Page 20 of Ford County

An offer of $10,000 per claim would have been a shock, and a windfall. Mack gasped for air and tried to think of a response.

Marty went on: "Again, Mack, we're just trying to clean up the balance sheet. Whatta you think?"

What do I think? Mack repeated to himself. I think my cut is 40 percent and the math is easy. I think that last year I grossed $95,000 and burned half of it in overhead - Freda's salary and the office bills - which left me with a net of about $46,000 before taxes, which I think was slightly less than my wife earned as an assistant principal at Clanton High School. I'm thinking a lot of things right now, some really random stuff like (1) Is this a joke? (2) Who from my law school class could be behind this? (3) Assuming it's real, how can I keep the wolves away from this wonderful fee? (4) My wife and two daughters would burn through this money in less than a month; (5) Freda would demand a healthy bonus; (6) How can I approach my chain-saw clients after so many years of neglect? And so on. I'm thinking about a lot of stuff, Mr. Rosenberg.

"That's very generous, Marty," Mack managed to say, finally. "I'm sure my clients will be pleased." After the shock, his brain was beginning to focus again.

"Good. Do we have a deal?"

"Well, let me see. I, of course, will need to run this by my clients, and that might take a few days. Can I call you in a week?"

"Of course. But we're anxious to wrap this up, so let's hurry. And, Mack, I cannot stress enough our desire for confidentiality. Can we agree to bury these settlements, Mack?"

For that kind of money, Mack would agree to anything. "I understand," he said. "Not a word to anyone." And Mack meant it. He was already thinking of all the people who would never know about this lottery ticket.

"Great. You'll call me in a week?"

"You got it, Marty. And, listen, my secretary has a big mouth. It's best if you don't call here again. I'll call you next Tuesday. What time?"

"How about eleven, eastern?"

"You got it, Marty."

They swapped phone numbers and addresses, and said goodbye. According to the digital timer on Mack's phone, the call lasted eight minutes and forty seconds.

The phone rang again just after Marty hung up, but Mack could only stare at it. He wouldn't dare push his luck. Instead, he walked to the front of his office, to the large front window with his name painted on it, and he looked across the street to the Ford County Courthouse, where, at that moment, some garden-variety ham-and-egg lawyers were upstairs munching on cold sandwiches in the judge's chambers and haggling over another $50 a month in child support, and whether the wife should get the Honda and hubby should get the Toyota. He knew they were there because they were always there, and he was often with them. And down the hall in the clerk's office more lawyers were poring over land records and lien books and dusty old plats while they bantered back and forth in their tired humor, jokes and stories and quips he'd heard a thousand times. A year or two earlier, someone had counted fifty-one lawyers in the town of Clanton, and virtually all were packed together around the square, their offices facing the courthouse. They ate in the same cafes, met in the same coffee, shops, drank in the same bars, hustled the same clients, and almost all of them harbored the same gripes and complaints about their chosen profession. Somehow, a town often thousand people provided enough conflict to support fifty-one lawyers, when in reality less than half that number were needed.

Mack had rarely felt needed. To be sure, he was needed by his wife and daughters, though he often wondered if they wouldn't be happier without him, but the town and its legal needs would certainly survive nicely without him. In fact, he had realised long ago that if he suddenly closed shop, few would notice. No client would go without representation. The other lawyers would se-cretly grin because they had one less competitor. No one in the courthouse would miss him after a month or so. This had saddened him for many years. But what really depressed him was not the present or the past but the future. The prospect of waking up one day at the age of sixty and still trudging to the office - no doubt the same office - and filing no-fault divorces and nickel-and-dime bankruptcies on behalf of people who could barely pay his modest fees, well, it was enough to sour his mood every day of his life. It was enough to make Mack a very unhappy man.

He wanted out. And he wanted out while he was still young.

A lawyer named Wilkins passed by on the sidewalk without glancing at Mack's window. Wilkins was a jackass who worked four doors down. Years ago, over a late-afternoon drink with three other lawyers, one of whom was Wilkins, Mack had talked too much and divulged the details of his grand scheme to make a killing with chain-saw litigation. Of course the scheme went nowhere, and when Mack could not convince any of the more competent trial lawyers in the state to sign on, his chain-saw files began to stink. Wilkins, ever the prick, would catch Mack in the presence of other lawyers and say something like, "Hey, Mack, how's that chain-saw class action coming along?" Or, "Hey, Mack, you settled those chain-saw cases yet?" With time, though, even Wilkins forgot about the cases.

Hey, Wilkins, take a look at this settlement, old boy! Half a million bucks on the table, $200,000 of it goes into my pocket. At least that much, maybe more. Hey, Wilkins, you haven't cleared $200,000 in the last five years combined.

But Mack knew that Wilkins would never know. No one would know, and that was fine with Mack.

Freda would soon make her usual noisy entrance. Mack hurried to his desk, called the number in New York, asked for Marty Rosenberg, and when his secretary answered, Mack hung up and smiled. He checked his afternoon schedule, and it was as dreary as the weather. One new divorce at 2:30, and an ongoing one at 4:30. There was a list of fifteen phone calls to make, not a single one of which he looked forward to. The fish files on the credenza were festering in neglect. He grabbed his overcoat, left his briefcase, and sneaked out the back door.

His car was a small BMW with 100,000 miles on the odometer. The lease expired in five months, and he was already fretting about what to drive next. Since lawyers, regardless of how broke they may be, are supposed to drive something impressive, he had been quietly shopping around, careful to keep things to himself. His wife would not approve of whatever he chose, and he simply wasn't ready for that fight.

His favorite beer trail began at Parker's Country Store, eight miles south of town in a small community where no one ever recognized him. He bought a six-pack of bright green bottles, im' ported, good stuff for this special day, and continued south on narrow back roads until there was no other traffic. He listened to Jimmy Buffett sing about sailing and drinking rum and living a life that Mack had been dreaming about for some time. In the summer before he started law school, he spent two weeks scuba diving in the Bahamas. It had been his first trip out of the country, and he longed to do it again. Over the years, as the tedium of practicing law overwhelmed him, and as his marriage became less and less fulfilling, he listened to Buffett more and more. He could handle life on a sailboat. He was ready.

He parked in a secluded picnic area at Lake Chatulla, the largest body of water within fifty miles, and left the engine running, the heat on, a window cracked. He sipped beer and gazed across the lake, a busy place in the summer with ski boats and small catamarans, but deserted in February.

Marty's voice was still fresh and clear. Their conversation was still easy to replay, almost word for word. Mack talked to himself, then sang along with Buffett.