THE LAST PLACE I WANT TO GO IS THE OF-fice. I'm too tired and too stunned to celebrate in a bar, and my only pal for the moment is Deck, a nondrinker. Two stiff drinks would put me in a coma anyway, so I'm not tempted. There should be a wild celebration party somewhere, but these things are hard to plan when dealing with juries.
Maybe tomorrow. I'm sure the trauma will be gone by tomorrow, and I'll have a delayed reaction to the verdict. Reality will set in by then. I'll celebrate tomorrow.
I say good-bye to Deck in front of the courthouse, tell him I'm dead, promise to get together later. We're both , still in shock, and we need time to think, alone. I drive to Miss Birdie's and go through my daily routine of checking every room in her house. It's just another day. No big deal. I sit on her patio, stare at my little apartment, and for the first time start spending money. How long will it be before I buy or build my first fine home? What new car shall I buy? I try to dismiss these thoughts, but it is impossible. What do you do with sixteen and a half million
bucks? I cannot begin to comprehend. I know a dozen things can go wrong: the case could be reversed and sent back for a new trial; the case could be reversed and rendered, leaving me nothing; the punitive award could be cut dramatically by an appellate court, or it could be eliminated all together. I know these awful things can happen, but for the moment the money is mine.
I dream as the sun sets. The air is clear but very cold. Maybe tomorrow I can begin to realize the magnitude of what I've done. For now, I am warmed by the thought that a great deal of venom has been purged from my soul. For almost a year I've lived with a burning hatred of the mystical entity that is Great Benefit Life. I've carried a bitter poison for the people who work there, the people who set in motion a chain of events which took the life of an innocent victim. I hope Donny Ray's resting in peace. Surely an angel will tell him what happened today.
They've been exposed and proven wrong. I don't hate them anymore.
KELLY CUTS her thin slice of pizza with a fork and takes tiny bites. Her lips are still swollen and her cheeks and jaws are very sore. We're sitting on her single bed, our backs against the wall, our legs stretched out, the pizza box shared between us. We're watching a John Wayne western on an eighteen-inch Sony perched atop the dresser, not far across the small room.
She's wearing the same gray sweats, no socks or shoes, and I can see a small scar on her right ankle where he broke it last summer. She's washed her hair and put it in a ponytail. She's painted her fingernails, a light red. She is trying to be happy and make conversation, but she's in such physical pain it's very difficult to have fun. There's not much talk. I've never suffered through a thorough beating, and it's difficult to imagine the aftershocks. The
aches and soreness are fairly easy to comprehend. The mental horror is not. I wonder at what point he decided to stop it, to call it off and admire his handiwork.
I try not to think about it. We certainly haven't discussed it, and I have no plans to bring it up. No word from Cliff since he was served with papers.
She's met one other lady here at this shelter, as it's referred to, a middle-aged mother of three teenagers who was so scared and traumatized she had trouble finishing a simple sentence. She's next door. The place is deathly quiet. Kelly left her room only once, to sit on the back porch and breathe fresh air. She's tried reading but it's difficult. Her left eye is still virtually closed, and her right one is at times blurred. The doctor said there was no permanent damage.
She's cried a few times, and I keep promising her this will be the last beating. It'll never happen again if I have to kill the bastard myself. And I mean this. If he got near her, I truly believe I could blow his brains out.
Arrest me. Indict me. Put me on trial. Give me twelve people in the jury box. I'm on a roll.
I don't mention the verdict to her. Sitting here with her in this" dark little room, watching John Wayne ride his horse, seems like days and miles from Kipler's courtroom.
And this is exactly where I want to be.
We finish the pizza and snuggle closer together. We're holding hands like two kids. I have to be careful, though, because she's literally bruised from her head to her knees.
The movie goes off and the ten o'clock news is on. I'm suddenly anxious to see if the Black case is mentioned. After the obligatory rapes and murders, and after the first commercial break, the anchorman announces, rather grandly, "History was made today in a Memphis courtroom. A jury in a civil case awarded a record fifty million dollars in punitive damages against the Great Benefit Life
Insurance Company of Cleveland, Ohio. Rodney Frate has the story." I can't help but smile. We immediately see Rodney Frate standing and shivering live outside the Shelby County Courthouse, which of course has been abandoned for several hours now. "Arnie, I spoke with Pauline MacGregor, the Circuit Clerk, about an hour ago, and she confirmed that around four this afternoon a jury in Division Eight, that's Judge Tyrone Kipler, returned with a verdict of two hundred thousand dollars in actual damages, and fifty million in punitive. I also spoke with Judge Kipler, who declined to be interviewed on camera, and he said the case involved a bad-faith claim against Great Benefit. That's all he would say, except that he believes the verdict is by far the largest ever awarded in Tennessee. I spoke with several trial lawyers in the city, and no one has ever heard of a verdict this large. Leo F. Drummond, attorney for the defendant, had no comment. Rudy Baylor, attorney for the plaintiff, was unavailable for comment. Back to you, Arnie."
