The litigators, p.4
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       The Litigators, p.4

           John Grisham
 

  “And you’re a lawyer?”

  “Yes. Finley & Figg, a small boutique firm with lots of business in all major courts.”

  “And you knew my father?”

  “Oh yes, very well. He loved to collect baseball cards.”

  Lyle took his hand off the casket and looked square into the shifty eyes of Wally Figg. “You know what killed my father, Mr. Figg?”

  “You said it was a heart attack.”

  “Right. You know what caused the heart attack?”

  “Well, no.”

  Lyle glanced at the door to make sure they were still alone. He glanced around the room to make sure no one could possibly be listening. He took a step closer so that his shoes were almost touching those of Wally, who by now was expecting to hear that old Chester had been murdered in some clever fashion.

  In a near whisper, Lyle asked, “Ever hear of a drug called Krayoxx?”

  There was a McDonald’s in the shopping center next to Van Easel’s. Wally bought two cups of coffee, and they huddled in a booth, as far away from the counter as possible. Lyle had a stack of papers—articles pulled from the Internet—and it was obvious he needed someone to talk to. Since his father’s death forty-eight hours earlier, he had become obsessed with Krayoxx.

  The drug had been on the market for six years, and its sales had grown rapidly. In most cases, it lowered the cholesterol of obese people. Chester’s weight had slowly climbed toward three hundred pounds, and this had caused other increases—blood pressure and cholesterol, to name the most obvious. Lyle had hounded his father about his weight, but Chester couldn’t stay away from the midnight ice cream. His way of handling the stress of the ugly divorce was to sit in the dark and knock out one pint after another of Ben & Jerry’s. Once the weight was on, he couldn’t get it off. His doctor prescribed Krayoxx a year earlier, and his cholesterol dropped dramatically. At the same time, he began complaining of an irregular heart rate and shortness of breath. He reported these to his doctor, who assured him there was nothing wrong. The dramatic dip in his cholesterol far outweighed any of these minor side effects.

  Krayoxx was made by Varrick Labs, a New Jersey firm currently number three on Big Pharma’s list of the world’s ten largest drug companies, annual sales of some $25 billion, and a long, ugly history of bruising battles with federal regulators and tort lawyers.

  “Varrick makes six billion a year off Krayoxx,” Lyle was saying as he sifted through research. “With an annual increase of 10 percent.”

  Wally ignored his coffee as he scanned a report. He listened silently, though the wheels were turning so fast he was almost dizzy.

  “And here’s the best part,” Lyle said, picking up another sheet of paper. “Ever hear of a law firm called Zell & Potter?”

  Wally had never heard of Krayoxx, though at 240 pounds and with a slightly elevated cholesterol he was mildly surprised his doctor had not mentioned the drug. Nor had he heard of Zell & Potter, but, sensing they were major players in something important, he wasn’t about to admit his ignorance. “I think so,” he said, frowning, searching.

  “Big plaintiffs’ firm in Fort Lauderdale.”

  “Yep.”

  “They filed suit in Florida last week against Varrick, a huge lawsuit for wrongful deaths caused by Krayoxx. Here’s the story in the Miami Herald.”

  Wally scanned the story as his heart rate doubled.

  “I’m sure you heard about this lawsuit,” Lyle said.

  Wally was constantly amazed at the naïveté of the average guy. Over two million lawsuits are filed in the United States each year, and poor Lyle here was thinking that Wally had noticed one filed in south Florida. “Yep, I’ve been watching this one,” Wally said.

  “Does your firm handle cases like this?” Lyle asked, so innocently.

  “It’s our specialty,” Wally said. “We cut our teeth on injury and death cases. I’d love to go after Varrick Labs.”

  “You would? Have you ever sued them before?”

  “No, but we’ve gone after most of the major drug companies.”

  “This is great. Then you’re willing to take my dad’s case?”

  Damn right I’ll take it, Wally thought, but through years of experience he knew not to rush in. Or at least not to seem overly optimistic. “Let’s just say the case has real potential. I’ll need to confer with my senior partner, do some research, chat with the boys down at Zell & Potter, do my homework. Mass tort work is very complicated.”

  And it could also be insanely lucrative, which was Wally’s primary thought at the moment.

  “Thank you, Mr. Figg.”

  At five minutes before eleven, Abner became somewhat animated. He began watching the door as he continued shining martini glasses with his white towel. Eddie was awake again, sipping coffee but still in another world. Finally, Abner said, “Say, David, could you do me a favor?”

  “Anything.”

  “Could you move two stools over? The one you got now is reserved at eleven each morning.”

  David looked to his right—there were eight empty stools between him and Eddie. And to his left there were seven empty stools between him and the other end of the bar. “Are you kidding?” David asked.

  “Come on.” Abner grabbed his pint of beer, which was almost empty, replaced it with a full one, and situated everything two stools to the left. David slowly lifted himself up and followed his beer. “What’s the deal?” he asked.

  “You’ll see,” Abner said, nodding at the door. There was no one else in the pub, other than, of course, Eddie.

