Mary Grace and Wes stepped off the elevator on the twenty-sixth floor of the tallest building in Mississippi, and into the plush reception suite of the state's largest law firm. She immediately noticed the wallpaper, the fine furniture, the flowers, things that had once mattered.
The well-dressed woman at the desk was sufficiently polite. An associate in the standard-issuenavy suit and black shoes escorted them to a conference room, where a secretary asked if they wanted something to drink. No, they did not. The large windows looked down at the rest of Jackson. The dome of the capital dominated the view. To its left was the Gartin building, and somewhere in there on someone's desk was the case of Jeannette Baker v. Krane Chemical.
The door opened and Alan York appeared with a big smile and warm handshake. He was in his late fifties, short and heavy and a bit sloppy-wrinkled shirt, no jacket, scuffed shoes-unusual for a partner in such a hidebound firm. The same associate was back, carrying two large expandable files. After greetings and small talk they took their places around the table.
The lawsuit the Paytons filed in April on behalf of the family of the deceased pulpwood cutter had sped through the early rounds of discovery. No trial date was set, and that possibility was at least a year away. Liability was clear-the truck driver who caused the accident had been speeding, at least fifteen miles per hour over the limit. Two eyewitnesses had been deposed and provided detailed and damning testimony about the speed and recklessness of the truck driver. In his deposition, the driver admitted to a long history of moving violations.
Before taking to the road, he worked as a pipe fitter but had been fired for smoking pot on the job. Wes had found at least two old DUIs, and the driver thought there might be another one, but he couldn't remember.
In short, the case wouldn't get anywhere near a jury. It would be settled, and after four months of vigorous discovery Mr. Alan York was ready to begin the negotiations.
According to him, his client, Littun Casualty, was anxious to close the file.
Wes began by describing the family, a thirty-three-year-old widow and mother with a high school education and no real job skills and three young children, the oldest being twelve. Needless to say, the loss was ruinous in every way.
As he talked, York took notes and kept glancing at Mary Grace. They had spoken on the phone but never met. Wes was handling the case, but York knew she was not there simply because she was pleasant to look at. One of his close friends was Frank Sully, the
Hattiesburg lawyer hired by Krane Chemical to add bodies to the defense table.
Sully had been pushed to the rear by Jared Kurtin and was still bitter about it.
He had passed along to York many stories about the Baker trial, and it was Sully's opinion that the Payton tag team worked best when Mary Grace was chatting with the jury. She was tough on cross-examination, very quick on her feet, but her strength was connecting with people. Her closing argument was brilliant, powerful, and, obviously, very persuasive.
York had been defending insurance companies for thirty-one years. He won more than he lost, but there had been a few of those awful moments when juries failed to see the case his way and nailed him for big verdicts. It was part of the business. He had never, though, been in the neighborhood of a $41 million award. It was now a legend in the state's legal circles. Add the drama of the Paytons risking everything, losing their home, office, cars, and borrowing heavily to sustain a four-month trial, and the legend kept growing. Their fate was well-known and much discussed at bar meetings and golf tournaments and cocktail parties. If the verdict stood, they would be primed to rake in huge fees. A reversal, and their survival was seriously in doubt.
As Wes went on, York couldn't help but admire them.
After a brief review of the liability, Wes summed up the damages, added a chunk for the carelessness of the trucking company, and said, "We think two million is a fair settlement."
"I bet you do," York said, managing the customary defense lawyer reaction of shock and dismay. Eyebrows arched in disbelief. Head shaking slowly in bewilderment. He grabbed his face with his hand and squeezed his cheeks, frowning. His quick smile was long gone.
Wes and Mary Grace managed to convey apathy while their hearts were frozen.
"To get two million," York said, studying his notes, "you have to factor in some element of punitive damages, and, frankly, my client is simply not willing to pay these."
"Oh yes," Mary Grace said coolly. "Your client will pay whatever the jury tells it to pay." Such blustering was also part of the business. York had heard it a thousand times, but it did indeed sound more ominous coming from a woman who, during her last trial, extracted a huge punitive award.
"A trial is at least twelve months away," York said as he looked at his associate for confirmation, as if anyone could project a trial date so far in the future. The associate dutifully confirmed what his boss had already said.
In other words, if this goes to trial, it will be months before you receive a dime in fees. It's no secret that your little firm is drowning in debt and struggling to survive, and everyone knows that you need a big settlement, and quick.
"Your client can't wait that long," York said.
"We've given you a number, Alan," Wes replied. "Do you have a counteroffer?"
