The King of Torts

Chapter Thirty-Five

You live by the leak, you die by the leak. Clay had played the game a few times, giving reporters the juicy gossip off the record, then offering smug "No comments" that were printed a few lines down from the real dirt. It had been fun then; now it was painful. He couldn't imagine who would want to embarrass him even further.

At least he had a little warning. A reporter from the Post had called Clay's office, where he'd been directed to the Honorable Zack Battle. He found him and got the standard response. Zack called Clay with a report of the conversation.

It was in the Metro section, third page, and that was a pleasant surprise after months of front-page heroics, then scandals. Because there were so few facts the space had to be filled with something - a photo of Clay.

King of Torts under Sec Investigation

"According to unnamed sources..." Zack had several quotes, all of which made Clay sound even guiltier. As he read the story he remembered how often he'd seen Zack do the same routine - deny and deflect and promise a vigorous defense, always protecting some of the biggest crooks in town. The bigger the crook the faster he ran to the office of Zack Battle, and Clay thought, for the first time, that perhaps he'd hired the wrong lawyer.

He read it at home where he was, thankfully, alone because Ridley was spending a day or two at her new apartment, one Clay had signed the lease for. She wanted the freedom of living in two places, hers and his, and since her old flat was quite cramped Clay had agreed to put her up in nicer digs. Actually, her freedom required a third place - the villa in St. Barth, which she always referred to as "ours."

Not that Ridley read newspapers anyway. In fact, she seemed to know little of Clay's problems. Her increasing focus was on the spending of his money, with not much attention to how he made it. If she saw the story on page three, she didn't mention it. Nor did he.

As another bad day wore on, Clay began to realize how few people seemed to acknowledge the story. One pal from law school called and tried to cheer him up, and that was it. He appreciated the call, but it did little to help. Where were his other friends?

Though he tried mightily not to do so, he couldn't help but think of Rebecca and the Van Horns. No doubt they'd been green with envy and sick with regrets when the new King of Torts had been crowned, just weeks earlier, it seemed. What were they thinking now? He didn't care, he told himself again, and again. But if he didn't care, why couldn't he purge them from his thoughts?

Paulette Tullos dropped in before noon and that raised his spirits. She looked great - the pounds were off, the wardrobe was expensive. She'd been bouncing around Europe for the past few months, waiting for her divorce to become final. The rumors about Clay were everywhere, and she was concerned about him. Over a long lunch, one she paid for, it slowly became apparent that she was also worried about herself. Her cut of the Dyloft loot had been slightly over $10 million, and she wanted to know if she had exposure. Clay assured her she had none. She had not been a partner in the firm during the settlement, just an associate. Clay's name was on all the pleadings and documents.

"You were the smart one," Clay said. "You took the money and ran."

"I feel bad."

"Don't. The mistakes were made by me, not you."

Though Dyloft would cost him dearly - at least twenty of his former clients had now joined the Warshaw class action - he was still banking heavily on Maxatil. With twenty-five thousand cases, the payday would be enormous. "The road's kinda rocky right now, but things will improve greatly. Within a year, I'll be mining gold again."

"And the Feds?" she asked.

"They can't touch me."

She seemed to believe this and her relief was obvious. If, in fact, she did believe everything Clay was saying, she was the only one at the table who did so.

The third meeting would be the last, though neither Clay nor anyone on his side of the table realized it. Joel Hanna brought his cousin Marcus, the company's CEO, with him, and left behind Babcock, their insurance counsel. As usual, the two faced a small army on the other side, with Mr. JCC sitting in the middle. The king.

After the customary warm-ups, Joel announced, "We have located an additional eighteen homes that should be added to the list. That makes a total of nine hundred and forty. We feel very confident that there will not be any more."

