The five-story building had been built a hundred years earlier by a cotton merchant and his sons after the Reconstruction, during the revival of cotton trading in Memphis. It sat in the middle of Cotton Row on Front Street near the river. Through its halls and doors and across its desks, millions of bales of cotton had been purchased from the Mississippi and Arkansas deltas and sold around the world. Deserted, neglected, then renovated time and again since the first war, it had been purchased for good in 1951 by an aggressive tax lawyer named Anthony Bendini. He renovated it yet again and began filling it with lawyers. He renamed it the Bendini Building.
He pampered the building, indulged it, coddled it, each year adding another layer of luxury to his landmark. He fortified it, sealing doors and windows and hiring armed guards to protect it and its occupants. He added elevators, electronic surveillance, security codes, closed-circuit television, a weight room, a steam room, locker rooms and a partners' dining room on the fifth floor with a captivating view of the river.
In twenty years he built the richest law firm in Memphis, and, indisputably, the quietest. Secrecy was his passion. Every associate hired by was indoctrinated in the evils of the loose tongue. Everything was confidential. Salaries, perks, advancement and, most especially, clients. Divulging firm business, the young associates were warned, could delay the awarding of the holy grail - a partnership. Nothing left the fortress on Front Street. Wives were told not to ask, or were lied to. The associates were expected to work hard, keep quiet and spend their healthy paychecks. They did, without exception.
With forty-one lawyers, was the fourth largest in Memphis. Its members did not advertise or seek publicity. They were clannish and did not fraternize with other lawyers. Their wives played tennis and bridge and shopped among themselves. Bendini, Lambert & Locke was a big family, of sorts. A rather rich family.
At 10 A.M. on a Friday, limo stopped on Front Street and Mr. Mitchell Y. McDeere emerged. He politely thanked the driver, and watched the vehicle as it drove away. His first limo ride. He stood on the sidewalk next to a streetlight and admired the quaint, picturesque, yet somehow imposing home of the quiet Bendini firm. It was a far cry from the gargantuan steel-and-glass erections inhabited by New York's finest or the enormous cylinder he had visited in Chicago. But he instantly knew he would like it. It was less pretentious. It was more like himself.
Lamar Quin walked through the front door and down the steps. He yelled at Mitch and waved him over. He had met them at the airport the night before and checked them into the Peabody - "the South's Grand Hotel."
"Good morning, Mitch! How was your night?" They shook hands like lost friends.
"Very nice. It's a great hotel."
"We knew you'd like it. Everybody likes the Peabody."
They stepped into the front foyer, where a small billboard greeted Mr. Mitchell Y. McDeere, the guest of the day. A well-dressed but unattractive receptionist smiled warmly and said her name was Sylvia and if he needed anything while he was in Memphis just let her know. He thanked her. Lamar led him to a long hallway where he began the guided tour. He explained the layout of the building and introduced Mitch to various secretaries and paralegals as they walked. In the main library on the second floor a crowd of lawyers circled the mammoth conference table and consumed pastries and coffee. They became silent when the guest entered.
Oliver Lambert greeted Mitch and introduced him to the gang. There were about twenty in all, most of the associates in, and most barely older than the guest. The partners were too busy, Lamar had explained, and would meet him later at a private lunch. He stood at the end of the table as Mr. Lambert called for quiet.
"Gentlemen, this is Mitchell McDeere. You've all heard about him, and here he is. He is our number one choice this year, our number one draft pick, so to, speak. He is being romanced by the big boys in New York and Chicago and who knows where else, so we have to sell him on our little firm here in Memphis." They smiled and nodded their approval. The guest was embarrassed.
"He will finish at Harvard in two months and will graduate with honors. He's an associate editor of the Harvard Law Review." This made an impression, Mitch could tell. "He did his undergraduate work at Western Kentucky, where he graduated summa cum laude." This was not quite as impressive. "He also played football for four years, starting as quarterback his junior year." Now they were really impressed. A few appeared to be in awe, as if staring at Joe Namath.
