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The Litigators, Page 2

John Grisham

  Rochelle fed him and filled his water bowl. From the small fridge in the kitchen, she removed a container of strawberry yogurt. When the coffee was ready, she poured herself a cup and arranged things just so on her desk, which she kept in immaculate order. It was glass and chrome, sturdy and impressive, the first thing clients saw when they walked through the front door. Oscar’s office was somewhat tidy. Wally’s was a landfill. They could hide their business behind closed doors, but Rochelle’s was in plain view.

  She opened the Sun-Times and started with the front page. She read slowly, sipping her coffee, eating her yogurt, humming softly while AC snored behind her. Rochelle treasured these few quiet moments of the early morning. Before long, the phone would start, the lawyers would appear, and then, if they were lucky, clients would arrive, some with appointments, others without.

  To get away from his wife, Oscar Finley left home each morning at seven, but he seldom got to the office before nine. For two hours he moved around the city, stopping by a police station where a cousin handled accident reports, dropping in to say hello to tow truck drivers and catch the latest gossip on the most recent car wrecks, drinking coffee with a man who owned two low-end funeral parlors, taking doughnuts to a fire station and chatting with the ambulance drivers, and occasionally making his rounds at his favorite hospitals, where he walked the busy halls casting a trained eye for those injured by the negligence of others.

  Oscar arrived at nine. With Wally, whose life was far less organized, one never knew. He could blow in at 7:30, fueled by caffeine and Red Bull and ready to sue anyone who crossed him, or he could drag in at 11:00, puffy eyed, hungover, and soon hiding in his office.

  On this momentous day, however, Wally arrived a few minutes before eight with a big smile and clear eyes. “Good morning, Ms. Gibson,” he said with conviction.

  “Good morning, Mr. Figg,” she responded in similar fashion. At Finley & Figg, the atmosphere was always tense, with a fight just one comment away. Words were chosen carefully and received with scrutiny. The mundane early morning salutes were cautiously handled because they could be a setup for an attack. Even the use of “Mr.” and “Ms.” was contrived and loaded with history. Back when Rochelle had been only a client, Wally had made the mistake of referring to her as a “girl.” It had been something like, “Look, girl, I’m doing the best I can here.” He certainly meant no harm by it, and her overreaction was uncalled for, but from that moment on she insisted on being addressed as “Ms. Gibson.”

  She was slightly irritated because her solitude was interrupted. Wally spoke to AC and rubbed his head, and as he headed for the coffee, he asked, “Anything in the paper?”

  “No,” she said, not wanting to discuss the news.

  “No surprise there,” he said, the first shot of the day. She read the Sun-Times. He read the Tribune. Each considered the other’s taste in news to be rather low.

  The second shot came moments later when Wally reappeared. “Who made the coffee?” he asked.

  She ignored this.

  “It’s a bit weak, don’t you think?”

  She slowly turned a page, then had some yogurt.

  Wally sipped loudly, smacked his lips, frowned as though swallowing vinegar, then picked up his newspaper and took a seat at the table. Before Oscar won the building in a lawsuit, someone had knocked out several of the walls downstairs near the front and created an open lobby area. Rochelle had her space on one side, near the door, and a few feet away there were chairs for waiting clients and a long table that was once used somewhere for dining purposes. Over the years, the table had become the place where newspapers were read, coffee consumed, even depositions taken. Wally liked to kill time there because his office was such a pigsty.

  He flung open his Tribune with as much noise as possible. Rochelle ignored him and hummed away.

  A few minutes passed, and the phone rang. Ms. Gibson seemed not to hear it. It rang again. After the third ring, Wally lowered his newspaper and said, “You wanna get that, Ms. Gibson?”

  “No,” she answered shortly.

  It rang a fourth time.

  “And why not?” he demanded.

  She ignored him. After the fifth ring, Wally threw down his newspaper, jumped to his feet, and headed for a phone on the wall near the copier. “I wouldn’t get that if I were you,” Ms. Gibson said.

  He stopped. “And why not?”

  “It’s a bill collector.”

  “How do you know?” Wally stared at the phone. Caller ID revealed “NAME UNKNOWN.”

  “I just do. He calls this time every week.”

  The phone went silent, and Wally returned to the table and his newspaper. He hid behind it, wondering which bill had not been paid, which supplier was irritated enough to call a law office and put the squeeze on lawyers. Rochelle knew, of course, because she kept the books and knew almost everything, but he preferred not to ask her. If he did, then they would soon be bickering over the bills and unpaid fees and lack of money in general, and this could easily spiral down into a heated discussion about overall strategies of the firm, its future, and the shortcomings of its partners.

  Neither wanted this.

  Abner took great pride in his Bloody Marys. He used precise amounts of tomato juice, vodka, horseradish, lemon, lime, Worcestershire sauce, pepper, Tabasco, and salt. He always added two green olives, then finished it with a stalk of celery.

