At 10:00 a.m. Friday, two days post-verdict, the Payton firm met in The Pit, a large open space with unpainted Sheetrock walls lined with homemade bookshelves and cluttered with a heavy collage of aerial photos, medical summaries, juror profiles, expert-witness reports, and a hundred other trial documents and exhibits. In the center of the room was a table of sorts-four large pieces of inch-thick plywood mounted on sawhorses and surrounded with a sad collection of metal and wooden chairs, almost all of which were missing a piece or two.
The table had obviously been the center of the storm for the past four months, with piles of papers and stacks of law books. Sherman, a paralegal, had spent most of the previous day hauling out coffee cups, pizza boxes, Chinese food containers, and empty water bottles.
He'd also swept the concrete floors, though no one could tell.
Their previous office, a three-story building on Main Street, had been beautifully decorated, well-appointed, and spruced up each night by a cleaning service. Appearance and neatness were important back then.
Now they were just trying to survive.
In spite of the dismal surroundings, the mood was light, and for obvious reasons.
The marathon was over. The incredible verdict was still hard to believe. United by sweat and hardship, the tight-knit little firm had taken on the beast and won a big one for the good guys.
Mary Grace called the meeting to order. The phones were put on hold because Tabby, the receptionist, was very much a part of the firm and was expected to participate in the discussion. Thankfully, the phones were beginning to ring again.
Sherman and Rusty, the other paralegal, wore jeans, sweatshirts, no socks. Working in what was once a dime store, who could care about a dress code? Tabby and Vicky, the other receptionist, had abandoned nice clothes when both snagged dresses on the hand-me-down furniture. Only Olivia, the matronly bookkeeper, turned herself out each day in proper office attire.
They sat around the plywood table, sipping the same bad coffee they were now addicted to, and listened with smiles as Mary Grace did her recap. "There will be the usual post-trial motions," she was saying. "Judge Harrison has scheduled a hearing in thirty days, but we expect no surprises."
"Here's to Judge Harrison," Sherman said, and they toasted him with their coffee.
It had become a very democratic firm. Everyone present felt like an equal. Anyone could speak whenever he or she felt like it. Only first names were used. Poverty is a great equalizer.
Mary Grace continued: "For the next few months, Sherman and I will handle the Baker case as it moves forward, and we will keep the other Bowmore cases current. Wes and Rusty will take everything else and start generating some cash."
"Here's to cash," Sherman said, another toast. He possessed a law degree from a night school but had not been able to pass the bar exam. He was now in his mid-forties, a career paralegal who knew more law than most lawyers. Rusty was twenty years younger and contemplating med school.
"While we're on the subject," Mary Grace continued, "Olivia has given me the latest red-ink summary. Always a pleasure." She picked up a sheet of paper and looked at the numbers. "We are now officially three months behind in rent, for a total of $4,500."
"Oh, please evict us," Rusty said.
"But the landlord is still our client and he's not worried. All other bills are at least two months past due, except, of course, the phones and electricity. Salaries have not been paid in four weeks-"
"Five," Sherman said.
"Are you sure?" she asked.
"As of today. Today is payday, or at least it used to be."
"Sorry, five weeks past due. We should have some cash in a week if we can settle the Raney case. We'll try to catch up."
"We're surviving," Tabby said. She was the only single person in the firm. All others had spouses with jobs. Though budgets were painfully tight, they were determined to survive.
"How about the Payton family?" Vicky asked.
"We're fine," Wes said. "I know you're concerned, thank you, but we're getting by just like you. I've said this a hundred times, but I'll say it again. Mary Grace and I will pay you as soon as we possibly can. Things are about to improve."
"We're more concerned about you," Mary Grace added.
No one was leaving. No one was threatening.
A deal had been struck long ago, though it was not in writing. If and when the Bowmore cases paid off, the money would be shared by the entire firm. Maybe not equally, but everyone present knew they would be rewarded.
"How about the bank?" Rusty asked. There were no secrets now. They knew Huffy had stopped by the day before, and they knew how much Second State Bank was owed.
"I stiff-armed the bank," Wes said. "If they push a little more, then we'll file Chapter 11 and screw 'em."
"I vote to screw the bank," Sherman said.
It seemed to be unanimous around the room that the bank should get screwed, though everyone knew the truth. The lawsuit would not have been possible without Huffy's lobbying on their behalf and convincing Mr. Prickhead to raise the line of credit. They also knew that the Paytons would not rest until the bank was paid.
"We should clear twelve thousand from the Raney case," Mary Grace said. "And another ten thousand from the dog bite."
"Maybe fifteen," Wes said.
"Then what? Where is the next settlement?" Mary Grace threw this on the table for all to consider.
"Geeter," Sherman said. It was more of a suggestion.
Wes looked at Mary Grace. Both gave blank looks to Sherman. "Who's Geeter?"
"Geeter happens to be a client. Slip and fall at the Kroger store. Came in about eight months ago." There were some odd glances around the table. It was obvious that the two lawyers had forgotten one of their clients.
"I don't recall that one," Wes admitted.
"What's the potential?" Mary Grace asked.
"Not much. Shaky liability. Maybe twenty thousand. I'll review the file with you on Monday."
"Good idea," Mary Grace said and quickly moved on to something else. "I know the phones are ringing, and we are definitely broke, but we are not about to start taking a bunch of junk. No real estate or bankruptcies. No criminal cases unless they can pay the freight. No contested divorces-we'll do the quickies for a thousand bucks, but everything must be agreed on. This is a personal injury firm, and if we get loaded down with the small stuff, we won't have time for the good cases. Any questions?"
