Page 23 of Ford County

"All nice and legal?" Odell asked, with suspicion, as if this lawyer couldn't be trusted.

"Of course. They'll pay the money, but only if it's kept confidential. Plus, think of all the problems you'd face if folks knew you had that kind of cash."

Odell looked straight at the pulpwood truck and his two bud' dies sitting inside. Then he thought of his wife, and her mother, and his son in jail for drugs, and his son who was unemployed, and before long he'd thought of lots of people who'd happily help him go through the money. Mack knew what he was thinking, and added, "Cold cash, Odell. From my pocket to yours, and no-body will know anything. Not even the IRS.""No chance of gettin' more?" Odell asked.

Mack frowned and kicked a rock. "Not a dime, Odell. Not a dime. It's twenty-five thousand or nothing. And we have to move quick. I can hand you the cash in less than a month."

"What do I have to do?"

"Meet me here Friday of next week, 8:00 a.m. I'll need one signature, then I can get the money."

"How much you makin' off this?"

"It's not important. You want the cash or not?"

"That's not much money for an eyeball."

"You're right about that, but it's all you're gonna get. Yes or no?"

Odell spat again and moved the toothpick from one side to the other. Finally, he said, "I reckon."

"Good. Next Friday, 8:00 a.m., here, and come alone."

During their first meeting years earlier, Odell had mentioned that he knew of another pulp wood cutter who'd lost a hand while using the same model Tinzo chain saw. This second injury had inspired Mack to begin dreaming of a broader attack, a class action on behalf of dozens, maybe hundreds of maimed plaintiffs. He could almost feel the money, years earlier.

Plaintiff number two had been tracked down next door in Polk County, in a desolate hollow deep in a pine forest. His name was Jerrol Baker, aged thirty-one, a former logger who'd been un-able to pursue that career "with only one hand. Instead, he and a cousin had built a methamphetamine lab in their double-wide trailer, and Jerrol the chemist made much more money than Jer' rol the logger. His new career, however, proved just as dangerous, and Jerrol narrowly escaped a fiery death when their lab exploded, incinerating the equipment, the inventory, the trailer, and the cousin. Jerrol was indicted, sent to prison, and from there wrote several unanswered letters to his class-action lawyer seeking updates on the good, solid case they had against Tinzo. He was paroled after a few months, and rumored to be back in the area. Mack had not spoken to him in at least two years.

And speaking to him now would be a challenge, if not an impossibility. Jerrol's mother's house was abandoned. A neighbor down the road was most uncooperative until Mack explained that he owed Jerrol $300 and needed to deliver a check. Since it was likely that Jerrol owed money to most of his mother's neighbors, a few details emerged. Mack certainly didn't appear to be a drug agent, a process server, or a parole officer. The neighbor pointed up the road and over the hill, and Mack followed his directions. He dropped more hints about delivering money as he worked his way deeper into the pine forests of Polk County. It was almost noon when the gravel road came to a dead end. An ancient mobile home sat forlornly on cinder blocks wrapped in wild vines. Mack, a .38-caliber handgun in one pocket, slowly approached the trailer. The door opened slowly, sagging on its hinges.

Jerrol stepped onto the rickety plank porch and glared at Mack, who froze twenty feet away. Jerrol was shirtless but wearing ink, his arms and chest adorned with a colorful collection of prison tattoos. His hair was long and dirty, his thin body no doubt ravaged by meth. He'd lost his left hand thanks to Tinzo, but in his right he held a sawed-off shotgun. He nodded, but didn't speak. His eyes were deep-set, ghostlike.

"I'm Mack Stafford, a lawyer from Clanton. I believe you're Jerrol Baker, aren't you?"

Mack half expected the shotgun to come up firing, but it didn't move. Oddly enough, the client smiled, a toothless offering that was more frightening than the weapon. "'At's me," he grunted.

They talked for ten minutes, a surprisingly civil exchange given the setting and given their history. As soon as Jerrol realized he was about to receive $25,000 in cash, and that no one would know about it, he turned into a little boy and even invited Mack inside. Mack declined.

By the time they settled into their leather seats and faced the counselor across the desk, Dr. Juanita had been fully briefed on all issues and only pretended to be open-minded. Mack almost asked how many times the girls had chatted, but his strategy was all about avoiding conflict.

After a few comments designed to relax the husband and wife, and to instill confidence and warmth, Dr. Juanita invited them to say something. Not surprisingly, Lisa went first. She prattled nonstop for fifteen minutes about her unhappiness, her emptiness, her frustrations, and she minced no words in describing her husband's lack of affection and ambition, and his increasing reliance upon alcohol.

Mack's forehead was black'and'blue, and a fairly large white bandage covered a third of it, so not only was he described as a drunk, he in fact looked like one. He bit his tongue, listened, tried to appear dismal and depressed. When it was his turn to speak, he expressed some of the same concerns but didn't drop any bombs. Most of their problems were caused by him, and he was ready to take the blame.

When he finished, Dr. Juanita split them up. Lisa left first and went back to the lobby to flip through magazines while she reloaded. Mack was left to face the counselor alone. The first time he'd endured this torture, he'd been nervous. Now, though, he'd been through so many sessions that he really didn't care. Nothing he said would help save their marriage, so why say much at all?

"I have a sense that you want out of this marriage," Dr. Juanita began softly, wisely, eyeing him carefully.

"I want out because she wants out. She wants a bigger life, a bigger house, a bigger husband.

I'm just too small." "Do you and Lisa ever share a laugh?"

"Maybe if we're watching something funny on television. I laugh, she laughs, the girls laugh."

"How about sex?"

"Well, we're both forty-two years old, and we average about once a month, which is sad because an encounter takes five minutes, max. There's no passion, no romance, just something to knock off the edge. Pretty methodical, like connect the dots. I get the impression that she could forget the entire business."

Dr. Juanita took some notes, in much the same manner that Mack took notes with a client who said nothing but something needed to be written nonetheless.

"How much are you drinking?" she asked.

"Not nearly as much as she says. She's from a family of non-drinkers, so a three-beer night is a regular bender."

"But you are drinking too much."

"I came home the other night, the day it snowed, slipped on some ice, hit my head, and now most of Clanton has heard that I staggered home drunk and fell out in the driveway, cracked my skull, and now I'm acting weird. She's lining up allies, Juanita, you understand? She's telling everyone how lousy I am because she wants folks on her side "when she files for divorce. The battle lines are already drawn. It's inevitable."

"You're giving up?"

"I'm surrendering. Total. Unconditional."

Sunday just happened to be the second Sunday of the month, a day Mack hated above all others. Lisa's family, the Running clan, was required by law to meet at her parents' home for an after' church brunch the second Sunday of every month. No excuses were tolerated, unless a family member happened to be out of town, and even then such an absence was frowned upon and the missing one usually subjected to withering gossip, outside the presence of the children of course.