From a burger joint in Biloxi, he checked his voice mail in Charlottesville and found three messages. Kaley called to say she'd like to have dinner. A quick discard took care of her, forever. Fog Newton called to say the Bonanza was clear for the next week and they needed to go fly. And Martin Gage with the IRS in Atlanta checked in, still looking for the fax of the bogus letter. Keep looking, Ray thought to himself.
He was eating a prepackaged salad at a bright orange plastic table, across the highway from the beach. He could not remember the last time he'd sat alone in a fast-food joint, and he was doing so now only because he could eat with his car close by and in plain sight. Plus the place was crawling with young mothers and their children, usually a low-crime group. He finally gave up on the salad and called Fog.
The Biloxi Public Library was on Lameuse Street. Using a new map he'd purchased at a convenience store, he found it and parked in a row of cars near the main entrance. As was his habit now, he stopped and observed his car and all the elements around it before entering the building.
The computers were on the first floor, in a room encased in glass but with no windows to the outside, to his disappointment. The leading newspaper on the coast was the Sun Herald, and through a news-library service its archives could be searched back to 1994. He went to January 24, 1999, the day after Judge Atlee had issued his ruling in the trial. Not surprisingly, there was a story on the front page of the metro section about the $11.1 million verdict over in Bay St. Louis. And it was certainly no surprise to see that Mr. Patton French had a lot to say. Judge Atlee refused comment. The defense lawyers claimed to be shocked and promised to appeal.
There was a photo of Patton French, a man in his mid-fifties with a round face and waves of graying hair. As the story ran on it became obvious that he had called up the paper with the breaking news and had been delighted to chat. It was a "grueling trial." The actions of the defendants were "reckless and greedy." The decision by the court was "courageous and fair." Any appeal would be "just another attempt to delay justice."
He'd won many trials, he boasted, but this was his biggest verdict. Quizzed about the recent spate of high awards, he downplayed any suggestion that the ruling was a bit outrageous. "A jury in Hinds County handed out five hundred million dollars two years ago," he said. And in other parts of the state, enlightened juries were hitting greedy corporate defendants for ten million here and twenty million there. "This award is legally defensible on every front," he declared.
His specialty, he said as the story wound down, was pharmaceutical liability. He had four hundred Ryax cases alone and was adding more each day.
Ray did a word search for Ryax within the Sun Herald. Five days after the story, on January 29, there was a bold, full-page ad that began with the ominous question: Have You Taken Ryax? Under it were two paragraphs of dire warnings about the dangers of the drug, then a paragraph detailing the recent victory of Patton French, expert trial attorney, specializing in Ryax and other problematic drugs. A victims' screening session would take place at a Gulfport hotel for the following ten days with qualified medical experts conducting the tests. The screening was at no cost to those who responded. No strings attached, or at least none were mentioned. In clear letters across the bottom of the page was the information that the ad was paid for by the law firm of French & French, with addresses and phone numbers of their offices in Gulfport, Biloxi, and Pascagoula.
The word search produced an almost identical ad dated March 1, 1999. The only difference was the time and place of the screening. Another ad ran in the Sunday edition of the Sun Herald on May 2, 1999.
For almost an hour, Ray ventured out from the coast, and found the same ads in the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Hattiesburg American, the Mobile Register, the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, and The Advocate in Baton Rouge. Patton French had launched a massive frontal assault on Ryax and Miyer-Brack.
Convinced that the newspaper ads could spread to all fifty states, Ray grew weary of it. On a guess, he did a Web search for Mr. French, and was welcomed to the firm's own site, a very impressive piece of propaganda.
There were now fourteen lawyers in the firm, with offices in six cities and expanding by the hour. Patton French had a flattering one-page biography that would have embarrassed those with thinner skins. His father, the elder French, looked to be eighty if a day, and had taken senior status, whatever that meant.
The firm's thrust was its rabid representation of folks injured by bad drugs and bad doctors. It had brilliantly negotiated the largest Ryax settlement to date - $900 million for 7,200 clients. Now it was hammering Shyne Medical, makers of Minitrin, the widely used and obscenely profitable hypertension drug that the FDA had pulled because of its side effects. The firm had almost two thousand Minitrin clients and was screening more each week.
Patton French had hit Clark Pharmaceuticals for an eight-million-dollar jury verdict in New Orleans. The drug at war there was Kobril, an antidepressant that had been loosely linked to hearing loss. The firm had settled its first batch of Kobril cases, fourteen hundred of them, - for fifty-two million.
Little was said about the other members of the firm, giving the clear impression that it was a one-man show with a squad of minions in the backrooms grappling with thousands of clients who'd been gathered up on the street. There was a page with Mr. French's speaking engagements, one with his extensive trial calendar, and two pages of screening schedules, covering no less than eight drugs, including Skinny Bens, the fat pill Forrest had mentioned earlier.
