out in the trial." She paused to examine two pedestrians who were strolling along the sidewalk.
Sheila carefully sipped the water. "There was a trial?" she asked.
"You ain't heard of the trial either?"
Sheila gave an innocent shrug and said again, "I'm from the Coast."
"Oh, boy." Babe switched elbows and leaned on the right one. "For years there was talk about lawsuits. I get all the lawyers in here for their little coffee chats and no one taught those boys how to whisper. I heard it all. Still hearing it. Big talk for a long time. They're gonna sue Krane Chemical for this and for that, but nothing happened. I think that the suit was just too big, plus you're taking on a big chemical company with lots of money and lots of slick lawyers. The talk died down, but the cancer didn't. Kids were dying of leukemia. Folks with tumors in their kidneys, liver, bladder, stomach, and, honey, it's been awful. Krane made a fortune off a pesticide called pillamar 5, which was outlawed twenty years ago. Outlawed here, but not down in Guatemala and places like that. So they kept making pillamar 5 here, shipping it off to the banana republics, where they sprayed it on their fruits and vegetables and then shipped 'em all back here for us to eat. That came out in the trial, too, and they tell me it really ticked off the jury. Something sure ticked 'em off."
"Where was the trial?"
"You sure you don't have any kinfolks here?"
"Any friends here in Bowmore?"
"And you ain't no reporter, are you?"
"Nope. I'm just passing through."
Satisfied with her audience, Babe took a deep breath and plunged on. "They moved it out of Bowmore, which was a smart move because any jury here would've handed down a death penalty for Krane and the crooks who run it, and they tried the case over in Hattiesburg.
Judge Harrison, one of my favorites. Cary County is in his district, and he's been eating here for many years. He likes the ladies, but that's okay. I like the men. Anyway, for a long time the lawyers just talked, but no one would dare take on Krane. Then a local girl, a young woman, mind you, one of our own, said to hell with it and filed a massive suit. Mary Grace Payton, grew up a mile out of town.
Bowmore High School class valedictorian. I remember when she was a kid. Her daddy, Mr. Truman Shelby, still comes in from time to time. I love that girl. Her husband is a lawyer, too, they practice together in Hattiesburg. They sued for Jeannette Baker, sweet girl, whose husband and little boy died of cancer eight months apart.
Krane fought like hell, had a hundred lawyers, according to the traffic. The trial lasted for months and damned near broke the Paytons, from what I hear. But they won.
Jury threw the book at Krane. Forty-one million dollars. I can't believe you missed it. How could anyone miss it? It put Bowmore on the map. You want something to eat, honey?"
"How about a grilled cheese?"
"You got it." Babe threw two pieces of white bread on the grill without missing a beat. "Case is on appeal, and I pray every night that the Paytons'll win. And the lawyers are back, sniffing around, looking for new victims. Ever hear of Clyde Hardin?"
"Never met him."
"He's seven doors down, on the left, been here forever. A member of my eight-thirty coffee club, a bunch of blowhards. He's okay, but his wife's a snot. Clyde is afraid of the courtroom, so he hooked up with some real shysters from Philadelphia-Pennsylvania, not Mississippi- and they've filed a class action on behalf of a bunch of deadbeats who are trying to join the parade. Rumor has it that some of their so-called clients don't even live here. They're just looking for a check." She unwrapped two slices of processed cheddar and placed them on the hot bread. "Mayonnaise?"
"How about some fries?"
"Anyway, the town's split worse than ever. The folks who are really sick are angry at these new victims who are just claiming to be. Funny what money does to some folks.
Always looking for a handout. Some of the lawyers think Krane'll finally give in and make a big settlement. Folks'U get rich. Lawyers'll get even richer. But others are convinced Krane will never admit any wrongdoing. They never have. Six years ago, when the lawsuit talk was hot, they simply folded up one weekend and fled to Mexico, where I'm sure they're free to dump and pollute all they want to. Probably killing Mexicans right and left. It's criminal what that company did. It killed this town."
When the bread was almost black, she put the sandwich together, sliced it in two, and served it with a slice of dill pickle.
