Page 26 of Ford County

At his desk, with the doors locked, Mack carefully forged Freda's name as a notary public, then applied the notary seal with an expired stamp he'd kept in a locked file cabinet. He notarized Odell's signature, then Jerrol's, then stopped to admire his handiwork. He had been planning this deed for days now, and he was convinced he would never be caught. The forgeries were beautiful, the altered notary stamp was scarcely noticeable, and no one up in New York would take the time to analyze them. Mr. Rosenberg and his crack staff were so anxious to close their files that they would glance at Mack's paperwork, confirm a few details, then send the check.

His crimes grew more complicated when he forged the signatures of Travis Johnson and Doug Jumper. This, of course, was justified since he had made good-faith efforts to find them, and if they ever surfaced, he would be willing to offer them the same $25,000 he was paying to Odell and Jerrol. Assuming, of course, that he was around when they surfaced.

But Mack had no plans to be around.

The next morning, he used the U.S. Postal Service - another possible violation of the law, federal, but, again, nothing that troubled him - and sent the package by express to New York.

Then Mack filed for bankruptcy, and in the process broke another law by failing to disclose the fees that were on the way from his chain-saw masterpiece. It could be argued, and perhaps it would be argued if he got caught, that the fees had not yet been collected, and so forth, but Mack could not even win this debate with himself. Not that he really tried. The fees would never be seen by anyone in Clanton, or Mississippi, for that matter.

He hadn't shaved in two weeks, and in his opinion the salt-and-pepper beard was rather becoming. He stopped eating and stopped wearing coats and ties. The bruises and stitches were gone from his head. When he was seen around town, which was not that often, folks hesitated and whispered because word was hot on the streets that poor Mack was losing it all. News of his bankruptcy raced through the courthouse, and when coupled with the news that Lisa had filed for divorce, the lawyers and clerks and secretaries talked of little else. His office was locked during business hours, and after. His phones went unanswered. The chain-saw money was wired to a new bank account in Memphis, and from there it was quietly dispersed. Mack took $50,000 in cash, paid off Odell Grove and Jerrol Baker, and felt good about it. Sure they were entitled to more, at least under the terms of the long-forgotten contracts Mack had shoved under their noses when they'd hired him. But, at least for Mack, the occasion called for a more flexible interpretation of said contracts, and there were several reasons. First, his clients were very happy. Second, his clients would certainly squander anything above $25,000, so in the interest of preserving the money, Mack argued that he should simply keep the bulk of it. Third, $25,000 was a fair settlement in light of their injuries, and especially in light of the fact that the two would have received nothing if Mack had not been shrewd enough to dream up the chain-saw litigation scheme in the first place.

Reasons four, five, and six followed the same line of thinking. Mack was already tired of rationalizing his actions. He was screwing his clients and he knew it.

He was now a crook. Forging documents, hiding assets, swindling clients. And if he had allowed himself to brood on these actions, he would have been miserable. The reality was that Mack was so thrilled with his escape that he caught himself laughing at odd times. When the crimes were done, there was no turning back, and this pleased him too.

He handed Harry Rex a check for $50,000 to cover the initial fallout from the divorce, and he executed the necessary papers to allow his lawyer to act on his behalf in tidying up his affairs. The rest of the money was wired to a bank in Central America.

The last act in his well-planned and brilliantly executed farewell was a meeting with his daughters. After several testy phone conversations, Lisa had finally relented and agreed to allow Mack to enter the house for one hour, on a Thursday night. She would leave, but return in exactly sixty minutes. Somewhere in the unwritten rules of human behavior a wise person once decided that such meetings are mandatory. Mack certainly could have skipped it, but then he was not only a crook but also a coward. No rule "was safe. He supposed it was important for the girls to have the chance to vent, to cry, to ask •why. He need not have worried. Lisa had so thoroughly prepped them that they could barely manage a hug. He promised to see them as often as possible, even though he was leaving town. They accepted this with more skepticism than he thought possible. After thirty long and awkward minutes, Mack squeezed their stiff bodies one more time and hurried to his car. As he drove away, he was convinced the three women were planning a happy new life without him.

And if he had allowed himself to dwell on his failures and shortcomings, he could have become melancholy. He fought the urge to remember the girls when they were smaller and life was happier. Or had he ever been truly happy? He really couldn't say.

He returned to his office, entered, as always now, through the rear door, and gave the place one final walk-through. All active files had been delivered to Harry Rex. The old ones had been burned. The law books, office equipment, furniture, and cheap art on the wall had been either sold or given away. He loaded up one medium-size suitcase, the contents of which had been care' fully selected. No suits, ties, dress shirts, jackets, dress shoes - all that garb had been given to charity. Mack was leaving with the lighter stuff.

He took a bus to Memphis, flew from there to Miami, then on to Nassau, where he stayed one night before catching a flight to Belize City, Belize. He waited an hour in the sweltering airport there, sipping a beer from the tiny bar, listening to some rowdy Canadians talk excitedly about bonefishing, and dreaming of what was ahead. He wasn't really sure what was ahead, but it was certainly far more attractive than the wreckage behind.

The money was in Belize, a country with a U.S. extradition treaty that was more formal than practical. If his trail got hot, and he was supremely confident it would not, then Mack would quietly ease on down to Panama. His odds of getting caught were less than slim, in his opinion, and if someone began poking around Clanton, Harry Rex would know it soon enough.

The plane to Ambergris Cay was an aging Cessna Caravan, a twenty-seater that was stuffed with well-fed North Americans too wide for the narrow seats. But Mack didn't mind. He gazed out the window, down to the brilliant aquamarine water three thousand feet below, warm salty water in which he would soon be swimming. On the island, and north of the main town of San Pedro, he found a room at a quaint little waterfront place called Rico's Reef Resort. All rooms were thatched-roof cabins, each with a small front porch. Each porch had a long hammock, leaving little doubt as to the priorities at Rico's. He paid cash for a week, no credit cards ever again, and quickly changed into his new work clothes - T-shirt, old denim shorts, baseball cap, no shoes. He soon found the watering hole, ordered a rum drink, and met a man named Coz. Coz anchored one end of the teakwood bar and gave the impression that he had been attached to it for quite some time. His long gray hair was pulled back into a pony' tail. His skin was burned bronze and leathery. His accent was faded New England, and before long Coz, chain-smoking and drinking dark rum, let it slip that at one time he'd been involved with a vaguely undefined firm in Boston. He poked and prodded into Mack's background, but Mack was too nervous to divulge anything.

"How long you staying?" Coz, asked.

"Long enough to get a tan," Mack answered.

"Might take a while. Watch the sun. It's brutal."