Chapter 5

Tom Huff put on his darkest and finest suit, and after much debate decided to arrive at work at the Second State Bank a few minutes later than usual. An earlier entry would seem too predictable, perhaps a little too cocky. And, more important, he wanted everyone in place when he arrived-the old tellers on the main floor, the cute secretaries on the second, and the vice somethings, his rivals, on the third floor. Huffy wanted a triumphant arrival with as big an audience as possible. He'd gambled bravely with the Paytons, and the moment belonged to him.

What he got instead was an overall dismissal by the tellers, a collective cold shoulder from the secretaries, and enough devious grins from his rivals to make him suspicious.

On his desk he found a message marked "Urgent" to see Mr. Kirkhead. Something was up, and Huffy began to feel considerably less cocky. So much for a dramatic entrance.

What was the problem?

Mr. Kirkhead was in his office, waiting, with the door open, always a bad sign. The boss hated open doors, and in fact boasted of a closed-door management style. He was caustic, rude, cynical, and afraid of his shadow, and closed doors served him well.

"Sit down," he barked, with no thought of a "Good morning" or a "Hello" or, heaven forbid, a "Congratulations." He was camped behind his pretentious desk, fat hairless head bent low as if he sniffed the spreadsheets as he read them.

"And how are you, Mr. Kirkhead?" Huffy chirped. How badly he wanted to say "Prickhead" because he said it every other time he referred to his boss. Even the old gals on the main floor sometimes used the substitution.

"Swell. Did you bring the Payton file?"

"No, sir. I wasn't asked to bring the Payton file. Something the matter?"

"Two things, actually, now that you mention it. First, we have this disastrous loan to these people, over $400,000, past due of course and horribly under-collateralized.

By far the worst loan in the bank's portfolio."

He said "these people" as if Wes and Mary Grace were credit card thieves.

"This is nothing new, sir."

"Mind if I finish? And now we have this obscene jury award, which, as the banker holding the paper, I guess I'm supposed to feel good about, but as a commercial lender and business leader in this community, I think it really sucks. What kind of message do we send to prospective industrial clients with verdicts like this?"

"Don't dump toxic waste in our state?"

Prickhead's fat jowls turned red as he swept away Huffy's retort with the wave of a hand. He cleared his throat, almost gargling with his own saliva.

"This is bad for our business climate," he said. "Front page all over the world this morning. I'm getting phone calls from the home office. A very bad day."

Lots of bad days over in Bowmore, too, Huffy thought. Especially with all those funerals.

"Forty-one million bucks," Prickhead went on. "For a poor woman who lives in a trailer."

"Nothing wrong with trailers, Mr. Kirkhead. Lots of good folks live in them around here. We make the loans."

"You miss the point. It's an obscene amount of money. The whole system has gone crazy.

And why here? Why is Mississippi known as a judicial hellhole? Why do trial lawyers love our little state? Just look at some of the surveys. It's bad for business, Huff, for our business."

"Yes, sir, but you must feel better about the Payton loan this morning."

"I want it repaid, and soon."

"So do I."

"Give me a schedule. Get with these people and put together a repayment plan, one that I will approve only when it looks sensible. And do it now."

"Yes, sir, but it might take a few months for them to get back on their feet. They've practically shut down-"

"I don't care about them, Huff. I just want this damned thing off the books."

"Yes, sir. Is that all?"

"Yes. And no more litigation loans, you understand?"

"Don't worry."

Three doors down from the bank, the Honorable Jared Kurtin made a final inspection of the troops before heading back to Atlanta and the icy reception waiting there.

Headquarters was a recently renovated old building on Front Street. The well-heeled defense of Krane Chemical had leased it two years earlier, then retrofitted it with an impressive collection of technology and personnel.

The mood was somber, as might be expected, though many of the locals were not troubled by the verdict. After months of working under Kurtin and his arrogant henchmen from Atlanta, they felt a quiet satisfaction in watching them retreat in defeat. And they would be back. The verdict guaranteed new enthusiasm from the victims, more lawsuits, trials, and so on.

On hand to witness the farewell was Frank Sully, local counsel and partner in a Hattiesburg defense firm first hired by Krane and later demoted in favor of a "big firm" from Atlanta. Sully had been given a seat at the rather crowded defense table and had suffered the indignity of sitting through a four-month trial without saying a word in open court. Sully had disagreed with virtually every tactic and strategy employed by Kurtin. So deep was his dislike and distrust of the Atlanta lawyers that he had circulated a secret memo to his partners in which he predicted a huge punitive award.

Now he gloated privately.

But he was a professional. He served his client as well as his client would allow, and he never failed to do what Kurtin instructed him to do. And he would gladly do it all over again because Krane Chemical had paid his little firm over a million dollars to date.

