Chapter 19

After ten performances, Coley's Faces of the Dead Tour came to an end. It ran out of gas in Pascagoula, the last of the big towns in the southern district.

Though he tried desperately along the way, Clete was unable to get himself arrested again. He did, however, manage to generate quite a buzz at every stop. The reporters loved him. Admirers grabbed his brochures and began writing checks, albeit small ones. The local cops watched his announcements with silent approval.

But after ten days, Clete needed a break. He returned to Natchez and was soon at the Lucky Jack taking cards from Ivan. He had no real campaign strategy, no plan.

He'd left nothing behind in the places he stopped, except for some fleeting publicity.

There was no organization, except for a few volunteers that he would soon ignore.

Frankly, he wasn't about to spend the time or the money necessary to rev up a campaign of respectable size. He wasn't about to touch the cash Marlin had given him, not for campaign expenses anyway. He would spend whatever contributions trickled in, but he had no plans to lose money on this adventure. The attention was addictive and he would show up when necessary to make a speech, attack his opponent, and attack liberal judges of all stripes, but his priority was gambling and drinking. Clete had no dreams of winning.

Hell, he wouldn't take the job if they handed it to him. He had always hated those thick law books.

Tony Zachary flew to Boca Raton and was picked up by a chauffeur-driven car. He had been to Mr. Rinehart's office once before and looked forward to the return. They would spend most of the next two days together.

Over a splendid lunch with a beautiful view of the ocean, they had a great time reviewing the antics of their stooge, Clete Coley Barry Rine-hart had read every press clipping and seen every TV news report. They were quite pleased with their decoy.

Next, they analyzed the results of their first major poll. It covered five hundred registered voters in the twenty-seven counties of the southern district and had been conducted the day after Coley's tour ended. Not surprisingly, at least to Barry Rinehart, 66 percent could not name any of the three supreme court judges from the southern district. Sixty-nine percent were unaware that the voters actually elected the members of the supreme court.

"And this is a state where they elect highway commissioners, public service commissioners, the state treasurer, state commissioners of insurance and agriculture, county tax collectors, county coroners, everybody but the dogcatcher," Barry said.

"They vote every year," Tony said, peering over his reading glasses. He had stopped eating and was looking at some graphs.

"Every single year. Whether it's municipal, judicial, state and local, or federal, they go to the polls every year. Such a waste. Small wonder turnout is low. Hell, the voters are sick of politics."

Of the 34 percent who could name a supreme court justice, only half mentioned Sheila McCarthy. If the election were held today, 18 percent would vote for her, 15 percent would vote for Clete Coley, and the rest either were undecided or simply wouldn't vote because they didn't know anyone in the race.

After some initial straightforward questions, the poll began to reveal its slant. Would you vote for a supreme court candidate who is opposed to the death penalty? Seventy-three percent said they would not.

Would you vote for a candidate who supports the legal marriage of two homosexuals?

Eighty-eight percent said no.

Would you vote for a candidate who is in favor of tougher gun-control laws? Eighty five percent said no.

Do you own at least one gun? Ninety-six percent said yes.

The questions had multiple parts and follow-ups, and were obviously designed to walk the voter down a path lined with hot-button issues. No effort was made to explain that the supreme court was not a legislative body; it did not have the responsibility or jurisdiction to make laws dealing with these issues. No effort was made to keep the field level. Like many polls, Rinehart's skillfully shifted into a subtle attack.

Would you support a liberal candidate for the supreme court? Seventy percent would not.

Are you aware that Justice Sheila McCarthy is considered the most liberal member of the Mississippi Supreme Court? Eighty-four percent said no.

If she is the most liberal member of the court, will you vote for her? Sixty-five percent said no, but most of those being polled didn't like the question. If? Was she or wasn't she the most liberal? Anyway, Barry considered the question useless.

The promising part was how little name recognition Sheila McCarthy had after nineyears on the bench, though, in his experience, this was not unusual. He could argue with anyone, privately, that this was another perfect reason why state supreme court judges shouldn't be elected in the first place. They should not be politicians. Their names should not be well-known.

The poll then shifted away from the supreme court and settled onto the individual participants. There were questions about religious faith, belief in God, church attendance, financial support of the church, and so on. And there were questions about certain issues-where do you stand on abortion, stem cell research, et cetera?

