The litigators, p.22
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       The Litigators, p.22

           John Grisham
 

  “It’s eight, Jerry, with one on the fast track, remember? Klopeck.”

  “Right, right. With that hot chick on the other side. Frankly, I’d like to try that one just to stare at her legs all day.”

  “Anyway.”

  “Anyway, let’s kick into high gear. I’ll call later this afternoon with a game plan. Lots of work to do, Wally, but the fix is in.”

  Wally returned to the courtroom and resumed his wait. He kept repeating, “The fix is in. The fix is in.” Game’s up. Party’s over. He’d heard it all his life, but what did it mean in the context of high-powered litigation? Was Varrick throwing in the towel, surrendering so quickly, cutting its losses? Wally assumed so.

  He glanced at the haggard, beaten-down lawyers around him. Ham-and-eggers just like himself who spent their days trying to squeeze fees out of working stiffs with no money to spare. You poor bastards, he thought.

  He couldn’t wait to tell DeeAnna, but first he had to talk to Oscar. And not at Finley & Figg, where no conversation was ever private.

  They met for lunch two hours later at a spaghetti house not far from the office. Oscar had had a rough morning trying to referee six grown children fighting over their dead mother’s estate, in which there was virtually nothing of value. He needed a drink and ordered a bottle of inexpensive wine. Wally, at 241 days sober, had no trouble sticking with water. Over Caprese salads, Wally quickly recapped his conversation with Jerry Alisandros and ended with a dramatic “This is the moment, Oscar. It’s finally going to happen.”

  Oscar’s mood changed as he listened and gulped down the first glass. He managed a smile, and Wally could almost see the skepticism evaporating. He took out a pen, shoved the salad aside, and began scratching. “Let’s run through the math again, Wally. Is a death case really worth $2 million?”

  Wally glanced around to make sure no one was listening. The coast was clear. “I’ve done a ton of research, okay? I’ve looked at dozens of settlements in mass tort drug cases. There are too many unknowns right now to predict how much each case is worth. You gotta determine liability, cause of death, medical history, age of the deceased, income-earning potential, stuff like that. Then we gotta find out how much Varrick is tossing in the pot. But a million bucks is the floor, I think. We have eight. Fees are at 40 percent. Half to Jerry, plus a stroke for his expertise, and we’re looking at a net to our firm of something like $1.5 mill.”

  Oscar was scribbling with a fury, though he’d heard these numbers a hundred times. “They’re death cases. They gotta be worth more than a mill each,” he said, as if he’d handled dozens of these large cases.

  “Maybe two,” Wally said. “Then we got all the non-death cases, 407 as of now. Let’s say only half can qualify after a medical exam. Based on somewhat similar cases—the mass drug variety—I think $100,000 is a reasonable figure for a client whose heart valve has been slightly damaged. That’s $20 million, Oscar. Our cut is something in the neighborhood of $3.5 million.”

  Oscar wrote something, then stopped, took a long drink of wine, and said, “So, we should talk about our split, right? Is that where this is going?”

  “The split is one of several pressing issues.”

  “Okay, what’s wrong with fifty-fifty?” All fee fights began with an even split.

  Wally stuffed a slice of tomato into his mouth and chewed it fiercely. “What’s wrong with fifty-fifty is that I discovered Krayoxx, rounded up the cases, and so far I’ve done about 90 percent of the work. I have the eight death cases in my office. David has the other four hundred upstairs. You, if I’m not mistaken, have no Krayoxx cases in your office.”

  “You’re not asking for 90 percent are you?”

  “Of course not. Here’s my suggestion. We have a ton of work to do. All of these cases have to be screened by a doctor, evaluated, and so on. Let’s put everything else aside—me, you, David—and get to work. We prep the cases while we’re also looking for new ones. Once the settlement news breaks, every lawyer in the country will go crazy over Krayoxx, so we gotta get even busier. And once the checks arrive, I think a sixty-thirty-ten split is fair.”

  Oscar had ordered the lasagna special, and Wally the stuffed ravioli. When the waiter was gone, Oscar said, “Your fee is twice mine? That’s never happened before. I don’t like it.”

