The litigators, p.23
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       The Litigators, p.23

           John Grisham
 

  Driving home, he described the case to Helen. “But does an illegal worker have the right to sue a crooked employer?” she asked.

  “That’s the question. I’ll find out tomorrow.”

  After lunch, Oscar did not return to the office. To do so would have been fruitless. He had far too much on his mind to waste time puttering around his desk. He was half drunk, and he needed to sober up. He filled his tank at a convenience store, bought a tall cup of black coffee, then headed south on I-57 and was soon outside of Chicago and passing through farmland.

  How many times had he advised his clients to file for divorce? Thousands. It was so easy to do, under the circumstances. “Look, there comes a time in some marriages when a spouse needs to get out. For you, that time is now.” He’d always felt so wise, even smug when dispensing such advice. Now he felt like a fraud. How could a person give such counsel unless he’d been through it himself?

  He and Paula had been together for thirty unhappy years. Their only child was a twenty-six-year-old divorcée named Keely who was becoming more and more like her mother. Keely’s divorce was still fresh, primarily because she enjoyed reveling in her misery. She had a job that paid little, lots of contrived emotional problems that required pills, and her principal source of therapy was nonstop shopping with her mother at Oscar’s expense.

  “I’m sick of both of them,” Oscar said loudly and boldly as he passed the exit signs at Kankakee. “I’m sixty-two years old, in good health, with a life expectancy now of twenty-three more years, and I have the right to pursue happiness. Right?”

  Of course he did.

  But how to break the news? That was the question. What should he say to drop the bomb? He thought of old clients, old divorces he’d handled over the years. At the extreme end of the spectrum, the bomb was dropped when the wife caught the husband in bed with another woman. Oscar could think of three, maybe four cases where this had happened. That was a bomb dropper all right. The marriage is over, honey, I’ve found someone else. At the other end, he’d once handled a divorce for a couple who never fought, never discussed separation or divorce, and had just celebrated their thirtieth wedding anniversary and purchased a retirement home on a lake. Then the husband came home from a business trip and the house was deserted. All of his wife’s clothes and half the furnishings were gone. She moved out, said she had never loved him. She soon remarried, and he killed himself.

  It was never difficult provoking a fight with Paula; the woman loved to bicker and brawl. Perhaps he should drink some more, go home half drunk, get her started on his drinking, push back hard with her endless shopping, keep throwing gas on the fire until they were both screaming. He could then pack some clothes in a huff and storm out.

  Oscar had never found the courage to walk out. He should have, dozens of times, but he always slunk down the hall, went to the guest bedroom, locked the door, and slept alone.

  As he approached Champaign, he settled on his plan. Why go through the ruse of starting a fight so he could pin blame on her? He wanted out, so be a man and admit it. “I’m unhappy, Paula, and I’ve been unhappy for years. There’s no doubt you’re unhappy too; otherwise you wouldn’t bitch and quarrel all the time. I’m leaving. You can have the house and everything in it. I’m taking my clothes. Goodbye.” He turned around and headed north.

  Ultimately, it was quite simple, and Paula took it well enough. She cried a little, and called him a few names, but when Oscar refused to take the bait, she locked herself in the basement and refused to come out. Oscar loaded his car with clothes and a few personal items, then sped away, smiling, relieved, growing happier with each passing street.

  Sixty-two, about to be single for the first time in forever, about to be rich, if he could trust Wally, which he did at the moment. In fact, he was placing an enormous amount of trust in his junior partner.

  Oscar wasn’t sure where he was going, but he wasn’t about to stop by Wally’s apartment and spend the night. He saw enough of the guy at the office; besides, the bimbo was apt to drop in, and Oscar couldn’t stand her. He drove around for an hour, then checked in to a hotel near O’Hare. He pulled a chair to the window and watched the takeoffs and landings in the distance. One day soon he would be jetting here and there—islands, Paris, New Zealand—with a pleasant lady at his side.

  He felt twenty years younger already. He was going places.

  CHAPTER 28

  At 7:30 the following morning, Rochelle arrived nice and early with plans to enjoy her yogurt and newspaper with no one but AC around, but AC was already playing with someone else. Mr. Finley was there and quite chipper. Rochelle could not remember the last time he had arrived before she did.

