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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 children sitting in the front row just behind the plaintiff desk. Both of them wore stark, black eye patches.
"We all know why we're here," Hunter said firmly when the laughter faded, his voice turning stern as he moved toward the children. They were sitting between their parents, their tiny, dimpled chins buried self-consciously in their narrow chests. "We're here because fourteen months ago westbound Bridger Freight 819 tragically derailed just outside the small town of Fort Mason, Montana. I say 'tragically' because the four tank cars that jumped the tracks that May afternoon were filled with liquid anhydrous ammonia, a common fertilizer. As we heard the experts testify, those four tank cars derailed near the Murphy General Store off SR 72 and suffered catastrophic fractures when they smashed into several boxcars sitting on a siding. Those fractures allowed the liquid inside the tank cars to escape, and, when liquid anhydrous ammonia hits air, it explodes into a gas."
The courtroom had gone deathly still. The judge was leaning forward on the bench, peering over his black-framed glasses. The reporters standing shoulder to shoulder in the back had ceased scribbling on their notepads. Those in the audience who'd been fanning their faces with newspapers had stopped fanning. Everything had come to a halt and everyone was staring at Hunter. They'd heard it all before during the past few days, but not like this, not so compactly and so dramatically. It was as if Hunter had magically transported them to the accident scene just as the train went roaring past and they could see for themselves how the tank cars had careened off the rails and slammed into the boxcars on the siding, then tumbled over and over. It was as if they could see for themselves the steel cars rip apart as if they were made of balsa wood, see for themselves how the liquid inside the cars burst into a huge, deadly, billowing cloud. It was as if they were watching the Zapruder film for the first time, as if they were watching Jack Kennedy reach for his throat with both hands, watching half his head blown off with the last ghastly shot. But Hunter was doing it all without a projector and an eight-millimeter film. He was making the jury appreciate the horror of the tragedy without any visual aids, making the jury appreciate why he was so good. He was making those twelve people sitting in judgment understand why the families who'd sought his services had actually gone to church to pray that he would represent them.
"Into a monster." Hunter's voice resounded throughout the courtroom. "A monster seeking water anywhere it could find it because that's what anhydrous ammonia does. It sucks water out of everything it comes into contact with. Like it did from the skin, lungs and eyes of those unlucky people in its path that terrible spring day in Fort Mason." Hunter pointed at the children in the front row. "Like it did from the eyes of these innocent children, blinding them as their lenses dehydrated like puddles beneath the Sahara sun."
"Objection!" One of the railroad's four attorneys shot up from his seat, unable to restrain himself any longer. "Mr. Lee's grandstanding, Your Honor. I mean, is there a question anywhere in our future?" The young man slammed the desk with his fist, totally frustrated. "Objection!"
"Four people died when the gas singed their lungs bone-dry and ten were blinded, including these poor children sitting before us. Fortunately just in one eye for them." Hunter's expression turned sad, and he shook his head. "I can't believe I just said 'fortunately.' I'm sorry," he murmured, nodding solemnly to the little boy and girl, then to their parents. "Very sorry."
"Overruled." The judge glared down at the railroad attorney. "Now, sit."
"Your Honor, please. This is -- "
"I said, sit down, sir!"
Hunter glanced at Carl Bach. He was sweating profusely. "Those are the facts, Mr. Bach," Hunter said quietly, "and they are not in dispute. What is in dispute is who bears the blame. Was the engineer going too fast? Were the tracks the train was roaring down that day in desperate need of repair? Did the senior executives of the Bridger Railroad know the tracks were broken? As brittle as dead aspens in February?" Hunter pointed toward the witness stand as he scanned the jury. "Did Mr. Bach know those tracks were broken? Or," he said, gesturing toward the four attorneys at the defense table, "is it as they would have you believe, as their experts would have you believe? That the tracks had been tampered with and that was what caused the train to crash? That, in fact, the Bridger Railroad was a victim in this horrible tragedy, too?"
Hunter caught the judge's subtle hand signal. There needed to be a question soon. The objections hadn't been well received, but the point had been made. Enough orating.
