The law office of F. Clyde Hardin amp; Associates had no associates. It was just Clyde and Miriam, his feeble secretary who outranked him because she had been there for over forty years, far longer than Clyde. She had typed deeds and wills for his father, who came home from the Second War without a leg and was famous for removing his wooden one in front of juries to distract them. The old man was gone now, long gone, and he had bequeathed his old office and old furniture and old secretary to his only child, Clyde, who was fifty-four and very old himself.
The Hardin law office had been a fixture on Main Street in Bow-more for over sixty years. It had survived wars, depressions, recessions, sit-ins, boycotts, and desegregation, but Clyde wasn't so sure it could survive Krane Chemical. The town was drying up around him. The nickname Cancer County was simply too much to overcome. From his ringside seat, he had watched merchants and cafes and country lawyers and country doctors throw in the towel and abandon the town.
Clyde never wanted to be a lawyer, but his father gave him no choice. And though he survived on deeds and wills and divorces, and though he managed to appear reasonably happy and colorful with his seersucker suits, paisley bow ties, and straw hats, he silently loathed the law and the small-town practice of it. He despised the daily grind of dealing with people too poor to pay him, of hassling with other deadbeat lawyers trying to steal said clients, of bickering with judges and clerks and just about everybody else who crossed his path.
There were only six lawyers left in Bowmore, and Clyde was the youngest. He dreamed of retiring to a lake or a beach, anywhere, but those dreams would never come true.
Clyde had sugared coffee and one fried egg at 8:30 every morning at Babe's, seven doors to the right of his office, and a grilled cheese and iced tea every noon at Bob's Burgers, seven doors to the left. At five every afternoon, as soon as Miriam tidied up her desk and said goodbye, Clyde pulled out the office bottle and had a vodka on the rocks. He normally did this alone, in the solitude of the day, his finest hour. He cherished the stillness of his own little happy hour. Often the only sounds were the swishing of a ceiling fan and the rattling of his ice cubes.
He'd had two sips, gulps really, and the booze was beginning to glow somewhere in his brain when there was a rather aggressive knock on his door. No one was expected.
Downtown was deserted by five every afternoon, but there was the occasional client looking for a lawyer. Clyde was too broke to ignore the traffic. He placed his tumbler on a bookshelf and walked to the front. A well-dressed gentleman was waiting. He introduced himself as Sterling Bitch or something of that order. Clyde looked at his business card. Bintz. Sterling Bintz. Attorney-at-Law. From Philadelphia, PA. Mr. Bintz was about forty years old, short and thin, intense, with the smugness that Yankees can't help but exude when they venture into decaying towns of the Deep South.
How could anyone live like this? their smirks seemed to ask.
Clyde disliked him immediately, but he also wanted to return to his vodka, so he offered Sterling a cocktail. Sure, why not?
They settled around Clyde 's desk and began to drink. After a few minutes of boring chitchat, Clyde said, "Why don't you get to the point?"
"Certainly." The accent was sharp and crisp and oh so grating. "My firm specializes in class actions for mass torts. That's all we do."
"And you're suddenly interested in our little town. What a surprise."
"Yes, we are interested. Our research tells us that there may be over a thousand potential cases around here, and we'd like to sign up as many as possible. But we need local counsel."
"You're a bit late, bud. The ambulance chasers have been combing this place for the past five years."
"Yes, I understand that most of the death cases have been secured, but there are many other types. We'd like to find those victims with liver and kidney problems, stomach lesions, colon trouble, skin diseases, as many as a dozen other afflictions, all caused, of course, by Krane Chemical. We screen them with our doctors, and when we have a few dozen, we hit Krane with a class action. This is our specialty. We do it all the time. The settlement could be huge."
Clyde was listening but pretending to be bored. "Go on," he said.
"Krane's been kicked in the crotch. They cannot continue to litigate, so they'll eventually be forced to settle. If we have the first class action, we're in the driver's seat."
"Yes. My firm would like to associate with your firm."
"You're looking at my firm."
"We'll do all the work. We need your name as local counsel, and your contacts and presence here in Bowmore."
"How much?" Clyde was known to be rather blunt. No sense mincing words with this little shyster from up north.
"Five hundred bucks per client, then 5 percent of the fees when we settle. Again, we do all the work."
Clyde rattled his ice cubes and tried to do the math.