To better serve its clients, the French firm had purchased a Gulfstream IV, and there was a large color photo of it on the ramp somewhere, with, of course, Patton French posed near the nose in a dark designer suit, with a fierce smile, ready to hop on board and go fight for justice somewhere. Ray knew that such a plane probably cost about thirty million, with two full-time pilots and a list of maintenance expenses that would terrify an accountant.
Patton French was a shameless ego pit.
The airplane was the final straw, and Ray left the library. Leaning on his car, he dialed the number for French & French and worked his way through the recorded menu - client, lawyer, judge, other, screening information, paralegals, the first four letters of your lawyer's last name. Three secretaries working diligently for Mr. French passed him along until he came to the one in charge of scheduling.
Exhausted, Ray said, "I really would like to see Mr. French."
"He's out of town," she said, surprisingly polite.
Of course he was out of town. "Okay, listen," Ray said rudely. "I'm only doing this one time. My name is Ray Atlee. My father was Judge Reuben Atlee. I'm here in Biloxi, and I'd like to see Patton French."
He gave her his cell phone number and drove away. He went to the Acropolis, a tacky Vegas-style casino with a Greek theme, badly done but absolutely no one cared. The parking lot was busy and there were security guards on duty. Whether they were watching anything was uncertain. He found a bar with a view of the floor, and was sipping a soda when his cell phone beeped. "Mr. Ray Atlee," said the voice.
"That's me," Ray said, pressing the phone closer.
"Patton French here. Delighted you called. Sorry I wasn't in."
"I'm sure you're a busy man."
"Indeed I am. You're on the coast?"
"Right now I'm sitting in the Acropolis, a wonderful place."
"Well, I'm headed back, been down to Naples for a plaintiff's counsel meeting with some big Florida lawyers."
Here we go, thought Ray.
"Very sorry about your father," French said, and the signal cracked just a little. Probably at forty thousand feet, streaking home.
"Thank you," Ray said.
"I was at the funeral, saw you there, but didn't get a chance to speak. A lovely man, the Judge."
"Thank you," Ray said again.
"How do you know Forrest?"
"I know almost everything, Ray. My pretrial preparation is meticulous. We gather information by the truckload. That's how we win. Anyway, is he clean these days?"
"As far as I know," Ray said, irritated that a private matter would be brought up as casually as the weather. But he knew from the Web site that the man had no finesse.
"Good, look, I'll be in sometime tomorrow. I'm on my yacht, so the pace is a bit slower. Can we do lunch or dinner?"
Didn't see a yacht on the Web page, Mr. French. Must've been an oversight. Ray preferred one hour over coffee, as opposed to a two-hour lunch or an even longer dinner, but he was the guest. "Either one."
"Keep them both open, if you don't mind. We're hitting some wind here in the Gulf and I'm not sure when I'll be in. Can I have my girl call you tomorrow?"
"Are we discussing the Gibson trial?" "Yes, unless there's something else." "No, it all started with Gibson."
BACK AT the Easy Sleep Inn, Ray half-watched a muted baseball game and tried to read while waiting for the sun to disappear. He needed sleep but was unwilling to tuck in before dark. He got Forrest on the second try, and they were discussing the joys of rehab when the cell phone erupted. "I'll call you back," Ray said and hung up.
An intruder was in his apartment again. A burglary in progress, said the robotic voice from the alarm company. When the recording went dead, Ray opened the door and stared at his car, less than twenty feet away. He held the cell phone and waited.
The alarm company also called Gorey Crawford, who called fifteen minutes later with the same report. Crowbar through the door on the street, crowbar through the door to the apartment, a table knocked over, lights on, all appliances accounted for. The same policeman filing the same report. ^
"There's nothing valuable there," Ray said.
"Then why do they keep breaking in?" Corey asked.
"I don't know"
Crawford called the landlord, who promised to find a carpenter and patch up the doors. After the cop left, Corey waited in the apartment and called Ray again. "This is not a coincidence," he said.
"Why not?" Ray asked.
"They're not trying to steal anything. It's intimidation, that's all. What's going on?"
"I don't know"
"I think you do."
"I think you're not telling me everything."
You're certainly right about that, Ray thought, but he held his ground. "It's random, Corey, relax. Just some of those downtown kids with pink hair and spikes through their jaws. They're druggies looking for a quick buck."
"I know the area. These aren't kids."
"A pro wouldn't return if he knew about the alarm. It's two different people."
They agreed to disagree, though both knew the truth.
He rolled in the darkness for two hours, unable even to close his eyes. Around eleven, he went for a drive and found himself back at the Acropolis, where he played roulette and drank bad wine until two in the morning.
He asked for a room overlooking the parking lot, not the beach, and from a third-floor window he guarded his car until he fell asleep.