As far back as he could remember Hunter Lee had known his fate lay in the law. In being an attorney. In being a litigator.
It was a predestination he'd always found mysterious because he was an unassuming man outside a courtroom. A humble man. A man others had to make an effort to get to know, not a man who got to know others.
But Hunter turned into a different person when he came before the bench. Once he stepped through the dark-wood doors of justice he became gregarious, aggressive, and unfailingly persuasive. His key success factors inside a courtroom: He was always more prepared than the other side; he knew the answer to every question he asked; he had an uncanny ability to develop personal connections with jurors and hostile witnesses; he wasn't hesitant to use his rugged good looks and smooth southern charm to convince any woman sitting on the fence to see things his way; and he never lost his temper. He might turn up the volume once in a while, but he was always in complete control.
Over a decade, Hunter had won nearly a billion dollars in damage claims for his clients. In the process, he'd made his firm and its seven senior partners a fortune in contingency fees. People told him constantly to start his own firm so he could keep all those fees for himself, but he never had. He was still with Warfield & Stone, the same New York City firm he'd joined after graduating second in his class from the University of Virginia law school thirteen years ago.
During recruiting season of his final year at Virginia, he'd been drawn to Warfield & Stone's reputation for shunning publicity despite its long list of front-page cases and high-profile clients, drawn to its aura of secrecy. He was also impressed by the fascination his classmates and professors had with the firm and the near-celebrity status he attained on the grounds by being the only Virginia graduate the senior partners of Warfield & Stone wanted.
Hunter had gotten over his wide-eyed desire to be associated with such a prestigious firm a long time ago; that wasn't why he'd stayed. He'd stayed because he felt an enormous loyalty to the man who'd recruited him so hard out of Virginia. The man who was now Warfield & Stone's managing partner and a legend in the legal community.
Hunter stood before the polished plaintiff desk to the judge's right, still wearing his sharp, pin-stripe suit coat despite the heat of the packed courtroom. Even though the four attorneys at the defense desk had removed their coats hours ago when the judge said it was all right to do so. For some time he'd been gazing down at a single piece of paper lying on the desk, as though hypnotized by the typed words on it and the heavy, unique signature beneath the words. Finally he brought his dark, penetrating eyes to those of the white-haired judge.
"Your Honor, I call Mr. Carl Bach."
"The plaintiffs calls Carl Bach to the stand," the uniformed bailiff announced in a booming voice.
A stocky, middle-aged man with a neatly trimmed, brown mustache rose from his seat in the middle of the third row. He excused himself in a low whisper several times as he struggled toward the center aisle over and around several pairs of knees. Finally free, he moved purposefully down the aisle to the witness stand, careful not to make eye contact with Hunter.
As Bach swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, Hunter thought back to how he'd honed his skills in those intimidating amphitheater classrooms at Virginia. By the end of his second year he'd gotten so good he could usually argue either side of an issue and win, so good none of his classmates would volunteer to take him on in mock court even with mountains of evidence on their side. Professors had to force other students to oppose him. That was what distanced him so remarkably from everyone else, his professors would tell the litany of firms seeking his services. That was what caught the attention of the big New York and Washington firms even faster than his gaudy GPA.
What caught the attention of Nelson Radcliff.
It was Hunter's father who had decided what his career would be early on in his childhood, even before Hunter really knew what a lawyer was. Robert Hunter Lee would be an attorney, his father would announce every evening as the family sat down to dinner. A New York City litigator, he'd specify during the meal. Case closed, he'd say over dessert. Night after night, as far back as Hunter could remember.
Hunter had never questioned the decree. He'd simply done everything in his power to make it come true, everything he could to make his father happy.
As Carl Bach lowered his right hand and took a seat in the raised wooden witness chair, Hunter focused on his target. "Mr. Bach, please state your occupation for the record."
Bach rolled his eyes and gave Hunter an aggravated shake of the head, making it clear to everyone that he thought these proceedings were a charade. That they were a ridiculous way to spend a blistering hot summer afternoon in a stuffy Bozeman, Montana, courtroom with a broken air conditioner.
"I'm the chief operating officer of the Bridger Railroad," Bach answered stiffly. "I'm the second most senior executive at the company behind the CEO, George Drake."