  It had been a long time since David had enjoyed such a fine breakfast. After two of Abner’s creations, consumed rapidly, he was grinning goofily and proud of his decision to chuck it all. The drunk at the end of the bar was snoring. There were no other customers. Abner was a man about his business, washing and drying cocktail glasses, taking inventory of his booze, and fiddling with the beer taps while offering commentary on a wide variety of subjects.

  David’s phone finally rang. It was his secretary, Lana. “Oh, boy,” he said.

  “Who is it?” Abner asked.

  “The office.”

  “A man’s entitled to breakfast, isn’t he?”

  David grinned again and said, “Hello.”

  Lana said, “David, where are you? It’s eight thirty.”

  “I have a watch, dear. I’m having breakfast.”

  “Are you okay? Word’s out that you were last seen diving back into an elevator.”

  “Just a rumor, dear, just a rumor.”

  “Good. What time will you be in? Roy Barton has already called.”

  “Let me finish breakfast, okay?”

  “Sure. Just keep in touch.”

  David put down his phone, sucked hard on the straw, then announced, “I’ll have another.” Abner frowned and said, “You might want to pace yourself.”

  “I am pacing myself.”

  “Okay.” Abner pulled down a clean glass and started mixing. “I take it you’re not going to the office today.”

  “I am not. I quit. I’m walking away.”

  “What type of office?”

  “Law. Rogan Rothberg. You know the outfit?”

  “Heard of it. Big firm, right?”

  “Six hundred lawyers here in the Chicago office. Couple of thousand around the world. Currently in third place when it comes to size, fifth place in hours billed per lawyer, fourth place when looking at net profits per partner, second place when comparing associates’ salaries, and, without question, first place when counting assholes per square foot.”

  “Sorry I asked.”

  David picked up his phone and asked, “You see this phone?”

  “You think I’m blind?”

  “This thing has ruled my life for the past five years. Can’t go anywhere without it. Firm policy. It stays with me at all times. It’s interrupted nice dinners in restaurants. It’s dragged me out of the shower. It’s woken me up at all hours of the night. On one occasion it’s interrupted sex with my poor neglected wife. I was at a Cubs game last summer, great seats, me and two buddies from college, top of the second inning, and this thing st
arts vibrating. It was Roy Barton. Have I told you about Roy Barton?”

  “Not yet.”

  “My supervising partner, a pernicious little bastard. Forty years old, warped ego, God’s gift to the legal profession. Makes a million bucks a year but he’ll never make enough. Works fifteen hours a day, seven days a week, because at Rogan Rothberg all Big Men work nonstop. And Roy fancies himself a really Big Man.”

  “Nice guy, huh?”

  “I hate him. I hope I never see his face again.”

  Abner slid the third Bloody Mary across the counter and said, “Looks like you’re on the right track, pal. Cheers.”


  The phone rang again, and Rochelle decided to answer it. “The law firm of Finley & Figg,” she said professionally. Wally did not look up from his newspaper. She listened for a moment, then said, “I’m sorry, but we do not handle real estate transactions.”

  When Rochelle assumed her position eight years earlier, the firm did in fact handle real estate transactions. However, she soon realized this type of work paid little and relied heavily upon the secretary with almost no effort from the lawyers. A quick study, she decided she disliked real estate. Because she controlled the phone, she screened all calls, and the real estate section of Finley & Figg dried up. Oscar was outraged and threatened to fire her but backed down when she mentioned, again, that she might sue them for legal malpractice. Wally brokered a truce, but for weeks things were more tense than usual.

  Other specialties had been cast aside under her diligent screening. Criminal work was history; Rochelle didn’t like it, because she didn’t like the clients. DUIs were okay because there were so many of them, they paid well, and they required almost no involvement on her part. Bankruptcy bit the dust for the same reason that real estate had—paltry fees and too much work for the secretary. Over the years Rochelle had managed to streamline the firm’s practice, and this was still causing problems. Oscar’s theory, one that had kept him broke for over thirty years, was the firm should take everything that walked in the door, cast a wide net, then pick through the debris in the hope of finding a good injury case. Wally disagreed. He wanted the big kill. Though he was forced by the overhead to perform all sorts of mundane legal tasks, he was always dreaming of ways to strike gold.

  “Nice work,” he said when she hung up. “I never liked real estate.”

  She ignored this and returned to her newspaper. AC began a low growl. When they looked at him, he was standing on his small bed, nose tilted upward, tail straight and pointing, eyes narrow with concentration. His growl grew louder, then, on cue, the distant sound of an ambulance entered their solemn morning. Sirens never failed to excite Wally, and for a second or two he froze as he skillfully analyzed it. Police, fire, or ambulance? That was always the first issue, and Wally could distinguish the three in a heartbeat. Sirens from fire trucks and police cars meant nothing and were quickly ignored, but a siren from an ambulance always quickened his pulse.