Sterling pressed on. "The building next door is vacant. I "Oh yes, there are many vacant buildings here in Bowmore."
"Who owns the one next door?"
"I do. It's part of this building. My grandfather bought it a thousand years ago.
And I got one across the street, too. Empty"
"The office next door is the perfect place for a screening clinic. We fix it up, give it a medical ambience, bring in our doctors, then advertise like hell for anyone who thinks he or she might be sick. They'll flock in. We sign them up, get the numbers, then file a massive action in federal court."
It had the distinct ring of something fraudulent, but Clyde had heard enough about mass torts to know that Sterling here knew what he was talking about. Five hundred clients, at $500 a pop, plus 5 percent when they won the lottery. He reached for the office bottle and refilled both glasses.
"Intriguing," Clyde said.
"It could be very profitable."
"But I don't work in federal court."
Sterling sipped the near-lethal serving and offered a smile. He knew perfectly well the limitations of this small-town blowhard. Clyde would have trouble defending a shoplifting case in city court. "Like I said. We do all the work. We're hardball litigators."
"Nothing unethical or illegal," Clyde said.
"Of course not. We've been winning class action in mass tort cases for twenty years.
Check us out."
"I'll do that."
"And do it quick. This verdict is attracting attention. From now on, it's a race to find the clients and file the first class action."
After he left, Clyde had a third vodka, his limit, and near the end of it found the courage to tell all the locals to go to hell. Oh, how they would love to criticize him! Advertising for victims/clients in the county's weekly paper, turning his office into a cheap clinic for assembly-line diagnoses, crawling into bed with some slimy lawyers from up north, profiting from the misery of his people. The list would be long and the gossip would consume Bowmore, and the more he drank, the more determined he became to throw caution to the wind and, for once, try to make some money.
For a character with such a blustery personality, Clyde was secretly afraid of the courtroom. He had faced a few juries years earlier and had been so stricken with fear that he could hardly talk. He had settled into a safe and comfortable office practice that paid the bills but kept him away from the frightening battles where the real money was made and lost.
For once, why not take a chance?
And wouldn't he be helping his people? Every dime taken from Krane Chemical and deposited somewhere in Bowmore was a victory. He poured a fourth drink, swore it was the last, and decided that, yes, damn it, he would hold hands with Sterling and his gang of class action thieves and strike a mighty blow for justice.
Two days later, a subcontractor Clyde had represented in at least three divorces arrived early with a crew of carpenters, painters, and gofers, all desperate for work, and began a quick renovation of the office next door.
Twice a month Clyde played poker with the owner of the Bowmore News, the county's only paper. Like the town itself, the weekly was declining and trying to hang on. In its next edition, the front page was dominated by news about the verdict over in Hattiesburg, but there was also a generous story about Lawyer Hardin's association with a major national law firm from Philadelphia. Inside was a full-page ad that practically begged every citizen of Cary County to drop by the new "diagnostic facility" on Main Street for screening that was absolutely free.
Clyde enjoyed the crowd and the attention and was already counting his money.
It was 4:00 a.m., cold and dark with a threat of rain, when Buck Burleson parked his truck in the small employees' lot at the Hattiesburg pumping station. He collected his thermos of coffee, a cold biscuit with ham, and a 9-millimeter automatic pistol and carried it all to an eighteen-wheel rig with unmarked doors and a ten-thousand-gallon tanker as its payload. He started the engine and checked the gauges, tires, and fuel.
The night supervisor heard the diesel and walked out of the second-floor monitoring room. "Hello, Buck," he called down.
"Mornin', Jake," Buck said with a nod. "She loaded?"
"Ready to go."
That part of the conversation had not changed in five years. There was usually an exchange about the weather, then a farewell. But on this morning, Jake decided to add a wrinkle to their dialogue, one he'd been contemplating for a few days. "Those folks any happier over in Bow-more?"
"Damned if I know. I don't hang around."
And that was it. Buck opened the driver's door, gave his usual "See you later," and closed himself inside. Jake watched the tanker ease along the drive, turn left at the street, and finally disappear, the only vehicle moving at that lonesome hour.
On the highway, Buck carefully poured coffee from the thermos into its plastic screw-on cup. He glanced at his pistol on the passenger's seat. He decided to wait on the biscuit. When he saw the sign announcing Cary County, he glanced at his gun again.