"Mr. Drake also owns the company, correct?"
"Is Mr. Drake here today?"
Hunter gave the jury a puzzled look. As if it surprised him that Drake would miss such an important proceeding, as if it was arrogant of Drake not to be here and, therefore, a personal affront to them.
He moved out from behind the plaintiff desk and headed toward the witness chair, leaving behind the piece of paper he'd been studying. "As the COO, you're an important person at the railroad." It was an obvious point, but saying so for all to hear might put Bach off guard, might make him feel a connection to a hostile attorney, might cause him to drop his defenses at a critical moment. "A very important person."
"Ah...yes." Bach stroked the tips of his mustache with the stubby thumb and forefinger of his right hand. "Certainly."
"A person who should be up to speed on all important company matters. Especially matters related to the day-to-day operations of the railroad, especially as the chief operating officer."
Bach stole a wary glance at the jury, recognizing that he'd been deftly maneuvered into a tight corner right off the bat.
And the jury watched Bach silently remind himself that this tall, handsome attorney from New York with the deliberate manner and the intense eyes had a big-time reputation for a reason.
"Well, no one can really -- "
"How big is the Bridger Railroad, Mr. Bach?"
"When you ask 'how big,' what exactly do you mean?"
"Let's start with how many miles of track you operate."
Bach pulled a white handkerchief from his shirt pocket and dabbed at the tiny beads of sweat forming on his forehead. "One thousand six hundred and forty nine miles of main line. Four hundred twelve and a half miles of yards, spurs, and sidings." The stocky man with the bushy mustache gave Hunter a smug look. "Give or take a few feet."
A chuckle rustled around the courtroom.
"Thank you," Hunter said politely. Good. Bach was giving specific answers. He'd taken the bait, felt he had to prove himself after being called out. Now the jury would expect crisp, specific answers to every question. In a few minutes Bach wouldn't be so specific, and the jury would wonder why. "Is all that track in Montana?"
"Most of it. We go a spitting distance into Idaho, Wyoming, and the Dakotas, but that's it."
"So you connect with other railroads."
Bach nodded. "With the BNSF and the Union Pacific, with the big boys." Hunter furrowed his dark, arrow-straight eyebrows. "The Bridger is what's known as a short-line railroad. Is that correct, Mr. Bach?"
"A Class II railroad," Bach answered, using the official term. "As defined by the federal government," he added confidently, clearly believing there couldn't be a land mine buried anywhere in this field of questioning.
"Meaning," Bach continued, his voice taking on a professorial, condescending tone, "that we have annual revenues between $20 million and $280 million."
Hunter turned to the jury and let out a low whistle. "Wow. Two hundred and eighty million." It was so easy it was almost unfair, especially with the help he'd gotten from his anonymous benefactor. "That's big." To a New York jury that amount wouldn't sound very impressive. In Bozeman, Montana it sounded like the gross domestic product of most European countries. "Very big."
"Well, actually," Bach spoke up quickly, realizing he'd been backed into that same tight corner once again, "it isn't that -- "
"Mr. Bach," Hunter interrupted, "I don't want to keep you up here on the stand any longer than I have to. I know you're a busy man, and I know it's warm in here." Hunter broke into a friendly smile as he made eye contact with several jurors. Longest with an older woman wearing a faded blue dress and matching hat who was sitting all the way to the left of the jury box. He still hadn't won her over. He could tell that by her rigid posture, stiff upper lip, and cold expression. "Made a lot warmer," he continued, allowing his southern drawl to turn thicker and more potent, "by the fact that you're on the hot seat."
This time the courtroom erupted into a loud laugh. Even the older woman in the jury box cracked a thin smile.
The judge, too, Hunter noticed. Which fit. He'd been worried at the start of the trial that a Montana judge might make it difficult for a New York lawyer carrying a big reputation into his courtroom, but that hadn't turned out to be the case at all. The man in black had been completely fair, which Hunter had found was true about most Montanans. They were tough -- because Montana was a tough place to live -- but they were fair. Which was refreshing. It might help with the size of the award, too.
Hunter raised a hand, requesting silence, subtly taking control of the proceedings. Then he made a slow, sweeping gesture toward two chil...