Dinner was in the captain's galley, a mahogany-paneled dining room with walls adorned with models of ancient clippers and gunboats and maps of the New World and the Far East and even a collection of antique muskets thrown in to give the impression that the King of Torts had been around for centuries. It was on the main deck behind the bridge, just down a narrow hallway from the kitchen, where a Vietnamese chef was hard at work. The formal dining area was around an oval marble table that seated a dozen and weighed at least a ton and made Ray ask himself how, exactly, the King of Torts stayed afloat.
The captain's table sat only two this evening, and above it was a small chandelier that rocked with the sea. Ray was at one end, French at the other. The first wine of the night was a white burgundy that, following the scalding by two iced vodkas, was tasteless to Ray. Not to his host. French had knocked back three of the vodkas, had in fact drained all three glasses, and his tongue was beginning to thicken slightly. But he tasted every hint of fruit in the wine, even got a whiff of the oak barrels, and, as all wine snobs do, had to pass this useful information along to Ray "Here's to Ryax," French said, reaching forward with his glass in a delayed toast. Ray touched his glass but said nothing. It was not a night for him to say much, and he knew it. He would just listen. His host would get drunk and say enough.
"Ryax saved me, Ray," French said as he swirled his wine and admired it.
"In what way?"
"In every way. It saved my soul. I worship money, and Ryax has made me rich." A small sip, followed by the requisite smacking of the lips, a rolling of the eyes. "I missed the asbestos wave twenty years ago. Those shipyards over in Pascagoula used asbestos for years, and tens of thousands of men became ill. And I missed it. I was too busy suing doctors and insurance companies, and I was making good money but I just didn't see the potential in mass torts. You ready for some oysters?"
French pushed a button; the steward popped in with two trays of raw oysters on the half shell. Ray mixed horseradish into the cocktail sauce and prepared for the feast. Patton was swirling wine and too busy talking.
"Then came tobacco," he said sadly. "Many of the same lawyers, from right here. I thought they were crazy, hell, everybody did, but they sued the big tobacco companies in almost every state. I had the chance to jump into the pit with them, but I was too scared. It's hard to admit that, Ray. I was just too damned scared to roll the dice."
"What did they want?" Ray asked, then shoved the first oyster and saltine into his mouth.
"A million bucks to help finance the litigation. And I had a million bucks at the time."
"How much was the settlement?" Ray asked, chewing.
"More than three hundred billion. The biggest financial and legal scam in history. The tobacco companies basically bought off the lawyers, who sold out. One huge bribe, and I missed it." He appeared to be ready to cry because he'd missed a bribe, but he rallied quickly with a long pull on the wine.
"Good oysters," Ray said, with a mouthful.
"Twenty-four hours ago, they were fifteen feet down." French poured more wine and settled over his platter.
"What would've been the return on your one million dollars?" Ray asked.
"Two hundred to one."
"Two hundred million bucks?"
"Yep. I was sick for a year, lots of lawyers around here were sick. We knew the players and we had chickened out."
"Then along came Ryax."
"How'd you find it?" Ray asked, knowing the question would require another windy answer, and he'd be free to eat.
"I was at a trial lawyers' seminar in St. Louis. Missouri is a nice place and all, but miles behind us when it comes to tort litigation. I mean, hell, we've had the asbestos and tobacco boys running around here for years, burning money, showing everybody else how it's done. I had a drink with this old lawyer from a small town in the Ozarks. His son teaches medicine at the university in Columbia, and the son was on to Ryax. His research was showing some horrible results. The damned drug just eats up the kidneys, and because it was so new there was not a history of litigation. I found an expert in Chicago, and he found Clete Gibson through a doctor in New Orleans. Then we started screening, and the thing snowballed. All we needed was a big verdict."
"Why didn't you want a jury trial?"
"I love juries. I love to pick them, talk to them, sway them, manipulate them, even buy them, but they're unpredictable. I wanted a lock, a guarantee. And I wanted a speedy trial. Ryax rumors were spreading like crazy, you can imagine a bunch of hungry tort lawyers with the gossip that a new drug had gone bad. We were signing up cases by the dozens. The guy with the first big verdict would be in the driver's seat, especially if it came from the Biloxi area. Miyer-Brack is a Swiss company - "
"I've read the file."
