Page 25 of Ford County

"Can I go with you?" he asked.

"Sorry. You gotta stay here and be my lawyer. I have eleven active divorce files, almost all uncontested, plus eight bankruptcies, one adoption, two estates, one car wreck, one workers' comp case, and two small business disputes. Total fees of about $25,000 over the next six months. I'd like you to take 'em off my hands."

"It's a pile of crap."

"Yes, the same stuff I've been shoveling for seventeen years. Dump it on one of your little associates back there and give him a bonus. Believe me, there's nothing complicated about it."

"How much child support can you stand?"

"Max is three thousand a month, which is a helluva lot more than I contribute now. Start at two thousand and see how it goes. Irreconcilable differences, she can file, I'll join in. She gets full custody, but I get to see the girls whenever I'm in town. She gets the house, her car, bank accounts, everything. She's not involved in the bankruptcy. The joint assets are not included."

"What are you bankrupting?"

"The Law Offices of Jacob McKinley Stafford, LLC. May it rest in peace."

Harry Rex chewed the cigar and looked at the petition for bankruptcy. There was nothing remarkable about it, the usual run'up on credit cards, the ever-present unsecured line of credit, the burdensome mortgage. "You don't have to do this," he said. "This stuff is manageable."

"The petition has already been prepared, Harry Rex. The decision has been made, along with several others. I'm bolting, okay? Outta here. Gone."

"Pretty gutsy."

"No. Most folks would say that running away is the act of a

coward."

"How do you see it?"

"I could not care less. If I don't leave now, then I'll be here forever. This is my only chance."

"Attaboy."

At precisely 10:00 a.m., Tuesday, one glorious week after the first phone call, Mack made the second. As he punched the numbers, he smiled and congratulated himself on the amazing accomplishments of the past seven days. The plan was working perfectly, not a single hitch so far, except perhaps the head wound, but even that had been skillfully woven into the escape. Mac was hurt, hospitalized with a blow to the head. No wonder he's acting weird.

"Mr. Marty Rosenberg," he said pleasantly, then waited until the great man was notified. He answered quickly, and they exchanged preliminaries. Marty seemed unhurried, willing to go with the flow of meaningless chatter, and Mack was suddenly worried that this lack of efficiency would lead to a change in plans, some bad news. He decided to get to the point.

"Say, Marty, I've met with all four of my clients, and as you might guess, they're all anxious to accept your offer. We'll put this baby to sleep for half a million bucks."

"Yes, well, was it half a million, Mack?" He seemed uncertain.

Mack's heart froze and he gasped. "Of course, Marty," he said, then added a fake chuckle as if ol' Marty here was up to another prank. "You offered a hundred grand for each of the four, plus a hundred for the cost of defense."

Mack could hear papers being yanked around up in New York. "Hmmm, let's see, Mack. We're talking about the Tinzo cases, right?"

"That's right, Marty," Mack said with no small amount of fear and frustration. And desperation. The man with the checkbook wasn't even sure what they were talking about. One week earlier he'd been perfectly efficient. Now he was floundering. Then the most horrifying statement of all: "I'm afraid I've got these cases confused with some others."

"You gotta be kidding!" Mack barked, much too sharply. Be cool, he told himself.

"We really offered that much for these cases?" Marty said, obviously scanning notes while he talked.

"Damned right you did, and I, in good faith, conveyed the offers to my clients. We gotta deal, Marty. You made reasonable offers, we accepted. You can't back out now."

"Just seems a little high, that's all. Fm working on so many of these product liability cases these days."

Well, congratulations, Mack almost said. You have tons of work to do for clients who can pay you tons of money. Mack wiped sweat from his forehead and saw it all slipping away. Don't panic, he said to himself. "It's not high at all, Marty. You should see Odell Grove with only one eye, and Jerrol Baker minus his left hand, and Doug Jumper with his mangled and useless right hand, and Travis Johnson with little nubs where his fingers used to be. You should talk to these men, Marty, and see how miserable their lives are, how much they've been damaged by Tinzo chain saws, and I think you'd agree that your offer of half a million is not only reasonable but perhaps a bit on the low side." Mack exhaled and almost smiled to himself when he finished. Not a bad closing argument. Maybe he should have spent more time in the courtroom. "I don't have time to hash out these details or argue liability,

Mark, I - "

"It's Mack. Mack Stafford, attorney-at-law, Clanton, Mississippi."

"Right, sorry." More papers shuffled in New York. Muted voices in the background as Mr. Rosenberg directed other people. Then he was back, his voice refocused. "You realize, Mack, that Tinzo has gone to trial four times with this chain saw and won every trial. Slam dunk, no liability."

Of course Mack did not know this, because he'd forgotten about his little class action. But in desperation he said, "Yes, and I've studied those trials. But I thought you were not going to argue liability, Marty."

"Okay, you're right. I'll fax down the settlement documents."

Mack breathed deeply.

"How long before you can get them back to me?" Marty asked.

"Couple of days."

They haggled over the wording of the documents. They went back and forth about how to distribute the money. They stayed on the phone for another twenty minutes doing what lawyers are expected to do.

When Mack finally hung up, he closed his eyes, propped his feet on his desk, and kicked back in his swivel rocker. He was drained, exhausted, still frightened, but quickly getting over it. He smiled, and was soon humming a Jimmy Buffett tune.

His phone kept ringing.

*

The truth was, he had not been able to locate either Travis Johnson or Doug Jumper. Travis was rumored to be out west driving a truck, something he evidently could do with only seven full-length fingers. Travis had an ex-wife with a house full of kids and a ledger full of unpaid child support. She worked a night shift in a convenience store in Clanton, and had few words for Mack. She remembered his promises to collect some money when Travis lost part of three fingers. According to some sketchy friends, Travis had fled a year earlier and had no plans to return to Ford County.

Doug Jumper was rumored to be dead. He had gone to prison in Tennessee on assault charges and had not been seen in three years. He'd never had a father. His mother had moved away. There were some relatives scattered around the county, but as a whole they showed little interest in talking about Doug and even less interest in talking to a lawyer, even one wearing hunter's camouflage, or faded jeans and hiking boots, or any of the other ensembles Mack used to blend in with the natives. His well' practiced routine of dangling the carrot of some vague check payable to Doug Jumper did not work. Nothing worked, and after two weeks of searching, Mack finally gave up when he heard for the third or fourth time the rumor "That boy's probably dead."

He obtained the legitimate signatures of Odell Grove and Jerrol Baker - Jerrol's being little more than a pathetic wiggle across the page with his right hand - and then committed his first crime. Notarizations on the settlement'and'release forms were required by Mr. Marty Rosenberg up in New York, but this was standard practice in every case. Mack had fired his notary, though, and procuring the services of another was far too complicated.

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