He made the trip three times a day, four days a week. Another driver handled the other three days. They swapped up frequently to cover vacations and holidays. It was not the career Buck had envisioned. For seventeen years he'd been a foreman at Krane Chemical in Bow-more, earning three times what they now paid him to haul water to his old town.
It was ironic that one of the men who'd done so much to pollute Bowmore's water now hauled in fresh supplies of it. But irony was lost on Buck. He was bitter at the company for fleeing and taking his job with it. And he hated Bowmore because Bowmore hated him.
Buck was a liar. This had been proven several times, but never in a more spectacularfashion than during a brutal cross-examination a month earlier. Mary Grace Payton had gently fed him enough rope, then watched him hang himself in front of the jury.
For years, Buck and most of the supervisors at Krane had flatly denied any chemical dumping whatsoever. They were ordered to do so by their bosses. They denied it in company memos. They denied it when talking to company lawyers. They denied it in affidavits. And they certainly denied it when the plant was investigated by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Then the litigation began. After denying it for so long and so fervently, how could they suddenly flip their stories and tell the truth? Krane, after fiercely promoting the lying for so long, vanished. It escaped one weekend and found a new home in Mexico.
No doubt some tortilla-eating jackass down there was doing Buck's job for $5 a day.
He swore as he sipped his coffee.
A few of the managers came clean and told the truth. Most clung to their lies. It didn't matter, really, because they all looked like fools at trial, at least those who testified. Some tried to hide. Earl Crouch, perhaps the biggest liar of all, had been relocated to a Krane plant near Galveston. There was a rumor that he had disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
Buck again glanced at the 9-millimeter.
So far, he had received only one threatening phone call. He wasn't sure about the other managers. All had left Bowmore, and they did not keep in touch.
Mary Grace Payton. If he'd had the pistol during his cross-examination, he might have shot her, her husband, and a few of the lawyers for Krane, and he would have saved one bullet for himself. For four devastating hours, she had exposed one lie after another. Some of the lies were safe, he'd been told. Some were hidden away in memos and affidavits that Krane kept buried. But Ms. Payton had all the memos and all the affidavits and much more.
When the ordeal was almost over, when Buck was bleeding and the jury was furious and Judge Harrison was saying something about perjury, Buck almost snapped. He was exhausted, humiliated, half-delirious, and he almost jumped to his feet, looked at the jurors, and said, "You want the truth, I'll give it to you. We dumped so much shit into those ravines it's a wonder the whole town didn't explode. We dumped gallons every day-BCL and cartolyx and aklar, all class-1 carcinogens-hundreds of gallons of toxic stuff directly into the ground.
We dumped it from vats and buckets and barrels and drums. We dumped it at night and in broad daylight. Oh sure, we stored a lot of it in sealed green drums and paid a fortune to a specialty firm to haul it away. Krane complied with the law. They kissed the EPA's ass.
You've seen the paperwork, everything nice and proper. Real legal like. While the starched shirts in the front office were filling out forms, we were out back in the pits burying the poison. It was much easier and much cheaper to dump it. And you know what? Those same assholes up front knew exactly what we were doing out back." Here he would point a deadly finger at the Krane executives and their lawyers. "They covered it up! And they're lying to you now. Everybody's lying."
Buck gave this speech out loud as he drove, though not every morning. It was oddly comforting to do so, to think about what he should have said instead of what he did.
A piece of his soul and most of his manhood had been left behind in that courtroom.
Lashing out in the privacy of his big truck was therapeutic.
Driving to Bowmore, however, was not. He was not from there and had never liked the town. When he lost his job, he had no choice but to leave.
As the highway became Main Street, he turned right and drove for four blocks. The distribution point had been given the nickname the "city tank." It was directly below the old water tower, an unused and decayed relic whose metal panels had been eaten from the inside by the city's water. A large aluminum reservoir now served the town.
Buck pulled his tanker onto an elevated platform, killed the engine, stuffed the pistol into his pocket, and got out of the truck. He went about his business of unloading his cargo into the reservoir, a discharge that took thirty minutes.
From the reservoir, the water would go to the town's schools, businesses, and churches, and though it was safe enough to drink in Hatties-burg, it was still greatly feared in Bowmore. The pipes that carried it along were, for the most part, the same pipes that had supplied the old water.