"All Of it?"
"Yes, yesterday in the Hancock County Courthouse."
"Well, these Europeans are terrified of our tort system."
"Shouldn't they be?"
"Yes, but in a good way. Keeps 'em honest. What should terrify them is the possibility that one of their damned drugs is defective and might harm people, but that's not a concern when billions are at stake. It takes people like me to keep 'em honest."
"And they knew Ryax was bad?"
French choked down another oyster, swallowed hard, gulped a half pint of wine, and finally said, "Early on. The drug was so effective at lowering cholesterol that Miyer-Brack, along with the FDA, rushed it to the market. It was another miracle drug, and it worked great for a few years with no side effects. Then, bam! The tissue of the nephrons - do you understand how the kidneys work?"
"For the sake of this discussion, let's say I don't."
"Each kidney has about a million little filtering units called nephrons, and Ryax contained a synthetic chemical that basically melted them. Not everybody dies, like poor Mr. Gibson, and there are varying degrees of damage. It's all permanent, though. The kidney is an amazing organ that can often heal itself, but not after a five-year bout with Ryax."
"When did Miyer-Brack know it had a problem?"
"Hard to say exactly, but we showed Judge Atlee some internal documents from their lab people to their suits urging caution and more research. After Ryax had been on the market for about four years, with spectacular results, the company's scientists were worried. Then folks started getting real sick, even dying, and by then it was too late. From my standpoint, we had to find the perfect client, which we did, the perfect forum, which we did, and we had to do it quick before some other lawyer got a big verdict. That's where your father came in."
The steward cleared the oyster shells and presented a crab-meat salad. Another white burgundy had been selected from the onboard cellar by Mr. French himself.
"What happened after the Gibson trial?" Ray asked.
"I could not have scripted it better. Miyer-Brack absolutely crumbled. Arrogant shitheads were reduced to tears. They had a zillion bucks in cash and couldn't wait to buy off the plaintiffs' lawyers. Before the trial I had four hundred cases and no clout. Afterward, I had five thousand cases and an eleven-million-dollar verdict. Hundreds of lawyers called me. I spent a month flying around the country, in a Learjet, signing co-rep agreements with other lawyers. A guy in Kentucky had a hundred cases. One in St. Paul had eighty. On and on. Then, about four months after the trial, we flew to New York for the big settlement conference. In less than three hours we settled six thousand cases for seven hundred million bucks. A month later we settled another twelve hundred for two hundred million."
"What was your cut?" Ray asked. It would've been a rude question if posed to a normal person, but French couldn't wait to talk about his fees.
"Fifty percent off the top for the lawyers, then expenses, the rest went to the clients. That's the bad part of a contingency contract - you have to give half to the client. Anyway, I had other lawyers to deal with, but I walked away with three hundred million and some change. That's the beauty of mass torts, Ray. Sign 'em up by the truckload, settle 'em by the trainload, take half off the top."
They weren't eating. There was too much money in the air.
"Three hundred million in fees?" Ray said in disbelief.
French was gargling with wine. "Ain't it sweet? It's coming so fast I can't spend it all."
"Looks like you're giving it a good shot."
"This is the tip of the iceberg. Ever hear of a drug called Minitrin?"
"I checked your Web site."
"Really? What'd you think?"
"Pretty slick. Two thousand Minitrin cases."
"Three thousand now. It's a hypertension drug that has dangerous side effects. Made by Shyne Medical. They've offered fifty thousand a case and I said no. Fourteen hundred Kobril cases, antidepressant that causes hearing loss, we think. Ever hear of Skinny Bens?"
"We have three thousand Skinny Ben cases. And fifteen hundred - "
"I saw the list. I assume the Web site is updated." "Of course. I'm the new King of Torts in this country, Ray. Everybody's calling me. I have thirteen other lawyers in my firm and I need forty."
The steward was back to collect their latest leftovers. He placed the swordfish in front of them and brought the next wine, though the last bottle was half full. French went through the tasting ritual and finally, almost reluctantly, nodded his approval. To Ray it tasted very similar to the first two.