"What happened to the Krane employees?"
"Got screwed. No surprises there. A lot of them left the area to find work. Ain't much in the way of jobs around here. Some were nice folks, others knew what was happening and kept quiet. If they squealed, they'd get fired. Mary Grace found some of them and hauled them back for the trial. Some told the truth. Some lied, and Mary Grace ripped them to pieces, according to what I hear. I never watched the trial, but I got reports almost daily. The whole town was on pins and needles. There was a man named Earl Crouch who ran the plant for many years. Made good money, and rumor has it that Krane bought him off when they tucked tail. Crouch knew all about the dumping, but during his deposition he denied everything. Lied like a dog. That was two years ago. They say that Crouch has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Mary Grace couldn't find him to come testify at trial. He's gone. AWOL. Not even Krane could find him."
She let this rich little nugget hang in the air for a moment as she sauntered over to check on the Chevrolet mechanics. Sheila chewed on the first bite of the sandwich and pretended to have little interest in the story.
"How's the grilled cheese?" Babe asked when she was back.
"Great." Sheila took a sip of water and waited for the narrative to continue. Babe leaned in closer and lowered her voice.
"There's a family over in Pine Grove, the Stones. Tough bunch. In and out of prison for stealing cars and such. Not the kinda folks you'd want to start a fight with.
Four, maybe five years ago, one of the little Stone boys caught cancer and died quick.
They hired the Paytons and their suit is still pending. What I hear is that the Stones found Mr. Earl Crouch somewhere out in Texas and got their revenge. Just a rumor, and folks here ain't talking about it. Wouldn't surprise me, though. Nobody messes with the Stones.
Feelings are raw, very raw. You mention Krane Chemical around here people want to fight."
Sheila wasn't about to mention it. Nor was she about to pry much deeper. The mechanics stood, stretched, went for the toothpicks, and headed for the cash register. Babe met them there and insulted them as she took their money, about $4 each. Why were they working on a Saturday? What did their boss think he was accomplishing? Sheila managed to choke down half the sandwich.
"You want another one?" Babe asked when she returned to her stool.
"No thanks. I need to be going." Two teenagers ambled in and set-tied at a table.
Sheila paid her bill, thanked Babe for the conversation, promised to stop in again.
She walked to her car, then spent half an hour crisscrossing the town. The magazine article mentioned Pine Grove and Pastor Denny Ott. She drove slowly through the neighborhood around the church and was struck by its depressed state. The article had been kind.
She found the abandoned industrial park, then the Krane plant, gloomy and haunted but protected behind the razor wire.
After two hours in Bowmore, Sheila left, hopefully never to return. She understood the anger that led to the verdict, but judicial reasoning must exclude all emotions.
There was little doubt Krane Chemical had done bad things, but the issue was whether their waste actually caused the cancers. The jury certainly thought so.
It would soon be the job of Justice McCarthy and her eight colleagues to settle the matter.
They tracked her movements to the Coast, to her home three blocks off the Bay of Biloxi. She was there for sixty-five minutes, then drove a mile to her daughter's home on Howard Street. After a long dinner with her daughter, son-in-law, and two small grandchildren, she returned to her home and spent the night, apparently alone.
At ten on Sunday morning, she had brunch at the Grand Casino with a female acquaintance.
A quick check of license plates revealed this person to be a well-known local divorce lawyer, probably an old friend. After brunch, McCarthy returned to her home, changed into blue jeans, and left with her overnight bag. She drove nonstop to her condo in north Jackson, arriving at 4:10. Three hours later, a man by the name of Keith Christian (white male, age forty-four, divorced, history professor) showed up with what appeared to be a generous supply of take-out Chinese food. He did not leave the McCarthy condo until seven the following morning.
Tony Zachary summarized these reports himself, pecking away at a laptop he still despised. He'd been a terrible typist long before the Internet, and his skills had improved only marginally. But the details could be trusted to no one-no assistant, no secretary. The matter demanded the utmost secrecy. Nor could his summaries be e-mailed or faxed. Mr. Rine-hart insisted that they be sent by overnight letter via Federal Express.