The litigators, p.18
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       The Litigators, p.18

           John Grisham
 

  “Yes, but it gone,” Soe said. “In garbage, long time ago.”

  “No package,” Lwin added.

  The apartment had two bedrooms—one used by the parents, the other by the children. David followed Soe as the women stayed in the den. Thuya’s bed was a small mattress on the floor near his sisters’. The children had a small, cheap bookcase filled with coloring books and paperbacks. Next to it was a plastic tub filled with boy toys.

  “This his,” Soe said, pointing to the tub.

  “May I look through it?” David asked.

  “Yes, please.”

  David dropped to his knees and slowly went through the box—action figures, race cars, airplanes, a pistol, and handcuffs, the usual assortment of inexpensive toys for a five-year-old boy. When he stood, he said, “I’ll look at these later. For now, just make sure that everything stays here.”

  Back in the den, the Nasty Teeth were ziplocked again. David explained that he would send them to an expert on lead poisoning and have them evaluated. If the teeth did indeed contain unsuitable levels of lead, then they would meet again and discuss the lawsuit. He cautioned that it might be difficult to pin down the maker of the toys, and he tried to dampen any enthusiasm for the thought of one day collecting money. The three—Zaw, Lwin, and Soe—seemed as puzzled and apprehensive when the Zincs were leaving as they’d been when they arrived. Soe was on his way to the hospital to spend the night with Thuya.

  The following morning, David sent by overnight parcel the set of Nasty Teeth to a lab in Akron. Its director, Dr. Biff Sandroni, was a leading expert on lead poisoning in children. He also sent a check for $2,500, not from Finley & Figg, but from his personal bank account. David had yet to discuss the case with his two bosses and planned to avoid doing so until more was known.

  Sandroni called two days later to say he had received the package, and the check, and that it would be a week or so before he could get around to testing the teeth. He was keenly interested because he had never seen a toy designed to be placed in the mouth. Virtually every toy he examined was one that a child chewed on for whatever reasons. The likely sources of the toy were China, Mexico, and India, and without the package it would be virtually impossible to determine the importer and manufacturer.

  Sandroni was a big talker and went on about his most significant cases. He testified all the time—“love the courtroom”—and took full responsibility for several million-dollar verdicts. He called David “David” and insisted on being called Biff. As David listened, he could not remember another conversation with someone named Biff. The bluster would have worried David but for his research into lead-poisoning experts. Dr. Sandroni was a warrior with impeccable credentials.

  At 7:00 the next Saturday morning, David and Helen found the Mighty Mall and parked in a crowded lot. Traffic was thick; the place already busy. It was thirty degrees outside and not much warmer inside. They waited in a long line for beverages, bought two tall cups of hot cocoa, then began roaming. As chaotic as the market appeared, there was some semblance of organization. The food vendors were near the front, with such takeaway delicacies as Pronto Pups, doughnuts, and cotton candy drawing fans. Then a stretch of booths offering inexpensive clothing and shoes. Another long aisle was lined with books and jewelry, then furniture and auto parts.

  The shoppers, as well as the vendors, were of all shades and colors. Along with English and Spanish, there were many other languages: Asian tongues, something from Africa, then a loud voice that was probably Russian.

  David and Helen moved with the crowd, stopping occasionally to inspect something of interest. After an hour, and with the hot cocoa growing cooler, they found the household goods section, then the toys. There were three booths offering thousands of cheap gadgets and playthings, none of which resembled a set of Nasty Teeth. The Zincs were well aware they were months away from Halloween and were unlikely to find costumes and such.

  David picked up a package containing three different dinosaurs, all small enough for a toddler to chew on but too large to swallow. All three were painted shades of green. Only a scientist like Sandroni could scrape off the paint and test for lead, but after a month of exhaustive research David was convinced that most of the cheapest toys were contaminated. The dinosaurs were sold by Larkette Industries, Mobile, Alabama, and made in China. He had seen the name Larkette as a defendant in several lawsuits.