  “Good morning, Ms. Gibson,” he said in a warm, hearty voice, his lined and craggy face full of joy.

  “What are you doing here?” she asked suspiciously.

  “I happen to own the building,” Oscar said.

  “Why are you so happy?” she asked, dropping her purse on her desk.

  “Because last night I slept in a hotel, alone.”

  “Maybe you should do it more often.”

  “Don’t you want to know why?”

  “Sure. Why?”

  “Because I left Paula last night, Ms. Gibson. I packed up, said good-bye, walked out, and I’m never going back.”

  “Praise the Lord,” she said, wide-eyed and wonder-struck. “You didn’t?”

  “Yes, I did. After thirty miserable years, I’m a free man. This is why I’m so happy, Ms. Gibson.”

  “Well, I’m happy too. Congratulations.” In her eight and a half years at Finley & Figg, Rochelle had never met Paula Finley in person, and she was delighted about this. According to Wally, Paula refused to set foot on the property because it was beneath her dignity. She was quick to tell folks her husband was a lawyer, with the requisite implications of money and power, but was also secretly humiliated by the low standing of his firm. She spent every dime he earned, and if not for some mysterious family money on her side, they would have gone broke years earlier. On at least three occasions, she had demanded that Oscar fire Rochelle, and he had tried twice. Twice he’d limped back to his office, locked the door, and licked his wounds. On one noted occasion, Ms. Finley called and wanted to talk to her husband. Rochelle politely informed her he was with a client. “I don’t care,” she said. “Put me through.” Rochelle declined again and instead put her on hold. When Rochelle picked up again, Paula was cursing, near cardiac arrest, and threatened to march right down there and straighten things out at the office. To which Rochelle responded: “Do so at your own risk. I live in the projects and I don’t scare too easy.” Paula Finley did not appear, but she did berate her husband.

  Rochelle took a step over and gave Oscar a firm hug. Neither could remember the last time they had touched for any reason. “You’re gonna be a new man,” she said. “Congratulations.”

  “Should be a simple divorce,” he said.

  “You’re not using Figg, are you?”

  “Well, yes. He works cheap. I saw his name on a bingo card.” They shared a laugh, then began swapping gossip at the table.

  An hour later, during the third firm meeting, Oscar repeated the news for the benefit of David, who seemed a bit confused by the enthusiasm the news was generating. Not a trace of sadness anywhere. It was obvious that Paula Finley had made plenty of enemies. Oscar was almost giddy at the thought of shedding her.

  Wally summed up his conversations with Jerry Alisandros and spun the news in such a way that it seemed as though big checks were practically in the mail. As he rambled on, David suddenly figured out the divorce. Unload the wife now, and quickly, before serious money rolled in. Whatever the scheme was, David smelled trouble. Hiding assets, rerouting funds, setting up bogus bank accounts—he could almost hear the conversations between the two partners. Warning flags went up. David would be curious and vigilant.

  Wally exhorted the firm to kick into high gear, to get the files in order, find new cases,
set aside everything else, and so on. Alisandros promised to provide medical screeners, cardiologists, all manner of logistical support to prepare his clients for the settlement. Every current case was worth serious cash; every prospective case could be worth even more.

  Oscar just sat there and grinned. Rochelle listened intently. David found the news exciting, but he was also cautious. So much of what Wally said was hyperbole, and David had learned to cut it in half. Still, half would be a wonderful payday.

  The Zinc family balance sheet had dipped under $100,000 in buried cash, and while David refused to worry, he was thinking about it more and more. He’d paid Sandroni $7,500 for a case that was probably worthless. He and Helen had committed $300 a month to Thuya’s support, which would hopefully go on for years. They had not hesitated to do this, but reality was setting in. His monthly gross from the firm was rising steadily, though it was unlikely he would ever earn what he’d made at Rogan. That was not his benchmark. With a new child, he figured he needed $125,000 a year to live comfortably. Krayoxx just might shore up the balance sheet, though he and the two partners had not discussed his slice of the pie.

