Chapter Twenty-Eight

During a tense forty-minute meeting with Cable in his office, Fitch unloaded most of what had been bothering him about the way the case was being defended. He started with Jankle and his brilliant new tobacco defense, the abused-cigarette strategy, a harebrained approach that just might doom them. Cable, in no mood to be scolded, especially by a nonlawyer he loathed anyway, repeatedly explained that they had begged Jankle not to raise the issue of abuse. But Jankle had been a lawyer in another life and fancied himself as an original thinker who'd been given the golden chance to save Big Tobacco. Jankle was now on a Pynex jet en route to New York.

And Fitch thought the jury might be tired of Cable. Rohr had spread the courtroom work among his gang of thieves. Why couldn't Cable allow another defense lawyer besides Felix Mason to handle a few witnesses? God knew there were enough of them. Was it ego? They yelled at each other from across the desk.

The article in Mogul had unraveled nerves and added another, much heavier layer of pressure.

Cable reminded Fitch that he was the lawyer, and he had thirty rather outstanding years in the courtroom. He could better read the mood and texture of the trial.

And Fitch reminded Cable that this was the ninth tobacco trial he'd directed, not to mention the two mistrials he'd engineered, and he'd certainly seen more effective courtroom advocacy than what was being offered by Cable.

When the yelling and cursing died down, and after both men made efforts to pull themselves together, they did agree that the defense should be brief. Cable projected three more days, and that included whatever cross-examination Rohr would offer. Three days and no more, Fitch said.

He slammed the door as he left the office, and gathered Jose in the hallway. Together they stormed through the offices, offices still very much alive with lawyers in shirtsleeves and paralegals eating pizza and harried secretaries darting about trying to finish and get home to the kids. The mere sight of Fitch swaggering at full speed and the beefy Jose stomping after him made grown men cower and duck into doorways.

In the Suburban, Jose handed Fitch a stack of faxes, which he scanned as they sped away to headquarters. The first was a list of Marlee's movements since the meeting on the pier yesterday. Nothing unusual.

Next was the recap of what was happening in Kansas. A Claire Clement had been found in Topeka, but she was a resident of a nursing home. The one in Des Moines actually answered the phone at her husband's used-car lot. Swanson said they were pursuing many leads, but the report was rather scant on details. One of Kerr's law school chums had been found in Kansas City, and they were trying to arrange a meeting.

They drove past a convenience store, and in the front window a neon beer sign caught Fitch's attention. The smell and taste of a cold beer filled his senses, and Fitch ached for a drink. Just one. Just a sweet, frosty beer in a tall mug. How long had it been?

The urge to stop hit hard. Fitch closed his eyes and tried to think of something else. He could send Jose in to buy just one, one cold bottle and that would be it. Wouldn't it? Surely, after nine years of sobriety he could handle a single drink. Why couldn't he have just one?

Because he'd had a million. And if Jose stopped here then he'd stop again two blocks away. And by the time they eventually reached the office the Suburban would be filled with empty bottles and Fitch would be throwing them at passing cars. He was not a pretty drunk.

But just one to settle his nerves, to help forget this miserable day.

"You okay, boss?" Jose asked.

Fitch grunted something, and stopped thinking about beer. Where was Marlee, and why hadn't she called today? The trial was winding down. A deal would take time to negotiate and execute.

He thought of the column in Mogul, and he longed for Marlee. He heard Jankle's idiotic voice expounding a brand-new defense theory, and he longed for Marlee. He closed his eyes and saw the faces of the jurors, and he longed for Marlee.

SINCE DERRICK now considered himself to be a major player, he chose a new meeting place for Wednesday night. It was a rough bar in the black section of Biloxi, a place Cleve had actually been before. Derrick figured he'd have the upper hand if the rendezvous occurred on his turf. Cleve insisted they meet in the parking lot first.

The lot was almost filled. Cleve was late. Derrick spotted him when he parked, and walked to the driver's side.

"I don't think this is a good idea," Cleve said, peeking through the crack in his window and looking at the dark, cinder-block building with steel rods across the windows.

"It's okay," said Derrick, himself a bit worried but unwilling to show it. "It's safe."

"Safe? They've had three stabbings here in the last month. I've got the only white face here, and you expect me to walk in there with five thousand bucks in cash and hand it over to you. Reckon who'd get cut first? Me or you?"