Throughout the day, a constant stream of traffic arrived at the reservoir. The people pulled out all manner of plastic jugs and metal cans and small drums, filled them, then took them home.
Those who could afford to contracted with private suppliers. Water was a daily challenge in Bowmore.
It was still dark as Buck waited for his tank to empty. He sat in the cab with the heater on, door locked, pistol close by. There were two families in Pine Grove that he thought about each morning as he waited. Tough families, with men who'd served time. Big families with uncles and cousins. Each had lost a kid to leukemia. Each was now suing.
And Buck was a well-known liar.
Eight days before Christmas, the combatants gathered for the last time in Judge Harrison's courtroom. The hearing was to wrap up all loose ends, and especially to argue the post-trial motions.
Jared Kurtin looked fit and tanned after two weeks of golf in Mexico. He greeted Wes warmly and even managed to smile at Mary Grace. She ignored him by talking toJeannette, who still looked gaunt and worried but at least wasn't crying.
Kurtin's pack of subordinates shuffled papers at hundreds of dollars an hour each, while Frank Sully, the local counsel, watched them smugly. It was all for show. Harrison wasn't about to grant any relief to Krane Chemical, and everybody knew it.
Others were watching. Huffy held his usual spot, curious as always, still worried about the loan and his future. There were several reporters, and even a courtroom artist, the same one who'd covered the trial and sketched faces that no one could recognize. Several plaintiffs' lawyers were there to observe and to monitor the progress of the case. They were dreaming of a massive settlement that would allow them to become rich while avoiding the type of brutal trial the Paytons had just endured.
Judge Harrison called things to order and charged ahead. "So nice to see everyone again," he said drily. "There are a total of fourteen motions that have been filed-twelve by the defense, two by the plaintiff and we are going to dispose of all of them before noon." He glared at Jared Kurtin, as if daring him to utter one superfluous word.
He continued: "I've read all the motions and all the briefs, so please don't tell me anything that you've already put in writing. Mr. Kurtin, you may proceed."
The first motion was for a new trial. Kurtin quickly went through all the reasons his client got screwed, beginning with a couple of jurors he wanted to bounce, but Harrison refused. Kurtin's team had conjured up a total of twenty-two errors they deemed grave enough to complain about, but Harrison felt otherwise. After listening to the lawyers argue for an hour, the judge ruled against the motion for a new trial.
Jared Kurtin would have been shocked at any other ruling. These were routine matters now, the battle had been lost, but not the war.
The other motions followed. After a few minutes of uninspired argument on each one, Judge Harrison said, "Overruled."
When the lawyers finished talking, and as papers were being gathered and briefcases were being closed, Jared Kurtin addressed the court and said, "Your Honor, it's been a pleasure. I'm sure we'll do the whole thing over in about three years."
"Court's adjourned," His Honor said rudely, then rapped his gavel loudly.
Two days after Christmas, late on a raw, windy afternoon, Jeannette Baker walked from her trailer through Pine Grove to the church and to the cemetery behind it.
She kissed the small headstone at Chad 's grave, then sat down and leaned against her husband Pete's. This was the day he died, five years earlier.
In five years she had learned to dwell on the good memories, though she couldn't get rid of the bad ones. Pete, a big man, down to 120 pounds, unable to eat, finally unable to force water through the tumors in his throat and esophagus. Pete, thirty years old and as gaunt and pale as a dying man twice that age. Pete, the tough guy, crying at the unrelenting pain and begging her for more morphine. Pete, the big talker and spinner of big tales, unable to emit anything but a pitiful groan. Pete, begging her to help him end it all.
Chad 's final days had been relatively calm. Pete's had been horrific. She had seen so much.
Enough of the bad memories. She was there to talk about their life together, their romance, their first apartment in Hattiesburg, the birth of Chad, the plans for more children and a larger house, and all the dreams they once laughed about. Little Chad with a fishing pole and an impressive string of bream from her uncle's pond. Little Chad in his first T-ball uniform with Coach Pete by his side. Christmas and Thanksgiving, a vacation at Disney World when they were both sick and dying.
She stayed until after dark, as she always did.
Denny Ott watched her from the kitchen window of the parsonage. The little cemetery he maintained so carefully was getting more than its share of traffic these days.