The litigators, p.10
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       The Litigators, p.10

           John Grisham
 

  “When might this happen?”

  “Another tough question, Iris. One theory is that Varrick will get hit so hard with Krayoxx cases that the company will surrender and negotiate a huge settlement. Most of the lawyers, including me, expect this to happen within the next twenty-four months. The other theory is that Varrick will take a few of these cases to trial, to sort of test the waters around the country, see what juries think about their drug. If this happens, it might take longer to force a settlement.”

  Even David, with a fine law degree and five years of experience, was beginning to believe Wally knew what he was talking about. The junior partner went on, “If a settlement occurs, and we certainly believe it will happen, the death cases will be negotiated first. Then Varrick will be desperate to settle all of the non-death cases, folks like you.”

  “I’m a non-death case?” she asked, confused.

  “For now. The scientific evidence is not clear, but there appears to be a decent chance that Krayoxx is responsible for heart damage in many people who are otherwise healthy.” How anyone could look at Iris Klopeck and deem her healthy was mind-blowing, at least to David.

  “Mercy,” she said as her eyes watered. “That’s all I need—more heart problems.”

  “Don’t worry about it now,” Wally said, without the slightest trace of reassurance. “We’ll get to your case later. The important thing is to get Percy signed up. You’re his widow and his principal heir; therefore, you need to hire me and act as his representative.” He produced a folded sheet of paper from his rumpled jacket and spread it before Iris. “This is a contract for legal services. You’ve signed one before, for the divorce, when you and Percy came to my office.”

  “I don’t remember signing one,” she said.

  “We have it on file. You need to sign a new one before I can handle your claim against Varrick.”

  “And you’re sure this is all legal and everything?” she asked, hesitant, uncertain.

  It struck David as odd that the potential client would ask the lawyer if the document was “legal.” Wally, though, did not inspire a sense of strict ethical standards. Her question did not faze him.

  “All of our Krayoxx clients are signing these,” he said, fudging a bit because Iris would technically be the first in her class to sign up. There were other fish in the pond, but no one had actually signed such a contract.

  She read it and signed it.

  As Wally stuffed it back into his pocket, he said, “Now, listen, Iris. I need your help. I need for you to scope out other Krayoxx cases. Friends, family members, neighbors, anyone else who may have been injured by this drug. Our firm is offering a referral fee of $500 for a death case and $200 for a non-death case. Cash.”

  Her eyes were suddenly dry. They narrowed, then a tiny smile formed at the corners of her lips. She was already thinking of others.

  David managed to maintain a lawyerly frown as he scribbled useless drivel on a legal pad and tried to digest what he was hearing. Was this ethical? Legal? Cash bribes to bring in more cases?

  “Do you happen to know of another death case involving Krayoxx?” Wally asked.

  Iris almost said something but held her tongue. It was obvious she had a name. “Five hundred bucks, huh?” she said, her eyes suddenly darting from David’s to Wally’s.

  “That’s the deal. Who is it?”

  “There’s a man two blocks over, used to play poker with Percy, croaked last year in the shower two months after my Percy passed. I know for a fact he was on Krayoxx.”

  Wally’s eyes were wild. “What’s his name?”

  “You said cash, right? Five hundred cash. I’d like to see it, Mr. Figg, before I give you another case. I sure need it.”

  Stung for a second, Wally rallied with a convincing lie. “Well, normally we make a withdrawal from the firm’s litigation account, keeps the bean counters happy, you know?”

  She folded her stump-like arms across her chest, stiffened her spine, narrowed her eyes, and said, “Fine. Go make your withdrawal and bring me the cash. Then I’ll give you the name.”

  Wally was reaching for his wallet. “Well, I’m not sure I have that much cash on me. David, how liquid are you?”

  David instinctively reached for his wallet. Iris watched with great suspicion as the lawyers scrambled to find cash. Wally produced three $20 bills and a $5 bill and looked hopefully at David, who found $220 in assorted denominations. If they had not stopped by Abner’s to pay the tab, they could have come within $15 of covering Iris’s referral fee.

  “I thought lawyers had plenty of money,” Iris observed.

  “We keep it in the bank,” Wally shot back, unwilling to concede an inch. “Looks like we have about $285. I’ll stop by tomorrow with the rest.”

  Iris was shaking her head no.

  “Come on, Iris,” Wally pleaded. “You’re now our client. We’re on the same team. We’re talking about a huge settlement one day, and you won’t trust us with two hundred bucks?”

  “I’ll take an IOU,” she said.

  At this point, David preferred to stand his ground, show some pride, rake the cash off the table, and say good-bye. But David was anything but sure-footed, and he knew it was not his call. Wally, on the other hand, was a rabid dog. He quickly scribbled an IOU on his legal pad, signed his name, and slid it across the table. Iris read it slowly, disapproved, then handed it to David. “You sign it too,” she said.