"That's good," Clay said, somewhat callously. A longer list meant more clients for him, more damages to be paid by the Hanna company. Clay represented almost 90 percent of the class, with a few scattered lawyers hanging around the fringes. His Team Hanna had done a superb job of convincing the homeowners to stick with his firm. They had been assured that they would get more money because Mr. Carter was an expert at mass litigation. Every potential client had received a professionally done packet touting the exploits of the newest King of Torts. It was shameless advertising and solicitation, but those were simply the rules of the game now.

During the last meeting, Clay had reduced his demands from $25,000 per claim to $22,500, a settlement that would net him fees in the neighborhood of $7.5 million. The Hanna company had countered with $17,000, which would stretch its borrowing capacity to the breaking point.

At $17,000 per home, Mr. JCC would earn about $4.8 million in fees, if he clung to his 30 percent contingency. If, however, he cut his share to a more reasonable 20 percent, each of his clients would net $13,600. Such a reduction would reduce his fees by roughly $1.5 million. Marcus Hanna had found a reputable contractor who would agree to repair every home for $13,500.

It had become apparent during the last meeting that the issue of attorneys' fees was at least as important as the issue of compensating the homeowners. However, since the last meeting there had been several stories about Mr. JCC in the press, none of them good. A reduction in fees was not something his firm was prepared to discuss.

"Any movement on your side?" Clay asked, rather bluntly.

Instead of just saying "No," Joel went through a short exercise in discussing the steps the company had taken to reevaluate its financial situation, its insurance coverage, and its ability to borrow at least $8 million to add to a compensation pool. But, sadly, nothing had really changed. The business was on the downslope of a nasty cycle. Orders were flat. New home construction was even flatter, at least in their market.

If things looked grim for the Hanna Portland Cement Company, they were certainly no better on the other side of the table. Clay had abruptly stopped all advertising for new Maxatil clients, a move that greatly relieved the rest of his firm. Rex Crittle was working overtime to cut costs, though the culture of JCC had yet to adapt to such radical notions. He had actually broached the subject of layoffs, and in doing so provoked a nasty response from his boss. No significant fees were being generated. The Skinny Ben fiasco had cost them millions, instead of generating another fortune. And with ex-Dyloft clients finding their way to Helen Warshaw, the firm was reeling.

"So there's no movement?" Clay asked when Joel finished.

"No. Seventeen thousand is a stretch for us. Any movement on your side?"

"Twenty-two thousand five hundred is a fair settlement," Clay said without flinching or blinking. "If you're not moving, then neither are we." His voice was hard as steel. His staff was impressed by his toughness, but also anxious for some compromise. But Clay was thinking of Patton French in New York, in the room full of big shots from Ackerman Labs, barking and bullying, very much in control. He was convinced that if he kept pushing, Hanna would buckle under.

The only vocal doubter on Clay's side was a young lawyer named Ed Wyatt, the head of Team Hanna. Before the meeting, he had explained to Clay that, in his opinion, Hanna would benefit greatly from protection and reorganization under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code. Any settlement with the homeowners would be delayed until a trustee could sort out their claims and decide what compensation was reasonable. Wyatt thought the plaintiffs would be lucky to get $10,000 through Chapter 11. The company had not threatened bankruptcy, a normal ploy in these situations. Clay had studied Hanna's books and felt that it had too many assets and too much pride to consider such a drastic move. He rolled the dice. The firm needed all the fees it could squeeze.

Marcus Hanna abruptly said, "Well, then it's time to go." He and his first cousin threw their papers together and stormed out of the conference room. Clay tried a dramatic exit too, as if to show his troops that nothing fazed him.

Two hours later, in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the Hanna Portland Cement Company filed a Chapter 11 petition, seeking protection from its creditors, the largest of whom were those collected in a class action filed by J. Clay Carter II of Washington, D.C.

