Home > The Appeal(4)

The Appeal(4)
Author: John Grisham

Mary Grace glanced at the gauge, too, a recently acquired habit. She noticed and remembered the price of everything-a gallon of gas, a loaf of bread, a half gallon of milk. She was the saver and he was the spender, but not too many years ago, when the clients were calling and the cases were settling, she had relaxed a bit too much and enjoyed their success. Saving and investing had not been a priority. They were young, the firm was growing, the future had no limits.

Whatever she had managed to put into mutual funds had long since been devoured by the Baker case.

An hour earlier they had been broke, on paper, with ruinous debts far outweighing whatever flimsy assets they might list. Now things were different. The liabilities had not gone away, but the black side of their balance sheet had certainly improved.

Or had it?

When might they see some or all of this wonderful verdict? Might Krane now offer a settlement? How long would the appeal take? How much time could they now devote to the rest of their practice?

Neither wanted to ponder the questions that were haunting both of them. They were simply too tired and too relieved. For an eternity they had talked of little else, and now they talked about nothing. Tomorrow or the next day they could begin the debriefing.

"We're almost out of gas," she said.

No retort came to his weary mind, so Wes said, "What about dinner?"

"Macaroni and cheese with the kids."

The trial had not only drained them of their energy and assets; it had also burned away any excess weight they might have been carrying at the outset. Wes was down at least fifteen pounds, though he didn't know for sure because he hadn't stepped on the scale in months.

Nor was he about to inquire into this delicate matter with his wife, but it was obvious she needed to eat. They had skipped many meals-breakfasts when they were scrambling to dress the kids and get them to school, lunches when one argued motions in Harrison 's office while the other prepared for the next cross-examination, dinners when they worked until midnight and simply forgot to eat. PowerBars and energy drinks had kept them going.

"Sounds great," he said, and turned left onto a street that would take them home.

Ratzlaff and two other lawyers took their seats at the sleek leather table in a corner of Mr. Trudeau's office suite. The walls were all glass and provided magnificent views of skyscrapers packed into the financial district, though no one was in the mood for scenery. Mr. Trudeau was on the phone across the room behind his chrome desk. The lawyers waited nervously. They had talked nonstop to the eyewitnesses down in Mississippi but still had few answers.

The boss finished his phone conversation and strode purposefully across the room.

"What happened?" he snapped. "An hour ago you guys were downright cocky. Now we got our asses handed to us. What happened?" He sat down and glared at Ratzlaff.

"Trial by jury. It's full of risks," Ratzlaff said.

"I've been through trials, plenty of them, and I usually win. I thought we were paying the best shysters in the business. The best mouthpieces money can buy. We spared no expense, right?"

"Oh yes. We paid dearly. Still paying."

Mr. Trudeau slapped the table and barked, "What went wrong?!"

Well, Ratzlaff thought to himself and wanted to say aloud except that he very much treasured his job, let's start with the fact that our company built a pesticide plant in Podunk, Mississippi, because the land and labor were dirt cheap, then we spent the next thirty years dumping chemicals and waste into the ground and into the rivers, quite illegally of course, and we contaminated the drinking water until it tasted like spoiled milk, which, as bad as it was, wasn't the worst part, because then people started dying of cancer and leukemia.

That, Mr. Boss and Mr. CEO and Mr. Corporate Raider, is exactly what went wrong.

"The lawyers feel good about the appeal," Ratzlaff said instead, without much conviction.

"Oh, that's just super. Right now I really trust these lawyers. Where did you find these clowns?"

"They're the best, okay?"

"Sure. And let's just explain to the press that we're ecstatic about our appeal and perhaps our stock won't crash tomorrow. Is that what you're saying?"

"We can spin it," Ratzlaff said. The other two lawyers were glancing at the glass walls. Who wanted to be the first to jump?

One of Mr. Trudeau's cell phones rang and he snatched it off the table. "Hi, honey," he said as he stood and walked away. It was (the third) Mrs. Trudeau, the latest trophy, a deadly young woman whom Ratzlaff and everyone else at the company avoided at all costs. Her husband was whispering, then said goodbye.

He walked to a window near the lawyers and gazed at the sparkling towers around him.

"Bobby," he said without looking, "do you have any idea where the jury got the figure of thirty-eight million for punitive damages?"

"Not right offhand."

"Of course you don't. For the first nine months of this year, Krane has averaged thirty-eight million a month in profits. A bunch of ignorant rednecks who collectively couldn't earn a hundred grand a year, and they sit there like gods taking from the rich and giving to the poor."

"We still have the money, Carl," Ratzlaff said. "It'll be years before a dime changes hands, if, in fact, that ever happens."

"Great! Spin that to the wolves tomorrow while our stock goes down the drain."

Ratzlaff shut up and slumped in his chair. The other two lawyers were not about to utter a sound.

Mr. Trudeau was pacing dramatically. "Forty-one million dollars. And there are how many other cases out there, Bobby? Did someone say two hundred, three hundred? Well, if there were three hundred this morning, there will be three thousand tomorrow morning.

Every redneck in south Mississippi with a fever blister will now claim to have sipped the magic brew from Bowmore. Every two-bit ambulance chaser with a law degree is driving there now to sign up clients. This wasn't supposed to happen, Bobby. You assured me."

Ratzlaff had a memo under lock and key. It was eight years old and had been prepared under his supervision. It ran for a hundred pages and described in gruesome detail the company's illegal dumping of toxic waste at the Bowmore plant. It summarized the company's elaborate efforts to hide the dumping, to dupe the Environmental Protection Agency, and to buy off the politicians at the local, state, and federal level. It recommended a clandestine but effective cleanup of the waste site, at a cost of some $50 million. It begged anyone who read it to stop the dumping.

And, most important at this critical moment, it predicted a bad verdict someday in a courtroom.

Only luck and a flagrant disregard for the rules of civil procedure had allowed Ratzlaff to keep the memo a secret.

Mr. Trudeau had been given a copy of it eight years earlier, though he now denied he'd ever seen it. Ratzlaff was tempted to dust it off now and read a few selected passages, but, again, he treasured his job.

Mr. Trudeau walked to the table, placed both palms flat on the Italian leather, glared at Bobby Ratzlaff, and said, "I swear to you, it will never happen. Not one dime of our hard-earned profits will ever get into the hands of those trailer park peasants."

The three lawyers stared at their boss, whose eyes were narrow and glowing. He was breathing fire, and finished by saying, "If I have to bankrupt it or break it into fifteen pieces, I swear to you on my mother's grave that not one dime of Krane's money will ever be touched by those ignorant people."

And with that promise, he walked across the Persian rug, lifted his jacket from a rack, and left the office.

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