The Paytons' temporary home was a three-bedroom apartment on the second level of an old complex near the university. Wes had lived nearby in his college days and still found it hard to believe he was back in the neighborhood. But there had been so many drastic changes it was difficult to dwell on just one.
How temporary? That was the great question between husband and wife, though the issue hadn't been discussed in weeks, nor would it be discussed now. Maybe in a day or two, when the fatigue and the shock wore off and they could steal a quiet moment and talk about the future. Wes eased the car through the parking lot, passing an overfilled Dumpster with debris littered around it. Mainly beer cans and broken bottles.
The college boys humored themselves by hurling their empties from the upper floors, across the lot, above the cars, in the general direction of the Dumpster. When the bottles crashed, the noise boomed through the complex and the students were amused.
Others were not. For the two sleep-deprived Paytons, the racket was at times unbearable.
The owner, an old client, was widely considered the worst slumlord in town, by the students anyway. He offered the place to the Paytons, and their handshake deal called for a thousand bucks a month in rent. They had lived there for seven months, paid for three, and the landlord insisted he was not worried.
He was patiently waiting in line with many other creditors. The law firm of Payton amp; Payton had once proven it could attract clients and generate fees, and its two partners were certainly capable of a dramatic comeback.
Try this comeback, Wes thought as he turned in to a parking place. Is a verdict of $41 million drama enough? For a moment he felt feisty, then he was tired again.
Slaves to a dreadful habit, both got out of the car and grabbed their briefcases in the rear seat. "No," Mary Grace announced suddenly. "We are not working tonight.
Leave these in the car."
They hustled up the stairs, loud raunchy rap spilling from a window nearby. Mary Grace rattled the keys and unlocked the door, and suddenly they were inside, where both children were watching television with Ramona, their Honduran nanny. Liza, the nine-year-old, rushed forth yelling, "Mommy, we won, we won!" Mary Grace lifted her in the air and clutched her tightly.
"Yes, dear, we won."
"Millions, dear, not billions."
Mack, the five-year-old, ran to his father, who yanked him up, and for a long moment they stood in the narrow foyer and squeezed their children. For the first time since the verdict, Wes saw tears in his wife's eyes.
"We saw you on TV" Liza was saying.
"You looked tired," Mack said.
"I am tired," Wes said.
Ramona watched from a distance, a tight smile barely visible. She wasn't sure what the verdict meant, but she understood enough to be pleased with the news.
Overcoats and shoes were removed, and the little Payton family fell onto the sofa, a very nice thick leather one, where they hugged and tickled and talked about school.
Wes and Mary Grace had managed to keep most of their furnishings, and the shabby apartment was decorated with fine things that not only reminded them of the past but, more important, reminded them of the future. This was just a stop, an unexpected layover.
The den floor was covered with notebooks and papers, clear evidence that the homework had been done before the television was turned on.
"I'm starving," Mack announced as he tried in vain to undo his father's tie.
"Mom says we're having macaroni and cheese," Wes said.
"All right!" Both kids voiced their approval, and Ramona eased into the kitchen.
"Does this mean we get a new house?" Liza asked.
"I thought you liked this place," Wes said.
"I do, but we're still looking for a new house, right?"
"Of course we are."
They had been careful with the children. They had explained the basics of the lawsuit to Liza-a bad company polluted water that harmed many people-and she quickly declared that she didn't like the company, either. And if the family had to move into an apartment to fight the company, then she was all for it.
But leaving their fine new home had been traumatic. Liza's last bedroom was pink and white and had everything a little girl could want. Now she shared a smaller room with her brother, and though she didn't complain, she was curious about how long the arrangement might last. Mack was generally too preoccupied with full-day kindergarten to worry about living quarters.
Both kids missed the old neighborhood, where the homes were large and the backyards had pools and gym sets. Friends were next door or just around the corner. The school was private and secure. Church was a block away and they knew everyone there.
Now they attended a city elementary school where there were far more black faces than white, and they worshipped in a downtown Episcopal church that welcomed everyone.