  “What do you like?”

  “Fifty-fifty.”

  “And what about David? We promised him a cut when he agreed to take the non-death cases.”

  “Okay, fifty for you, forty for me, ten for David. Rochelle gets a nice bonus but no piece of the pie.”

  With so much money on the way, it was easy to toss around the numbers, even easier to cut a deal. There had been nasty fights over $5,000 fees, but not today. The money soothed them and took away any desire to squabble. Wally slowly reached across, and Oscar did the same. They quickly shook hands and plunged into their entrées.

  After a few bites, Wally said, “How’s the wife?”

  Oscar frowned, grimaced, and looked away. Paula Finley was a subject completely off-limits because no one at the firm could stand her, including Oscar.

  Wally pressed on. “You know, Oscar, this is the moment. If you’re ever going to ditch her, do it now.”

  “Marital advice from you?”

  “Yes, because you know I’m right.”

  “I assume you’ve been thinking about this.”

  “Yes, because you have not, and that’s because you’ve never believed in these cases, until now perhaps.”

  Oscar poured more wine and said, “Let’s hear it.”

  Wally leaned in closer again, as if they were swapping nuclear secrets. “File for divorce now, immediately. No big deal. I’ve done it four times. Move out, get an apartment, cut all ties. I’ll handle it on your end, and she can hire whomever she wants. We’ll draw up a contract, date it six months ago, and it’ll say that I get 80 percent of the Krayoxx settlements, if any, and you and David split 20 percent. You gotta show some income from Krayoxx; otherwise her lawyer will go nuts. But most of the money can stay in a slush fund for, I don’t know, a year or so, until the divorce is over. Then, at some unknown point in the future, you and I settle up.”

  “That’s a fraudulent transfer of assets.”

  “I know. I love it. I’ve done it a thousand times, though on a much smaller scale. I suspect you have too. Pretty clever, don’t you think?”

  “If we get caught, we could both get thrown in jail for contempt of court, with no hearing.”

  “We will not get caught. She thinks Krayoxx is all mine, right?”

  “Right.”

  “So, it’ll work. It’s our law firm, and we make the rules on how the money gets split. Completely within our discretion.”

  “Her lawyers won’t be stupid, Wally. They’ll know all about the big Krayoxx settlement as soon as it happens.”

  “Come on, Oscar, it ain’t like we hit these licks all the time. Over the last ten years I suspect your adjusted gross has averaged, what, $75,000?”

  Oscar shrugged. “About the same as yours. Pretty pathetic, don’t you think? Thirty years in the trenches.”

  “Not the point, Oscar. The point is that in a divorce, they’ll look at what you’ve earned in the past.”

  “I know.”

  “If the Krayoxx money is mine, then we can argue, with evidence, that your income hasn’t changed.”

  “What will you do with the money?”

  “Bury it offshore until the divorce is over. Hell, Oscar, we could leave it offshore and pop down to Grand Cayman once a year to check on it. Believe me, there’s no way they’ll ever know. But you gotta file now and get out.”

  “Why are you so keen on me getting a divorce?”

  “Because I loathe that woman. Because you’ve been dreaming of a divorce since your honeymoon. Because you deserve to be happy, and if you sack this bitch and hide the money, your life will take a dramatic turn for the better. Think of it, Oscar, single at sixty-two with cash
in the bank.”

  Oscar couldn’t suppress a smile. He drained his third glass. He took a few bites. He was obviously struggling with something, so he finally asked, “How do I break it to her?”

  Wally dabbed the corners of his mouth, stiffened his spine, and assumed the voice of authority. “Well, there are many ways to do it, and I’ve tried them all. Have you two ever talked about splitting up?”

  “Not that I recall.”

  “I assume it would be easy to start a big fight.”

  “Oh, so easy. She’s always unhappy about something, usually money, and we fight almost every day.”

  “That’s what I figured. Do it like this, Oscar. Go home tonight and drop the bomb. Tell her you’re unhappy and you want out. Plain and simple. No fighting, no bickering, no negotiating. Tell her she can have the house, the car, the furniture, she can have it all if she’ll agree to a no-fault.”

