Summer in the mountains of West Virginia has a magic of its own, like a fairy tale come true. For me, it was a fairy tale paid for with blood.
It was August. After five months back home in Scotia (population 864) I'd just about gotten used to folks looking away from me and mumbling about how I'd gotten the man I loved killed and almost got my dad and son killed and just about drowned the entire valley in toxic sludge.
"That's AJ Palladino," they'd say, crossing to the other side of the street as I passed, in case I rubbed off on them. "Yeah, that AJ Palladino."
I ignored them. Didn't much care what people said about me as long as they didn't take it out on my nine-year-old, David. And, I have to admit, Scotia did treat David like the hero his dad had once been. They embraced him despite his two disabilities (or abilities, depending on your point of view): having cerebral palsy, which left him mostly wheelchair-bound, and being a genius.
Despite the town's acceptance of him, David still wasn't so sure about Scotia. He was hit hard by the death of his dad. I tried everything, even enrolled him in some online courses. Stuff I didn't understand but he was interested in, like the Phonology of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics and Einstein, Oppenheimer, Feynman: Physics in the 20th Century. He'd bury himself in them, working like a fever, finishing a semester's worth of material in a few weeks, and then would promptly slide back into boredom and despair.
Given my family's tendency for obsessions -- addictions, really, holding on too hard, too long -- I was more than a bit worried.
My friend Ty Stillwater, a sheriff's deputy K-9 officer, and his partner, Nikki, a beautiful Belgium Malinois, finally broke David free from his mourning.
Ty somehow found a way to make wheelchair accessible every mountain adventure that a boy could love. He and David would leave at first light and show up again for dinner at my gram's kitchen covered in battle scars. Once, Ty took David rafting down the New River, and they came back half-drowned, sunburned, and sporting matching black eyes that they refused to tell us how they got. They would burst into laughter every time they caught sight of each other.
I loved hearing David laugh but couldn't help but worry each time he left. For too many years I'd raised David alone, and it was difficult getting used to sharing him with others who loved him as much as I did. Not to mention the fact that I was and am a total control freak, especially about David. But I suffered in silence -- David hates it when I try to rein in his independence.
Besides, I was busy enough with work to take my mind mostly off David's scrapes and bruises and poison ivy. My new business partner, Elizabeth Hardy, the legal half of our consumer advocacy firm, turned out to have a gift for negotiation, so our first few cases ended quickly and happily for our clients and were profitable for us. All in all, summer felt enchanted, magical.
Even the weather cooperated. The storm clouds that gathered every afternoon remained empty threats. They'd scowl down at Scotia, then scurry away to dump their rain elsewhere.
But sooner or later, the storm has to break and you're going to get soaked.
Which was how I came to be yelling at the man in the Armani suit.
I knew it was an Armani suit because I'd dealt with enough of them when I'd worked in D.C. Not sure how they did it, but it seemed as if every suit jacket had an attitude sewn into the lining: money can buy anything.
Well, it wasn't buying me.
Elizabeth and I hadn't risked everything -- including our lives -- to start this advocacy firm just to be dictated to by a guy who happened to have enough money to indulge his taste in designer suits.
Armani guy's name was Owen Grandel, and he'd flown all the way up from South Carolina to consult with Elizabeth and me. He was in his late thirties, trim in that personal-trainer executive way, with a shaved head that focused your attention on his dark eyes and spray-tan complexion.
He had not come to Scotia to be abused. Or so his expression informed me without bothering with words.
"We aren't in the business of whitewashing a corporation's dirty laundry," I continued, in the mood for a fight and quite happy that Grandel was obliging.
He said nothing. Simply crossed his arms over his chest, leaned his shoulders back, and smiled. The kind of smile you give a precocious kid who's acting out and you're tolerating his behavior just because you know how wrong he is.
David hates it when I smile at him that way.
Thankfully Elizabeth stepped between us before I tried to wipe that smile off Grandel's face. We were in the living room of her house -- which doubled as our office space -- and she had just brought coffee on a tray. "I'm sorry, Mr. Grandel, we're out of cream. Will milk do?"
I rolled my eyes as she almost curtsied. Then, while Grandel busied himself mixing and stirring his coffee, finally taking a seat in the Queen Anne chair beside the fireplace, Elizabeth glanced over her shoulder at me with a glare that could have sparked tinder.
Play nice, she mouthed at me, as if! were the one making trouble. She sat down across from Grandel, smoothing her skirt and crossing her ankles like a lady before reaching for her own cup of coffee.
This is why I usually let Elizabeth handle the suits. I'm more of a field person -- get me out there with the regular folks and I'll get to the truth of what's what and who's who and figure out a way to fix things. Then it's up to Elizabeth to cross the legal "t's," negotiate a workable solution for all parties, and collect our paycheck.
So far it's been a pretty good system. Until today.
"I'm not sure that you understand exactly what we do, Mr. Grandel." Elizabeth leaned across the table to snag a sugar cube, her sleeve brushing against his knee.
I barely contained my snort. It was very obvious Grandel didn't understand anything except what his money could buy.
"Oh, but I do, Ms. Hardy." He leaned back and crossed his legs, watching her through half-shut eyes.
When I worked in D.C., I knew men like him. Smooth, charming. Sociopaths. Women would fall all over themselves to do whatever they wanted. Poor sad, he had no idea who he was up against. Elizabeth wasn't like that.
"Which is why I'm willing to pay extra. Above your customary fee schedule."With an elegant flourish of his manicured fingers, he slid a check from his pocket and placed it in front of her.
Elizabeth has a pretty good poker face, but I could tell the amount on the check rocked her. She took a sip of coffee and set her cup down beside the check, ignoring it.
"That's half," he persisted when she didn't leap at his offer. "You get the same when you finish."
''And who decides when the job is finished?"
I stepped forward, unwilling to believe she was even considering.
She glared at me and I froze.
"You do, of course." His voice was a low bedroom purr.
Her mouth twisted as she considered. Then she stood in one graceful movement, taking the check with her. "We need to consult about this."
"Of course," he said with a gracious wave of his hand, as if it were his house, not hers. "Take all the time you need."
I know my mouth dropped open because I felt it snap shut again when she took my arm and dragged me out of the room and across the hall to our shared office in what used to be the dining room. She closed the door behind us, then sagged back against it.
"Holy shit, AJ."
The check dropped from her fingers, flitting through the air on the sultry August breeze wafting in through the open windows, and curled up on the hardwood floor, face down. I picked it up, turned it over.
My face went cold as I read the amount. Counted the zeroes. Five of them. My mind did a back flip -- no, that figure couldn't be right -- then sloshed right side up as I looked again.
Half a million dollars. Which meant a million for the entire job if we took it.
Enough to send David to any college he wanted, to bankroll our company for the next decade, to be able to work on projects that really mattered. Freedom, security, opportunity.
All I'd have to do was betray everything I believed in and let myself be bought.
The above is an excerpt from the book Hot Water by Erin Brockovich with CJ Lyons. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.
Copyright © 2011 By Erin Brockovich with CJ Lyons, author of Hot Water
For more information please visit http://www.brockovich.com and http://cjlyons.net and follow the author on Facebook and Twitter
Review to follow tomorrow.