York suddenly slapped his file shut, gave a forced grin, and said, "Look, this is really simple. Littun Casualty is very good at cutting its losses, and this case is a loser. My authority to settle is $1 million. Not a penny more. I have a million bucks, and my client told me not to come back for more. One million dollars, take it or leave it."
The referring lawyer would get half of the 30 percent contingency contract. The Paytons would get the other half. Fifteen percent was $150,000, a dream.
They looked at each other, both frowning, both wanting to leap across the table and begin kissing Alan York. Then Wes shook his head, and Mary Grace wrote something on a legal pad.
"We have to call our client," Wes said.
"Of course." York bolted from the room, his associate racing to keep up.
"Well," Wes said softly, as if the room might be bugged.
"I'm trying not to cry," she said.
"Don't cry. Don't laugh. Let's squeeze him a little."
When York was back, Wes said gravely, "We talked to Mrs. Nolan. Her bottom line is one point two million."
York exhaled as his shoulders drooped and his face sagged. "I don't have it, Wes," he said. "I'm being perfectly candid with you."
"You can always ask for more. If your client will pay a million, then they can kick in another $200,000. At trial, this case is worth twice that."
"Littun is a tough bunch, Wes."
"One phone call. Give it a try. What's there to lose?"
York left again, and ten minutes later burst back into the room with a happy face.
"You got it! Congratulations."
The shock of the settlement left them numb. Negotiations usually dragged on for weeks or months, with both sides bickering and posturing and playing little games. They had hoped to leave York's office with a general ideaof where the settlement might be headed. Instead, they left in a daze and for fifteen minutes roamed the streets of downtown Jackson, saying little. For a moment they stopped in front of the Capitol Grill, a restaurant known more for its clientele than for its food. Lobbyists liked to be seen there, picking up tabs for fine meals with heavyweight politicians. Governors had always favored the place.
Why not splurge and eat with the big boys?
Instead, they ducked into a small deli two doors down and ordered iced tea. Neither had an appetite at the moment. Wes finally addressed the obvious. "Did we just earn $180,000?"
"Uh-huh," she said while sipping tea through a straw.
"I thought so."
"A third goes for taxes," she said.
"Are you trying to kill the party?"
"No, just being practical."
On a white paper napkin, she wrote down the sum of $180,000.
"Are we spending it already?" Wes asked.
"No, we're dividing it. Sixty thousand for taxes?"
"Income, state and federal. Employee withholding, Social Security, unemployment, I don't know what else but it's at least a third."
"Fifty-five," he said, and she wrote down $60,000.
"What about a new car?" he asked.
"Nope. Bonuses, for all five employees. They have not had a raise in three years."
"Five thousand each."
She wrote down $25,000, then said, "The bank."
"A new car."
"The bank? Half the fee is already gone."
"Two hundred dollars."
"Come on, Wes. We won't have a life until the bank is off our backs."
"I've tried to forget about the loan."
"I don't know. I'm sure you have a figure."
"Fifty thousand for Huffy, and ten thousand for Sheila McCarthy. That leaves us with thirty-five thousand." Which, at that moment, seemed like a fortune. They stared at the napkin, both recasting the numbers and rearranging the priorities, but neither willing to suggest a change. Mary Grace signed her name at the bottom, then Wes did likewise. She put the napkin in her purse.
"Can I at least get a new suit out of the deal?" he asked.
"Depends on what's on sale. I guess we should call the office."
"They're sitting by the phone."
Three hours later, the Paytons walked into their office, and the party started. The front door was locked, the phones were unplugged, the champagne began to flow. Sherman and Rusty, the law clerks, proposed lengthy toasts they had hurriedly put together.
Tabby and Vicky, the receptionists, were tipsy after two glasses. Even Olivia, the ancient bookkeeper, kicked up her heels and was soon laughing at everything.
The money was spent, re-spent, overspent, until everyone was rich.
When the champagne was gone, the office closed and everyone left. The Paytons, their cheeks warm from the bubbly, went to their apartment, changed into casual clothes, then drove to the school to fetch Mack and Liza. They had earned a night of fun,though the children were too young to understand the settlement. It would never be mentioned.
Mack and Liza were expecting Ramona, and when they saw both parents in the school pickup line, a long day instantly became brighter. Wes explained that they simply got tired of working and decided to play. The first stop was Baskin-Robbins for ice cream. Next, they went to a shopping mall, where a shoe store attracted their attention.
Each Payton picked out a pair, at 50 percent off, with Mack being the boldest with a pair of Marine combat boots. In the center of the mall was a four-screen cinema.