  The third firm meeting ended abruptly when a woman the size of a linebacker, in sweats and flip-flops, barged through the front door and demanded to speak to a lawyer about Krayoxx. She had taken it for two years, could actually feel her heart getting weaker, and wanted to sue the company that very day. Oscar and David vanished. Wally welcomed her with a smile and said, “Well, you’ve certainly come to the right place.”

  ———

  The family of Senator Maxwell hired a Boise trial lawyer by the name of Frazier Gant, the number one man in a mildly successful firm that handled mostly tractor-trailer accidents and medical malpractice. Boise is not exactly on the big-verdict circuit. It rarely sees the liberal awards common in Florida, Texas, New York, and California. Idaho frowns on tort litigation, and juries there are generally conservative. But Gant could put together a case and get a verdict. He was someone to reckon with, and at the moment he happened to have the biggest tort case in the country. A dead senator, stricken on the Senate floor, and the cause of death pinned squarely on a huge corporation. It was a trial lawyer’s dream.

  Gant insisted on meeting in Washington, as opposed to Boise, though Layton Koane was perfectly willing to meet anywhere. In fact, Koane preferred anywhere but Washington because that would bring Gant into his office. The Koane Group leased the top floor of a brand-new sleek, shiny ten-story building on K Street, that stretch of asphalt packed with the real power brokers in Washington. Koane had paid a fortune to a New York designer to project the image of pure wealth and prestige. It worked. Clients—current and prospective—were awed by marble and glass the moment they stepped off the private elevator. They were in the midst of power, and they were certainly paying for it.

  With Gant, though, the tables were turned. It was the lobbyist who would be handing over the money, and he preferred a more low-key meeting place. But Gant insisted, and some nine weeks after the senator’s death, and, more important, at least to Koane and Varrick, almost seven weeks after the FDA yanked Krayoxx, they introduced themselves and settled around a small conference table at the far end of Koane’s personal office. Since he was not interested in impressing a client, and he found this particular task distasteful, Koane didn’t waste time.

  “I have a source who tells me the family will settle for five million without a lawsuit,” he said.

  Gant frowned, a quick sharp grimace as if a hemorrhoid had twitched. “We can negotiate,” he said, a throwaway line that meant nothing. He’d flown in from Boise to negotiate and nothing more. “But I think five is on the low side.”

  “What’s on the high side?” Koane asked.

  “My client doesn’t have a lot of money,” Gant said sadly. “As you know, the senator devoted his life to public service and sacrificed a lot. His estate is only half a million, but the family has needs. Maxwell is a big name out in Idaho and the family would like to maintain a certain lifestyle.”

  One of Koane’s specialties was the shakedown, and he found it somewhat amusing to be on the other end of one. The family consisted of a widow, a very nice, low-key woman of sixty whose tastes were not expensive, a forty-year-old daughter who was married to a Boise pediatrician and maxed out credit-wise on all fronts, a thirty-five-year-old daughter who taught school for $41,000 a year, and a thirty-one-year-old son who was the problem. Kirk Maxwell Jr. had been battling drugs and alcohol since he was fifteen, and he was not winning. Koane had his research, and he knew more about the family than Gant.

  “Why don’t you suggest a figure?” he said. “I mentioned five, now it’s your turn.”

  “Your client is losing about twenty million a day in revenue because Krayoxx is no longer on the market,” Gant said smartly, as if dealing in inside information he’d cleverly gathered.

  “It’s more like eighteen, but let’s not nitpick.”

  “Twenty has a nice ring to it.”

  Koane glared over his reading glasses. His jaw dropped slightly. In this business nothing surprised him, and he was faking it now. “Twenty million bucks?” he repeated, as if dumbfounded.

  Gant gritted his teeth and nodded.

  Koane recovered quickly and said, “Let me get this straight. Senator Maxwell was here for thirty years, and during that time he received at least $3 million from Big Pharma and its related PACs, much of it from the pockets of Varrick and its executives, and he also took about $1 million from folks like the National Tort Reform Initiative and other groups seeking to severely restrict lawsuits, bogus and otherwise. He took another $4 million from doctors, hospitals, banks, manufacturers, retailers, a very long list of good-government groups determined to cap damages, limit lawsuits, and basically slam the courthouse door on anyone with a claim of injury or death. When it came to tort reform and Big Pharma, the dear late senator had a perfect voting record. I doubt if you ever supported him.”