The poll wrapped up with the basics-race, marital status, number of children, if any, approximate income status, and voting history.

The overall results confirmed what Barry suspected. The voters were conservative, middle-class, and white (78 percent) and could easily be turned against a liberal judge. The trick, of course, was to convert Sheila McCarthy from the sensible moderate she was into the raging liberal they needed her to be. Barry's researchers were analyzing every word she had ever written in a legal ruling, both at the circuit court level and on the supreme court. She could not escape her words; no judge could ever do that. And Barry planned to hang her with her own words.

After lunch, they moved to the conference table, where Barry had a display of the initial mock-ups of Ron Fisk's campaign literature. There were hundreds of new photographs of the Fisk family in all its wholesomeness-walking into church, on the front porch, at the baseball park, the parents together, alone, dripping with love and affection.

The first soft ads were still being edited, but Barry wanted to share them anyway.

They had been filmed by a crew sent from Washington to Mississippi. The first was of Fisk standing by a Civil War monument at the Vicksburg battlefield, gazing off into the distance as if listening to distant cannons. His soft, richly accented voice played over: "I'm Ron Fisk. My great-great-grandfather was killed on this spot in July of 1863. He was a lawyer, a judge, and a member of the state legislature. His dream was to serve on the supreme court. That's my dream today. I am a seventh-generation Mississippian, and I ask for your support."

Tony was surprised. "The Civil War?"

"Oh yes. They love it."

"What about the black vote?"

"We'll get 30 percent of it, from the churches. That's all we need."

The next ad was shot in Ron's office. Jacket off, sleeves rolled up, desk arranged in a careful clutter. Looking sincerely at the camera, Ron talked about his love of the law, the pursuit of truth, the demands of fairness from those who sit on the bench. It was a fairly bland effort, but it did convey warmth and intelligence.

There were a total of six ads. "Just the soft ones," Barry promised. A couple would not survive editing, and there was a good chance the camera crew would be sent back for more.

"What about the nasty ones?" Tony asked.

"Still in the writing stage. We won't need them until after Labor Day."

"How much have we spent so far?"

"Quarter of a million. A drop in the bucket."

They spent two hours with an Internet consultant whose firm did nothing but raise money for political races. So far, he had put together an e-mail bank with just over forty thousand names-individuals with a history of contributing, members of the associations and groups already on board, known political activists at the local level, and a smaller number of people outside of Mississippi who would feel sympathetic enough to send a check. He guessed that the list would grow by another ten thousand, and he projected total contributions at somewhere in the range of $500,000. Most important, his list was ready and waiting. When given the green light, he simply pushed a button, the solicitation flew out, and the checks started coming.

The green light was the principal topic over a long dinner that night. The deadline to qualify was a month away. Though there were the usual rumors, Tony firmly believed that the race would attract no one else. "There will be only three horses," he said. "And we own two of them."

"What's McCarthy doing?" Barry asked. He received daily updates on her movements, which so far had revealed little.

"Not much. She appears to be shell-shocked. One day she's unopposed; the next day she's got some crazy cowboy named Coley calling her a liberal convict lover and the newspapers are printing everything he says. I'm sure she's getting advice from McElwayne, her sidekick, but she has yet to put together a staff for the campaign."

"Is she raising money?"

"The trial lawyers issued one of their standard panic e-mails last week, begging for money from the membership. I have no idea how that's going."


"Just the usual boyfriend. You've got the report. No real dirt yet."

Shortly after opening the second bottle of a fine Oregon pinot noir, they decided to launch Fisk in two weeks. The boy was ready, straining at the leash, desperate to hit the trail. Everything was in place. He was taking a six-month leave from his firm, and his partners were happy. And well they should be. They had just picked up five new clients-two large timber companies, a pipeline contractor from Houston, and two natural gas firms. The vast coalition of lobbying groups was on board, ready with cash and foot soldiers. McCarthy was afraid of her shadow and apparently hoping Clete Coley would simply go away or self-destruct.

They touched glasses and toasted the eve of an exciting campaign.

As always, the meeting was held in the fellowship hall of the Pine Grove Church.

And as usual, several non-clients tried to wiggle their way in to hear the latest.

They were politely escorted out by Pastor Ott, who explained that this was a very confidential meeting between the lawyers and their clients.