  “And if she won’t agree?”

  “Leave anyway. Come stay at my place until we can find you an apartment. Once she sees you walk out the door, she’ll get angry and start scheming, especially Paula. It won’t take long for her to blow up. Give her forty-eight hours and she’ll be a cobra.”

  “She’s already a cobra.”

  “And she has been for decades. We’ll file the papers, have them served on her, and that’ll send her over the edge. She’ll have a lawyer by the end of the week.”

  “I’ve given this advice before, just never thought I’d do it myself.”

  “Oscar, sometimes it takes balls to walk away. Do it now while you can still enjoy life.”

  Oscar poured the last of the wine into his glass and started smiling again. Wally could not remember the last time he’d seen his senior partner so content.

  “Can you do it, Oscar?”

  “Yep. In fact, I think I’ll go home early, start packing, and get it over with.”

  “Awesome. Let’s celebrate with dinner tonight. On the firm.”

  “A deal, but that bimbo won’t be around, right?”

  “I’ll lose her.”

  Oscar downed the wine like a shot of tequila and said, “Damn, Wally, I haven’t been this excited in years.”

  CHAPTER 27

  It had been difficult to convince the Khaing family that they sincerely wanted to help, but after a few weeks of Big Mac dinners a high level of trust developed. Each Wednesday, after an early dinner of something healthier, David and Helen pulled through the same McDonald’s, ordered the same burgers and fries, and drove to the apartment complex in Rogers Park to visit the family. Zaw, the grandmother, and Lu, the grandfather, joined in because they were also fond of fast food. For the rest of the week they lived on a diet that was primarily rice and chicken, but on Wednesday the Khaings ate like real Americans.

  Helen, seven months pregnant and looking every day of it, was initially hesitant about the weekly visits. If there was lead in the air, she had an unborn baby to protect. So David checked everything. He badgered Dr. Biff Sandroni until he cut his fee from $20,000 to $5,000, with David doing most of the legwork. David went through the apartment himself and collected samples of wall paint, water, ceramic coatings, cups and saucers, plates, mixing bowls, family photo albums, toys, shoes, clothing, virtually anything and everything the family came into contact with. He drove this collection to Sandroni’s lab in Akron, dropped it off, then picked it up two weeks later and returned it to the family. According to Sandroni’s report, there were only traces of lead, acceptable levels and nothing for the family to worry about. Helen and the baby were safe in the Khaing apartment.

  Thuya had been poisoned by the Nasty Teeth, and Dr. Sandroni was prepared to say so, under oath, in any court in the country. David was sitting on a promising lawsuit, but they had yet to find a defendant. He and Sandroni had a short list of four Chinese companies known to make similar toys for American importers, but they had not been able to pinpoint the manufacturer. And, according to Sandroni, there was a good chance they would never identify it. The set of Nasty Teeth could have been made twenty years earlier, then stored in a warehouse for a decade before being shipped to the U.S., where it could have spent another five years languishing in the supply chain. The manufacturer and the importer could still be in business, or they might have gone bust years ago. The Chinese were under constant pressure from U.S. watchdogs to monitor the amount of lead used in a thousand products, and it was often impossible to determine who made what in the maze of cheap factories scattered around the country. Dr. Sandroni had an endless list of sources, he’d been involved in hundreds of lawsuits, but after four months of digging, he was empty-handed. David and Helen had been to every flea market and toy store in Greater Chicago, and they had put together an astonishing collection of fake teeth and vampire fangs, but nothing exactly like Nasty Teeth. Their search wasn’t over, but it had lost steam.

  Thuya was home now, alive but grievously wounded. The brain damage was severe. He could not walk without assistance, speak clearly, feed himself, or control his bodily functions. His vision was limited, and he could barely respond to basic commands. Ask him his name and he would open his mouth and emit a sound similar to “Tay.” He spent most of his time in a special bed with guardrails, and keeping it clean was a difficult task. Caring for the boy was a daily struggle that involved everyone in the family and many of the neighbors. The future was beyond contemplation. His condition was not likely to improve, according to the rather tactful statements of his doctors. Off the record and away from the family, they told David in confidence that Thuya’s body and mind would not grow normally, and there was nothing else they could do. And there was no place to put him—no facility for brain-damaged children.