"I owe it all to Judge Atlee," French said. "How?"
"He had the guts to make the right call, to keep Miyer-Brack in Hancock County instead of allowing them to escape to federal court. He understood the issues, and he was unafraid to punish them. Timing is everything, Ray. Less than six months after he handed down his ruling, I had three hundred million bucks in my hands."
"Did you keep all of it?"
French had a bite on a fork close to his mouth. He hesitated for a second, then took the fish, chewed for a while, then said, "I don't understand the question."
"I think you do. Did you give any of the money to Judge Atlee?"
"Three million bucks?"
"And change. This fish is delicious, don't you think?"
"It is. Why?"
French put down his knife and fork and stroked his locks again with both hands. Then he wiped them on his napkin and swirled his wine. "I suppose there are a lot of questions. Why, when, how, who."
"You're good at stories, let's hear it."
Another swirl, then a satisfied sip. "It's not what you think, though I would've bribed your father or any judge for that ruling. I've done it before, and I'll happily do it again. It's just part of the overhead. Frankly, though, I was so intimidated by him and his reputation that I just couldn't approach him with a deal. He would've thrown me in jail."
"He would've buried you in jail."
"Yes, I know, and my father convinced me of this. So we played it straight. The trial was an all-out war, but truth was on my side. I won, then I won big, now I'm winning even bigger. Late last summer, after we settled and the money was wired in, I wanted to give him a gift. I take care of those who help me, Ray. A new car here, a condo there, a sack full of cash for a favor. I play the game hard and I protect my friends."
"He wasn't your friend."
"We weren't amigos, or fraternity brothers, but in my world I've never had a greater friend. It all started with him. Do you realize how much money I'll make in the next five years?"
"Shock me again."
"Half a billion. And I owe it all to your old man."
"When will you have enough?"
"There's a tobacco lawyer here who made a billion. I need to catch him first."
Ray needed a drink. He examined the wine as if he knew what to look for, then sucked it down. French was into the fish.
"I don't think you're lying," Ray said.
"I don't lie. I cheat and bribe, but I don't lie. About six months ago, while I was shopping for airplanes and boats and beach homes and mountain cabins and new offices, I heard that your father had been diagnosed with cancer, and that it was serious. I wanted to do something nice for him. I knew he didn't have much money, and what he did have he seemed hell-bent on giving away."
"So you sent him three million in cash?"
"Just like that?"
"Just like that. I called him and told him a package was on the way. Four packages as it turned out, four large cardboard boxes. One of my boys drove them up in a van, left them on the front porch. Judge Atlee wasn't home."
"Why would I mark them?"
"What did he say?" Ray asked.
"I never heard a word, and I didn't want to."
"What did he do?"
"You tell me. You're his son, you know him better than me. You tell me what he did with the money."
Ray pushed back from the table, and holding his wineglass, he crossed his legs and tried to relax. "He found the money on the porch, and when he realized what it was, I'm sure he gave you a thorough cursing."
"God, I hope so."
"He moved it into the foyer, where the boxes joined dozens of others. He planned to load it up and haul it back to Biloxi, but a day or two passed. He was sick and weak, and not driving too well. He knew he was dying, and I'm sure that burden changed his outlook on a lot of things. After a few days he decided to hide the money, which he did, and all the while he planned to get it back down here and flog your corrupt ass in the process. Time passed, and he got sicker." .
"Who found the money?"
"Where is it?"
"In the trunk of my car, at your office."
French laughed long and hard. "Back where it started from," he said between breaths.
"It's had quite a tour. I found it in his study just after I found him dead. Someone tried to break in and get it. I took it to Virginia, now it's back, and that someone is following me."
The laughter stopped immediately. He wiped his mouth with a napkin. "How much did you find?"
"Three million, one hundred and eighteen thousand."
"Damn! He didn't spend a dime."
"And he didn't mention it in his will. He just left it, hidden in stationer's boxes in a cabinet beneath his bookshelves."
"Who tried to break in?"
"I was hoping you might know."
"I have a pretty good idea."
"Please tell me."
"It's another long story."