Derrick saw his point, but was unwilling to concede so quickly. He leaned closer to the window, glanced around the parking lot, suddenly more fearful.

"I say we go in," he said, in his best tough-guy routine.

"Forget it," Cleve said. "If you want the money, meet me at the Waffle House on 90." Cleve started his engine and raised the window. Derrick watched him drive away, with the five thousand dollars in cash somewhere within his reach, then ran to his car.

THEY ATE PANCAKES and drank coffee at the counter. Conversation was low because the cook was flipping eggs and sausage on a grill less than ten feet away and seemed to be straining to hear every word.

Derrick was nervous and his hands were jittery. Runners handled cash payoffs daily. The affair was of little significance to Cleve.

"So I'm thinking that maybe ten grand ain't enough, know what I mean?" Derrick said finally, repeating a line he'd rehearsed most of the afternoon.

"Thought we had a deal," Cleve said, unmoved, chomping on pancakes.

"I think you're trying to screw me, though."

"Is this your way of negotiating?"

"You ain't offering enough, man. I've been thinking about it. I even went by the courtroom this morning and watched some of the trial. I know what's going on now. I got it figured out."

"You do?"

"Yeah. And you guys ain't playing fair."

"There were no complaints last night when we agreed on ten."

"Things are different now. You caught me off guard last night."

Cleve wiped his mouth with a paper napkin and waited for the cook to serve someone at the far end of the counter. "Then what do you want?" he asked.

"A lot more."

"We don't have time to play games. Tell me what you want."

Derrick swallowed hard and glanced over his shoulder. Under his breath he said, "Fifty thousand, plus a percentage of the verdict."

"What percentage?"

"I figure ten percent would be fair."

"Oh you do." Cleve tossed his napkin onto his plate. "You're outta your mind," he said, then put a five-dollar bill beside his plate. He stood and said, "We cut a deal for ten. That's it. Anything larger and we'll get caught."

Cleve left in a hurry. Derrick searched both pockets and found nothing but coins. The cook was suddenly hovering nearby watching the desperate search for money. "I thought he was gonna pay," Derrick said, checking his shirt pocket.

"How much you got?" the cook asked, picking the five-dollar bill from beside Cleve's plate.

"Eighty cents."

"That's enough."

Derrick raced into the parking lot where he caught Cleve waiting with his engine running and his window down. "I'll bet the other side'll pay more," he said, leaning over.

"Then go try. Walk up to them tomorrow and tell them you want fifty thousand bucks for one vote."

"And ten percent."

"You're clueless, son." Cleve slowly switched off the ignition and got out of the car. He lit a cigarette. "You don't understand. A defense verdict means no money changes hands. Zero for the plaintiff means zero for the defense. It means no percentages for anybody. The plaintiff's lawyers get forty percent of zero. Does that make sense?"

"Yeah," Derrick said slowly, though obviously still confused.

"Look, what I'm offering you is something that's illegal as hell. Don't get greedy. If you do, then you'll get caught."

"Ten thousand seems cheap for something this big."

"No, don't look at it that way. Think of it like this. She's entitled to nothing, okay. Zero. She's doing her civic duty, getting fifteen bucks a day from the county for being a good citizen. The ten thousand is a bribe, a dirty little gift that has to be forgotten as soon as it's received."

"But if you offer a percentage, then she'll be motivated to work harder in the jury room."

Cleve drew a long puff and exhaled slowly, shaking his head. "You just don't understand. If there's a plaintiff's verdict, it will be years before the money changes hands. Look, Derrick, you're making this too complicated. Take the money. Talk to Angel. Help us out."

"Twenty-five thousand."

Another long puff, then the cigarette fell to the asphalt, where Cleve ground it with his boot. "I'll have to talk to my boss."

"Twenty-five thousand, per vote."

"Per vote?"

"Yeah. Angel can deliver more than one."


"I ain't saying."

"Lemme talk to my boss."