  Thuya was spoon-fed a special formula that was a mix of finely ground fruit and vegetables and loaded with daily nutrients. He wore diapers made especially for such children. The formula, diapers, and medications were running $600 a month, of which David and Helen had pledged half. The Khaings had no health insurance, and had it not been for the generosity of the Lakeshore Children’s Hospital he would not have received such high-quality care. He would probably be dead. In short, Thuya was now a burden that was almost inconceivable.

  Soe and Lwin insisted that he sit at the table for dinner. He had a special chair, also donated by the hospital, and when properly belted and latched down, he sat straight and expected his food. While the family devoured the burgers and fries, Helen carefully fed Thuya with a baby spoon. She said she needed the practice. David sat on the other side with a paper towel, chatting with Soe about work and life in America. Thuya’s sisters, who chose to use the American names of Lynn and Erin, were eight and six, respectively. They said little during dinner, but it was obvious they were thrilled with real fast food. When they did speak, it was with perfect, unaccented English. According to Lwin, they were making straight A’s in school.

  Perhaps it was the gloomy prospect of an uncertain future, or maybe it was just the meager existence being carved out by desperate immigrants, but the dinners were solemn and subdued. At various times, the parents, grandparents, and sisters looked at Thuya as if they wanted to cry. They remembered the noisy, hyper little boy with the quick smile and easy laugh, and they were struggling to accept the truth that he would never return. Soe blamed himself for buying the fake teeth. Lwin blamed herself for not being more diligent. Lynn and Erin blamed themselves for encouraging Thuya to play with the teeth and scare them. Even Zaw and Lu blamed themselves; they should have done something, though they had no idea what.

  After dinner, David and Helen walked Thuya out of the apartment, down the short sidewalk, and, with the entire family watching, strapped him into the rear seat of their car and drove away. For emergencies, they brought along a small bag with extra diapers and cleaning supplies.

  They drove twenty minutes to the lakefront and parked near Navy Pier. David took his left hand, Helen his right, and they began a slow, plodding walk that was almost painful to watch. Thuya moved like a ten-month-o
ld attempting his first steps, but there was no hurry and he wasn’t about to fall. They eased along the boardwalk, passing all kinds of boats. If Thuya wanted to stop and inspect a forty-foot ketch, they did so. If he wanted to look at a large fishing boat, they stopped and talked about it. David and Helen chattered nonstop, like two proud parents with a toddler. Thuya jabbered back, an incomprehensible stream of utterings and noises that they pretended to understand. When he grew tired, they pushed him to keep walking. It was important, according to the rehab specialist at the hospital. His muscles could not get soft.

  They had taken him to parks, carnivals, malls, ball games, and street parties. The Wednesday night excursions were important to him, and the only break during the week for his family. After two hours, they returned to the apartment.

  Three new faces were waiting. In the past months, David had handled several minor legal matters for the Burmese who lived in the complex. There were the usual immigration matters, and he was becoming adept in that growing specialty of the law. There had been a near divorce, but the spouses reconciled. There was an ongoing lawsuit over the purchase of a used car. His reputation was growing among the Burmese immigrants, and he was not convinced that was altogether a good thing. He needed clients who could pay.

  They stepped outside and leaned on the cars. Soe explained that the three men were working for a drainage contractor. Because they were illegals, and the contractor knew this, he was paying them $200 a week in cash. They were working eighty hours a week. To make matters worse, their boss had not paid them a dime in three weeks. They spoke little English, and because David could not believe what he was hearing, he asked Soe to carefully go through it a second time. This version was the same as the first. Two hundred dollars a week, straight pay for overtime, no pay in three weeks. And they were not the only ones. There were others from Burma and a whole truckload from Mexico. All illegals, all working like dogs, all getting screwed.

  David took notes and promised to look into the situation.

 
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