Chapter 29

With only fifteen days left before the election, Barry Rinehart was invited to dinner at the Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall on Bleecker Street. Mr. Trudeau wanted an update.

On the flight from Boca, Barry gloated over his latest poll. Fisk was sixteen points ahead, a lead that could not be lost. The gay marriage issue had bumped him four points. The GUN attacks on McCarthy added three more. Clete Coley's rather lame farewell added another three. The campaign itself was running smoothly. Ron Fisk was a workhorse who did exactly what Tony Zachary told him to do. There was plenty of money. Their television ads were hitting all markets with perfect regularity. The responses from their direct mail were nothing short of astonishing. The campaign had raised $320,000 from small donors who were upset about gays and guns. McCarthy was running hard to catch up and falling further behind.

Mr. Trudeau looked lean and tanned, and he was thrilled with the latest summaries.

The sixteen-point lead dominated the dinner conversation. Carl quizzed Rinehart relendessly about the numbers. Could they be trusted? How were they arrived at? How did they compare with Barry's other races? What would it take to blow the lead? Had Barry ever seen such a big lead evaporate?

Barry all but guaranteed a win.

For the first three quarters of the year, Krane Chemical reported dismal sales and weak earnings. The company was racked with production problems in Texas and Indonesia.

Three plants shut down for major, unscheduled repairs. A plant in Brazil closed for undisclosed reasons, leaving its two thousand employees out of work. Huge orders were unfilled. Longtime customers left in frustration. The sales force could not get product. Competitors cut prices and poached business. Morale was down and there were rumors of major cutbacks and layoffs.

Behind the chaos, Carl Trudeau was skillfully pulling all the strings. He did nothing illegal, but cooking the books was an art he'd mastered many years ago. When one of his companies needed bad numbers, Carl could deliver them. During the year, Krane wrote off huge chunks of research and development, shifted unusually large sums of money into legal reserves, borrowed heavily on its credit lines, stifled sales by sabotaging production, bloated expenses, sold two profitable divisions, and managed to alienate many of its customers.

Through it all, Carl coordinated enough leaks to float a printing press. Since the verdict, Krane had been on the radar of business reporters, and all bad news got plenty of ink. Of course, every story referred to the massive legal problems the company was facing. The possibility of bankruptcy had been mentioned several times, after careful plants by Carl.

The stock began the year at $17.00. Nine months later, it was $12.50. With the election just two weeks away, Carl was ready for one last assault on the battered common shares of Krane Chemical Corporation.

The phone call from Jared Kurtin seemed like a dream. Wes listened to the words and closed his eyes. It could not be true.

Kurtin explained that he had been instructed by his client to explore the possibilities of settling the Bowmore litigation. Krane Chemical was a mess, and until the lawsuits went away, it could not regain its focus and compete effectively.

His proposal was to gather all the attorneys in one room at one time and start the process. It would be complicated because there were so many plaintiffs with so many issues. It would be difficult because there were so many lawyers to control. He insisted that Wes and Mary Grace act as lead counsel for the plaintiffs' lawyers, but they could work out those details at the first meeting. Time was suddenly crucial. Kurtin had already reserved a convention room at a hotel in Hattiesburg, and he wanted the meeting to begin on Friday and run through the weekend, if necessary.

"Today is Tuesday," Wes said, gripping the phone with white knuckles.

"Yes, I know. As I said, my client is anxious to begin this process. It could take weeks or months to complete, but we're ready to sit down."

Wes was ready, too. He had a deposition set for Friday, something that was easily postponed. "What are the rules?" he asked.

Kurtin had the benefit of hours of planning. Wes was reacting out of shock and excitement.

Plus, Kurtin had been around the block a few more times than Wes. He had negotiated mass settlements on several occasions. Wes could only dream of one.

"I'm sending a letter to all known plaintiffs' attorneys," Kurtin said. "Look over the list and see if I'm missing anyone. As you know, they're still popping up. All lawyers are invited, but the easiest way to screw up a settlement conference like this is to give the trial lawyers the microphones. You and Mary Grace will talk for the plaintiffs. I'll talk for Krane. The first challenge is to identify all persons who are making any sort of claim. Our records show about six hundred, and these range from dead bodies to nosebleeds. In my letters, I'm asking the lawyers to submit the names of clients, whether they have filed suit or not. Once we know who expects a piece of the pie, the next challenge will be to classify the claims. Unlike some mass tort settlements with ten thousand plaintiffs, this one will be manageable in that we can talk about individual claims. Our current numbers show 68 dead, 143 wounded and probably dying, and the rest with various afflictions that, in all probability, are not lifethreatening."