"There's a lot of weird stuff coming in by phone," Tabby said. "And from all over the country."
"Just stick to the basics," Wes said. "We can't handle cases in Florida or Seattle.
We need quick settlements here at home, at least for the next twelve months."
"How long will the appeals take?" Vicky asked.
"Eighteen to twenty-four months," Mary Grace answered. "And there's not much we can do to push things along. It's a process, and that's why it's important to hunker down now and generate some fees elsewhere."
"Which brings up another point," Wes said. "The verdict changes the landscape dramatically.
First, expectations are through the roof right now, and our other Bowmore clients will soon be pestering us. They want their day in court, their big verdict. We must be patient, but we can't let these people drive us crazy. Second, the vultures are descending on Bowmore.
Lawyers will be chasing one another looking for clients. It will be a free-for-all. Any contact from another attorney is to be reported immediately.
Third, the verdict places even greater pressure on Krane. Their dirty tricks will get even dirtier. They have people watching us. Trust no one. Speak to no one. Nothing leaves this office. All papers are shredded. As soon as we can afford it, we'll hire nighttime security. Bottomline watch everyone and watch your backs."
"This is fun," Vicky said. "Like a movie."
"Yes," Rusty said. "Can Sherman and I start chasing ambulances again? It's been four months, you know, since the beginning of the trial. I really miss the excitement."
"I haven't seen the inside of an ER in weeks," Sherman added. "And I miss the sounds of the sirens."
It wasn't clear if they were joking or not, but the moment was humorous and good for a laugh. Mary Grace finally said, "I really don't care what you do; I just don't want to know everything."
"Meeting adjourned," Wes said. "And it's Friday. Everyone has to leave at noon. We're locking the doors. See you Monday."
They picked up Mack and Liza from school, and after fast food for lunch they headed south through the countryside for an hour, until they saw the first sign for Lake Garland. The roads narrowed before finally turning to gravel. The cabin was at the dead end of a dirt trail, perched above the water on stilts and wedged into a tight spot where the woods met the shoreline. A short pier ran from the porch into the water, and beyond it the vast lake seemed to stretch for miles. There was no other sign of human activity, either on the lake or anywhere around it.
The cabin was owned by a lawyer friend in Hattiesburg, a man Wes had once worked for and who had declined to get involved in the Bow-more mess. That decision had seemed a wise one, until about forty-eight hours ago. Now there was considerable doubt.
The original idea had been to drive a few more hours to Destin and have a long weekend on the beach. But they simply couldn't afford it.
They unloaded the car as they roamed through the spacious cabin, an A-frame with a huge loft, which Mack surveyed and declared perfect for another night of "camping out."
"We'll see," Wes said. There were three small bedrooms on the main level, and he planned to find a comfortable bed. Serious sleep was the goal for the weekend. Sleep and time with the kids.
As promised, the fishing gear was in a storage room under the porch. The boat was winched at the end of the pier, and the children watched with anticipation as Wes lowered it into the water. Mary Grace fiddled with the life jackets and made sure both kids were properly secured. An hour after they arrived, she was tucked away comfortably under a quilt in a lounge chair on the porch, book in hand, watching the rest of her family inch across the blue horizon of Lake Garland, three small silhouettes in search of bream and crappie.
It was mid-November, and red and yellow leaves were falling, twisting in the breeze, and covering the cabin, the pier, and the water around it. There were no sounds.
The small boat motor was too far away. The wind was too soft. The birds and wildlife were elsewhere for the moment. Perfect stillness, a rare event in any life but one that she especially treasured now. She closed the book, closed her eyes, and tried to think of something unrelated to the past few months.
Where would they be in five years? She concentrated on the future because the past was thoroughly consumed by the Baker case. They would certainly be in a house, though never again would they hock their future with a fat mortgage on a showy little castle in the suburbs. She wanted a home, nothing more.
She no longer cared about imported cars and an expensive office and all the other toys that once seemed so important. She wanted to be a mother to her children, and she wanted a home to raise them in.
Family and assets aside, she wanted more lawyers. Their firm would be larger and full of smart and talented lawyers who did nothing but pursue the creators of toxic dumps and bad drugs and defective products. One day Payton amp; Payton would be known not for the cases it won but for the crooks it hauled into court for judgment.
She was forty-one years old, and she was tired. But the fatigue would pass. The old dreams of full-time motherhood and a cushy retirement were forever forgotten. Krane Chemical had converted her into a radical and a crusader. After the last four months, she would never be the same.
Enough. Her eyes were wide open.
Every thought took her back to the case, to Jeannette Baker, the trial, Krane Chemical.
She would not spend this quiet and lovely weekend dwelling on such matters. She opened her book and started to read.
For dinner, they roasted hot dogs and marshmallows over a stone pit near the water, then sat on the pier in the darkness and watched the stars. The air was clear and cool, and they huddled together under a quilt. A distant light flickered on the horizon, and after some discussion it was agreed upon that it was just a boat.
"Dad, tell us a story," Mack said. He was squeezed between his sister and his mother.
"What kind of story?"
"A ghost story. A scary one."
His first thought was about the dogs of Bowmore. For years a pack of stray dogs had roamed the outskirts of the town. Often, in the dead of night, they shrieked and yelped and made more noise than a pack of coyotes.
Legend held that the dogs were rabid and had been driven crazy because they drank the water.
But he'd had enough of Bowmore. He remembered one about a ghost who walked on water in the night, looking for his beloved wife, who'd drowned. He began to tell it, and the children squeezed closer to their parents.