  For the first time since his great escape, David Zinc questioned his wisdom. Approximately forty-eight hours earlier, he had been working on a complicated repackaging of high-grade bonds being sold by the government of India. All told, the deal involved around $15 billion. Now, in his new life as a street lawyer, he was being bullied by a four-hundred-pound woman who was demanding his signature on a worthless piece of paper.

  He hesitated, took a deep breath, shot Wally a look of sheer bewilderment, then signed his name.

  The run-down neighborhood got dramatically worse the deeper they drove into it. The “two blocks over” Iris had mentioned was more like five blocks, and by the time they found the house and parked on the street in front of it, David was worried about their safety.

  The tiny home of the widow Cozart was a fortress—a small brick house on a narrow lot lined with eight-foot chain-link fencing. According to Iris, Herb Cozart was at war with the black teenage thugs who roamed the streets. He spent most of his days sitting on the front porch holding a shotgun, glaring at the punks and cursing them if they got too close. When he died, someone tied party balloons along the fence. Someone else tossed a string of firecrackers onto the front lawn in the middle of the night. Mrs. Cozart was planning to move, according to Iris.

  As David turned off the ignition, he looked down the street and said, “Oh, boy.”

  Wally froze, looked in the same direction, and said, “This could be interesting.”

  Five black males, teenagers, all dressed in the appropriate rapper garb, had noticed the shiny Audi and were giving it the once-over from fifty yards away.

  “I think I’ll stay with the car,” David said. “You can handle this one by yourself.”

  “Good call. I’ll make it quick.” Wally jumped out with his briefcase. Iris had called ahead, and Mrs. Cozart was standing on the porch.

  The gang was moving toward the Audi. David locked the doors and thought of how nice it would be to have a pistol of some variety, just for protection. Something to show the boys so they would take their fun and games elsewhere. But armed only with a cell phone, he stuck it to his ear and pretended to be in deep conversation as the gang moved closer and closer. They surrounded the car, chatting nonstop, though David could not understand what they were saying. Minutes passed as David waited for a brick to crash through a window. They regrouped at the front bumper, and all five leaned back casually, as if they owned the car and needed to use it as a resting place. They rocked it gently, careful not to scratch or damage it. Then one of them lit a joint, and they passed it aro
und.

  David thought about starting the engine and attempting to drive away, but that would create several problems, not the least of which was poor Wally getting stranded. He thought about lowering a window and engaging the boys in friendly banter, but they did not appear friendly at all.

  From the corner of his eye, David saw Mrs. Cozart’s front door fly open and Wally storm out of the house. Wally reached into his briefcase, yanked out a very large black handgun, and yelled, “FBI! Get off the damn car!” The boys were too startled to move, or to move quickly enough, so Wally aimed at the clouds and fired a shot that sounded like a cannon. The five bolted, scattered, vanished.

  Wally stuffed the pistol into his briefcase and jumped into the car. “Let’s get outta here,” he said.

  David was already accelerating.

  “Punks,” Wally hissed.

  “Do you always carry a gun?” David asked.

  “I have a permit. Yes, I always carry a gun. In this business, you might need one.”

  “Do most lawyers carry guns?”

  “I don’t care what most lawyers do, okay? It’s not my job to protect most lawyers. I’ve been mugged twice in this city, so I ain’t getting mugged again.”

  David slid around a curve and sped through the neighborhood.

  Wally continued, “Crazy woman wanted some money. Iris, of course, called and said we were coming over, and of course she told Mrs. Cozart about the referral fee, but since the old gal is nuts, all she heard was the part about the five hundred bucks.”

  “Did you sign her up?”

  “No. She demanded cash, which is pretty stupid because Iris should know that she took all our cash.”

  “Where are we going now?”

  “To the office. She wouldn’t even tell me her husband’s date of death, so I figure we’ll run a search and find out. Why don’t you do that when we get to the office?”

  “But he’s not our client.”

  “No, he’s dead. And since his wife is crazy, and I mean this woman is really nuts, we can get a court-appointed administrator to approve his lawsuit. More ways than one to skin a cat, David. You’ll learn.”

  “Oh, I’m learning. Isn’t it against the law to discharge a firearm within the city limits?”

  “Well, well, they did teach you something at Harvard. Yes, that’s true, and it’s also against the law to discharge a firearm with a bullet that goes into the head of another person. It’s called murder, and it happens at least once a day here in Chicago. And since there are so many murders, the police are overworked and have no time to fool with firearms that discharge bullets that fly harmlessly through the air. You thinking about turning me in or something?”

  “No. Just curious. Does Oscar carry a gun?”

  “I don’t think so, but he keeps one in a desk drawer. Oscar was assaulted once, in his office, by an irate divorce client. It was a simple no-fault divorce, uncontested on all issues, and Oscar somehow found a way to lose the case.”

  “How do you lose an uncontested divorce?”