He and Kurtin shook hands at the front door. Both knew they would speak by phone before the day was over. Both were quietly thrilled by the departure. Two leased vans hauled Kurtin and ten others to the airport, where a handsome little jet was waiting for the seventy-minute flight, though they were in no hurry. They missed their homes and families, but what could be more humiliating than limping back from Podunk with their tails between their legs?

Carl remained safely tucked away on the forty-fifth floor, while on the Street the rumors raged. At 9:15, his banker from Goldman Sachs called, for the third time that morning, and delivered the bad news that the exchange might not open trading with Krane's common shares. It was too volatile. There was too much pressure to sell.

"Looks like a fire sale," he said bluntly, and Carl wanted to curse him.

The market opened at 9:30 a.m., and Krane's trading was delayed. Carl, Ratzlaff, and Felix Bard were at the conference table, exhausted, sleeves rolled up, elbows deep in papers and debris, phones in each hand, all conversations frantic. The bomb finally landed just after 10:00 a.m., when Krane began trading at $40.00 a share.

There were no buyers, and none at $35.00. The plunge was temporarily reversed at $29.50 when speculators entered the fray and began buying. Up and down it went for the next hour. At noon, it was at $27.25 in heavy trading, and to make matters worse, Krane was the big business story of the morning. For their market updates, the cable shows happily switched to their Wall Street analysts, all of whom gushed about the stunning meltdown of Krane Chemical.

Then back to the headlines. Body count from Iraq. The monthly natural disaster. And Krane Chemical.

Bobby Ratzlaff asked permission to run to his office. He took the stairs, one flight down, and barely made it to the men's room. The stalls were empty. He went to the far one, raised the lid, and vomited violently.

His ninety thousand shares of Krane common had just decreased in value from about $4.5 million to around $2.5 million, and the collapse wasn't over. He used the stock as collateral for all his toys-the small house in the Hamptons, the Porsche Carrera, half interest in a sailboat. Not to mention overhead items such as private school tuition and golf club memberships. Bobby was now unofficially bankrupt.

For the first time in his career, he understood why they jumped from buildings in 1929.

The Paytons had planned to drive to Bowmore together, but a last-minute visit to their office by their banker changed things. Wes decided to stay behind and deal with Huffy. Mary Grace took the Taurus and drove to her hometown.

She went to Pine Grove, then to the church, where Jeannette Baker was waiting along with Pastor Denny Ott and a crowd of other victims represented by the Payton firm.

They met privately in the fellowship hall and lunched on sandwiches, one of which was eaten by Jeannette herself, a rarity. She was composed, rested, happy to be away from the courthouse and all its proceedings.

The shock of the verdict was beginning to wear off. The possibility of money changing hands lightened the mood, and it also prompted a flood of questions. Mary Grace was careful to downplay expectations. She detailed the arduous appeals ahead for the Baker verdict. She was not optimistic about a settlement, or a cleanup, or even the next trial. Frankly, she and Wes did not have the funds, nor the energy, to take on Krane in another long trial, though she did not share this with the group.

She was confident and reassuring. Her clients were at the right place; she and Wes had certainly proved that. There would soon be many lawyers sniffing around Bowmore, looking for Krane victims, making promises, offering money perhaps. And not just local lawyers, but the national tort boys who chased cases from coast to coast and often arrived at the crash sites before the fire trucks. Trust no one, she said softly but sternly. Krane will flood the area with investigators, snitches, informants, all looking for things that might be used against you one day in court. Don't talk to reporters, because something said in jest could sound quite different in a trial.

Don't sign anything unless it's first reviewed by the Paytons. Don't talk to other lawyers.

She gave them hope. The verdict was echoing through the judicial system. Government regulators had to take note. The chemical industry could no longer ignore them. Krane's stock was crashing at that very moment, and when the stockholders lost enough money, they would demand changes.

When she finished, Denny Ott led them in prayer. Mary Grace hugged her clients, wished them well, promised to see them again in a few days, then walked with Ott to the front of the church for her next appointment.

The journalist's name was Tip Shepard. He had arrived about a month earlier, and after many attempts had gained the confidence of Pastor Ott, who then introduced him to Wes and Mary Grace. Shepard was a freelancer with impressive credentials, several books to his credit, and a Texas twang that neutralized some of Bowmore's distrust of the media. The Paytons had refused to talk to him during the trial, for many reasons. Now that it was over, Mary Grace would do the first interview. If it went well, there might be another.

"Mr. Kirkhead wants his money," Huffy was saying. He was in Wes's office, a makeshift room with unpainted Sheetrock walls, stained concrete floor, and Army-surplus furniture.

