The litigators, p.3
The Litigators, p.3John Grisham
With his brain coated with vodka, David stared at himself in the mirror and tried in vain to put things into perspective. One moment he was filled with excitement and proud of his bold escape from the death march at Rogan Rothberg. The next moment he was fearful for his wife, his family, his future. The booze gave him courage, though, and he decided to keep drinking.
His phone vibrated again. It was Lana at the office. “Hello,” he said quietly.
“David, where are you?”
“Just finishing breakfast, you know.”
“David, you don’t sound so good. Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. I’m fine.”
A pause, then, “Are you drinking?”
“Of course not. It’s only nine thirty.”
“Okay, whatever. Look, Roy Barton just left here, and he’s in a rage. I’ve never heard such language. All kinds of threats.”
“Tell Roy to kiss my ass.”
“I beg your pardon.”
“You heard me. Tell Roy to kiss my ass.”
“You’re losing it, David. It’s true. You’re cracking up. I’m not surprised. I saw this coming. I knew it.”
“You’re not fine. You’re drunk and you’re cracking up.”
“Okay, I may be drunk but—”
“I think I hear Roy Barton again. What should I tell him?”
“To kiss my ass.”
“Why don’t you tell him, David? You have a phone. Give Mr. Barton a call.” With that, she hung up.
Abner was easing over, curious to get the scoop on this latest phone call. He was rubbing the wooden counter again, for the third or fourth time since David had planted himself at the bar.
“The office,” David said, and Abner frowned as if this were bad news for everyone. “The aforementioned Roy Barton is looking for me, throwing things. Wish I could be a fly on the wall. Hope he has a stroke.”
Abner moved closer. “Say, I never caught your name.”
“A pleasure. Look, David, the cook just got here. You want something to eat? Maybe something loaded with grease? French fries, onion rings, a big thick burger?”
“I want a double order of onion rings and a large bottle of ketchup.”
“Attaboy.” Abner disappeared. David drained his latest Bloody Mary and went to look for the restroom. When he returned, he assumed his seat, checked the time—9:28—and waited for the onion rings. He could smell them back there somewhere sizzling in hot oil. The drunk to his far right was gulping coffee and struggling to keep his eyes open. The teenager was still sweeping floors and arranging furniture.
The phone vibrated on the counter. It was his wife. David made no move to answer it. When the vibrating was over, he waited, then checked the voice mail. Helen’s message was about what he expected: “David, your office has called twice. Where are you? What are you doing? Everyone is very worried. Are you all right? Call me as soon as possible.”
She was a doctoral student at Northwestern, and when he had kissed her good-bye that morning at 6:45, she was still under the covers. When he arrived home the night before at 10:05, they had dined on leftover lasagna in front of the television before he fell asleep on the sofa. Helen was two years older and wanted to get pregnant, something that was looking more and more unlikely given her husband’s perpetual exhaustion. In the meantime, she was pursuing a Ph.D. in art history, and doing so at a leisurely pace.
A soft beep, then a text message from her: “Where are you? Are you okay? Please.”
He preferred not to speak to her for several hours. He would be forced to admit he was cracking up, and she would insist he get professional help. Her father was a shrink and her mother was a marriage counselor, and the entire family believed that all of life’s problems and mysteries could be solved with a few hours in therapy. At the same time, though, he couldn’t stand the thought that she was frantically worrying about his safety.
He sent a text: “I’m fine. I had to leave the office for a while. I’ll be okay. Please don’t worry.”
She replied: “Where are you?”
The onion rings arrived, a huge pile of golden-brown circles covered in thick batter and grease, hot from the fryer. Abner placed them in front of David and said, “These are the best. How about a glass of water?”
“I was thinking about a pint of beer.”
“You got it.” Abner found a mug and stepped to the tap.
“My wife’s looking for me now,” David said. “You got a wife?”
“Sorry. She’s a great girl, wants a family and all, but we can’t seem to get things started. I worked four thousand hours last year, can you believe it? Four thousand hours. I usually punch in at seven in the morning and leave around ten at night. That’s a typical day, but it’s not unusual to work past midnight. So when I get home, I crash. I think we had sex once last month. Hard to believe. I’m thirty-one. She’s thirty-three. Both in our prime and wanting to get pregnant, and big boy here can’t stay awake.” He opened the bottle of ketchup and unloaded a third of it. Abner placed a frosty pint of lager in front of him.
“At least you’re making plenty of dough,” Abner said.
David peeled off an onion ring, dipped it in ketchup, and stuffed it in his mouth. “Oh, sure, they pay me. Why would I subject myself to such abuse if I weren’t getting paid?” David glanced around to make sure no one was listening. No one was there. He lowered his voice as he ground away on the onion ring, and said, “I’m a senior associate, five years in, my gross last year was three hundred K. That’s a lot of money, and since I don’t have time to spend it, it’s just piling up in the bank. But look at the math. I worked four thousand hours but billed only three thousand. Three thousand hours, tops in the firm. The rest of it got lost in firm activities and pro bono work. Are you with me, Abner? You look bored.”