  “Occasionally,” Gant said without conviction.

  “Well, we couldn’t find any record of any contribution from you or your firm to any of his campaigns. Face it, you guys were on opposite sides of the street.”

  “Okay, why is that relevant now?”

  “It’s not.”

  “Then why are we discussing it? He, like every other member of the Senate, raised a lot of money. It was all legal, and the money was always spent to get him reelected. Surely you understand this game, Mr. Koane.”

  “Indeed I do. So he drops dead and now blames Krayoxx. Are you aware that he had stopped using the drug? His last prescription was in October of last year, seven months before he succumbed. His autopsy revealed significant heart disease, congestion, blockage, none of which was caused by Krayoxx. You take this case to trial and you’ll get buried.”

  “I doubt that, Mr. Koane. You’ve never seen me in the courtroom.”

  “I have not.” But Koane had the research. Gant’s largest verdict was $2 million, half of which was set aside on appeal. His previous year’s IRS 1040 listed an adjusted gross of just under $400,000. Chump change compared with the millions Koane raked in. Gant was paying $5,000 in alimony and $11,000 a month on a highly mortgaged golf course home that was underwater. The Maxwell case was, without a doubt, his ship coming in. Koane did not know the specific terms of his contingency fee, but according to a Boise source Gant would get 25 percent of a settlement and 40 percent of a jury verdict.

  Gant leaned forward on his elbows and said, “You and I both know this case is not about liability, and it’s not really about damages. The only real issue here is how much Varrick is willing to pay to keep me from filing a big, splashy lawsuit. Because if I do, then we keep the pressure on the FDA, don’t we, Mr. Koane?”

  Koane excused himself and went into another room. Reuben Massey was waiting in his office at Varrick Labs. Nicholas Walker was also at the table. They were using a speakerphone. “They want $20 million,” Koane said, then braced for the attac
k.

  But Massey received the news without emotion. He believed in using his products and had just popped a Plazid, his company’s version of the daily happy pill. “Wow, Koane,” he said calmly. “You’re doing a helluva job at the negotiating table, old boy. Start at five, now you’re up to twenty. We’d better grab the twenty before you get it up to forty. What the hell’s happening down there?”

  “Nothing but greed, Reuben. They know they have us over a barrel. This guy freely admits the lawsuit is not about liability or damages. We can’t take any more bad press, so how much are we willing to pay to make Maxwell’s case go away? It’s that simple.”

  “I thought you had some great source whispering in your ear to the tune of $5 million.”

  “I thought so too.”

  “This is not litigation. This is armed robbery.”

  “Yes, Reuben, I’m afraid so.”

  “Layton, Nick here. Have you countered?”

  “No. My authority was five. Until you say so, I cannot go higher.”

  Walker was smiling as he spoke. “This is the perfect time to walk away. This guy Gant is already counting his money, several million, he thinks. I know the species, and they’re very predictable. Let’s send him back to Idaho with empty pockets. He won’t know what hit him, neither will the family. Koane, tell him your limit is five and the CEO is out of the country. We’ll have to meet and discuss all of this, which could take a few days. Warn him, though, that if he fires off a lawsuit, then all settlement talk goes away.”

  “He won’t do that,” Koane said. “I think you’re right. I think he’s counting his money.”

  “I like it,” Massey said, “but it would be nice to wrap this up. Go to seven, Layton, but that’s all.”

  Back in his office, Koane settled into his chair and said, “My authority is seven. I can’t go higher today and I can’t get the CEO. I think he’s traveling in Asia, probably on a plane.”

  “Seven is a long way from twenty,” Gant replied with a frown.

  “You’re not getting twenty. I spoke with in-house counsel, who’s also on the board.”

  “Then we’ll see you in court,” Gant said, zipping up a thin briefcase he hadn’t used.

  “That’s a pretty lame threat, Mr. Gant. No jury in the country

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