"I'm sure he does," Wes shot back. He was already irritated that his banker would arrive just hours after the verdict with signs of attitude. "Tell him to get in line."

"We're way past due here, Wes, come on."

"Is Kirkhead stupid? Does he think that the jury gives an award one day and the defendant writes a check the next?"

"Yes, he's stupid, but not that stupid."

"He sent you over here?"

"Yes. He jumped me first thing this morning, and I expect to get jumped for many days to come."

"Couldn't you wait a day, two days, maybe a week? Let us breathe a little, maybe enjoy the moment?"

"He wants a plan. Something in writing. Repayments, stuff like that."

"I'll give him a plan," Wes said, his words trailing off. He did not want to fight with Huffy. Though not exactly friends, they were certainly friendly and enjoyed each other's company. Wes was extremely grateful for Huffy's willingness to roll the dice. Huffy admired the Paytons for losing it all as they risked it all. He had spent hours with them as they surrendered their home, office, cars, retirement accounts.

"Let's talk about the next three months," Huffy said. The four legs of his folding chair were uneven and he rocked slightly as he talked.

Wes took a deep breath, gave a roll of the eyes. He suddenly felt very tired. "Once upon a time, we were grossing fifty thousand a month, clearing thirty, before taxes.

Life was good, you remember. It'll take a year to crank up that treadmill, but we can do it. We have no choice. We'll survive until the appeals run their course. If the verdict stands, Kirkhead can take his money and take a hike. We'll retire, time for the sailboat. If the verdict is reversed, we'll go bankrupt and start advertising for quickie divorces."

"Surely the verdict will attract clients."

"Of course, but most of it'll be junk."

By using the word "bankrupt," Wes had gently placed Huffy back in his box, along with old Prickhead and the bank. The verdict could not be classified as an asset, and without it the Paytons' balance sheet looked as bleak as it did a day earlier.

They had lost virtually everything already, and to be adjudged bankrupt was a further indignity they were willing to endure. Pile it on.

They would be back.

"I'm not giving you a plan, Huffy. Thanks for asking. Come back in thirty days and we'll talk. Right now I've got clients who've been ignored for months."

"So what do I tell Mr. Prickhead?"

"Simple. Push just a little bit harder, and he can use the paper to wipe with. Ease off, give us some time, and we'll satisfy the debt."

"I'll pass it along."

At Babe's Coffee Shop on Main Street, Mary Grace and Tip Shepard sat in a booth near the front windows and talked about the town. She remembered Main Street as a busy place where people shopped and gathered. Bowmore was too small for the large discount stores, so the downtown merchants survived. When she was a kid, traffic was often heavy, parking hard to find. Now half the storefronts were covered with plywood, and the other half were desperate for business.

A teenager with an apron brought two cups of black coffee and left without a word.

Mary Grace added sugar while Shepard watched her carefully. "Are you sure the coffee is safe?" he asked.

"Of course. The city finally passed an ordinance forbidding the use of its water in restaurants. Plus, I've known Babe for thirty years. She was one of the first to buy her water."

Shepard took a cautious sip, then arranged his tape recorder and notebook.

"Why did you take the cases?" he asked.

She smiled and shook her head and kept stirring. "I've asked myself that a thousand times, but the answer is really simple. Pete, Jeannette's husband, worked for my uncle. I knew several of the victims. It's a small town, and when so many people became ill, it was obvious there had to be a reason. The cancer came in waves, and there was so much suffering. After attending the first three or four funerals, I realized something had to be done."

He took notes and ignored the pause.

She continued. "Krane was the biggest employer, and for years there had been rumors of dumping around the plant. A lot of folks who worked there got sick. I remember coming home from college after my sophomore year and hearing people talk about how bad the water was. We lived a mile outside of town and had our own well, so it was never a problem for us. But things got worse in town. Over the years, the rumors of dumping grew and grew until everyone came to believe them. At the same time, the water turned into a putrid liquid that was undrinkable. Then the cancer hit-liver, kidney, urinary tract, stomach, bladder, lots of leukemia. I was in church one Sunday with my parents, and I could see four slick, shiny bald heads. Chemo. I thought I was in a horror movie."

"Have you regretted the litigation?"

"No, never. We've lost a lot, but then so has my hometown. Hopefully, the losing is over now. Wes and I are young; we'll survive. But many of these folks are either dead or deathly ill."

"Do you think about the money?"

"What money? The appeal will take eighteen months, and right now that seems like an eternity. You have to see the big picture."

"Which is?"

