Authors: John Grisham
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers
“Sorry, Nate. I’m clean.”
“Some Doritos or M&M’s?”
Nate took a bite of his orange. They were sitting next to each other, enjoying the view. Minutes passed.
“How you doing?” Josh asked.
“I need to get out of here, Josh. I’m becoming a robot.”
“Your doc says another week or so.”
“Great. Then what?”
“What does that mean?”
“It means we’ll see.”
“Come on, Josh.”
“We’ll take our time, and see what happens.”
“Can I come back to the firm, Josh? Talk to me.”
“Not so fast, Nate. You have enemies.”
“Who doesn’t? But hell, it’s your firm. Those guys will go along with whatever you say.”
“You have a couple of problems.”
“I have a thousand problems. But you can’t kick me out.”
“The bankruptcy we can work through. The indictment is not so easy.”
No, it was not so easy, and Nate couldn’t simply dismiss it. From 1992 to 1995, he had failed to report about sixty thousand dollars in other income.
He tossed the orange peel in a wastebasket, and said, “So what am I supposed to do? Sit around the house all day?”
“If you’re lucky.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Josh had to be delicate. His friend was emerging from a black hole. Shocks and surprises had to be avoided.
“Do you think I’m going to prison?” Nate asked.
“Troy Phelan died,” Josh said, and it took Nate a second to change course.
“Oh, Mr. Phelan,” he said.
Nate had had his own little wing in the firm. It was at the end of a long hallway, on the sixth floor, and he and another lawyer and three paralegals and a half-dozen secretaries worked on suing doctors and cared little about the rest of the firm. He certainly knew who Troy Phelan was, but he’d never touched his legal work. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“So you haven’t heard?”
“I hear nothing here. When did he die?”
“Four days ago. Jumped from a window.”
“Without a parachute?”
“No. He didn’t try. I saw it happen. He had just signed two wills—the first prepared by me; the second, and last, handwritten by himself. Then he bolted and jumped.”
“You saw it?”
“Wow. Musta been a crazy bastard.”
There was a trace of humor in Nate’s voice. Nearly four months earlier, he’d been found by a maid in a motel room, his stomach full of pills and rum.
“He left everything to an illegitimate daughter I’d never heard of.”
“Is she married? What does she look like?”
“I want you to go find her.”
“We don’t know where she is.”
“How much did he—”
“Somewhere around eleven billion, before taxes.”
“Does she know it?”
“No. She doesn’t even know he’s dead.”
“Does she know Troy’s her father?”
“I don’t know what she knows.”
“Where is she?”
“Brazil, we think. She’s a missionary working with a remote tribe of Indians.”
Nate stood and walked around the room. “I spent a week there once,” he said. “I was in college, or maybe law school. It was Carnaval, naked girls dancing in the streets of Rio, the samba bands, a million people partying all night.” His voice trailed away as the nice little memory surfaced and quickly faded.
“This is not Carnaval.”
“No. I’m sure it’s not. Would you like some coffee?”
Nate pressed a button on the wall and announced his order into the intercom. A thousand bucks a day also covered room service.
“How long will I be gone?” he asked, sitting again by the window.
“It’s a wild guess, but I’d say ten days. There’s no hurry, and she might be hard to find.”
“What part of the country?”
“Western, near Bolivia. This outfit she works for specializes in sending its people into the jungles, where they minister to Indians from the Stone Age. We’ve done some research, and they
seem to take pride in finding the most remote people on the face of the earth.”
“You want me to first find the right jungle, then hike into it in search of the right tribe of Indians, then somehow convince them that I’m a friendly lawyer from the States and they should help me find a woman who probably doesn’t want to be found to begin with.”
“Something like that.”
“Might be fun.”
“Think of it as an adventure.”
“Plus, it’ll keep me out of the office, right, Josh? Is that it? A diversion while you sort things out.”
“Someone has to go, Nate. A lawyer from our firm has to meet this woman face to face, show her a copy of the will, explain it to her, and find out what she wants to do next. It cannot be done by a paralegal or a Brazilian lawyer.”