  As he held the dinosaurs, his mind was carried away by the absurdity of it all. A cheap toy is made five thousand miles away, for pennies, decorated with lead paint, imported into the United States, passed along the distribution system until it lands here, in a giant flea market, where it’s offered for $1.99, where it’s purchased by the poorest customers, taken home, presented to the child, who chews on it, then ends up in a hospital, brain damaged and ruined for life. Where are all of those consumer protection laws, inspectors, bureaucrats?

  Not to mention the hundreds of thousands of dollars required to treat the child and support him for his lifetime.

  “You buy?” the tiny Hispanic woman barked.

  “No thanks,” David said, coming back to reality. He placed the toys back in the pile and turned away.

  “Any sign of Nasty Teeth?” he asked as he stepped behind Helen.

  “Not a thing.”

  “I’m freezing. Let’s get out of here.”

  CHAPTER 21

  As scheduled by Judge Seawright’s clerk, the depositions of Finley & Figg’s Krayoxx clients began promptly at 9:00 a.m. in a ballroom of the Downtown Marriott. Since the defendant, Varrick Labs, was picking up the tab for the depositions, there was a generous spread of rolls and pastries, along with coffee, tea, and juice. A long table had been arranged with a video camera at one end and a witness chair at the other.

  Iris Klopeck was the first witness. She had called 911 the day before and rode in an ambulance to the hospital, where they treated her for arrhythmia and hypertension. Her nerves were shot, and she told Wally several times she could not go through with the lawsuit. He mentioned, more than once, that if she could tough it out, she would soon be receiving a large check, “probably a million bucks,” and this helped somewhat. Also helping was a supply of Xanax, so when Iris took the witness chair and looked at the legion of lawyers, she was fairly glassy-eyed and drifting off to la-la land. Still, she at first froze and looked helplessly at her lawyer.

  “It’s just a deposition,” Wally had repeated. “There’ll be a lot of lawyers there, but they’re nice people, for the most part.”

  They didn’t look nice. To her left was a line of intense young men in dark suits and frowns. They were already scratching away on their yellow legal pads, and she hadn’t said a word. The nearest lawyer to her was an attractive woman who smiled and helped Iris settle down. To her right were Wally and his two sidekicks.

  The woman said, “Ms. Klopeck, my name is Nadine Karros, and I’m the lead lawyer for Varrick Labs. We’re going to take your deposition over the next two hours, and I want you to try to relax. I promise I will not try to trick you. If you don’t understand a question, don’t answer it. I’ll just repeat it. Are you ready?”

  “Yes,” Iris said, seeing double.

  Next to Iris was a court reporter who said, “Raise your right hand.” Iris did so, then swore to tell the truth.

  Ms. Karros said, “Now, Ms. Klopeck, I’m sure your attorneys have explained that we are making a video of your deposition, and this might be used in court if for some reason you’re unable to testify. Do you understand this?”

  “I think so.”

  “So if you’ll look at the camera when you talk, we’ll do just fine.”

  “I’ll try, yes, I can do that.”

  “Great. Ms. Klopeck, are you currently taking any medication?”

  Iris stared at the camera as if waiting for it to tell her what to say. She took eleven pills a day for diabetes, blood pressure, cholesterol, erratic heartbeat, arthritis, kidney stones, and a few other ailments, but the one she worr
ied about was Xanax because it could affect her mental state. Wally had suggested she skip any discussion about Xanax if asked the question, and here, right off the bat, Ms. Karros was digging.

  She giggled. “Sure, I’m on a lot of meds.”

  It took fifteen minutes to straighten them out, with no help from the Xanax, and just when Iris got to the bottom of the list, she remembered another one and blurted, “And I used to take Krayoxx but not anymore. That stuff’ll kill you.”

  Wally roared with laughter. Oscar thought it was funny too. David suppressed a chuckle by looking directly across the table at the stone-faced boys from Rogan Rothberg, not a single one of whom would allow himself even a grin. But Nadine smiled and said, “Is that all, Ms. Klopeck?”

  “I think so,” she said, still not sure.

  “So, you’re taking nothing that would affect your judgment, memory, or ability to give truthful answers?”

  Iris glanced at Wally, who hid behind a legal pad, and for a second it was obvious that something was going unsaid. “That’s correct,” Iris said.

  “Nothing for depression, stress, panic attacks, anxiety disorders?”