Apparently, one of the Hannas understood the importance of leaks as well. The Baltimore Press ran a long story about the bankruptcy and the immediate reaction by the homeowners. Its details were deadly accurate and evidence that someone very close to the settlement negotiations was whispering to the reporter. The company had offered $17,000 per plaintiff; a liberal estimate to repair each home was $15,000. The lawsuit could've have been fairly settled but for the issue of attorneys' fees. Hanna admitted liability from the very beginning. It had been willing to borrow heavily to correct its mistakes. And so on.

The plaintiffs were extremely unhappy. The reporter ventured out into the suburbs and found an impromptu meeting in a garage. He was given a tour of a few of the homes to survey the damages. He collected numerous comments: "We should've dealt directly with Hanna."

"The company was out here before that lawyer got involved."

"A bricklayer I talked to said he could take off the old and put on the new for eleven thousand dollars. And we turned down seventeen? I just don't understand it."

"I never met that lawyer."

"I didn't realize I was in the class action until after it was filed."

"We didn't want the company to go bankrupt."

"No, they were nice guys. They were trying to help us."

"Can we sue the lawyer?"

"I tried calling him, but the lines are busy."

The reporter was then obliged to provide some background on Clay Carter, and of course he began with the Dyloft fees. Things got worse from there. Three photographs helped tell the story; the first was a homeowner pointing to her crumbling bricks; the second was the group meeting in the garage; and the third was Clay in a tuxedo and Ridley in a beautiful dress as they posed in the White House before the state dinner. She was stunning; he was quite handsome himself, though taken in context, it was difficult to appreciate what an attractive couple they were. A real cheap shot.

"Mr. Carter, seen above at a White House dinner, could not be reached for comment."

Damned right they're not reaching me, Clay thought.

And so began another day at the offices of JCC. Phones ringing nonstop as irate clients wanted someone to yell at. A security guard in the lobby just in case. Associates gossiping in small groups about the survival of the place. Second-guessing by every employee. The boss locked in his office. No real cases to work on because all the firm had now was a trainload of Maxatil files, and there was little do with them because Goffman wasn't returning calls either.

Fun and games had been happening all over the District at Clay's expense, though he didn't know it until the story ran in the Press. It had started with the Dyloft stories in The Wall Street Journal; a few faxes here and there around the city to make sure that those who knew Clay, either from college, law school, his father, or at OPD, got the current news. It picked up steam when American Attorney ranked him number eight in earnings - more faxes, more e-mails, a few jokes added in for spice. It became even more popular when Helen Warshaw filed her heinous lawsuit. Some lawyer somewhere in the city, one with too much time on his hands, titled it "The King of Shorts," gave it a rough and quick format, and started the faxes. Someone with a slight artistic bent added a crude cartoon of Clay naked with his boxer shorts around his ankles, looking quite perplexed. Any news about him would provoke another edition. The publisher, or publishers, would pick stories off the Internet, print them in a newsletter format, and share them. The criminal investigation was big news. There was the photo from the White House, some gossip about his airplane, one story about his father.

The anonymous editors had been faxing copies to Clay's office from the beginning, but Miss Glick had trashed them. Several of the Yale boys also received faxes, and they too protected their boss. Oscar brought in the latest edition and tossed it on Clay's desk. "Just so you'll know," he said. The current edition was a reproduction of the story in the Press.

"Any idea who's behind this?" Clay asked.

"No. They're faxed around the city, sort of like a chain letter."

"Don't these people have better things to do?"

"I guess not. Don't worry about it, Clay. It's always been lonely at the top."

"So I have my own personal newsletter. My, my, eighteen months ago no one knew my name."

There was a commotion outside - sharp, angry voices. Clay and Oscar ran from his office into the hallway where the security guard was scuffling with a very disturbed gentleman. Associates and secretaries were entering the picture.

"Where is Clay Carter!" the man yelled.

"Here!" Clay yelled back and walked up to him. "What do you want?"

The man was suddenly still, though the guard kept his grip. Ed Wyatt and another associate moved close to him. "I'm one of your clients," the man said, breathing heavily. "Let go of me," he snapped and shook free from the guard.