"We won't move anytime soon," Mary Grace said. "But maybe we can start looking."
"I'm starving," Mack said again.
The topic of housing was routinely avoided when one of the kids raised it, and Mary Grace finally rose to her feet. "Let's go cook," she said to Liza. Wes found the remote and said to Mack, "Let's watch Sports-Center."" Anything but local news.
Ramona was boiling water and dicing a tomato. Mary Grace hugged her quickly and said, "A good day?" Yes, a good day, she agreed. No problems at school. Homework was already finished. Liza drifted off to her bedroom. She had yet to show any interest in kitchen matters.
"A good day for you?" Ramona asked.
"Yes, very good. Let's use the white cheddar." She found a block of it in the fridge and began grating it.
"You can relax now?" Ramona asked.
"Yes, for a few days anyway." Through a friend at church, they had found Ramona hiding and half-starved in a shelter in Baton Rouge, sleeping on a cot and eating boxed food sent south for hurricane victims. She had survived a harrowing three-month journey from Central America, through Mexico, then Texas, and on to Louisiana, where none of the things she had been promised materialized. No job, no host family, no paperwork, no one to take care of her.
Under normal circumstances, hiring an illegal and unnaturalized nanny had never occurred to the Paytons. They quickly adopted her, taught her to drive but only on a few selected streets, taught her the basics of the cell phone, computer, and kitchen appliances, and pressed her to learn English. She had a good foundation from a Catholic school back home, and she spent her daytime hours holed up in the apartment cleaning and mimicking the voices on television. In eight months, her progress was impressive.
She preferred to listen, though, especially to Mary Grace, who needed someone to unload on. During the past four months, on the rare nights when Mary Grace prepared dinner, she chatted nonstop while Ramona absorbed every word. It was wonderful therapy, especially after a brutal day in a courtroom crowded with high-strung men.
"No trouble with the car?" Mary Grace asked the same question every night. Their second car was an old Honda Accord that Ramona had yet to damage. For many good reasons, they were terrified of turning loose on the streets of Hattiesburg an illegal, unlicensed, and quite uninsured alien in a Honda with a zillion miles and their two happy little children in the rear seat. They had trained Ramona to travel a memorized route through the backstreets, to the school, to the grocery, and, if necessary, to their office.
If the police stopped her, they planned to beg the cops, the prosecutor, and the judge. They knew them well.
Wes knew for a fact that the presiding city judge had his own illegal pulling his weeds and cutting his grass.
"A good day," Ramona said. "No problem. Everything is fine."
A good day indeed, Mary Grace thought to herself as she began melting cheese.
The phone rang and Wes reluctantly picked up the receiver. The number was unlisted because a crackpot had made threats. They used their cell phones for virtually everything.
He listened, said something, hung up, and walked to the stove to disrupt the cooking.
"Who was it?" Mary Grace asked with concern. Every call to the apartment was greeted with suspicion.
" Sherman, at the office. Says there are some reporters hanging around, looking for the stars." Sherman was one of the paralegals.
"Why is he at the office?" Mary Grace asked.
"Just can't get enough, I guess. Do we have any olives for the salad?"
"No. What did you tell him?"
"I told him to shoot at one of them and the rest'll disappear."
"Toss the salad, please," she said to Ramona.
They huddled over a card table wedged in a corner of the kitchen, all five of them.
They held hands as Wes prayed and gave thanks for the good things of life, for family and friends and school. And for the food.
He was also thankful for a wise and generous jury and a fantastic result, but he would save that for later. The salad was passed first, then the macaroni and cheese.
"Hey, Dad, can we camp out?" Mack blurted, after he'd swallowed.
"Of course!" Wes said, his back suddenly aching. Camping out in the apartment meant layering the den floor with blankets and quilts and pillows and sleeping there, usually with the television on late at night, usually on Friday nights. It worked only if Mom and Dad joined the fun. Ramona was always invited but wisely declined.
"Same bedtime, though," Mary Grace said. "This is a school night."