Kurtin ticked off the numbers like a war correspondent reporting from battle. Wes couldn't help but grimace, nor could he suppress another vile thought about Krane Chemical.

"Anyway, we'll start the process of going through these numbers. The goal is to arrive at one figure, then compare it with the cash my client is willing to spend."

"And what might that number be?" Wes asked with a desperate laugh.

"Not now, Wes, maybe later. I'm asking each lawyer to fill out a standardized form for each client. If we can get these back before Friday, we'll have a head start.

I'm bringing a full team, Wes. My litigators, support staff, experts, number crunchers, and I'll even have a guy with some spine from Krane. Plus, of course, the usual crew from the insurance companies. You might want to reserve a large room for your support people."

Reserve with what? Wes almost asked. Surely Kurtin knew about the bankruptcy.

"Good idea," he said.

"And, Wes, my client is really concerned about secrecy. There is no reason for this to be publicized. If word gets out, then the plaintiffs and their lawyers and the whole town of Bowmore will get excited. What happens then if the negotiations go nowhere? Let's keep a lid on this."

"Sure." How ridiculous. Kurtin was about to send his letter to no fewer than twenty law firms. Babe at the coffee shop in Bowmore would know about the settlement conference before she began serving lunch.

The following morning the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story about Krane Chemical's settlement overtures. An anonymous source who worked for the company confirmed the truth of the rumors. Experts chimed in with varying opinions, but it was generally regarded as a positive step for the company. Large settlements can be calculated. Liabilities can be contained.

Wall Street understands hard numbers, and it hates unpredictability. There is a long history of battered companies shoring up their financial futures with massive settlements that, while costly, were effective in cleaning up litigation.

Krane opened at $12.75 and advanced $2.75 in heavy trading.

By midafternoon Wednesday, the phones were ringing nonstop at Payton amp; Payton, and many other law firms as well. Word of a settlement was out there, on the street and flying around the Internet.

Denny Ott called and talked to Mary Grace. A group of Pine Grove residents had gathered at the church to offer prayers, exchange gossip, and wait for a miracle. It was like a vigil, he said. Not surprisingly, there were different versions of the truth. A settlement had already been negotiated, and money was on the way. No, the settlement would take place on Friday, but there was no doubt that it would happen. No, there was no settlement at all, just a meeting of the lawyers. Mary Grace explained what was happening and asked Denny to pass along the truth. It quickly became apparent that either she or Wes would need to hustle over to the church and meet with their clients.

Babe's was packed with spirited coffee drinkers, all looking for the latest word.

Would Krane be required to clean up its toxic dump? Someone claiming authority answered yes, that would be a condition of the settlement. How much would the death claims be worth? Someone else had heard the figure of $5 million each. Arguments raged.

Experts rose up and were soon shouted down.

F. Clyde Hardin walked over from his law office and immediately took center stage.

His class action had been ridiculed by many of the locals who felt he was just riding the Paytons' coattails with a bunch of opportunistic clients. He and his good pal Sterling Bintz from Philadelphia were claiming almost three hundred "severely and permanently injured" members of their class action. Since its filing in January, it had gone nowhere. Now, however, F. Clyde had instantly gained stature. Any settlement had to include "his people." He would have a seat at the table on Friday, he explained to the silent crowd. He would be sitting there along side Wes and Mary Grace Payton.

Jeannette Baker was behind the counter of a convenience store at the south edge of Bowmore when she received the call from Mary Grace. "Do not get excited," her lawyer warned, rather sternly. "This could be a lengthy process, and the possibility of a settlement is remote." Jeannette had questions but did not know where to begin.

Mary Grace would be at the Pine Grove Church at 7:00 p.m. for a full discussion with all of her clients. Jeannette promised to be there.

With a $41 million verdict attached to it, Jeannette Baker's case would be the first one on the table.