Other than the Baker case, the Paytons had thirty Bowmore cases. Eighteen involved people who were already dead. The other twelve involved people with cancer in various stages. Four years earlier, the Paytons had made the tactical decision to take their best case-Jeannette Baker's-and try it first. It would be far cheaper than trying all thirty-one at one time. Jeannette was the most sympathetic, having lost her entire family in the span of eight months. That decision now looked brilliant.

Wes and Mary Grace hated these meetings. A sadder, more tragic group of people could not be found anywhere. They had lost children, husbands, and wives. They were terminally ill and living with incredible pain. They asked questions that could not be answered, over and over, in slightly different variations because no two cases were identical.

Some wanted to quit, and others wanted to fight forever. Some wanted money, and others just wanted Krane to be held accountable. There were always tears, and harsh words, and for this reason Pastor Ott was there as a calming influence.

Now, with the Baker verdict legendary, the Paytons knew the rest of their clients had much higher expectations. Six months after the verdict, the clients were more anxious than ever. They called the office more often. They sent more letters and e-mails.

The meeting had the extra tension caused by the funeral, three days earlier, of Leon Gatewood, a man they all despised. His body was found in a pile of brush three miles downriver from his capsized fishing boat. There was no evidence of foul play, but everyone suspected it. The sheriff was busy with an investigation.

All thirty families were represented. The notepad Wes passed around had sixty-twonames on it, names he knew well, including that of Frank Stone, a caustic bricklayer who usually said little during these meetings. It was assumed, without a shred of evidence, that if Leon Gatewood's death had been caused by someone else, then Frank Stone knew something about it.

Mary Grace began with a warm hello. She thanked them for coming, and for their patience.

She talked about the Baker appeal, and for a little dramatic effect she hoisted the thick brief filed by Krane's lawyers as evidence that many hours were being spent on the appellate front. All briefs would be in by September, then the supreme court would decide how to handle the case. It had the option of passing it off to a lower court, the court of appeals, for an initial review, or it could simply keep it. A case of this magnitude would eventually be decided by the supreme court, and she and Wes were of the opinion that it would bypass the lower court. If that happened, oral arguments would be scheduled for later in the year, or perhaps early next year. Her best guess was a final ruling in about a year.

If the court affirmed the verdict, there were several possible scenarios. Krane would be under enormous pressure to settle the remaining claims, which, of course, would be a highly favored result. If Krane refused to settle, she was of the opinion that Judge Harrison would consolidate the other cases and try them in one huge trial.

In that event, their firm would have the resources to fight on. She confided in the clients that they had spent borrowed funds in excess of $400,000 to get the Baker case to a jury, and they simply could not do it again unless the first verdict was upheld.

As poor as the clients were, they were not nearly as broke as their lawyers.

"What if the Baker verdict is rejected by the court?" asked Eileen Johnson. Her head was bare from chemo, and she weighed less than a hundred pounds. Her husband held her hand throughout the meeting.

"That's a possibility," Mary Grace admitted. "But we are confident it won't happen."

She said this with more assurance than she possessed. The Paytons felt good about the appeal, but any rational lawyer would be nervous. "But if it happens, the court will send it back for another trial. It could be on all issues, or simply on damages.

It's hard to predict."

She moved on, anxious to get away from more talk about losing. She assured them that their cases were still receiving the full attention of their firm. Hundreds of documents were being processed each week and filed away. Other experts were being sought. They were in a holding pattern, but still working hard.

"What about this class action?" asked Curtis Knight, the father of a teenage boy who'd died four years earlier. The question seemed to arouse the crowd. Others, less deserving, were encroaching on their territory.

"Forget about it," she said. "Those plaintiffs are at the bottom of the pile. They win only if there's a settlement, and any settlement must first satisfy your claims.

We control the settlement. You are not competing with those people."

Her answer seemed good enough.

Wes took over with cautionary words. Because of the verdict, the pressure on Krane Chemical was greater than ever. They probably had investigators in the area, watching the plaintiffs, trying to gather information that might be damaging. Be careful who you talk to. Be wary of strangers. Report anything even remotely unusual.

For a long-suffering people, this was not welcome news. They had enough to worry about.

The questions continued and went on for over an hour. The Paytons worked hard to reassure, to show compassion and confidence, to give hope. But the tougher challenge was keeping a lid on expectations.

If anyone in the room was concerned about a supreme court race, it was never mentioned.