The senior partner continued his monologue while Mitch stood awkwardly beside him. He droned on about how selective they had always been and how well Mitch would fit in. Mitch stuffed his hands in his pockets and quit listening. He studied the group. They were young, successful and affluent. The dress code appeared to be strict, but no different than New York or Chicago. Dark gray or navy wool suits, white or blue cotton button-downs, medium starch, and silk ties. Nothing bold or nonconforming. Maybe a couple of bow ties, but nothing more daring. Neatness was mandatory. No beards, mustaches or hair over the ears. There were a couple of wimps, but good looks dominated.
Mr. Lambert was winding down. "Lamar will give Mitch a tour of our offices, so you'll have a chance to chat with him later. Let's make him welcome. Tonight he and his lovely, and I do mean lovely, wife, Abby, will eat ribs at the Rendezvous, and of course tomorrow night is dinner at my place. I'll ask you to be on your best behavior." He smiled and looked at the guest. "Mitch, if you get tired of Lamar, let me know and we'll get someone more qualified."
He shook hands with each one of them again as they left, and tried to remember as many names as possible.
"Let's start the tour," Lamar said when the room cleared. "This, of course, is a library, and we have identical ones on each of the first four floors. We also use them for large meetings. The books vary from floor to floor, so you never know where your research will lead you. We have two full-time librarians, and we use microfilm and microfiche extensively. As a rule, we don't do any research outside the building. There are over a hundred thousand volumes, including every conceivable tax reporting service. That's more than some law schools. If you need a book we don't have, just tell a librarian."
They walked past the lengthy conference table and between dozens of rows of books. "A hundred thousand volumes," Mitch mumbled.
"Yeah, we spend almost half a million a year on upkeep, supplements and new books. The partners are always griping about it, but they wouldn't think of cutting back. It's one of the largest private law libraries in the country, and we're proud of it."
"It's pretty impressive."
"We try to make research as painless as possible. You know what a bore it is and how much time can be wasted looking for the right materials. You'll spend a lot of time here the first two years, so we try to make it pleasant."
Behind a cluttered workbench in a rear corner, one of the librarians introduced himself and gave a brief tour of the computer room, where a dozen terminals stood ready to assist with the latest computerized research. He offered to demonstrate the latest, truly incredible software, but Lamar said they might stop by later.
"He's a nice guy," Lamar said as they left the library. "We pay him forty thousand a year just to keep up with the books. It's amazing."
Truly amazing, thought Mitch.
The second floor was virtually identical to the first, third and fourth. The center of each floor was filled with secretaries, their desks, file cabinets, copiers and the other necessary machines. On one side of the open area was the library, and on the other was a configuration of smaller conference rooms and offices.
"You won't see any pretty secretaries," Lamar said softly as they watched them work. "It seems to be an unwritten firm rule. Oliver Lambert goes out of his way to hire the oldest and homeliest ones he can find. Of course, some have been here for twenty years and have forgotten more law than we learned in law school."
"They seem kind of plump," Mitch observed, almost to himself.
"Yeah, it's part of the overall strategy to encourage us to keep our hands in our pockets. Philandering is strictly forbidden, and to my knowledge has never happened."
"And if it does?"
"Who knows. The secretary would be fired, of course. And I suppose the lawyer would be severely punished. It might cost a partnership. No one wants to find out, especially with this bunch of cows."
"They dress nice."
"Don't get me wrong. We hire only the best legal secretaries and we pay more than any other firm in town. You're looking at the best, not necessarily the prettiest. We require experience and maturity. Lambert won't hire anyone under thirty."
"One per lawyer?"
"Yes, until you're a partner. Then you'll get another, and by then you'll need one. Nathan Locke has three, all with twenty years' experience, and he keeps them jumping."
"Where's his office?"
"Fourth floor. It's off-limits."
Mitch started to ask, but didn't.
The corner offices were twenty-five by twenty-five, Lamar explained, and occupied by the most senior partners. Power offices, he called them, with great expectation. They were decorated to each individual's taste with no expense spared and vacated only at retirement or death, then fought over by the younger partners.
Lamar flipped a switch in one and they stepped inside, closing the door behind them. "Nice view, huh," he said as Mitch walked to the windows and looked at the river moving ever so slowly beyond Riverside Drive.
"How do you get this office?" Mitch asked as he admired a barge inching under the bridge leading to Arkansas.
"Takes time, and when you get here you'll be very wealthy, and very busy, and you won't have time to enjoy the view."
"Whose is it?"