“I’m listening. I’ve served lawyers before. I know how dull they are.”
David took a long swig of lager and smacked his lips. “I appreciate your bluntness.”
“Just doing my job.”
“The firm bills my time at five hundred bucks an hour. Times three thousand. That’s one point five mill for dear old Rogan Rothberg, and they pay me a measly three hundred K. Multiply that by five hundred associates all doing pretty much the same thing, and you understand why law schools are packed with bright young students who think they want to join a big law firm and make it to partner and get rich. Are you bored, Abner?”
“You want an onion ring?”
David stuffed another large one into his parched mouth, then washed it down with half a pint. There was a loud thud at the end of the bar. The drunk down there succumbed once again. His head was on the counter.
“Who’s the guy?” David asked.
“His name’s Eddie. His brother owns half of the place, so he runs a tab that never gets paid. I’m sick of the guy.” Abner eased away and spoke to Eddie, who didn’t respond. Abner removed the coffee cup and wiped the counter around Eddie, then slowly made his way back to David.
“So you’re walking away from three hundred grand,” Abner said. “What’s the plan?”
David laughed, much too loud. “A plan? Haven’t got that far. Two hours ago I reported for work as always; now I’m cracking up.” Another swig. “My plan, Abner, is to sit here for a long time and try to analyze my crack-up. Will you help me?”
“It’s my job.”
“I’ll pay my tab.”
“Sounds like a deal.”
“Another pint, please.”
After an hour or so of reading the newspaper, eating her yogurt, and enjoying her coffee, Rochelle Gibson reluctantly went to work. Her first task was to check the client register for one Chester Marino, now resting quietly in a modestly priced bronze casket at Van Easel & Sons Funeral Home.
The office of Wallis T. Figg, Attorney and Counselor-at-Law, had been a bedroom in the original scheme of things, but over the years, as walls and doors were reconfigured, the square footage had been expanded somewhat. It certainly gave no hint of once being a bedroom, but then it didn’t much resemble an office either. It began at the door with walls no more than twelve feet apart, then doglegged to the right, to a larger space where Wally worked behind a 1950s-style faux-modern desk he’d snapped up at a fire sale. The desk was covered with stacks of manila files and used legal pads and hundreds of phone message slips, and to anyone who didn’t know better, including prospective clients, the desk gave the impression that the man behind it was extremely busy, maybe even important.
As always, Ms. Gibson walked slowly toward the desk, careful not to upset the piles of thick law books and old files stacked along the route. She handed him the file and said, “We did a will for Mr. Marino.”
“Thanks. Any assets?”
“I didn’t look,” she said, already backtracking. She left without another word.
Wally opened the file. Six years earlier, Mr. Marino was working as an auditor for the State of Illinois, earning $70,000 a year, living with his second wife and her two teenagers, and enjoying a quiet life in the suburbs. He had just paid off the mortgage on their home, which was their only significant asset. They had joint bank accounts, retirement funds, and few debts. The only interesting wrinkle was a collection of three hundred baseball cards that Mr. Marino valued at $90,000. On page 4 of the file, there was a Xerox copy of a 1916 card of Shoeless Joe Jackson in a White Sox uniform, and under it Oscar had written: $75,000. Oscar cared nothing for sports, and he had never mentioned this little oddity to Wally. Mr. Marino signed a simple will he could have prepared himself for free, but instead paid Finley & Figg $250 for the honors. As Wally read the will, he realized its only real purpose, since all other assets were jointly owned, was to make sure his two stepchildren didn’t get their hands on his baseball card collection. Mr. Marino left it to his son, Lyle. On page 5, Oscar had scribbled: “Wife doesn’t know about cards.”
Wally estimated the value of the estate at somewhere in the $500,000 range, and under the probate scheme currently in place the lawyer handling Mr. Marino’s final affairs would earn about $5,000. Unless there was a fight over the baseball cards, and Wally certainly hoped there would be, the probate would be painfully routine and take about eighteen months. But if the heirs fought, then Wally could drag it out for three years and triple his fee. He did not like probate work, but it was far better than divorce and child custody. Probate paid the bills, and occasionally it led to additional fees.
The fact that Finley & Figg prepared the will meant nothing when it was time to probate it. Any lawyer could do so, and Wally knew from his vast experience in the murky world of client solicitation that there were scores of hungry lawyers poring over obituaries and calculating fees. It was worth his time to check on Chester and lay claim to the legal work necessary in tidying up his affairs. It was certainly worth a drive-by at Van Easel & Sons, one of many funeral homes on his circuit.
