Page 39 of Ford County

Stanley watched as long as he could, then leaned forward on his elbows, dropped his jaws into his hands, and studied his feet. The four men to his left stood like stone-faced sentries, and it occurred to Stanley that they had seen the seizures before. The room was growing hotter, and his neck was perspiring again. Not for the first time, he thought about his wife. His abduction was now well into its second hour, and he wondered what she was doing. She could be asleep on the sofa, where she'd spent the past four days, battling the flu with rest and juices and more pills than normal. There was an excellent chance she was out cold, unable to realize he was running late with dinner, if you could call it that. If conscious, she had probably called his cell phone, but he'd left the damned thing in his briefcase, in his car, and besides he tried his best to ignore it when he wasn't at work. He spent hours each day on the phone and hated to be bothered after he left the office. There was a remote chance she was actually a bit worried. Twice a month he enjoyed a late drink at the country club with the boys, and this never bothered his wife. Once their children moved away to college, Stanley and his wife quickly fell out of the habit of being ruled by the clock. Being an hour late (never early) was perfectly fine with them.

So Stanley decided as the bed rattled and the Cranwells tended to Michael that the chances of a posse roaming the back roads searching for him were quite slim. Could the abduction in the Rite Price parking lot have been seen by someone, who then called the police, who were now in full alert? Possible, Stanley ad' mitted, but a thousand cops with bloodhounds couldn't find him at this moment.

He thought about his will. It was up-to-date, thanks to a law partner. He thought about his two kids, but couldn't dwell there. He thought about the end and hoped it happened abruptly with no suffering. He fought the urge to argue with himself over whether or not this was a dream, because such an exercise was a waste of energy.

The bed was still. Jim and Doyle were backing away while Becky bent over the boy, humming softly and wiping his mouth.

"Sit up!" Jim suddenly barked. "Sit up and look at him!"

Stanley did as he was told. Jim opened the lower drawer of the file cabinet and shuffled through another collection of paper' work. Becky silently crouched into her chair, one hand still on Michael's foot.

Jim removed another document, flipped pages while they all waited, then said, "There's one final question for you, Lawyer Wade. I'm holdin' here the brief you filed with the Supreme Court of Mississippi, a brief in which you fought like hell to up' hold the jury's verdict in favor of Dr. Trane. Lookin' back, I don't know what you were worried about. Accordin' to our lawyer, the supreme court sides with the doctors over 90 percent of the time. That's the biggest reason you didn't offer us a fair settlement before trial, right? You weren't worried about losin' a trial, because a verdict for Michael would be thrown out by the supreme court. In the end Trane and the insurance company •would •win. Michael was entitled to a fair settlement, but you knew the system wouldn't let you lose. Anyway, on the next-to' the4ast page of your brief, here's what you wrote. These are your words, Lawyer Wade, and I quote: 'This trial was conducted fairly, fiercely, and with little give-and-take from either side. The jury was alert, engaged, curious, and fully informed. The verdict represents sound and deliberate consideration. The verdict is pure justice, a decision our system should be proud of.'"

With that, Cranwell flung the brief in the general direction of the file cabinet. "And guess what?" he asked. "Our good ol' supreme court agreed. Nothin' for poor little Michael. Nothin' to compensate. Nothin' to punish dear Dr. Trane. Nothin'."

He walked to the bed, rubbed Michael for a moment, then turned and glared at Stanley. "One last question, Lawyer Wade. And you'd better think before you answer, because your answer could be real important. Look at this sad little boy, this damaged child whose injuries could've been prevented, and tell us, Lawyer Wade, is this justice, or is it just another courtroom victory? The two have little in common."

All eyes were on Stanley. He sat slumped in the awkward chair, his shoulders sagging, his lousy posture even more evident, his trousers still wet, his wing-tipped shoes touching each other, mud around the soles, and his unflinching stare straight ahead at the matted and unruly mop of black hair atop the hideous forehead of Michael Cranwell. Arrogance, stubbornness, denial - all would get him shot, though he had no illusions of seeing the morning sun. Nor was he inclined to stick with his old thoughts and training. Jim was right. Trane's insurance company had been will' ing to make a generous offer before the trial, but Stanley Wade would have no part of it. He rarely lost a jury trial in Ford County. His reputation was that of a hardball litigator, not one who capitulates and settles. Besides, his swagger was bolstered by a friendly supreme court.

"We don't have all night," Cranwell said.

Oh, why not? Stanley thought. Why should I hurry along to my execution? But he instead removed his glasses and wiped his eyes. They were moist not from fear but from the harsh reality of being confronted by one of his victims. How many others were out there? Why had he chosen to spend his career screwing these people?

He wiped his nose on a sleeve, readjusted his glasses, and said, "I'm sorry. I was so wrong."

"Let's try again," Cranwell said. "Justice, or a courtroom victory?"

"It's not justice, Mr. Cranwell. I'm sorry."

Jim carefully and neatly returned the binders and the brief to their proper places in the file cabinet drawers and closed them. He nodded at the four men, and they began to shuffle toward the door. The room was suddenly busy as Jim whispered to Becky. Doyle said something to the last man out. The door sprang back and forth. Jim grabbed Wade by the arm, yanked him up, and growled, "Let's go." It was much darker outside as they moved quickly away from the room, around the house. They passed the four men, who were busy near a utility shed, and as he looked at their shadows, Stanley heard, clearly, the word "shovels."

"Get in," Jim said as he pushed Stanley into the same Ford truck. The pistol "was back, and Jim waved it near Stanley's nose and promised, "One funny move, and I'll use this." With that, he slammed the door and said something to the other men. There were several hushed voices as the mission was organized. The driver's door opened and Jim hopped in, waving the pistol. He pointed it at Stanley and said, "Put both hands on your knees, and if you move either hand, then I'll stick this in your kidney, pull the trigger. It'll blow a sizable hole out the other side. Do you understand me?"

"Yes," Stanley said, as his fingernails clawed into his knees.

"Don't move your hands. I really don't wanna make a mess in my truck, okay?"

"Okay, okay."

They backed along the gravel drive, and as they drove away from the house, Stanley saw another truck leaving, following them. Evidently, Cranwell had said enough because he had nothing to say now. They sped through the night, changing roads at every opportunity, gravel to asphalt, back to gravel, north then south, east, and west. Though Stanley didn't look, he knew the pistol was ready in the right hand while the left one handled the truck. He continued to clutch his knees, terrified any move would be considered a false one. His left kidney was aching anyway. He was sure the door was locked, and any clumsy effort to jerk it open would simply not work. That, plus Stanley was rigid with fear.

There were headlights in the right-hand mirror, low beams from the other truck, the one carrying his death squad and their shovels, he presumed. It disappeared around curves and over hills, but always returned.