Sycamore Row

Page 24


“Oh yes, Jake. They’re buzzing everywhere. The guys lay off when you walk in, but as soon as you’re gone it’s all they talk about.” The door opened and two clerks from the tax collector’s office walked in and sat at a table nearby. Jake knew them and nodded politely. They were close enough to hear, and they would indeed absorb everything.
He leaned toward Dell and said softly, “Keep your ears open, okay?”
“Jake, honey, you know I miss nothing.”
“I know.” Jake left a dollar for the coffee and said good-bye.
Still unwilling to return to his desk, Jake strolled around the square and stopped at the office of Nick Norton, another sole practitioner who had graduated from the Ole Miss Law School the year Jake started. Nick had inherited the law office from his uncle and was, in all likelihood, somewhat busier than Jake. They referred clients back and forth across the square, and in ten years had managed to avoid any unpleasant disagreements.
Two years earlier, Nick had represented Marvis Lang when he pleaded guilty to drug trafficking and assault with a deadly weapon. The family had paid a fee of $5,000 in cash, less than what Nick wanted but more than what most of his clients could pay. Marvis had been dead guilty and there had been little wiggle room; plus, he had been unwilling to squeal on his co-defendants. Nick negotiated a twelve-year sentence. Four days earlier, over lunch, Nick had told Jake everything he could about the Lang family and Marvis.
He was with a client, but his secretary had pulled the file. Jake promised to copy what he wanted and return it soon. No rush, said the secretary. It’s been closed for some time.
Wade Lanier’s favorite lunch spot was Hal & Mal’s, an old Jackson haunt a few blocks from the state capitol and a ten-minute walk from his office on State Street. He took his favorite table, ordered a glass of tea, and waited impatiently for five minutes until Ian Dafoe walked through the door and joined him. They ordered sandwiches, covered the weather and football, and soon enough got down to business. “We’ll take the case to trial,” Lanier said gravely, his voice barely above a whisper, as if delivering an important secret.
Ian sort of nodded and shrugged and said, “That’s good to hear.” Anything to the contrary would have been a surprise. There weren’t too many jackpots in the state and lots of lawyers were circling around this one.
“But we don’t need any help,” Lanier said. “Herschel has that clown from Memphis, unlicensed of course in Mississippi, and he’ll just get in the way. There’s not a damned thing that boy can do to help us, and he can do plenty to irritate me. Can you talk to Herschel and convince him that he and his sister are on the same team and I can handle it?”
“I don’t know. Herschel has his own ideas and Ramona doesn’t always agree.”
“Well, figure it out. The courtroom is already crowded, and I suspect Judge Atlee will start whittling down the lineup pretty soon.”
“What if Herschel says no, wants to keep his own lawyer?”
“We’ll deal with it then. First, though, try and convince him that his lawyer is not needed, that’s just another finger in the pie.”
“Okay, along those same lines, what’s your fee proposal?”
“We’ll take it on a contingency. One-third of the recovery. The legal issues are not overly complex and the trial should last less than a week. We would normally suggest 25 percent of any settlement, but that looks highly unlikely, in my opinion.”
“Why not?”
“It’s all or nothing, one will or the other. No room for compromise.”
Ian considered this but didn’t fully grasp it. The sandwiches arrived and they spent a few minutes arranging the food on their plates. Lanier said, “We’re in, but only if both Ramona and Herschel sign on. We—”
“So you prefer a third of fourteen million as opposed to a third of only seven,” Ian interrupted in a half-baked attempt to add a little humor. But it fell flat. Lanier ignored it and took a bite; he didn’t smile very often anyway. He swallowed and said, “You got it. I can win this case, but I’m not going to have some jackass from Memphis looking over my shoulder, getting in the way, and alienating the jury. Plus, Ian, you gotta understand that we, my partners and I, are extremely busy. We’ve vowed to stop taking new cases. My partners are reluctant to commit the firm’s time and resources to a will contest. Hell, we got three trials against Shell Oil scheduled for next month. Offshore oil rig injuries.”
Ian filled his mouth with fries so he wouldn’t be able to speak. He also held his breath for a second in the hopes that the lawyer would not launch into yet another round of war stories about some of his greatest cases and trials. It was an obnoxious habit most trial lawyers were afflicted with, and Ian had suffered through the routine before.
But Lanier resisted the temptation and kept going. “And you’re right, if we’re taking the case, we want both heirs, not only you. It’s the same amount of work; actually, it’s less work for us because we won’t waste time dealing with that boy from Memphis.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Ian said.
“We’ll bill you each month for the expenses, and there’ll be some, mainly expert witnesses.”
“How much?”
“We’ve worked up a litigation budget. Fifty thousand should cover the expenses.” Lanier glanced around, though no other diner could possibly hear a word they were saying. In a lower voice, he said, “Plus, we need to hire an investigator, and not just your average run-of-the-mill gumshoe. We gotta spend some money on a guy who can infiltrate the world of Lettie Lang and find some dirt, and it won’t be easy.”