“Because everybody else is busy. You know the routine. You’ve lived it for more than twenty years. Life at the office, lunch at the courthouse, sleep on the train. Plus, it might be good for you.”
“Are you trying to keep me away from the streets, Josh? Because if you are, then you’re wasting your time. I’m clean. Clean and sober. No more bars, no more parties, no more dealers. I’m clean, Josh. Forever.”
Josh nodded along because he was certainly expected to. But he’d been there before. “I believe you,” he said, wanting to very badly.
The porter knocked and brought their coffee on a silver tray.
After a while, Nate asked, “What about the indictment? I’m not supposed to leave the country until it’s wrapped up.”
“I’ve talked to the Judge, told him it was pressing business. He wants to see you in ninety days.”
“Is he nice?”
“He’s Santa Claus.”
“So if I’m convicted, do you think he’ll give me a break?”
“That’s a year away. Let’s worry about it later.”
Nate was sitting at a small table, hunched over his coffee, staring into the cup as he thought of questions. Josh was on the other side, still gazing into the distance.
“What if I say no?” Nate asked.
Josh shrugged as if it didn’t matter. “No big deal. We’ll find someone else. Think of it as a vacation. You’re not afraid of the jungle, are you?”
“Of course not.”
“Then go have some fun.”
“When would I leave?”
“In a week. Brazil requires a visa, and we’ll have to pull some strings. Plus there are some loose ends around here.”
Walnut Hill required at least a week of PreRelease, a period of conditioning before it fed its clients back to the wolves. They had been pampered, sobered, brainwashed, and nudged into emotional, mental, and physical shape. PreRelease braced them for the reentry.
“A week,” Nate repeated to himself.
“About a week, yes.”
“And it’ll take ten days.”
“I’m just guessing.”
“So I’ll be down there during the holidays.”
“I guess it looks that way.”
“That’s a great idea.”
“You want to skip Christmas?”
“What about your kids?”
There were four of them, two by each wife. One in grad school and one in college, two in middle school.
He stirred his coffee with a small spoon, and said, “Not a word, Josh. Almost four months here, and not a word from any
of them.” His voice ached and his shoulders sagged. He looked quite frail, for a second.
“I’m sorry,” Josh said.
Josh had certainly heard from the families. Both wives had lawyers who’d called to sniff around for money. Nate’s oldest child was a grad student at Northwestern who needed tuition money, and he personally had called Josh to inquire not about his father’s well-being or whereabouts but, more important, his father’s share of the firm’s profits last year. He was cocky and rude, and Josh had finally cursed him.
“I’d like to avoid all the parties and holiday cheer,” Nate said, rallying as he got to his bare feet and walked around the room.
“So you’ll go?”
“Is it the Amazon?”
“No. It’s the Pantanal, the largest wetlands in the world.”
“Piranhas, anacondas, alligators?”
“No more than D.C.”
“I don’t think so. They haven’t lost a missionary in eleven years.”
“What about a lawyer?”
“I’m sure they would enjoy filleting one. Come on, Nate. This is not heavy lifting. If I weren’t so busy, I’d love to go. The Pantanal is a great ecological reserve.”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
“That’s because you stopped traveling years ago. You went into your office and didn’t come out.”
“Except for rehab.”
“Take a vacation. See another part of the world.”
Nate sipped coffee long enough to redirect the conversation. “And what happens when I get back? Do I have my office? Am I still a partner?”
“Is that what you want?”
“Of course,” Nate said, but with a slight hesitation.
“Are you sure?”
“What else would I do?”
“I don’t know, Nate, but this is your fourth rehab in ten years. The crashes are getting worse. If you walked out now, you’d go straight to the office and be the world’s greatest malpractice litigator for six months. You’d ignore the old friends, the old bars, the old neighborhoods. Nothing but work, work, work. Before long you’d have a couple of big verdicts, big trials, big pressure. You’d step it up a notch. After a year, there would be a crack somewhere. An old friend might find you. A girl from another life. Maybe a bad jury gives you a bad verdict. I’d be watching every move, but I can never tell when the slide begins.”
