Home > The Appeal(14)

The Appeal(14)
Author: John Grisham

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."

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