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Home > The Appeal(13)

The Appeal(13)
Author: John Grisham

How bad would it be? That was the great question, always followed soon by number two: How long would it last?

He waited.

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.

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