Three months remained on the suspension of Wally’s driver’s license for drunken driving, but he drove nonetheless. He was careful, though, keeping to the streets near his home and office where he knew the cops. When he went to court downtown, he took the bus or the train.
Van Easel & Sons was a few blocks outside his comfort zone, but he decided to roll the dice. If he got caught, he could probably talk his way out of trouble. If the police didn’t budge, then he knew the judges. He used the backstreets as much as possible and stayed away from the traffic.
Mr. Van Easel and his three sons had been dead for many years, and as their funeral parlor passed from one owner to another, the business had declined, as had the “loving and thoughtful service” that was still advertised. Wally parked in the rear, in an empty lot, and walked through the front door as if he were there to pay his respects. It was almost 10:00 a.m., on a Wednesday morning, and for a few seconds he saw no one else. He paused in the lobby and looked at the visiting schedule. Chester was two doors down on the right, in the second of three visiting rooms. To the left was a small chapel. A man with pasty skin, brown teeth, and a black suit approached and said, “Good morning. May I help you?”
“Good morning, Mr. Grayber,” Wally said.
“Oh, it’s you again.”
“Always a pleasure.” Though Wally had once shaken hands with Mr. Grayber, he made no effort to do so again. He wasn’t sure, but he suspected him to be one of the morticians. He had always remembered the soft, chilly touch of his palm. And Mr. Grayber kept his palms to himself as well. Each man disliked the other’s profession.
“Mr. Marino was a client,” Wally said gravely.
“His visitation is not until this evening,” Grayber said.
“Yes, I see that. But I’m leaving town this afternoon.”
“Very well.” He sort of waved in the direction of the viewing rooms.
“I don’t suppose any other lawyers have stopped by,” Wally said.
Grayber snorted and rolled his eyes. “Who knows? I can’t keep up with you people. We had a service last week for an illegal Mexican, got himself pinned under a bulldozer, used the chapel there,” he said, nodding at the chapel door. “We had more lawyers here than family members. Poor guy’s never been so loved.”
“How nice,” Wally said. He had attended the service last week. Finley & Figg did not get the case. “Thanks,” he said and walked away. He passed the first viewing room—closed casket, no mourners. He stepped into the second, a dimly lit room, twenty feet by twenty, with a casket along one wall and cheap chairs lining the others. Chester was sealed up, which pleased Wally. He put his hand on the casket as if fighting back tears. Just he and Chester, sharing one last moment together.
The routine here was to hang around for a few minutes and hope a family member or friend showed up. If not, then Wally would sign the register and leave his card with Grayber with specific instructions to tell the family that Mr. Marino’s lawyer stopped by to pay his respects. The firm would send flowers to the service and a letter to the widow, and in a few days Wally would call the woman and act as though she were somehow obligated to hire Finley & Figg because they had prepared the will. This worked about half the time.
Wally was leaving when a young man entered the room. He was about thirty, nice looking, reasonably dressed with a jacket and tie. He looked at Wally with a great deal of skepticism, which was the way a lot of people initially viewed him, though this no longer bothered him. When two perfect strangers meet at a casket in an empty viewing room, the first words are always awkward. Wally finally managed to state his name, and the young man said, “Yes, well, uh, that’s my father. I’m Lyle Marino.”
Ah, soon-to-be owner of a nice collection of baseball cards. But Wally could not mention this. “Your father was a client of my law firm,” Wally said. “We prepared his last will and testament. I’m very sorry.”
“Thanks,” Lyle said, and seemed relieved. “I can’t believe this. We went to the Blackhawks game last Saturday. Had a great time. Now he’s gone.”
“I’m very sorry. So it was sudden?”
“A heart attack.” Lyle snapped his fingers and said, “Just like that. He was at work Monday morning, at his desk, all of a sudden he started sweating and breathing hard, then he just fell on the floor. Dead.”
“I’m very sorry, Lyle,” Wally said as if he’d known the young man forever.
Lyle was patting the top of the casket and repeating, “I just can’t believe this.”
Wally needed to fill in some blanks. “Your parents divorced about ten years ago, right?”
“Something like that.”
“Yes.” Lyle wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.
“And your stepmother. Are you close to her?”
“No. We don’t speak. The divorce was ugly.”
Wally suppressed a smile. A feuding family would run up his fees.
“I’m sorry. Her name is …”
“Right. Look, Lyle, I gotta run. Here’s my card.” Wally deftly whipped out a business card and handed it over. “Chester was a great guy,” Wally said. “Call us if we can help.”
Lyle took the card and stuffed it into his pants pocket. He was staring blankly at the casket. “I’m sorry, what’s your name?”
“Figg, Wally Figg.”
The Litigators by John Grisham / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5 out of 5 / Based on40 votes