They caught the 6:00 p.m. showing of the latest Harry Potter.
Dinner was at a family pizzeria with an indoor playground and a rowdy atmosphere.
They finally made it home around ten, where Ramona was watching television and enjoying the quiet. The kids handed her leftover pizza, and both talked at once about the movie. They promised to finish their homework in the morning. Mary Grace relented, and the entire family settled onto the sofa and watched a reality rescue show. Bedtime was pushed back to eleven.
When the apartment was quiet and the kids tucked in, Wes and Mary Grace lay on the sofa, heads on opposite ends, legs tangled together, minds drifting far away. For the past four years, as their finances had spiraled downward, with one loss after another, one humiliation following the last, fear had become a daily companion. Fear of losing the home, then the office, then the autos. Fear of not being able to provide for their children. Fear of a serious medical emergency that exceeded their insurance.
Fear of losing the Baker trial. Fear of bankruptcy if the bank pushed too hard.
Since the verdict, the fear had become more of a nuisance than a constant threat.
It was always there, but they had slowly gained control of it. For six straight months now, they had paid the bank $2,000 a month, hard-earned moneys that were left over after all other bills and expenses. It barely covered the interest, and it reminded them of how insurmountable their debt was. But it was symbolic. They were digging out from the rubble and could see the light.
Now, for the first time in years, there was a cushion, a safety net, something to catch them if they fell even deeper. They would take their share of today's settlement and hide it, and when they were afraid again, they would be comforted by their buried treasure.
At ten the following morning, Wes dropped by the bank and found Huffy at his desk.
He swore him to silence, then whispered the good news. Huffy almost hugged him. Mr.
Prickhead was on his back from nine to five, demanding action.
"The money should be here in a couple of weeks," Wes said proudly. "I'll call as soon as it lands."
"Fifty grand, Wes?" Huffy repeated, as if his job had just been saved.
"You got it."
From there Wes drove to his office. Tabby handed him a phone message from Alan York.
Just routine stuff, probably some details to nail down.
But York's voice lacked its usual warmth. "Wes, there's a new wrinkle," he said slowly, as if searching for words.
"What's the matter?" Wes asked. A knot was already forming in his stomach.
"I don't know, Wes, I'm really frustrated, and confused. This has never happened to me, but, well, anyway, Littun Casualty has nipped on the settlement. It's off the table, all of it. They're yanking it. Some tough A-holes. I've been yelling at them all morning. They yell back.
This firm has represented the company for eighteen years, never had a problem like this. But, as of one hour ago, they are looking for another firm. I've fired the client. I gave you my word, and now my client has hung me out to dry. I'm sorry, Wes. Don't know what else to say."
Wes pinched the bridge of his nose and tried not to groan. After a false start, he said, "Well, Alan, this is a shock."
"Damned right it is, but in all fairness it does no harm to the lawsuit. I'm just glad this didn't happen the day before the trial or something crazy like that. Some real bad boys up there."
"They won't be so tough at trial."
"Damned right, Wes. I hope you nail these guys for another huge verdict."
"I'm sorry, Wes."
"It's not your fault, Alan. We'll survive and push for a trial."
"You do that."
"We'll talk later."
"Sure. Say, Wes, is your cell phone nearby?"
"It's right here."
"Here's my cell number. Hang up and call me back."
When both men were off" the landlines, York said, "You didn't hear this from me, okay?"
"The chief in-house lawyer for Littun Casualty is a guy named Ed Larrimore. For twenty years he was a partner in a New York law firm called Bradley amp; Backstrom. His brother is also a partner at that firm. Bradley amp; Backstrom does the blue-chip thing, and one of its clients is KDN, the oil exploration firm whose biggest shareholder is Carl Trudeau. That's the connection. I have never talked to Ed Larrimore, there's no reason to. But the supervising attorney I deal with whispered to me that a decision was made at the very top to stiff this settlement."
"A little retribution, huh?"
"Smells like it. It's nothing illegal or unethical. The insurance company decides not to settle and goes to trial. Happens every day. There's nothing you can do about it, except burn them at trial. Littun Casualty has assets of twenty billion, so they aren't worried about a jury in Pike County, Mississippi. My guess is they'll drag it out until you get to trial, then try to settle."
"I'm not sure what to say, Alan."
"I'm sorry this happened, Wes. I'm out of the picture now, and you didn't get this from me."
Wes stared at the wall for a long time, then mustered the energy to stand, walk, leave his office, and go look for his wife.