  Minutes later, the door opened, and an elderly Asian man appeared. He wore a dapper uniform, a bow tie, and a little driver’s cap. He was helping a lady much older than himself. She walked with a cane, unassisted but with the driver hovering, and the two of them shuffled across the floor toward the bar. David watched with fascination—was he finally seeing things, or was this for real? Abner was mixing a drink and watching too. Eddie was mumbling to himself.

  “Good morning, Miss Spence,” Abner said politely, almost with a bow.

  “Good morning, Abner,” she said as she slowly lifted herself up and delicately mounted the stool. Her driver followed her movements with both hands but didn’t touch her. Once she was properly seated, she said, “I’ll have the usual.”

  The driver nodded at Abner, then backed away and quietly left the bar.

  Miss Spence was wearing a full-length mink coat, thick pearls around her tiny neck, and layers of thick rouge and mascara that did little to hide the fact that she was at least ninety years old. David admired her immediately. His own grandmother was ninety-two and strapped to a bed in a nursing home, absent from this world, and here was this grand old dame boozing it up before lunch.

  She ignored him. Abner finished mixing her drink, a baffling combination of ingredients. “One Pearl Harbor,” he said as he presented it to her. She slowly lifted it to her mouth, took a small sip with her eyes closed, swirled the booze around her mouth, then offered Abner the slightest of heavily wrinkled grins. He seemed to breathe again.

  David, not quite plastered but well on his way, leaned over and said, “Come here often?”

  Abner gulped and showed both palms to David. “Miss Spence is a regular, and she prefers to drink in silence,” he said, panicky. Miss Spence was taking another sip, again with her eyes closed.

  “She wants to drink in silence in a bar?” David asked in disbelief.

  “Yes!” Abner snapped.

  “Well, I guess she picked the right bar,” David said, flopping an arm around and taking in the emptiness of the pub. “This place is deserted. Do you ever have a crowd around here?”

  “Quiet,” Abner urged. His face said, “Just be cool for a while.”

  But David kept on. “I mean, you’ve had just two customers all morning, me and old Eddie down there, and we all know that he doesn’t pay his tab.”

  At the moment, Eddie was lifting his coffee cup in the general direction of his face b
ut was having trouble finding his mouth. Evidently, he did not hear David’s comment.

  “Knock it off,” Abner growled. “Or I’ll ask you to leave.”

  “Sorry,” David said and went silent. He had no desire to leave because he had no idea where to go.

  The third sip did the trick and loosened things up a little. Miss Spence opened her eyes and looked around. Slowly, and with an ancient voice, she said, “Yes, I come here often. Monday through Saturday. And you?”

  “My first visit,” David said, “but I doubt it’s my last. After today, I’ll probably have more time to drink and more reasons for doing so. Cheers.” He leaned across with his pint of lager and ever so carefully touched her glass.

  “Cheers,” she said. “And why are you here, young man?”

  “It’s a long story, and getting longer. Why are you here?”

  “Oh, I don’t know. Habit, I guess. Six days a week for how long, Abner?”

  “At least twenty years.”

  She apparently did not want to hear David’s long story. She took another sip and looked as though she wanted to nod off. David was suddenly sleepy too.

  CHAPTER 5

  Helen Zinc arrived at the Trust Tower a few minutes after noon. Driving downtown, she had tried to call and text her husband for the umpteenth time, with no recent success. At 9:33 he had sent her a text message instructing her not to worry, and at 10:42 he’d sent his second and final text, in which he had said: “No swaet. Am ok. Don’t wory.”

  Helen parked in a garage, hurried down the street, and entered the atrium of the building. Minutes later she stepped off the elevator on the ninety-third floor. A receptionist led her to a small conference room where she waited alone. Though it was lunchtime, the Rogan Rothberg culture frowned on anyone leaving the building to eat. Good food and fresh air were almost taboo. Occasionally, one of the big partners would take a client out for a splashy marathon, an expensive lunch that the client would ultimately pay for through the time-honored tricks of file padding and fee gouging, but as a general rule—though unwritten—the associates and lesser partners grabbed a quick sandwich from a machine. On a typical day, David had both breakfast and lunch at his desk, and it was not unusual to have dinner there as well. He once bragged to Helen he had billed three different clients an hour each as he shoved down a smoked tuna with chips and a diet soda. She hoped he was only joking.

  Though she wasn’t sure of the exact number, he had put on at least thirty pounds since their wedding day. He ran marathons back then, and the extra weight was not a problem yet. But the steady diet of bad food along with a near-complete absence of exercise worried both of them. At Rogan Rothberg, the hour between 12:00 and 1:00 was no different from any other hour of the day or night.

  It was Helen’s second visit to the office in five years. Spouses were not excluded, but they were not invited either. There was no reason for her to be there, and, given the avalanche of horror stories he brought home, she had no desire to see the place or spend time with the people. Twice a year she and David dragged themselves to some dreadful Rogan Rothberg social gathering, some miserable outing designed to foster camaraderie among the battered lawyers and their neglected spouses. Invariably, these turned into sloppy drinking parties with behavior that was embarrassing and impossible to forget. Take a bunch of exhausted lawyers, ply them with booze, and things get ugly.