"We've heard about chevrons in the rails, street gangs out to satisfy their hunger for random violence, even the possibility of foreign terrorists conspiring to murder the residents of Fort Mason." Hunter gave the railroad attorneys a did-you-really-think-anyone-would-buy-that-one look, slowly pivoting so that everyone in the courtroom could see his skeptical expression. "We've heard all manner of possibilities from that army of attorneys over there. One for each of the tank cars that derailed, now that I think about it," Hunter added, as if the fact had just dawned on him. Which, of course, it hadn't. "Ironic, huh?"
A murmur raced around the courtroom, full of hatred for the railroad. It was a reaction that told Hunter he now had everyone squarely in the palm of his hand, even the older woman in the faded blue dress and matching hat. It was a reaction that told Hunter his father had been absolutely right to guide his son into the law.
The railroad attorneys blurred before him. How could his father have been so sure of himself? Harboring not the slightest doubt about repeating his decree at the dinner table night after night. Filled with a sense of purpose and conviction completely uncommon to the man, according to people who'd known him well. What had he known?
"Mr. Lee," the judge urged under his breath, "get on with it. Please, sir."
A sincere "please" from a judge? Had Hunter heard the man in the black robe right? His partners back in New York would never believe him. Where he came from judges ran courtrooms with iron fists, not polite requests. When the hell had he made this deal with the devil?
Then it hit Hunter. Maybe he hadn't made the deal, maybe his father had. Maybe that was how his father had known his younger son was predestined for the law.
"What we haven't heard is the truth." Hunter moved back toward the witness stand, shaken by the thought of his father sitting across the negotiating table from the devil. For several moments he stood before Carl Bach, staring down at the senior executive, fighting the images racing through his mind. "Did you know those tracks needed to be fixed?" he finally managed to ask.
"No," Bach responded, his calm demeanor belying the anxiety etched into the lines on his forehead and cheeks. "In fact, they might have been fine. They probably were fine," he added quickly. "The cause of the accident could easily have been a hot box in one of the car's braking systems; a bad loading job in the coal cars ahead of the first tanker; or a shift in the load on the trip through South Dakota while the Burlington Northern had control of it. We just don't know, Mr. Lee." Bach spread his arms, appearing baffled. "No one knows. We dug through that accident scene for a week and nobody could figure out what happened. Us, the state boys, the federal agents. I spent two days over there myself. There was just too much damage to the cars and the tracks. There was lots of speculation, but nobody could ever say for sure what happened." Bach scanned the courtroom, searching for compassion, searching for just one friendly face. "What I do know is that all the main-line tracks in our entire system had passed their regularly scheduled maintenance check the week before. With flying colors," he added. "With no exceptions and no maintenance orders filed. It's a stringent program we rigorously execute and document. You had access to all those records, didn't you, Mr. Lee?"
Bach had obviously been drilled on how to answer this question by his lawyers, but he'd practiced the response so many times the words sounded scripted now. Maybe the jury would pick up on that. Hunter was confident they would, because ultimately, juries were damn perceptive.
"Yes," Hunter agreed, finally pushing his distractions to the side, at least for the time being. "Your attorneys were very helpful in getting me those files."
"Good. I told them right from the start that you were to have everything you wanted as fast as possible. All the records, all the files." Bach's expression filled with sympathy for the two small children sitting in the front row. "The challenge, Mr. Lee, is that we can't possibly patrol every mile of track we operate every second of the day." Implying that the tracks had indeed been tampered with. "What happened was a tragedy, is a tragedy, is a damn tragedy. But there's bad people out there doing bad things more and more often these days. It's awful, but it's an awful reality, too."
Hunter nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, I see what you're saying." He paused. "But a question or two about what you just said, Mr. Bach. To set the record straight before you step down. Okay?"
Bach looked at Hunter suspiciously. "Yeah, sure."
"You just told the judge and the jury that all of those one thousand six hundred and forty-nine miles of main-line tracks are subject to a monthly maintenance program."
"Yes...I did say that," Bach agreed hesitantly.
"What about those four hundred twelve and a half miles of yards, spurs and sidings?" Hunter asked, boring in on his target. "Give or take a few feet here and there, of course. What about them?"
Bach shifted uncomfortably in the witness chair. It was obvious from his body language that he didn't like Hunter repeating the exact number of yard, spur and siding miles the Bridger Railroad operated. It was obvious that the precision coming back at him was unsettling.
One of the railroad's lawyers shifted in his seat, Hunter noticed out of the corner of his eye. Then another one ran a hand through his thinning hair.