The settlement news was too much for Bowmore to handle. In the small offices downtown the secretaries and Realtors and insurance agents talked of nothing else. The languid human commerce along Main Street stopped dead as friends and neighbors found it impossible to pass one another without comparing gossip. The clerks in the Cary County Courthouse collected rumors, amended them, embellished some, and reduced some, then passed them along. In the schools the teachers gathered in their coffee rooms and exchanged the latest news. Pine Grove wasn't the only church where the faithful and the hopeful met for prayer and counseling. Many of the town's pastors spent the afternoon on the phone listening to the victims of Krane Chemical.

A settlement would close the town's ugliest chapter, and allow it to begin again.

The infusion of money would compensate those who had suffered. The cash would be spent and re-spent and boost the dying economy. Krane would certainly be required to clean up its pollution, and once it was finally gone, perhaps the water would become safe again.

Bowmore with clean water-a dream almost impossible to believe.

The community could finally shake off the nickname Cancer County.

A settlement was a fast and final end to the nightmare. No one in the town wanted litigation that would be prolonged and ugly. No one wanted another trial like Jeannette Baker's.

Nat Lester had been pestering newspaper editors and reporters for a month. He was furious at the misleading advertising that had drenched south Mississippi, and even angrier at the editors for not railing against it. He put together a report in which he took the Fisk ads-print, direct mail, radio, Internet, and television-and dissected them, pointing out every lie, half-truth, and manipulated word. He also estimated, based on direct mail media buys, the amount of cash that was pouring into the Fisk campaign. His figure was at least $3 million, and he predicted that the vast majority was coming from out of state. There was no way to verify this until after the election.

His report was e-mailed and sent overnight to every newspaper in the district, then followed up with aggressive phone calls. He updated it every day, then re-sent it and grew even more obnoxious on the phone. It finally paid off.

To his amazement, and great satisfaction, the three largest papers in the district informed him, separately and off the record of course, that they planned to run stinging editorials on the Fisk campaign in the upcoming Sunday editions.

And Nat's luck continued. The same-sex marriage issue caught the attention of the New York Times, and a reporter arrived in Jackson to poke around. His name was Gilbert, and he soon made his way to the McCarthy campaign office, where Nat gave him an earful, off the record. He also gave Gilbert the phone numbers of the two gay law students who were stalking Meyerchec and Spano.

Speaking off the record, they told Gilbert everything and showed him their file.

They had spent four days in Chicago and learned a lot. They met Meyerchec in his bar near Evanston, told him they were new to the city and looking for friends. They spent hours in the place, got roaring drunk with the regulars, and never once heard anyone mention anything about a lawsuit in Mississippi. In the photos in the Jackson paper, Meyerchec had blond hair and funky eyeglasses. In Chicago, the hair was darker and there was no eyewear. His smiling face was in one of the group photos they had taken at the bar. As for Spano, they visited the design center where he worked as a consultant for lower-end home buyers. They pretended to be new residents in an old building nearby, and they spent two hours with him. Noticing their accents, Spano at one point ask *l where they were from.

When they answered Jackson, Mississippi, he had no reaction to the place.

"Ever been there?" one of them asked.

"I've passed through a couple of times," Spano said. This, from a registered voter, a licensed driver, and a current appellant before the state's supreme court. Though Spano was never seen at Meyerchec's bar, it appeared as if the two men were indeed a couple. They shared the same address, a bungalow on Clark Street.

The law students had continued to call and visit the near empty apartment in Jackson, with no response. Forty-one days earlier, while knocking on the door, they stuck a piece of junk mail into a small gap near the doorknob. It was still there; the door had not been opened.

The old Saab had not been moved. One tire was flat.

Gilbert became captivated by the story and pursued it doggedly. The attempt to get married in Mississippi smelled like a cynical ploy to thrust the same-sex marriage issue to the forefront of the McCarthy-Fisk race. And only McCarthy was getting hurt.

Gilbert badgered the radical lawyer who represented Meyerchec and Spano, but got nowhere. He dogged Tony Zachary for two days but couldn't get a word. His phone calls to Ron Fisk and his campaign headquarters went unanswered. He spoke to both Meyerchec and Spano by phone, but was quickly cut off when he pressed them on their ties to Mississippi. He gathered a few choice quotes from Nat Lester, and he verified the facts dug up by the law students.

Gilbert finished his report and sent it in.