Arnie moves quickly to a truck wreck on Interstate 55.
"You won?" she asks. She's not amazed, just unsure.
"Fifty million dollars?"
"Yep. But the money's not in the bank yet."
I shrug like it's all in a day's work. "I got lucky," I say.
"But you just finished school."
What can I say? "It's not that difficult. We had a great jury, and the facts fell into place."
"Yeah, right, like it happens every day."
She takes the remote and mutes the television. She wants to pursue this. "Your modesty is not working. It's fake."
"You're right. Right now I'm the greatest lawyer in the world."
"That's better," she says, trying to smile. I'm almost accustomed to her bruised and battered face. I don't stare at the wounds the way I did in the car this afternoon. I can't wait for a week to pass so she'll be gorgeous again.
I swear I could kill him.
"How much of it do you get?" she asks.
"Get right to the point, don't you?"
"I'm just curious," she says in a voice that's almost childish. In spirit we're lovers now, and it's cute to giggle and coo.
"One third, but it's a very long way off."
She twists toward me, and is suddenly racked with pain to the point of groaning. I help her lie on her stomach. She's fighting back tears and her body is tense. She can't sleep on her back because of the bruises.
I rub her hair and whisper in her ear until the intercom interrupts. It's Betty Norvelle downstairs. My time is up.
Kelly squeezes my hand tightly as I kiss her bruised cheek and promise to return tomorrow. She begs me not to go.
THE ADVANTAGES in winning such a verdict in my first trial, are obvious. The only disadvantage I've been able to perceive during these past hours is that there's no place to go but down. Every client from now on will expect the same magic. I'll worry about that later.
I'm alone in the office late Saturday morning, waiting for a reporter and his photographer, when the phone rings. "This is Cliff Hiker," a husky voice says, and I immediately punch the record button.
"What do you want?"
"Where's my wife?"
"You're lucky she's not at the morgue."
"I'm gonna stomp your ass, big shot."
"Keep talking, old boy. The recorder's on."
He hangs up quickly, and I stare at the phone. It's a different one, a cheap model the firm purchased at a Kmart. During the trial, we substituted it occasionally when we didn't want Drummond listening.
I call Butch at home, and tell him about my brief chat with Mr. Riker. Butch wants a piece of the kid because of their confrontation yesterday when he served the divorce papers. Cliff called him all sorts of vile names, even insulted his mother. The presence of two of Cliff's co-workers nearby in the parking lot prevented Butch from drawing blood. Butch told me last night that if there were any threats, he'd like to get involved. He has a sidekick called Rocky, a part-time bouncer, and together they make an imposing pair, Butch assured me. I make him promise he can only scare the kid, not hurt him. Butch tells me he plans to find Cliff alone somewhere, mention the phone call, tell him that they are my bodyguards, and one more threat will be dealt with harshly. I'd love to see this. I am determined not to live in fear.
This is Butch's idea of a good time.
The reporter from the Memphis Press arrives at eleven. We talk while a photographer shoots a role of film. He wants to know all about the case and the trial, and I fill his ear. It's public information now. I say nice things about Drummond, wonderful things about Kipler, glorious things about the jury.
It'll be a big story in the Sunday paper, he promises.
I PIDDLE around the office, reading the mail and looking at the few phone messages that came in during this past week. It's impossible to work, and I'm reminded of how few clients and cases I have. Half the time is spent
replaying the trial, the other half is spent dreaming of my future with Kelly. How could I be more fortunate?
I call Max Leuberg and give him the details. A blizzard closed O'Hare and he couldn't get to Memphis in time for the trial. We talk for an hour.
OUR DATE Saturday night is very similar to the one we had on Friday, except the food and the movie are different. She loves Chinese food and I bring a sackful. We watch a comedy with few laughs while sitting in our same positions on the bed.
It's anything but boring, however. She's easing out of her private nightmare. The physical wounds are healing. The laughs are a bit easier, her movements a little quicker. There's more touching, but not much. Not nearly enough.
She is desperate to get out of the sweatsuit. They wash it for her once a day, but she's sick of it. She longs to be pretty again, and she wants her clothes. We talk of sneaking into her apartment and rescuing her things.
We still don't talk about the future.
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