  A year earlier, on a party boat a mile out on Lake Michigan, Roy Barton had tried to grope her. If he hadn’t been so drunk, he may have succeeded, and that would have caused serious problems. For a week she and David argued about what to do. David wanted to confront him, then complain to the firm’s Standards Committee. Helen said no, it would only harm David’s career. There were no witnesses, and the truth was that Barton probably didn’t remember what he’d done. With time, they stopped talking about the incident. After five years she had heard so many Roy Barton stories that David refused to mention his boss’s name at home.

  Suddenly there he was. Roy walked into the small conference room with a snarl on his face and demanded, “Helen, what’s going on here?”

  “Funny, I have the same question,” she shot back. Mr. Barton, as he preferred to be called, ran over people by barking first and trying to embarrass. She would have none of it.

  “Where is he?” he barked.

  “You tell me, Roy,” she said.

  Lana, the secretary, and Al and Lurch appeared together, as if they’d been subpoenaed by the same marshal. Quick introductions were made as Roy closed the door. Helen had spoken to Lana many times on the phone but had never met her.

  Roy looked at Al and Lurch and said, “You two, tell us exactly what happened.” They tag-teamed through their version of David Zinc’s last elevator ride and without the slightest bit of embellishment presented a fairly clear picture of a troubled man who’d simply snapped. He was sweating, breathing hard, pale, and he actually dived headfirst back into the elevator, landing on its floor, and, just as the door closed, they heard him laughing.

  “He was fine when he left home this morning,” Helen assured them, as if to emphasize the point that the crack-up was the firm’s fault and not hers.

  “You,” Roy barked in the direction of Lana. “You’ve talked to him.”

  Lana had her notes. She had spoken to him twice, then he stopped answering the phone. “In the second conversation,” she said, “I got the clear impression that he was drinking. His tongue was a bit thick; his syllables were not as sharp.”

  Roy glared at Helen as if she were to blame.

  “Where would he go?” Roy demanded.

  “Oh, the usual place, Roy,” Helen said. “The same place he always goes when he cracks up at 7:30 in the morning and gets plastered.”

  There was a heavy pause in the room. Evidently, Helen Zinc felt free to sass Mr. Barton, but the others certainly did not.

  In a lower tone, Mr. Barton asked her, “Is he drinking too much?”

  “He doesn’t have time to drink, Roy. He comes home at ten or eleven, sometimes has a glass of wine, then he’s out on the sofa.”

  “Is he seeing a shrink?”

  “For what? Working a hundred hours a week? I thought that was the norm around here. I think all of you people need to see a shrink.”

  Another pause. Roy was getting his ass handed to him, and this was very unusual. Al and Lurch stared at the table and worked hard to conceal grins. Lana was a deer in headlights, ready to be fired on the spot.

  “So you have no information that might help us here?” Roy said.

  “No, and evidently you have no information to help me either, right, Roy?”

  Roy had had enough. His eyes narrowed, his jaws clenched, his face turned red. He looked at Helen and said, “He’ll show up, okay, sooner or later. He’ll get in a cab and find his way home. He’ll crawl back to you, and then he’ll crawl back to us. He gets one more chance, you understand? I want him in my office tomorrow morning at 8:00 sharp. Sober, and sorry.”

  Helen’s eyes were suddenly wet. She touched both cheeks and, in a cracking voice, said, “I just want to find him. I want to know he’s safe. Can you help me?”

  “Start looking,” Roy said. “There are a thousand bars in downtown Chicago. You’ll find him sooner or later.” And with that Roy Barton made a dramatic exit from the room, slamming the door behind him. As soon as he was gone, Al stepped forward, touched Helen on the shoulder, and said softly, “Look, Roy’s an asshole, but he’s right about one thing. David’s in a bar getting drunk. He’ll eventually get in a cab and go home.”

  Lurch stepped closer too and said, “Helen, this has happened before around here. In fact, it’s not that unusual. He’ll be fine tomorrow.”

  “And the firm has a counselor on the payroll, a real pro who deals with casualties,” Al added.

  “A casualty?” Helen asked. “Is that what my husband is at this point?”

  Lurch shrugged and said, “Yes, but he’ll be okay.”

  Al sh
rugged and said, “He’s in a bar. I’d love to be with him.”

  At Abner’s, the lunch crowd had finally arrived. The booths and tables were full, and the bar was packed with office workers washing down burgers with pints of beer. David had moved one stool to his right so that he was now next to Miss Spence. She was on her third and last Pearl Harbor. David was on his second. When she offered him his first, he had initially declined, claiming he had no taste for fussy mixed drinks. She insisted, and Abner whipped one up and slid it in front of David. Though it looked as harmless as cough syrup, the drink was a lethal combination of vodka, melon liqueur, and pineapple juice.

  They found common ground at Wrigley Field. Miss Spence’s father had taken her there as a small girl, and she had followed her beloved Cubs her entire life. She had held season tickets for sixty-two years, a record, she was certain, and she had seen the great ones—Rogers Hornsby, Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins, and Ryne Sandberg. And she had suffered greatly,
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