" Ten o'clock," said Liza, the negotiator.
"Nine," said Mary Grace, a thirty-minute add-on that made both kids smile.
Mary Grace was knee to knee with her children, savoring the moment and happy that the fatigue might soon be over. Maybe she could rest now, and take them to school, visit their classes, and eat lunch with them. She longed to be a mother, nothing more, and it would be a gloomy day when she was forced to reenter a courtroom.
Wednesday night meant potluck casseroles at the Pine Grove Church, and the turnout was always impressive. The busy church was located in the middle of the neighborhood, and many worshippers simply walked a block or two on Sundays and Wednesdays. The doors were open eighteen hours a day, and the pastor, who lived in a parsonage behind the church, was always there, waiting to minister to his people.
They ate in the fellowship hall, an ugly metal addition stuck to the side of the chapel, where folding tables were covered with all manner of home-cooked recipes.
There was a basket of white dinner rolls, a large dispenser of sweet tea, and, of course, lots of bottled water. The crowd would be even larger tonight, and they hoped Jeannette would be there. A celebration was in order.
Pine Grove Church was fiercely independent with not the slightest link to any denomination, a source of quiet pride for its founder, Pastor Denny Ott. It had been built by Baptists decades earlier, then dried up like the rest of Bowmore. By the time Ott arrived, the congregation consisted of only a few badly scarred souls. Years of infighting had decimated its membership. Ott cleaned out the rest, opened the doors to the community, and reached out to the people.
He had not been immediately accepted, primarily because he was from "up north" and spoke with such a clean, clipped accent. He had met a Bowmore girl at a Bible college in Nebraska, and she brought him south. Through a series of misadventures he found himself as the interim pastor of Second Baptist Church. He wasn't really a Baptist, but with so few young preachers in the area the church could not afford to be selective.
Six months later all the Baptists were gone and the church had a new name.
He wore a beard and often preached in flannel shirts and hiking boots. Neckties were not forbidden but were certainly frowned upon. It was the people's church, a place where anyone could find peace and solace with no worries about wearing the Sunday best. Pastor Ott got rid of King James and the old hymnal. He had little use for the mournful anthems written by ancient pilgrims. Worship services were loosened up, modernized with guitars and slide shows. He believed and taught that poverty and injustice were more important social issues than abortion and gay rights, but he was careful with his politics.
The church grew and prospered, though he cared nothing about money. A friend from seminary ran a mission in Chicago, and through this connection Ott maintained a large inventory of used but very usable clothing in the church's "closet." He badgered the larger congregations in Hattiesburg and Jackson and with their contributions kept a well-stocked food bank at one end of the fellowship hall. He pestered drug companies for their leftovers, and the church's "pharmacy" was filled with over-the-counter medications.
Denny Ott considered all of Bowmore to be his mission, and no one would go hungry or homeless or sick if he could possibly prevent it. Not on his watch, and his watch never ended.
He had conducted sixteen funerals of his own people killed by Krane Chemical, a company he detested so bitterly that he constantly prayed for forgiveness. He didn't hate the nameless and faceless people who owned Krane, to do so would compromise his faith, but he most certainly hated the corporation itself. Was it a sin to hate a corporation? That furious debate raged in his soul every day, and to be on the safe side, he kept praying.
All sixteen were buried in the small cemetery behind the church. When the weather was warm, he cut the grass around the headstones, and when it was cold, he painted the white picket fence that surrounded the cemetery and kept the deer away. Though he had not planned it, his church had become the hub of anti-Krane activity in Cary County. Almost all of its members had been touched by the illness or death of someone harmed by the company.
His wife's older sister finished Bowmore High with Mary Grace Shelby. Pastor Ott and the Paytons were extremely close. Legal advice was often dispensed in the pastor's study with the door closed and one of the Paytons on the phone. Dozens of depositions had been taken in the fellowship hall, packed with lawyers from big cities. Ott disliked the corporate lawyers almost as much as the corporation itself.