  “I don’t know, but don’t ask Oscar, okay? It’s still a touchy subject. Anyway, he told the client that they would have to refile and go through the entire process again, and the client went crazy, beat the hell out of Oscar.”

  “Oscar looks like he can take care of himself. The guy must’ve been a bad dude.”

  “Who said it was a guy?”

  “A woman?”

  “Yep. A very large and angry woman, but a woman nonetheless. She got the drop on him by throwing her coffee cup—ceramic, not paper—and hitting him between the eyes. Then she grabbed his umbrella and started flailing away. Fourteen stitches. Vallie Pennebaker was her name, never forget her.”

  “Who broke it up?”

  “Rochelle finally got back there—Oscar swears she took her time—and she pulled Vallie off and settled her down. Then she called the cops, and they hauled Vallie away, charged her with aggravated assault. She countered with a lawsuit for malpractice. Took two years and probably five thousand bucks to get it all settled. Now Oscar keeps a piece in his desk.”

  What would they think at Rogan Rothberg? David asked himself. Lawyers carrying guns. Lawyers claiming to be FBI agents and firing into the air. Lawyers being bloodied by unhappy clients.

  He almost asked Wally if he’d ever been assaulted by a client, but bit his tongue and let it pass. He thought he knew the answer.

  CHAPTER 12

  They returned to the apparent safety of the office at 4:30. The printer was spitting out sheets of paper. Rochelle was at the table sorting and arranging stacks of letters. “What did you do to DeeAnna Nuxhall?” she growled at Wally.

  “Let’s just say her divorce has been postponed until she can find a way to pay her lawyer. Why?”

  “She’s called here three times, crying and carrying on. Wanted to know what time you’d be back. Really wants to see you.”

  “Good. That means she found the money.”

  Wally was scanning a letter from a stack on the table. He handed one to David, who took it and began reading. He was immediately hooked by the opening: “Beware of Krayoxx!”

  “Let’s start signing,” Wally said. “I want these in the mail this afternoon. The clock is ticking.”

  The letters were on Finley & Figg stationery and sent by the Honorable Wallis T. Figg, Attorney and Counselor-at-Law. After the “Sincerely” sign-off, there was room for only one signature. “What am I supposed to do here?” David asked.

  “Start signing my name,” Wally replied.

  “I’m sorry.”

  “Start signing my name. What, do you think I’m signing all three thousand of these?”

  “So, I’m forging your name?”

  “No. I hereby give you the authority to sign my name on these letters,” Wally said slowly, as if speaking to an idiot. Then he looked at Rochelle and said, “And you too.”

  “I’ve already signed a hundred,” she said as she handed another letter to David. “Look at that signature. A first grader could do better.” And she was right. The signature was an effortless scrawl that began with a wavy roll that was probably meant to be a W and then spiked dramatically for either the T or the F. David picked up one of the letters Wally had just signed and compared his signature with Rochelle’s forgery. They were slightly similar, but both were illegible and indecipherable.

  “Yes, this is pretty bad,” David observed.

  “It doesn’t matter what you fling down, can’t nobody read it anyway,” she added.

  “I think it’s very distinguished,” Wally said, signing away. “Now, can we all get busy?”

  David sat down and began experimenting with his scrawl. Rochelle was folding, stuffing, and putting on stamps. After a few minutes, David asked, “Who are these people?”

  “Our client database,” Wally replied with great importance. “Over three thousand names.”

  “Going back how far?”

  “About twenty years,” Rochelle said.

  “So, some of these folks have not been heard from in many years, right?”

  “That’s right,” she said. “Some are probably dead; some moved away. A lot of these folks won’t be too happy to get a letter from Finley & Figg.”

  “If they’re dead, let’s hope Krayoxx got ’em,” Wally blurted and followed it with a loud laugh. Neither David nor Rochelle saw the humor. A few minutes passed without a word. David was thinking about his room upstairs and all the work it needed. Rochelle was watching the clock, waiting on 5:00 p.m. Wally was happily casting a wider net for new clients.

  “What kind of a response do you expect?” David asked. Rochelle rolled her eyes as if to say “Zero.”

  Wally paused for a second and shook the stiffness out of his signing hand. “Great question,” he admitted, then rubbed his chin and gazed at the ceiling as if only he could answer such a complex question. “Let’s assume that 1 percent of the adult population in this country is taking Krayoxx. Now—”

 
Where did you get 1 percent?” David interrupted.

  “Research. It’s in the file. Take it home tonight and learn the facts. So, as I was saying, 1 percent of our pool is about thirty people. If 20 percent of the pool has had problems with heart attacks or strokes, then we’re down to about, say, five or six cases. Maybe seven or eight, who knows. And if we believe, as I do, that each case, especially a death, is worth a couple mill, then we’re looking at a very nice payday. I get the sense that nobody else around here believes me, but I’m not going to argue.”

  “I haven’t said a word,” Rochelle replied.

  “Just curious. That’s all,” David said. A couple of minutes

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