"Leave him alone," Clay said.

"I'd like a conference with my attorney," the man said.

"This is not the way to schedule one," Clay shot back, very coolly. He was being watched by his employees.

"Yeah, well, I tried the other way, but all the lines are busy. You screwed us out of a good settlement with the cement company. We want to know why. Not enough money for you?"

"I guess you believe everything you read in the newspapers," Clay said.

"I believe we got screwed by our own lawyer. And we're not taking it without a fight."

"You folks need to relax and stop reading the papers. We're still working on the settlement." It was a lie, but one with good intentions. The rebellion needed to be quashed, at least there in the office.

"Cut your fees and get us some money," the man snarled. "And that's coming from your clients."

"I'll get you a settlement," Clay said with a fake smile. "Just relax."

"Otherwise, we're going to the bar association."

"Keep your cool."

The man backed away, then turned and left the suite.

"Back to work everybody," Clay said, clapping his hands together as if everybody had plenty of work to do.

Rebecca arrived an hour later, a random visitor from the street. She stepped into the JCC suite and gave a note to the receptionist. "Please give that to Mr. Carter," she said. "It's very important."

The receptionist glanced at the security guard, who was on high alert, and it took several seconds to determine that the attractive young lady was probably not a threat. "I'm an old friend," Rebecca said.

Whatever she was, she managed to fetch Mr. Carter out of the back faster than anyone in the short history of the firm. They sat in the corner of his office; Rebecca on the sofa, Clay in a chair pulled as close as possible. For a long time nothing was said. Clay was too excited to utter a coherent sentence. Her presence could mean a hundred different things, none of them bad.

He wanted to lunge at her, to feel her body again, to smell the perfume on her neck, to run his hands along her legs. Nothing had changed - same hair style, same makeup, same lipstick, same bracelet.

"You're staring at my legs," she finally said.

"Yes I am."

"Clay, are you okay? There's so much bad press right now."

"And that's why you're here?"

"Yes. I'm concerned."

"To be concerned means you still care about me."

"I do."

"So you haven't forgotten about me?"

"No, I have not. I'm sort of sidetracked right now, with the marriage and all, but I still think about you." "All the time?" "Yes, more and more." Clay closed his eyes and placed a hand on her knee, one that she immediately removed and flung away. "I am married, Clay." "Then let's commit adultery." "No." "Sidetracked? Sounds like it's temporary. What's going on, Rebecca?"

"I'm not here to talk about my marriage. I was in the neighborhood, thought about you, and just sort of popped in."

"Like a lost dog? I don't believe that."

"You shouldn't. How's your bimbo?"

"She's here and there. It's just an arrangement."

Rebecca mulled this over, obviously unhappy with the arrangement. Okay for her to marry someone else, but she didn't like the idea of Clay hooking up with anyone. "How's the worm?" Clay asked. "He's okay." "That's a ringing endorsement from the new wife. Just okay?" "We get along." "Married less than a year and that's the best you can do? You get along?" "Yes."

"You're not giving him sex, are you?"

"We're married."

"But he's such a little twerp. I saw you dancing at your reception and I wanted to vomit. Tell me he's lousy in bed." "He's lousy in bed. What about the bimbo?" "She likes girls." They both laughed, and for a long time. And then they were silent again, because there was so much to say. She recrossed her legs while Clay watched closely. He could almost touch them.

"Are you going to survive?" she asked.

"Let's not talk about me. Let's talk about us."

"I'm not going to have an affair," she said.

"But you're thinking about one, aren't you?"

"No, but I know you are."

"But it would be fun, wouldn't it?"

"It would, and it wouldn't. I'm not going to live like that."

"I'm not either, Rebecca. I'm not sharing. I once had all of you, and I let you get away. I'll wait until you're single again. But would you hurry, dammit?"

"That might not happen, Clay."

"Yes it will."

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