“No more slides, Josh. I swear.”
“I’ve heard it before, and I want to believe you. But what if your demons come out again, Nate? You came within minutes of killing yourself last time.”
“No more crashes.”
“The next one will be the last, Nate. We’ll have a funeral and say good-bye and watch them lower you into the ground. I don’t want that to happen.”
“It won’t, I swear.”
“Then forget about the office. There’s too much pressure there.”
The thing Nate hated about rehab was the long periods of silence, or meditation, as Sergio called them. The patients were expected to squat like monks in the semidarkness, close their eyes, and find inner peace. Nate could do the squatting and all that, but behind the closed eyes he was retrying lawsuits, and fighting the IRS, and plotting against his ex-wives, and, most important, worrying about the future. This conversation with Josh was one he’d played out many times.
But his smart retorts and quick comebacks failed him under
pressure. Almost four months of virtual solitude had dulled his reflexes. He could manage to look pitiful, and that was all. “Come on, Josh. You can’t just kick me out.”
“You’ve litigated for over twenty years, Nate. That’s about average. It’s time to move on to something else.”
“So I’ll become a lobbyist, and do lunch with the press secretaries for a thousand little congressmen.”
“We’ll find a place for you. But it won’t be in the courtroom.”
“I’m not good at doing lunch. I want to litigate.”
“The answer is no. You can stay with the firm, make a lot of money, stay healthy, take up golf, and life will be good, assuming the IRS doesn’t send you away.”
For a few pleasant moments the IRS had been forgotten. Now it was back, and Nate sat down again. He squeezed a small pack of honey into his lukewarm coffee; sugar and artificial sweeteners couldn’t be allowed in a place as healthy as Walnut Hill.
“A couple of weeks in the Brazilian wetlands is beginning to sound good,” he said.
“So you’ll go?”
SINCE NATE had plenty of time to read, Josh left him a thick file on the Phelan estate and its mysterious new heir. And there were two books on remote Indians of South America.
Nate read nonstop for eight hours, even neglecting dinner. He was suddenly anxious to leave, to begin his adventure. When Sergio checked on him at ten, he was sitting like a monk in the middle of his bed, papers sprawled around him, lost in another world.
“It’s time for me to leave,” Nate said.
“Yes, it is,” Sergio replied. “I’ll start the paperwork tomorrow.”
he infighting grew worse as the Phelan heirs spent less time talking to each other and more time in their lawyers’ offices. A week passed with no will, and no plans to probate. With their fortunes within sight but just out of reach, the heirs became even more agitated. Several lawyers were fired, with more brought in to replace them.
Mary Ross Phelan Jackman fired hers because he wasn’t charging enough per hour. Her husband was a successful orthopedic surgeon with lots of business interests. He dealt with lawyers every day. Their new one was a fireball named Grit, who made a noisy entrance into the fray at six hundred dollars per hour.
While the heirs waited, they also incurred massive debt. Contracts were signed for mansions. New cars were delivered. Consultants were hired to do such varied things as design pool houses, locate just the right private jet, and give advice on which
thoroughbred to purchase. If the heirs weren’t fighting, then they were shopping. Ramble was the exception, but only because he was a minor. He hung out with his lawyer, who was certainly incurring debt on behalf of his client.
Snowball litigation is often commenced with a race to the courthouse. With Josh Stafford refusing to reveal the will, and at the same time dropping mysterious hints about Troy’s lack of testamentary capacity, the lawyers for the Phelan heirs finally panicked.
Ten days after the suicide, Hark Gettys went to the Circuit Court of Fairfax County, Virginia, and filed a Petition to Compel the Last Will and Testament of Troy L. Phelan. With all the finesse of an ambitious lawyer to be reckoned with, he tipped a reporter from the
They chatted for an hour after the filing, some comments off the record, others offered for the glory of the lawyer. A photographer took some pictures.
Oddly, Hark filed his petition on behalf of all Phelan heirs. And he listed their names and addresses as if they were his clients. He faxed them copies when he returned to his office. Within minutes his phone lines were burning.