IN ROOM 54, Henry Vu read letters from his daughter at Harvard while his wife Qui studied new insurance policies for their fleet of fishing boats. Because Nicholas was watching movies down the hall, 48 was empty. In 44, Lonnie and his wife cuddled under the covers for the first time in almost a month, but they had to hurry since her sister had the kids. In 58, Mrs. Grimes watched sitcoms while Herman loaded trial narratives into his computer. Room 50 was empty because the Colonel was in the Party Room, alone again because Mrs. Herrera was off in Texas visiting a cousin. And 52 was also empty because Jerry was drinking beer with the Colonel and Nicholas and waiting until later to sneak across the hall to Poodle's room. In 56, Shine Royce, alternate number two, worked on a large bag of rolls and butter he'd taken from the dining room, watched TV, and once again thanked God for his good fortune. Royce was fifty-two, unemployed, lived in a rented trailer with a younger woman and her six kids, and hadn't earned fifteen dollars a day doing anything in years. Now, he simply had to sit and listen to a trial and the county would not only pay him but feed him too. In 46, Phillip Savelle and his Pakistani mate drank herbal tea and smoked pot with the windows open.

Across the hall in Room 49, Sylvia Taylor-Tatum talked on the phone with her son. In 45, Mrs. Gladys Card played gin rummy with Mr. Nelson Card, he of the prostate history. In 51, Rikki Coleman waited for Rhea, who was running late and might not make it because the baby-sitter hadn't called. In 53, Loreen Duke sat on her bed, eating a brownie and listening with wretched envy as Angel Weese and her boyfriend rattled the walls next door in 55.

And in 47, Hoppy and Millie Dupree made love like never before. Hoppy had arrived early with a large sack of Chinese food and a bottle of cheap champagne, something he hadn't tried in years. Under normal circumstances, Millie would've fussed about the alcohol, but these days were far from normal. She sipped a little of the beverage from a plastic motel cup, and ate a generous portion of sweet and sour pork. Then Hoppy attacked her.

When they finished, they lay in the darkness and talked softly about the kids and school and the home in general. She was quite weary of this ordeal, and anxious to get back to her family. Hoppy spoke forlornly of her absence. The kids were testy. The house was a wreck. Everybody missed Millie.

He dressed and turned on the television. Millie found her bathrobe and poured another tiny bit of champagne.

"You're not gonna believe this," Hoppy said, fishing through a coat pocket and retrieving a folded piece of paper.

"What is it?" she asked, taking the paper and unfolding it. It was a copy of Fitch's bogus memo listing the many sins of Leon Robilio. She read it slowly, then looked suspiciously at her husband. "Where did you get this?" she demanded.

"It came across the fax yesterday," Hoppy said sincerely. He'd practiced his answer because he couldn't stand the thought of lying to Millie. He felt like a wretch, but then Napier and Nitchman were out there somewhere, just waiting.

"Who sent it?" she asked.

"Don't know. It looks like it came from Washington."

"Why didn't you throw it away?"

"I don't know. I-"

"You know it's wrong to show me stuff like this, Hoppy." Millie flung the paper on the bed and walked closer to her husband, hands on hips. "What are you trying to do?"

"Nothing. It just got faxed to my office, that's all."

"What a coincidence! Somebody in Washington just happened to know your fax number, just happened to know your wife was on the jury, just happened to know Leon Robilio testified, and just happened to suspect that if they sent you this you'd be stupid enough to bring it over here and try to influence me. I want to know what's going on!"

"Nothing. I swear," Hoppy said, on his heels.

"Why have you taken such a sudden interest in this trial?"

"It's fascinating."

"It was fascinating for three weeks and you hardly mentioned it. What's going on, Hoppy?"

"Nothing. Relax."

"I can tell when something's bothering you."

"Get a grip, Millie. Look, you're edgy. I'm edgy. This thing has all of us somewhat out of whack. I'm sorry for bringing it."

Millie finished off her champagne and sat on the edge of the bed. Hoppy sat next to her. Mr. Cristano at Justice had suggested in rather strong terms that Hoppy get Millie to show the memo to all of her friends on the jury. He dreaded telling Mr. Cristano that this probably wouldn't happen. But then, how would Mr. Cristano know for sure what happened to the damned thing?

As Hoppy pondered this Millie started crying. "I just want to go home," she said, eyes red, lip quivering. Hoppy put his arm around her and squeezed tightly.

"I'm sorry," he said. She cried even harder.

Hoppy felt like crying too. This meeting had proved worthless, the sex notwithstanding. According to Mr. Cristano, the trial would end in a few short days. It was imperative that Millie soon be convinced that the only verdict was one for the defense. Since their time together was scarce, Hoppy would be forced to tell her the awful truth. Not now, not tonight, but surely during the next personal visit.