  It was as if Ms. Karros were reading Iris’s mind and knew she was lying. Iris was about to choke when she said, “Not normally.”

  Ten minutes later they were still grappling with “not normally,” and Iris finally admitted that she popped a Xanax “every now and then.” She proved sufficiently elusive, though, when Ms. Karros tried to pin her down on her Xanax use. She stumbled when she referred to the drug as her “happy pills,” but plowed on. In spite of her thick tongue and drooping eyelids, Iris assured the wall of lawyers to her left that she was clearheaded and ready to roll.

  Address, birth dates, family members, employment, education, the deposition quickly sank into tedium as Nadine and Iris fleshed out the Klopeck family, with emphasis on Percy, the departed. Iris, with increasing lucidity, managed to choke up twice when talking about her beloved husband, dead now for almost two years. Ms. Karros probed into Percy’s health and habits—drinking, smoking, exercise, diet—and as much as she tried to whip the old boy into shape, Iris did a fair job of portraying him with accuracy. Percy came across as a fat, sick man who ate bad food, drank too much beer, and rarely left the sofa. “But he quit smoking,” Iris added at least twice.

  They took a break after an hour, and Oscar excused himself, saying he had to be in court, but Wally was suspicious. He had arm-twisted his senior partner to show up at the depositions, sort of a show of force in the face of the ground troops Rogan Rothberg would send in, though it was doubtful the presence of Oscar Finley would rattle the defense. When fully manned, the Finley & Figg side of the table had three lawyers, now minus one. Ten feet away, on the other side, Wally counted eight.

  Seven lawyers to sit and take the same notes while one did the talking? Ridiculous. But then Wally began thinking, as Iris droned on, that perhaps the show of force was a good thing. Perhaps Varrick was so worried that they had instructed Rogan Rothberg to spare no expense. Maybe Finley & Figg had them on the ropes and didn’t realize it.

  When they resumed the deposition, Nadine prompted Iris to begin talking about Percy’s medical history, and Wally zoned out. He was still irritated that Jerry Alisandros had once again skipped the proceedings. At first, Alisandros had big plans to attend the depositions with his entourage, to make his first dramatic entrance into the case, to do battle with Rogan Rothberg and stake out some turf. But another last-minute urgency, this one in Seattle, proved more important. “It’s only depositions,” Alisandros told an agitated Wally on the phone the day before. “Pretty basic stuff.”

  Basic indeed. Iris was talking about one of Percy’s old hernias.

  David’s role was limited. He was there as a warm body, a real lawyer taking up space, but with little to do but scribble and read. He was reviewing an FDA study on lead poisoning in children.

  Occasionally, Wally would politely say, “Objection. Calls for conclusion.”

  The lovely Ms. Karros would stop and wait to make sure Wally was finished, then she would say, “You may answer, Ms. Klopeck.” And by then, Iris would tell her all she wanted to hear.

  Judge Seawright’s strict two-hour time limit was obeyed. Ms. Karros asked her last question at 10:58, then graciously thanked Iris for being such a good witness. Iris was going for her purse where the Xanax was kept. Wally walked her to the door and assured her she had done a superb job.

  “When do you think they’ll want to settle?” she whispered.

  Wally put a finger to his lips and shoved her out.

  Next up was Millie Marino, widow of Chester and stepmother of Lyle, the inheritor of the baseball card collection and Wally’s initial source of information about Krayoxx. Millie was forty-nine, attractive, somewhat fit, reasonably well dressed, and apparently unmedicated, a far cry from the last witness. She was there for her depo, but she was still not a believer in the lawsuit. She and Wally were still bickering over her late husband’s estate. She was still threatening to pull out of the lawsuit and find another lawyer. Wally had offered to guarantee, in writing, a million-dollar settlement.

  Ms. Karros asked the same questions. Wally made the same objections. David read the same memo and thought, Only six more after this one.

  After a quick lunch, the lawyers reconvened for the deposition of Adam Grand, the assistant manager of an all-you-can-eat pizza house whose mother had died the previous year after taking Krayoxx for two years. (It was the same pizza house Wally now frequented, but only to secretly leave copies of his “Beware of Krayoxx!” brochures in the restrooms.)