"What about them?" Bach asked.
"What's the maintenance program when it comes to the yards, spurs, and sidings?"
Bach cast an SOS glance at his legal team. "Uh, it depends."
"On what?" Hunter was shooting questions at Bach faster now, speeding up the pace as he steered the COO into no-man's-land.
"On how much the tracks are used, on how old they are, on when they were last checked. On lots of things," Bach said, as if his answer should be obvious. "I mean, we're very diligent when it comes to those tracks, too, but we can't check them as often as we check the main lines. It wouldn't be cost effective."
"And it isn't necessary," Bach spoke up quickly, realizing how callous "cost effective" had sounded in front of people who'd suffered so much. "Our trains go up to sixty, sometimes seventy miles an hour on the main lines, but on sidings the engineers are specifically ordered not to exceed fifteen, so those tracks don't take nearly the wear and tear. And, if there is a problem with a siding track, what happens won't be so bad because the train is going slower. We're solid on this with all our people, we've never had a problem. Our safety record has been outstanding. Other than what happened in Fort Mason last year," he admitted in a low voice.
"The train in question was going over fifteen miles an hour that day. Right, Mr. Bach?"
The COO bit his lower lip. "I believe so."
"How fast was it going?"
"We don't know for -- "
"About how fast?" Hunter interrupted. He glanced at that piece of paper lying on the plaintiff desk, hoping Bach would catch the look. "Come on."
"Objection!" shouted one of the railroad attorneys. "The question calls for speculation on the part of the -- "
"Overruled," the judge snapped. "We heard the experts testify. Your experts."
"Around forty miles an hour," Bach answered when the judge pointed at him. "Maybe fifty," he went on, almost in a whisper. "But it's a main-line track so the engineer wasn't even going as fast as he could have been."
"It's a double-track main line at that point in the system, right?" Hunter asked. "Meaning two trains can pass each other at that point west of Fort Mason. Correct?"
"Yes," Bach agreed deliberately, as if he suddenly realized he had a problem. "It's a double-track main line there," he confirmed, choosing his words carefully. "Then there are the siding tracks alongside the double main. The tracks those boxcars were sitting on."
"Why are those siding tracks there?"
"The Brule Lumber Mill is about a half mile away, back in the woods. The sidings are a staging area for the mill. The long-haul freights drop cars off there, then the local switcher takes them to the mill. And vice-versa."
"I see." Hunter rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "How far out of town on the west side does that double main go?"
"How far west of town does the double main line go? When does it switch down to one track?" Hunter rested a hand on the railing that boxed in the witness chair on three sides. "What's the next big town west of Fort Mason?" he prodded when Bach didn't respond right away.
"Okay. How far is Gordonsville from Fort Mason?"
"About thirty miles."
"Does the double main go all the way to Gordonsville? Are there two separate tracks from Fort Mason to Gordonsville?"
"Then how far does it go?" Hunter moved slightly to his right, blocking Bach's view of his attorneys. "Mr. Bach?"
Bach let out a measured breath. "Four miles."
"Four miles!" Hunter thundered, backing off a few steps and folding his arms across his chest. "That's all? You call that a main line? Isn't that really just a glorified siding, Mr. Bach? Just a place one train can idle while another one passes on the real main line?"
"It's a main line!" Bach shouted. "A damn main line, even if it is only four miles long."
"Has that four miles of track always been classified as a main line?" Hunter demanded.
Bach's eyes opened wide, his expression went blank, and his chin tilted slightly up. "I uh, I..." His voice trailed off.
"What's the point?" demanded one of the railroad attorneys, jumping to his feet. "What's this all about?"
"Has it always been classified as a main line?" Hunter fired again. "And I'm warning you, Mr. Bach, be careful about answering this question. Very careful."
"Yes!" Bach hissed, his knuckles going white as he clenched the arms of the witness chair. "It's always been classified as a main line."
Hunter stared at Bach for several moments, eyes flashing. The courtroom had gone deathly still again.
As if on cue, one of the dark-wood doors at the back opened, making what seemed like a huge racket in the stillness of the courtroom as it creaked on its hinges. Hunter didn't bother turning his head as an attractive young woman in a short dress slipped into the room and squeezed between two reporters. He didn't need to look; he knew what was happening. He kept his eyes riveted to Bach's, and he saw in Bach's forlorn expression exactly what he wanted to see. That it was over, that Bach was done, that suddenly Bach didn't want any more of this fight.