Mary Grace had phoned Pastor Ott often during the trial and had always warned him not to be optimistic. He certainly was not. When she called two hours earlier with the astounding news, Ott grabbed his wife and they danced through the house yelling and laughing. Krane had been nailed, humbled, exposed, brought to justice. Finally.
He was greeting his flock when he saw Jeannette enter with her stepsister Bette and the rest of her entourage. She was immediately engulfed by those who loved her, those who wanted to share in this great moment and offer a quiet word. They sat her in the rear of the room, near an old piano, and a receiving line materialized. She managed to smile a few times and even say thanks, but she looked so weak and frail.
With the casseroles growing colder by the minute, and with a full house, Pastor Ott finally called things to order and launched into a windy prayer of thanks. He finished with a flourish and said, "Let us eat."
As always, the children and old folks lined up first, and dinner was served.
Ott made his way to the back and was soon sitting next to Jean-nette. As the attention shifted away from her and to the food, she whispered to her pastor, "I'd like to go to the cemetery."
He led her through a side door, onto a narrow gravel drive that dipped behind the church and ran for fifty yards to the small graveyard. They walked slowly, silently, in the dark. Ott opened the wooden gate, and they stepped into the cemetery, neat and tidy and well tended to. The headstones were small. These were working people, no monuments or crypts or gaudy tributes to great ones.
Four rows down on the right, Jeannette knelt between two graves. One was Chad 's, a sickly child who'd lived only six years before tumors choked him. The other held the remains of Pete, her husband of eight years. Father and son, resting side by side forever. She visited them at least once a week and never failed to wish she could join them. She rubbed both headstones at the same time, then began talking softly. "Hello, boys, it's Mom. You won't believe what happened today."
Pastor Ott slipped away, leaving her alone with her tears and thoughts and quiet words that he did not want to hear. He waited by the gate, and as the minutes passed, he watched the shadows move through the rows of headstones as the moonlight shifted through the clouds. He had already buried Chad and Pete. Sixteen in all, and counting.
Sixteen silent victims who perhaps were not so silent anymore. From within the little picket-fenced cemetery at the Pine Grove Church a voice had finally been heard. A loud angry voice that begged to be heard and was demanding justice.
He could see her shadow and hear her talking.
He had prayed with Pete in the minutes before he finally slipped away, and he had kissed the forehead of little Chad in his final hour. He had scraped together money for their caskets and funerals. Then he and two of his deacons had dug the graves.
Their burials were eight months apart.
She stood, said her farewells, and began moving. "We need to go inside," Ott said.
"Yes, thank you," she said, wiping her cheeks.
Mr. Trudeau's table cost him $50,000, and since he wrote the check, he could damned well control who sat with him. To his left was Brianna, and next to her was her close friend Sandy, another skeleton who'd just been contractually released from her last marriage and was on the prowl for husband number three. To his right was a retired banker friend and his wife, pleasant folks who preferred to chat about the arts.
Carl's urologist sat directly across from him. He and his wife were invited because they said little. The odd man out was a lesser executive at Trudeau Group who simply drew the short straw and was there by coercion.
The celebrity chef had whipped up a tasting menu that began with caviar and champagne, then moved on to a lobster bisque, a splash of sauteed foie gras with trimmings, fresh Scottish game hen for the carnivores, and a seaweed bouquet for the veggies.
Dessert was a gorgeous layered gelato creation. Each round required a different wine, including dessert.
Carl cleaned every plate put before him and drank heavily. He spoke only to the banker because the banker had heard the news from down south and appeared to be sympathetic.
Brianna and Sandy whispered rudely and, in the course of dinner, hammered every other social climber in the crowd. They managed to push the food around their plates while eating virtually none of it. Carl, half-drunk, almost said something to his wife while she tinkered with her seaweed. "Do you know how much that damned food cost?" he wanted to say, but there was no sense starting a fight.
The celebrity chef, one Carl had never heard of, was introduced and got a standing ovation from the four hundred guests, virtually all of them still hungry after five courses. But the evening wasn't about food. It was about money.
