Across the room, just a few feet away, the Paytons and Jeannette settled into their chairs at the plaintiff's table. Same chairs, same positions, same deliberate strategy to impress upon the jurors that this poor widow and her two lonely lawyers were taking on a giant corporation with unlimited resources. Wes Payton glanced at Jared Kurtin, their eyes met, and each offered a polite nod. The miracle of the trial was that the two men were still able to treat each other with a modest dose of civility, even converse when absolutely necessary.
It had become a matter of pride. Regardless of how nasty the situation, and there had been so many nasty ones, each was determined to rise above the gutter and offer a hand.
Mary Grace did not look over, and if she had, she would not have nodded or smiled.
And it was a good thing that she did not carry a handgun in her purse, or half of the dark suits on the other side wouldn't be there. She arranged a clean legal pad on the table before her, wrote the date, then her name, then could not think of anything else to log in. In seventy-one days of trial she had filled sixty-six legal pads, all the same size and color and now filed in perfect order in a secondhand metal cabinet in The Pit. She handed a tissue to Jeannette. Though she counted virtually everything, Mary Grace had not kept a running tally on the number of tissue boxes Jeannette had used during the trial. Several dozen at least.
The woman cried almost nonstop, and while Mary Grace was profoundly sympathetic, she was also tired of all the damned crying. She was tired of everything-the exhaustion, the stress, the sleepless nights, the scrutiny, the time away from her children, their run-down apartment, the mountain of unpaid bills, the neglected clients, the cold Chinese food at midnight, the challenge of doing her face and hair every morning so she could be somewhat attractive in front of the jury. It was expected of her.
Stepping into a major trial is like plunging with a weighted belt into a dark and weedy pond. You manage to scramble up for air, but the rest of the world doesn't matter. And you always think you're drowning.
A few rows behind the Paytons, at the end of a bench that was quickly becoming crowded, the Paytons' banker chewed his nails while trying to appear calm. His name was Tom Huff, or Huffy to everyone who knew him. Huffy had dropped in from time to time to watch the trial and offer a silent prayer of his own. The Paytons owed Huffy's bank $400,000, and the only collateral was a tract of farmland in Cary County owned by Mary Grace's father. On a good day it might fetch $100,000, leaving, obviously, a substantial chunk of unsecured debt. If the Paytons lost the case, then Huffy's once promising career as a banker would be over. The bank president had long since stopped yelling at him. Now all the threats were by e-mail.
What had begun innocently enough with a simple $90,000 second-mortgage loan against their lovely suburban home had progressed into a gaping hellhole of red ink and foolish spending. Foolish at least in Huffy's opinion. But the nice home was gone, as was the nice downtown office, and the imported cars, and everything else. The Paytons were risking it all, and Huffy had to admire them. A big verdict, and he was a genius.
The wrong verdict, and he'd stand in line behind them at the bankruptcy court.
The moneymen on the other side of the courtroom were not chewing their nails and were not particularly worried about bankruptcy, though it had been discussed. Krane Chemical had plenty of cash and profits and assets, but it also had hundreds of potential plaintiffs waiting like vultures to hear what the world was about to hear. A crazy verdict, and the lawsuits would fly.
But they were a confident bunch at that moment. Jared Kurtin was the best defense lawyer money could buy. The company's stock had dipped only slightly.
Mr. Trudeau, up in New York, seemed to be satisfied.
They couldn't wait to get home.
Thank God the markets had closed for the day.
Uncle Joe yelled, "Keep your seats," and Judge Harrison entered through the door behind his bench. He had long since cut out the silly routine of requiring everyone to stand just so he could assume his throne.
"Good afternoon," he said quickly. It was almost 5:00 p.m. "I have been informed by the jury that a verdict has been reached." He was looking around, making sure the players were present. "I expect decorum at all times. No outbursts. No one leaves until I dismiss the jury.
Any questions? Any additional frivolous motions from the defense?"
Jared Kurtin never flinched. He did not acknowledge the judge in any way, but just kept doodling on his legal pad as if he were painting a masterpiece. If Krane Chemical lost, it would appeal with a vengeance, and the cornerstone of its appeal would be the obvious bias of the Honorable Thomas Alsobrook Harrison IV, a former trial lawyer with a proven dislike for all big corporations in general and, now, Krane Chemical in particular.
"Mr. Bailiff, bring in the jury."
The door next to the jury box opened, and somewhere a giant unseen vacuum sucked every ounce of air from the courtroom. Hearts froze. Bodies stiffened. Eyes found objects to fixate on. The only sound was that of the jurors' feet shuffling across well-worn carpet.
Jared Kurtin continued his methodical scribbling. His routine was to never look at the faces of the jurors when they returned with a verdict. After a hundred trials he knew they were impossible to read. And why bother? Their decision would be announced in a matter of seconds anyway. His team had strict instructions to ignore the jurors and show no reaction whatsoever to the verdict.
Of course Jared Kurtin wasn't facing financial and professional ruin. Wes Payton certainly was, and he could not keep his eyes from the eyes of the jurors as they settled into their seats. The dairy operator looked away, a bad sign. The schoolteacher stared right through Wes, another bad sign. As the foreman handed an envelope to the clerk, the minister's wife glanced at Wes with a look of pity, but then she had been offering the same sad face since the opening statements.
Mary Grace caught the sign, and she wasn't even looking for it. As she handed another tissue to Jeannette Baker, who was practically sobbing now, Mary Grace stole a look at juror number six, the one closest to her, Dr. Leona Rocha, a retired English professor at the university. Dr. Rocha, behind red-framed reading glasses, gave the quickest, prettiest, most sensational wink Mary Grace would ever receive.
"Have you reached a verdict?" Judge Harrison was asking.
"Yes, Your Honor, we have," the foreman said.
"Is it unanimous?"
"No, sir, it is not."
"Do at least nine of you agree on the verdict?"
"Yes, sir. The vote is 10 to 2."
"That's all that matters."
Mary Grace scribbled a note about the wink, but in the fury of the moment she could not read her own handwriting. Try to appear calm, she kept telling herself.
Judge Harrison took the envelope from the clerk, removed a sheet of paper, and began reviewing the verdict-heavy wrinkles burrowing into his forehead, eyes frowning as he pinched the bridge of his nose. After an eternity he said, "It appears to be in order." Not one single twitch or grin or widening of the eyes, nothing to indicate what was written on the sheet of paper.
He looked down and nodded at his court reporter and cleared his throat, thoroughly relishing the moment. Then the wrinkles softened around his eyes, the jaw muscles loosened, the shoulders sagged a bit, and, to Wes anyway, there was suddenly hope that the jury had scorched the defendant.
In a slow, loud voice, Judge Harrison read: "Question number one: "Do you find, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the groundwater at issue was contaminated by Krane Chemical Corporation?"After a treacherous pause that lasted no more than five seconds, he continued, "The answer is "Yes."