The woman had slipped into the courtroom as if she wasn't anyone special, which she wasn't. Except to Carl Bach and Hunter Lee.
"Are you sure you want to stick with that story?" Hunter strode toward the plaintiff desk and the piece of paper he'd been staring at before calling Bach to testify. He picked it up, then retraced his steps to Bach's shocked, terrified expression and slipped the memo into the COO's trembling fingers. "Are you absolutely sure?"
"That's your signature on the bottom of the page, isn't it?" Hunter asked, his voice dropping to a whisper.
Bach swallowed hard.
"I didn't hear the question!" one of the railroad attorneys shouted, pounding on the desk. "Please repeat the question! What's on that piece of paper? Speak up, will you!"
"Do you recognize that woman who just walked into the courtroom, Mr. Bach?" Hunter's voice dropped a notch lower, so not even the judge could hear him.
Bach shut his eyes tightly and turned his head to one side, as though he was lashed to a post before a firing squad and the order had already reached "Aim." He nodded.
"You don't want to keep going, do you?"
The executive hung his head. "No."
"We can't hear the questions," came a chorus of voices from the defense desk. All four railroad attorneys were standing now. "Your Honor, please!"
"Mr. Lee," the judge said, "please speak up."
Another "please" from a judge? His father must have done one hell of a job on the devil. Of course, the devil always got something in return. "I'll ask you again," Hunter said quietly to Bach, backing off a little, offering the COO a horrible choice. His career -- or his marriage. "The question you want to answer, not the other one. The one -- "
"Ask me," Bach begged, unable to get the words out fast enough. "In Jesus's name, please ask me."
Hunter took another step back. "I'm going to ask you one more time, Mr. Bach." His voice was strong and clear again so everyone in the courtroom could hear him. "Was that four-mile stretch of track always classified as a main line?"
Bach stared straight ahead for what seemed like an eternity, eyes fixed on something in the distance only he could see. Then his lips began to quiver and his head to shake, almost imperceptibly at first, then with conviction. "No." He buried his face in his hands. "It was classified as a siding before the accident. We changed the track's maintenance classification to main line the day after those tank cars derailed." Bach began to rock back and forth in the chair. "Then we changed all the maintenance records from before the accident to make that four miles of track look like it had always been classified as a main line." Bach slumped down. "The train shouldn't have been going that fast," he mumbled. "It shouldn't have been going over fifteen miles an hour on that track, it shouldn't have been on that track at all. Those rails were rusty and cracked, they needed to be replaced. I saw it myself a few weeks before the accident. But we've been trying to save money everywhere we can." He gasped. "We've got so much debt on our books, and we're so damned strapped for cash. I mean, we're almost bankrupt."
Hunter gazed at Carl Bach for several moments, watching the other man's tears come streaming down, thinking about how he'd just destroyed a man's career and wondering if he should feel some sense of remorse. Hadn't Bach deserved to be asked that terrible question, hadn't he deserved that terrible choice? Shouldn't people be held accountable for the awful things they did and wasn't that all he was doing? Wasn't that justice?
Hunter motioned to the judge. "I rest my case, Your Honor."
A few minutes later the judge had delivered his instructions to the jurors and they were shuffling out of the room, some of them casting hateful looks in Bach's direction as they left. They were headed to an anteroom to deliberate on how much money they would award the eight families who'd retained Hunter Lee. The litigator from New York City had lived up to all of his advance billing, to his big-time reputation.
When the last juror had disappeared, Hunter realized that he was thirsty. But, unlike the judge and jury, he had to exit the room like everyone else. Through those dark-wood doors at the back of the room, and the pack of hungry reporters who were already starting to shout questions at him.
As Hunter pushed his way through the chaos, a small man holding a letter-size envelope stood directly in his path. He didn't look like a reporter, Hunter thought to himself as the distance between them closed. He wasn't holding a pen and notepad.
"Robert Lee?" the man asked over the din of voices as they came together.
Hunter's eyes narrowed. "Yes."
"Robert Hunter Lee?"
The small man smiled thinly and pressed the envelope firmly to Hunter's chest. "Congratulations, Mr. Lee. You've been served."Copyright © 2009 by Stephen Frey