Page 22 of Ford County

Thanks, Lisa.

His head was split, and his eyes wouldn't focus. She hovered over him, saying things like, "There's blood, oh my God!" And, "Your father's drunk!" And, "Go call 911!"

Mercifully, he blacked out again, and when he could hear again, there was a male voice in control. Mr. Browning from next door. "Watch the ice, Lisa, and hand me that blanket. There's a lot of blood."

"He's been drinking," Lisa said, always looking for allies.

"He probably doesn't feel a thing," Mr. Browning added helpfully. He and Mack had feuded for years.

Though he was groggy and could've said something, Mack decided, lying there in the cold, to just close his eyes and let someone else worry about him. Before long, he heard an ambulance.

He actually enjoyed the hospital. The drugs were delightful, the nurses thought he was cute, and it provided a perfect excuse to stay away from the office. He had six stitches and a nasty bruise on his forehead, but, as Lisa had informed someone on the phone when she thought he was asleep, there was "no additional brain damage." Once it was determined that his wounds were slight, she avoided the hospital and kept the girls away. He was in no hurry to leave, and she was in no hurry for him to come home. But after two days, the doctor ordered his release. As he was gathering his things and saying good-bye to the nurses, Lisa entered his room and shut the door. She sat in the only chair, crossed her arms and legs as if she planned to stay for hours, and Mack relaxed on the bed. The last dose of Percocet was still lingering, and he felt wonderfully light-headed.

"You fired Freda," she said, jaws clenched, eyebrows arched.

"Yes."

"Why?"

"Because I got tired of her mouth. What do you care? You hate Freda."

"What will happen to the office?"

"It'll be a helluva lot quieter for one thing. I've fired secretaries before. It's no big deal."

A pause as she uncrossed her arms and began twirling a strand of hair. This meant that she was pondering serious stuff and was about to unload it.

"We have an appointment with Dr. Juanita tomorrow at five," she announced. Done deal. Nothing to negotiate.

Dr. Juanita was one of three licensed marriage counselors in Clanton. Mack knew them professionally through his work as a divorce lawyer. He knew them personally because Lisa had dragged him to all three for counseling. He needed counseling. She, of course, did not. Dr. Juanita always sided with the •women, and so her selection was no surprise.

"How are the girls?" Mack asked. He knew the answer would be ugly, but if he didn't ask, then she would later complain to Dr. Juanita, "He didn't even ask about the girls."

"Humiliated. Their father comes home drunk late at night and falls in the driveway, cracks his skull, gets hauled to the hospital, where his blood alcohol is twice the legal limit. Everybody in town knows it."

"If everybody knows it, then it's because you've spread the word. Why can't you just keep your mouth shut?"

Her face flashed red, and her eyes glowed with hatred. "You, you, you're pathetic. You're a miserable pathetic drunk, you know that?"

"I disagree."

"How much are you drinking?"

"Not enough."

"You need help, Mack, serious help."

"And I'm supposed to get this help from Dr. Juanita?"

She suddenly bolted to her feet and stormed for the door. "I'm not going to fight in a hospital."

"Of course not. You prefer to fight at home in front of the girls."

She yanked open the door and said, "Five o'clock tomorrow, and you'd better be there."

"I'll think about it."

"And don't come home tonight."

She slammed the door, and Mack heard her heels click angrily away.

The first client in Mack's chain-saw class-action scheme was a career pulpwood cutter by the name of Odell Grove. Almost five years earlier, Mr. Grove's nineteen-year-old son needed a quick divorce and found his way to Mack's office. In the course of representing the kid, himself a pulpwood cutter, Mack learned of Odell's encounter with a chain saw that proved more dangerous than most. During routine operations, the chain snapped, the guard failed, and Odell lost his left eye. He wore a patch now, and it was the patch that helped identify this long-forgotten client when Mack entered the truck-stop cafe outside the small town of Karraway. It was a few minutes past eight, the morning after Mack's discharge from the hospital, the morning after he'd slept at the office. He had sneaked by the house after the girls left for school and picked up some clothes. To mix with the locals, he was wearing boots and a camouflage suit he put on occasionally when hunting deer. The fresh wound on his forehead was covered with a green wool ski cap pulled low, but he couldn't hide all the bruising. He was taking painkillers and had a buzz,. The pills were giving him the courage to somehow wade through this unpleasant encounter. He had no choice.

Odell with his black eye patch was eating pancakes and talking loudly three tables away, and never glanced at Mack. According to the file, they had met at the same truck stop four years and ten months earlier, when Mack first informed Odell that he had a good, solid case against the maker of the chain saw. Their last contact had been almost two years ago, when Odell called the office -with some rather pointed inquiries about the progress of his good, solid case. After that, the file became odorous.

Mack drank coffee at the counter, glanced at a newspaper, and waited for the early-morning crowd to leave for work. Eventually, Odell and his two co-workers finished breakfast and stopped at the cash register. Mack left a dollar for his coffee and followed them outside. As they headed for their pulpwood truck, Mack swallowed hard and said, "Odell." All three stopped as Mack hustled over for a friendly hello.

"Odell, it's me, Mack Stafford. I handled the divorce for your son Luke."

"The lawyer?" Odell asked, confused. He took in the boots, the hunting garb, the ski cap not far above the eyes.

"Sure, from Clanton. You gotta minute?"

"What - "

"Just take a minute. A small business matter."

Odell looked at the other two, and all three shrugged. "We'll wait in the truck," one of them said.

Like most men who spend their time deep in the woods knocking down trees, Odell was thick through the shoulders and chest, with massive forearms and weathered hands. And with his one good eye he was able to convey more contempt than most men could dish out with two.

"What is it?" he snarled, then spat. A toothpick was stuck in the corner of his mouth. There was a scar on his left cheek, courtesy of Tinzo. The accident had cost him one eyeball and a month's worth of pulpwood, little more.

"I'm winding down my practice," Mack said.

"What the hell does that mean?"

"Means I'm closing up the office. I think I might be able to squeeze some money out of your case."

"I think I've heard this before."

"Here's the deal. I can get you twenty-five thousand cash, hard cash, in two weeks, but only if you keep it extremely confidential. I mean graveyard quiet. You can't tell a soul."

For a man who'd never seen $5,000 in cash, the prospect was instantly appealing. Odell glanced around to make sure they were alone. He worked the toothpick as if it helped him think.

"Somethin' don't smell right," he said, his eye patch twitching.

"It's not complicated, Odell. It's a quick settlement because the company that made the chain saw is getting bought out by another company. Happens all the time. They'd like to forget about these old claims."

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