  Nadine Karros took a break, and her number two, Luther Hotchkin, handled the deposition. Nadine, though, apparently loaned him her questions because he asked the same ones.

  During his insufferable career at Rogan Rothberg, David had heard many tales about the boys in litigation. The litigators were a breed apart, wild men who gambled with huge sums of money, took enormous risks, and lived on the edge. In every large law firm, the litigation section was the most colorful and filled with the biggest characters and egos. That was the urban legend anyway. Now, as he glanced occasionally across the table at the solemn faces of his adversaries, he had serious doubts about the legend. Nothing he had ever experienced in his career was as monotonous as sitting through depositions. And this was only his third one. He almost missed the drudgery of plodding through the financial records of obscure Chinese corporations.

  Ms. Karros was taking a break, but she missed nothing. This early round of depositions was nothing more than a little contest, a pageant to provide her and her client the opportunity to meet and examine the eight contestants and select a winner. Could Iris Klopeck withstand the rigors of an intense two-week trial? Probably not. She was stoned during her depo, and Nadine had two associates already working on her medical records. On the other hand, some jurors might have great sympathy for her. Millie Marino would make an impressive witness, but her husband, Chester, could potentially have the strongest link to heart disease and death.

  Nadine and her team would finish the depos, watch them again and again, and slowly eliminate the better ones. They and their experts would continue to dissect the medical records of the eight “victims” and eventually select the one with the weakest claim. When they picked their winner, they would race to court with a thick, cold-blooded, and well-reasoned motion to separate. They would ask Judge Seawright to take the single case they wanted, place it on his Rocket Docket, and clear all obstacles between it and a trial by jury.

  Minutes after 6:00 p.m., David bolted from the Marriott and almost ran to his car. He was punch-drunk and needed his lungs full of cold air. Leaving downtown, he stopped at a Starbucks in a strip mall and ordered a double espresso. Two doors down was a party store that advertised costumes and favors, and, as had become his habit, he wandered over for a look. No party store was safe from him, or Helen, these days. They were searching for a set of Nasty Teeth, in the wrappe
r, with names of corporations in fine print. This one had the usual inventory of cheap costumes, gag gifts, decorations, glitter, toys, wrapping paper. There were several sets of vampire teeth, made in Mexico and sold by a company called Mirage Novelties of Tucson.

  He was familiar with Mirage, even had a small file on the company. Privately owned, sales last year of $18 million, most of its products along the same lines of what David was now inspecting. He had files on dozens of companies that specialized in cheap toys and gadgets, and his research was growing daily. What he had not found was another set of Nasty Teeth.

  He paid three bucks for a set of fangs, to add to his growing collection, then drove to the Brickyard Mall, where he met Helen at a Lebanese restaurant. Over dinner, he refused to describe his day—the same ordeal was planned for tomorrow—so they chatted about her classes and, not surprisingly, the coming addition to their family.

  Lakeshore Children’s Hospital was nearby. They found the ICU, then found Soe Khaing in a visitors’ room. He had relatives with him, and introductions were made, though neither David nor Helen caught a single name. The Burmese were visibly touched that the Zincs would stop by and say hello.

  Thuya’s condition had changed little in the past month. The day after their visit to the family’s apartment, David had contacted one of the doctors. After he e-mailed the paperwork signed by Soe and Lwin, the doctor was willing to talk. The boy’s outlook was bleak. The level of lead in his body was highly toxic, with substantial damage to his kidneys, liver, nervous system, and brain. He was in and out of consciousness. If he survived, it would take months or years to gauge the level of impaired brain activity. Normally, though, with this much lead, children did not survive.

  David and Helen followed Soe down the hall, past a nurse’s station, and to a window where they could see Thuya strapped to a small bed and hooked to an astonishing assortment of tubes, lines, and monitors. His breathing was aided by a respirator.

  “I touch him once a day. He hear me,” Soe said, then wiped the moisture from his cheeks.

  David and Helen stared through the window but could think of nothing to say.

  CHAPTER 22

  Another aspect of big-firm life that David had learned to despise was the endless meetings. Meetings to evaluate and review,

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