  “Ambulance,” he said, then placed his newspaper on the table, stood, and casually walked to the front door. Rochelle also stood and walked to a window where she opened the blinds for a quick look. AC was still growling, and when Wally opened the door and stepped onto the front porch, the dog followed. Across the street, Vince Gholston exited his own little boutique and cast a hopeful look at the intersection of Beech and Thirty-eighth. When he saw Wally, he flipped him the bird, and Wally quickly returned the greeting.

  The ambulance came screaming down Beech, weaving and lurching its way through heavy traffic, honking angrily, causing more havoc and danger than whatever awaited it. Wally watched it until it was out of sight, then went inside.

  The newspaper reading continued with no further interruptions—no sirens, no phone calls from prospective clients or bill collectors. At 9:00 a.m., the door opened, and the senior partner entered. As usual, Oscar wore a long dark overcoat and carried a bulky black leather briefcase, as if he’d been laboring away throughout the night. He also carried his umbrella, as always, regardless of the weather or forecast. Oscar toiled far away from the big leagues, but he could at least look the part of a distinguished lawyer. Dark coats, dark suits, white shirts, and silk ties. His wife did the shopping and insisted that he look the part. Wally, on the other hand, wore whatever he could pull from the pile.

  “Morning,” Oscar said gruffly at Ms. Gibson’s desk.

  “Good morning,” she replied.

  “Anything in the newspaper?” Oscar was not interested in scores or floods or market reports or the latest from the Middle East.

  “A forklift operator got crushed in a plant out in Palos Heights,” Ms. Gibson responded promptly. It was part of their morning ritual. If she did not find an accident of some variety to brighten his morning, then his sour mood would only get worse.

  “I like it,” he said. “Is he dead?”

  “Not yet.”

  “Even better. Lots of pain and suffering. Make a note. I’ll check it out later.”

  Ms. Gibson nodded as if the poor man were practically signed up as a new client. Of course, he was not. Nor would he be. Finley & Figg rarely got to the accident scene first. Chances were the forklift operator’s wife was already being hounded by more aggressive lawyers, some of whom were known to offer cash and other goodies to get the family on board.

  Buoyed by this good news, Oscar walked over to the table and said, “Good morning.”

  “Morning, Oscar,” Wally said.

  “Any of our clients make the obituaries?”

  “I haven’t got that far yet.”

  “You should start with the obituaries.”

  “Thank you, Oscar. Any more tips on how to read a newspaper?”

  Oscar was already walking away. Over his shoulder he asked Ms. Gibson, “What’s on my calendar for today?”

  “The usual. Divorces and drunks.”

  “Divorces and drunks,” Oscar mumbled to himself as he stepped into his office. “What I need is a good car wreck.” He hung his overcoat on the back of the door, placed his umbrella in a rack by his desk, and began unpacking his briefcase. Wally was soon standing nearby, holding the newspaper. “Does the name Chester Marino ring a bell?” he asked. “Obit. Age fifty-seven, wife, kids, grandkids, no cause given.”

  Oscar scratched his close-cropped gray hair and said, “Maybe. Could’ve been a last will and testament.”

  “They got him down at Van Easel & Sons. Visitation tonight, service tomorrow. I’ll snoop around and see what’s up. If he’s one of ours, you wanna send flowers?”

  “Not until you know the size of his estate.”

  “Good point.” Wally was still holding his newspaper. “This Taser thing is out of control, you know. Cops in Joliet are accused of Tasering a seventy-year-old man who went to Walmart to buy Sudafed for his sick grandchild. The pharmacist figured the old man was using the stuff for a meth lab, so the pharmacist, being a good citizen, called the cops. Turns out the cops all got themselves brand-new Tasers, so five of these clowns stop the old man in the parking lot and Taser his ass. Critical condition.”

  “So we’re back doing Taser law, are we, Wally?”

  “Damn right we are. These are good cases, Oscar. We gotta get a few.”

  Oscar sat down and sighed heavily. “So this week it’s Taser guns. Last week it was diaper rashes—big plans to sue the makers of Pampers because a few thousand babies have diaper rashes. Last month it was Chinese drywall.”

  “They’ve paid four billion bucks already in the drywall class action.”

  “Yes, but we haven’t seen any of it.”

  “That’s my point, Oscar. We have got to get serious about these mass tort cases. This is where the money is. Millions in fees paid by companies that make billions in profits.”

  The door was open, and Rochelle was listening to every word, though this particular conversation was getting a bit stale.

  Wally was talking louder. “We get us a few of these cases, then hook up with th
e mass tort specialists, give them a piece of the cake, then ride their coattails until they settle, and we walk away with a truckload. It’s easy money, Oscar.”

  “Diaper rashes?”

  “Okay, that didn’t work. But this Taser thing is a gold mine.”

  “Another gold mine, Wally?”

  “Yep, I’ll prove it.”

  “You do that.”

  The drunk at the end of the bar had rallied somewhat. His head was up, his eyes were partially open, and Abner was serving him coffee and chatting away, all in an effort to convince the man it was time to leave. A teenager with a broom was sweeping the floor and arranging tables and chairs. The little pub was showing signs