“How much?”
“Strictly a guess, but I’d say another twenty-five.”
“I’m not sure I can afford this lawsuit.”
Finally, a smile from Lanier, but a forced one. “You’re about to get rich, Ian, just stick with me.”
“What makes you so confident? When we met last week you were pretty cautious, even doubtful.”
Another gruff smile. “That was our first conversation, Ian. The surgeon is always reserved when confronted with a complicated procedure. Now, things are getting clearer. We were in court yesterday morning. I got the lay of the land. I heard the opposition. And, most important, I got a good look at Lettie Lang’s lawyers, those slick-ricks from Memphis. They are the key to our victory. Put them before a jury in Clanton, and the handwritten will becomes a bad joke.”
“Got that. Let’s get back to the seventy-five grand in expense money. I thought some law firms fronted the expense money and took a reimbursement out of the verdict or settlement.”
“We’ve done that.”
“Come on, Wade. You do it all the time because most of your clients are broke. They’re working stiffs who get mangled in job injuries, stuff like that.”
“Yes, but that’s not you, Ian. You can afford to finance the lawsuit; others cannot. Ethics dictate that a client must cover the expenses if he’s financially able.”
“Ethics?” Ian asked with a smirk. It was almost an insult, but Lanier took no offense. He was well versed in the ethics of his profession when they could be beneficial; otherwise, he ignored them.
Lanier said, “Come on, Ian. It’s only seventy-five grand, and it’ll be spread over the next year or so.”
“I’ll pay up to twenty-five. Beyond that, you can cover it and we’ll settle at the end.”
“All right. Whatever. We’ll figure it out later. We’ve got bigger problems. Start with Herschel, if he doesn’t ditch his lawyer and sign up with me, then I’ve got bigger fish to fry. Clear enough?”
“I guess. All I can do is try.”
The Berring Lumber Company was a compound of mismatched metal buildings encircled with chain link eight feet tall and secured behind heavy gates partially opened, as if visitors weren’t really that welcome. It was hidden at the end of a long asphalt drive, unseen from Highway 21 and less than a mile from the Tyler County line. Once inside and just past the main gate, office buildings were to the left and acres of raw timber were to the right. Straight ahead was a series of semi-attached buildings where the pine and hardwoods were cleaned, sized, cut, and treated before being stored in warehouses. A parking lot to the right was filled with well-worn pickup trucks, a sign that business was booming; folks had jobs, which were always scarce in this part of the country.
Seth Hubbard lost the lumber yard in his second divorce, only to get it back a few years later. Harry Rex engineered the forced sale, for $200,000, and made off with the money, for his client, of course. Seth, true to form, waited patiently in the bushes until a downturn, then squeezed the desperate owner for a quick sale. No one knew where the name Berring came from. As Jake was learning, Seth pulled names randomly from the air and stuck them on his corporations. When he owned it the first time around, it was Palmyra Lumber. To confuse anyone who might be watching, he selected Berring for the second go.
Berring was his home office, though he had others at various times. After he sold out, and after he was diagnosed with lung cancer, he consolidated his records and spent more time at Berring. The day after his death, Sheriff Ozzie Walls stopped by and had a friendly chat with the office employees. He strongly suggested that nothing be touched. The lawyers would soon follow and from there things would only get complicated.
Jake had spoken twice on the phone with Arlene Trotter, Seth’s secretary. She had been pleasant enough, though certainly not eager to help. On Friday, almost two weeks after the suicide, Jake walked through the front door and into a reception area with a desk in the center of it. Behind the desk was a heavily made-up young lady with wild black hair, a tight sweater, and the unmistakable look of a woman who was fast and loose. A brass plate gave only her first name—Kamila—and Jake’s second or third impression was that the exotic name matched the person. She offered a comely smile and Jake was already thinking about the comment “Seth had zipper problems.”
He introduced himself. She did not stand but gave a soft handshake. “Arlene’s waiting,” she cooed as she pushed a button to someone’s office.
“I’m very sorry about your boss,” Jake said. He did not remember seeing Kamila at the funeral, and he was certain he would have remembered the face and figure had she been there.
“It’s very sad,” she said.
“How long have you worked here?”
“Two years. Seth was a nice man, and a good boss.”
“I never had the pleasure of meeting him.”
Arlene Trotter appeared from a hallway and offered a hand. She was around fifty but completely gray; a little heavy but fighting it. Her matching pantsuit was a decade out of style. They chatted as they walked deeper into the hodgepodge of offices. “That’s his,” she said, pointing to a closed door. Her desk was right beside the door, literally guarding it. “His records are over there,” she added, pointing to another door. “Nothing has been touched. Russell Amburgh called me the night he died and said to secure everything. Then the sheriff stopped by the next day and said the same thing. It’s been very quiet around here.” Her voice cracked for a second.