Two quick speeches brought the auctioneer to the front. Abused Imelda was rolled into the atrium, hanging dramatically from a small mobile crane, and left to hover twenty feet off the floor for all to see clearly. Concert-style spotlights made it even more exotic. The crowd grew quiet as the tables were cleared by an army of illegal immigrants in black coats and ties.
The auctioneer rambled on about Imelda, and the crowd listened. Then he talked about the artist, and the crowd really listened.
Was he truly crazy? Insane? Close to suicide? They wanted details, but the auctioneer held the high ground. He was British and very proper, which would add at least a million bucks to the winning bid.
"I suggest we start the bidding at five million," he said through his nose, and the crowd gasped.
Brianna was suddenly bored with Sandy. She moved closer to Carl, fluttered her eyelashes at him, and placed a hand on his thigh. Carl responded by nodding at the nearest floor assistant, a man he'd already spoken to. The assistant flashed a sign to the podium, and Imelda came to life.
"And we have five million," the auctioneer announced. Thunderous applause. "A nice place to start, thank you. And now onward to six."
Six, seven, eight, nine, and Carl nodded at ten. He kept a smile on his face, but his stomach was churning. How much would this abomination cost him? There were at least six billionaires in the room and several more in the making. No shortage of enormous egos, no shortage of cash, but at that moment none of the others needed a headline as desperately as Carl Trudeau.
And Pete Flint understood this.
Two bidders dropped out on the way to eleven million. "How many are left?" Carl whispered to the banker, who was watching the crowd and searching for the competition.
"It's Pete Flint, maybe one more."
That son of a bitch. When Carl nodded at twelve, Brianna practically had her tongue in his ear.
"We have twelve million." The crowd exploded with applause and hoorays, and the auctioneer wisely said, "Let's catch our breath here." Everyone took a sip of something. Carl gulped more wine. Pete Flint was behind him, two tables back, but Carl didn't dare turn around and acknowledge their little battle.
If Flint had really shorted Krane's stock, then he would reap millions from the verdict.
Carl, obviously, had just lost millions because of it. It was all on paper, but then wasn't everything?
Imelda was not. It was real, tangible, a work of art that Carl could not lose, not to Pete Flint anyway.
Rounds 13, 14, and 15 were dragged out beautifully by the auctioneer, each ending in rapturous applause. Word had spread quickly, and everyone knew it was Carl Trudeau and Pete Flint. When the applause died, the two heavyweights settled in for more.
Carl nodded at sixteen million, then accepted the applause.
"Do we have seventeen million?" boomed the auctioneer, quite excited himself.
A long pause. The tension was electric. "Very well, we have sixteen. Going once, going twice, ah yes-we have seventeen million."
Carl had been making and breaking vows throughout the ordeal, but he was determined not to exceed seventeen million bucks. As the roar died down, he settled back in his seat, cool as any corporate raider with billions in play. He was finished, and quite happy about it.
Flint was bluffing, and now Flint was stuck with the old girl for $ 17 million.
"Dare I ask for eighteen?" More applause. More time for Carl to think. If he was willing to pay seventeen, why not eighteen? And if he jumped at eighteen, then Flint would realize that he, Carl, was staying to the bloody end.
It was worth a try.
"Eighteen?" asked the auctioneer.
"Yes," Carl said, loud enough for many to hear. The strategy worked. Pete Flint retreated to the safety of his unspent cash and watched in amusement as the great Carl Trudeau finished off a lousy deal.
"Sold for eighteen million, to Mr. Carl Trudeau," roared the auctioneer, and the crowd leaped to its feet.
They lowered Imelda so her new owners could pose with her. Many others, both envious and proud, gawked at the Trudeaus and their new addition. A band cranked up and it was time to dance. Brianna was in heat-the money had sent her into a frenzy-and halfway through the first dance Carl gently shoved her back a step. She was hot and lewd and flashing as much skin as possible. Folks were watching and that was fine with her.
"Let's get out of here," Carl said after the second dance.