"Five years from now. In five years, the toxic dump will be cleaned up and gone forever and no one will ever be hurt by it again. There will be a settlement, one big massive settlement where Krane Chemical, and its insurers, are finally brought to the table with their very deep pockets and are forced to compensate the families they have ruined. Everybody gets their share of damages."

"Including the lawyers."

"Absolutely. If not for the lawyers, Krane would still be here manufacturing pillamar 5 and dumping its by-products in the pits behind the plant, and no one could hold them accountable."

"Instead, they are now in Mexico- "

"Oh yes, manufacturing pillamar 5 and dumping its by-products in the pits behind the plants. And nobody gives a damn. They don't have these trials down there."

"What are your chances on appeal?"

She sipped the stale and heavily sugared coffee and was about to answer when an insurance agent stopped by, shook her hand, hugged her, said thanks several times, and appeared to be on the verge of tears when he walked away. Then Mr. Greenwood, her junior high principal, now retired, spotted her as he entered and practically crushed her in a bear hug. He ignored Shepard while rambling on about how proud he was of her. He thanked her, promised to keep praying for her, asked about her family, and so on.

As he withdrew in a windy farewell, Babe, the owner, came over for a hug and another lengthy round of congratulations.

Shepard finally stood and eased out the door. A few minutes later, Mary Grace made her exit. "Sorry about that," she said. "It's a big moment for the town."

"They are very proud."

"Let's go see the plant."

The Krane Chemical Bowmore Plant Number Two, as it was officially known, was in an abandoned industrial park on the east side of the city limits. The plant was a series of flat-roofed cinder-block buildings, connected by massive piping and conveyors.

Water towers and storage silos rose behind the buildings. Everything was overgrown with kudzu and weeds. Because of the litigation, the company had secured the facility with miles of twelve-foot chain-link fencing, topped with glistening razor wire.

Heavy gates were chained and padlocked. Like a prison, where bad things happened, the plant shut out the world and kept its secrets buried within.

Mary Grace had visited the plant at least a dozen times during the litigation, but always with a mob-other lawyers, engineers, former Krane employees, security guards, even Judge Harrison. The last visit had been two months earlier when the jurors were given a tour.

She and Shepard stopped at the main gate and examined the padlocks. A large, decaying sign identified the plant and its owner. As they stared through the chain-link fence, Mary Grace said, "Six years ago, when it became apparent that litigation was inevitable, Krane fled to Mexico. The employees were given three days' notice and $500 in severance pay; many of them had worked here for thirty years. It was an incredibly stupid way to leave town, because some of their former workers were our best witnesses during the trial. The bitterness was, and is, astounding. If Krane had any friends in Bowmore, it lost every one of them when it screwed its employees."

A photographer working with Shepard met them at the front gate and began snapping away. They strolled along the fence, with Mary Grace directing the brief tour. "For years, this place was unlocked. It was routinely vandalized. Teenagers hung out here, drinking and doing drugs. Now people stay as far away as possible. The gates and fences are really not needed. No one wants to get near this place."

From the north side, a long row of thick metal cylinders was visible in the midst of the plant. Mary Grace pointed and explained, "That's known as Extraction Unit Two. The bichloronylene was reduced as a byproduct and stored in those tanks. From there, some was shipped away for a proper disposal, but most was taken into the woods there, farther back on the property, and simply dumped into a ravine."

"Proctor's Pit?"

"Yes, Mr. Proctor was the supervisor in charge of disposal. He died of cancer before we could subpoena him." They walked twenty yards along the fence. "We really can't see from here, but there are three ravines in there, deep in the woods, where they simply hauled the tanks and covered them with dirt and mud. Over the years, they began to leak-they were not even sealed properly-and the chemicals soaked into the earth. This went on for years, tons and tons of bichloronylene and cartolyx and aklar and other proven carcinogens.

If you can believe our experts, and the jury evidently did, the poisons finally contaminated the aquifer from which Bowmore pumps its water."

A security detail in a golf cart approached on the other side of the fence. Two overweight guards with guns stopped and stared. "Just ignore them," Mary Grace whispered.

"What're you lookin' for?" a guard asked.

"We're on the right side of the fence," she answered.

"What're you lookin' for?" he repeated.

"I'm Mary Grace Payton, one of the attorneys. You boys move along."

Both nodded at once, and then slowly drove away.

She glanced at her watch. "I really need to be going."

"When can we meet again?"

"We'll see. No promises. Things are quite hectic right now."

They drove back to the Pine Grove Church and said goodbye. When Shepard was gone, Mary Grace walked three blocks to Jeannette's trailer. Bette was at work, the place was quiet. For an hour, she sat with her client under a small tree and drank bottled lemonade. No tears, no tissues, just girl talk about life and families and the past four months together in that awful courtroom.