After years of litigation the case found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Mel pointed out: “The total damages awarded were less than four hundred dollars–the value of the dead chickens.”
He added, “There was no pot of dollars for the farmer, nor is there–in that legal precedent–for you.”
Mel could see Elliott Freemantle, his face alternately crimson and white with rage. Ned Ordway was once more holding the lawyer by the arm.
“There is one legal case,” Mel observed, “which Mr. Freemantle has chosen not to mention. It’s an important one–also involving a Supreme Court ruling–and well known. Unfortunately for Mr. Freemantle, it doesn’t support his arguments, but runs counter to them.”
The case, he explained, was Batten v. Batten in which, in 1963, the Supreme Court ruled that only an actual “physical invasion” created liability. Noise alone was not enough.
Mel continued, “Another ruling, along the same lines, was Loma Portal Civic Club v. American Airlines–a 1964 decision of the California Supreme Court.” In this, he reported, the Court ruled that property owners were not entitled to restrict the flight of aircraft over houses near an airport. Public interest in continuance of air travel, the California court laid down, was paramount and overwhelming…
Mel had quoted the legal cases unhesitatingly, without reference to notes. Clearly his audience was impressed. Now he smiled. “Legal precedents are like statistics. If you manipulate them, you can prove anything.” He added, “You don’t have to take my word for what I’ve told you. Look it up. It’s all on record.”
A woman near Elliott Freemantle grumbled at him, “You didn’t tell us all that. You just gave your side.”
Some of the hostility directed at Mel earlier was now being transferred toward the lawyer.
Freemantle shrugged. After all, he decided, he still had more than a hundred and sixty signed retainer forms, which he had been careful to transfer to a locked bag in the trunk of his car. Nothing that was said here could undo the fact of those.
A moment or two later he began to wonder.
Mel Bakersfeld was being asked by several people about legal contract forms which they had signed this evening. Their voices betrayed doubt. Obviously Mel’s manner, as well as what he said, had made a strong impression. The crowd was dividing into small groups, most in animated discussion.
“I’ve been asked about a certain contract,” Mel announced. Within the crowd, other voices silenced as he added, “I think you know the contract I mean. I have seen a copy of it.”
Elliott Freemantle pushed forward. “So what! You aren’t a lawyer; we’ve settled that once before. Therefore you’re no authority on contracts.” This time Freemantle was close enough to the microphone for his words to carry.
Mel snapped back, “I live with contracts! Every lessee in this airport–from the biggest airline to a headache pill concessionaire–operates under a contract approved by me, and negotiated by my staff.”
He swung back to the crowd. “Mr. Freemantle points out, correctly, that I am not a lawyer; so I’ll give you a businessman’s advice. In certain circumstances the contracts you signed tonight could be enforceable. A contract is a contract. You could be taken to debtor’s court; the money might be collected. But my opinion is that, providing you serve proper notice immediately, neither thing will happen. For one thing, you have received no goods; no service has been rendered. For another, each of you would have to be sued separately.” Mel smiled. “That, in itself, would be an undertaking.
“One more thing.” He looked directly at Elliott Freemantle. “I do not believe that any court would look favorably on a total legal fee in the region of fifteen thousand dollars for legal service which, at best, was nebulous.”
The man who had spoken earlier asked, “So what do we do?”
“If you’ve genuinely changed your mind, I suggest that today or tomorrow you write a letter. Address it to Mr. Freemantle. In it, state that you no longer want legal representation as arranged, and why. Be sure to keep a copy. Again, in my opinion–that’s the last you’ll ever hear.”
Mel had been blunter than he at first intended, and he bad also been excessively reckless, he supposed, in going quite this far. If Elliott Freernantle chose, he could certainly make trouble. In a matter in which the airport–and therefore Mel–had active interest, Mel had interposed between clients and lawyer, casting doubt upon the latter’s probity. Judging by the hatred in the lawyer’s eyes, he would be delighted to do any harm to Mel he could. Yet instinct told Mel that the last thing Freemantle wanted was a searching public scrutiny of his client recruiting methods and working babits. A trial judge, sensitive about legal ethics, might ask awkward questions, later still, so might the Bar Association, which safeguarded the legal profession’s standards. The more Mel thought about it, the less inclined he was to worry.
Though Mel didn’t know it, Elliott Freemantle had reached the same conclusion.
Whatever else Freemantle might be, he was a pragmatist. He had long ago recognized that in life there were gambits which you won, others that you lost. Sometimes the loss was sudden and illogical. A chance, a quirk, a nettle in the grass, could turn an almost-grasped success into mortifying defeat. Fortunately for people like Freemantle, the reverse was sometimes true.
The airport manager, Bakersfeld, had proven to be a nettle–carelessly grasped–which should have been avoided. Even after their first brush, which Elliott Freemantle now realized could have been a warning to him, he had continued to underestimate his opponent by remaining at the airport instead of quitting while ahead. Another thing Freemantle had discovered too late was that Bakersfeld, while shrewd, was a gambler too. Only a gambler would have gone out on such a limb as Bakersfeld had a moment ago. And only Elliott Freemantle–at this point–knew that Bakersfeld had won.
Freemantle was aware that the Bar Association might regard this night’s activity unfavorably. More to the point: He had had a brush with an association investigating committee once already, and had no intention of provoking another.
Bakersfeld had been right, Elliott Freemantle thought. There would be no attempted debt collecting, through the courts, on the basis of the signed legal retainer forms. The hazards were too great, the spoils uncertain.
He would not give up entirely, of course. Tomorrow, Freemantle decided, he would draft a letter to all Meadowood residents who had signed the forms; in it he would do his best to persuade them that retention of himself as legal counsel, at the individual fee specified, should continue. He doubted, though, if many would respond. The suspicion which Bakersfeld had effectively implanted–damn his guts!–was too great. There might be some small pickings left, from a few people who would be willing to continue, and later it would be necessary to decide if they were worth while. But the prospect of a big killing was gone.
Something else, though, he supposed, would turn up soon. It always had.
Ned Ordway and several other policemen were now dispersing the crowd; normal traffic through the concourse was resuming. The portable p.a. system was at last being disassembled and removed.
Mel Bakersfeld noticed that Tanya, whom he had caught sight of a moment or two ago, was making her way in his direction.
A woman—one of the Meadowood residents whom Mel had noticed several times before–confronted him. She had a strong intelligent face and shoulder-length brown hair.
“Mr. Bakersfeld,” the woman said quietly. “We’ve all talked a lot, and we understand a few things better than we did. But I still haven’t heard anything that I can tell my children when they cry, and ask why the noise won’t stop so they can sleep.”
Mel shook his head regretfully. In a few words the woman bad pointed up the futility of everything which had happened tonight. He knew he had no answer for her. He doubted–while airports and dwellings remained in proximity–if there would ever be one.
He was still wondering what to say when Tanya handed him a folded sheet of paper.
Opening it, he read the message which showed signs of being hastily typed:
flight 2 had mid-air explosion.
structural damage & injuries.
now heading here 4 emergency
landing, est. arrival 0130.
capt. says must have runway
three zero. tower reports runway
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IN THE BLOODY shambles which was the rear of the tourist cabin of Flight Two, Dr. Milton Compagno, general practitioner, was exerting the utmost of his professional skill in an attempt to save Gwen Meighen’s life. He was not sure he would succeed.
When the initial explosion from D. O. Guerrero’s dynamite bomb occurred, Gwen–next to Guerrero himself–was closest to the explosion’s center.
In other circumstances she would have been killed instantly, as was D. O. Guerrero. Two things–for the moment–saved her.
Interposed between Gwen and the explosion were Guerrero’s body and the aircraft toilet door. Neither was an effective shield, yet the two together were sufficient to delay the blast’s initial force the fraction of a second.
Within that fractional time the airplane’s skin ripped, and the second explosion–explosive decompression–occurred.
The dynamite blast still struck Gwen, hurling her backward, gravely injured and bleeding, but its force now had an opposing force–the outward rush of air through the hole in the fuselage at the aircraft’s rear. The effect was as if two tornadoes met head on. An instant later the decompression triumphed, sweeping the original explosion out with it into the high-altitude, darkened night.
Despite the forcefulness of the explosion, injuries were not widespread.
Gwen Meighen, the most critically hurt, lay unconscious in the aisle. Next to her, the owlish young man who had emerged from the toilet and startled Guerrero, was wounded, bleeding badly, and dazed, but still on his feet and conscious. A half dozen passengers nearby sustained cuts and contusions from splinters and bomb fragments. Others were struck, and stunned or bruised by hurtling objects impelled toward the aircraft’s rear by the explosive decompression, but none of the latter injuries was major.
At first, after decompression, all who were not secure in seats were impelled by suction toward the gaping hole in the aircraft’s rear. From this danger, too, Gwen Meighen was in gravest peril. But she had fallen so that an arm–instinctively or accidentally–encircled a seat base. It prevented her from being dragged farther, and her body blocked others.
After the initial outrush of air, the suction lessened.
Now, thc greatest immediate danger for all–injured or not–was lack of oxygen.
Although oxygen masks dropped promptly from their housings, only a handful of passengers had grasped and put them on at once.
Before it was too late, however, a few people had acted. Stewardesses, responding to their training, and wherever they happened to be, seized masks and motioned others to do likewise. Three doctors, traveling with their wives as members of an off-season vacation tour, realized the need for speed, donned masks themselves and gave hasty instructions to those around them. Judy, the alert, eighteen-year-old niece of Customs Inspector Standish, placed a mask over the face of the baby in the seat beside her, as well as over her own. She then immediately signaled the baby’s parents, and others across the aisle, to use oxygen. Mrs. Quonsett, the old lady stowaway, having observed oxygen demonstrations many times during her illegal flights, knew what to do. She took a mask herself and handed one to her friend, the oboe player, whom she pulled back into his seat beside her. Mrs. Quonsett had no idea if she was going to live or die, and found herself not greatly worried; but whatever happened, she intended to know what was going on until the very last moment.