"Victor Milligan. He's head of tax, and a very nice man. Originally from New England, he's been here for twenty-five years and calls Memphis home." Lamar stuck his hands in his pockets and walked around the room. "The hardwood floors and ceilings came with the building, over a hundred years ago. Most of the building is carpeted, but in a few spots the wood was not damaged. You'll have the option of rugs and carpet when you get here."
"I like the wood. What about that rug?"
"Some kind of antique Persian. I don't know its history. The desk was used by his great-grandfather, who was a judge of some sort in Rhode Island, or so he says. He's full of crap, and you never know when he's blowing smoke."
"Where is he?"
"Vacation, I think. Did they tell you about vacations?"
"You get two weeks a year for the first five years. Paid, of course. Then three weeks until you become a partner, then you take whatever you want. The Firm has a chalet in Vail, a cabin on a lake in Manitoba and two condos on Seven Mile Beach on Grand Cayman Island. They're free, but you need to book early. Partners get priority. After that it's first come. The Caymans are extremely popular in. It's an international tax haven and a lot of our trips are written off. I think Milligan's there now, probably scuba diving and calling it business."
Through one of his tax courses, Mitch had heard of the Cayman Islands and knew they were somewhere in the Caribbean. He started to ask exactly where, but decided to check it himself.
"Only two weeks?" he asked.
"Uh, yeah. Is that a problem?"
"No, not really. The firms in New York are offering at least three." He spoke like a discriminating critic of expensive vacations. He wasn't. Except for the three-day weekend they referred to as a honeymoon, and an occasional drive through New England, he had never participated in a vacation and had never left the country.
"You can get an additional week, unpaid."
Mitch nodded as though this was acceptable. They left Milligan's office and continued the tour. The hallway ran in a long rectangle with the attorneys' offices to the outside, all with windows, sunlight, views. Those with views of the river were more prestigious, Lamar explained, and usually occupied by partners. There were waiting lists.
The conference rooms, libraries and secretarial desks were on the inside of the hallway, away from the windows and distractions.
The associates' offices were smaller - fifteen by fifteen - but richly decorated and much more imposing than any associates' offices he had seen in New York or Chicago. spent a small fortune on design consultants, Lamar said. Money, it seemed, grew on trees. The younger lawyers were friendly and talkative and seemed to welcome the interruption. Most gave brief testimonials to the greatness of The Firm and of Memphis. The old town kind of grows on you, they kept telling him, but it takes time. They, too, had been recruited by the big boys in Washington and on Wall Street, and they had no regrets.
The partners were busier, but just as nice. He had been carefully selected, he was told again and again, and he would fit in. It was his kind of firm. They promised to talk more during lunch.
* * *
An hour earlier, Kay Quin had left the kids with the baby nurse and the maid and met Abby for brunch at the Peabody. She was a small-town girl, much like Abby. She had married Lamar after college and lived in Nashville for three years while he studied law at Vanderbilt. Lamar made so much money she quit work and had two babies in fourteen months. Now that she had retired and finished her childbearing, she spent most of her time with the garden club and the heart fund and the country club and the PTA and the church. Despite the money and the affluence, she was modest and unpretentious, and apparently determined to stay that way regardless of her husband's success. Abby found a friend.
After croissants and eggs Benedict, they sat in the lobby of the hotel, drinking coffee and watching the ducks swim in circles around the fountain. Kay had suggested a quick tour of Memphis with a late lunch near her home. Maybe some shopping.
"Have they mentioned the low-interest loan?" she asked.
"Yes, at the first interview."
"They'll want you to buy a house when you move here. Most people can't afford a house when they leave law school, so loans you the money at a lower rate and holds the mortgage."
"I don't know. It's been seven years since we moved here, and we've bought another house since then. It'll be a bargain, believe me. The Firm will see to it that you own a home. It's sort of an unwritten rule."
"Why is it so important?"
"Several reasons. First of all, they want you down here. This firm is very selective, and they usually get who they want. But Memphis is not exactly in the spotlight, so they have to offer more. Also, is very demanding, especially on the associates. There's pressure, overwork, eighty-hour weeks and time away from home. It won't be easy on either of you, and The Firm knows it. The theory is that a strong marriage means a happy lawyer, and a happy lawyer is a productive lawyer, so the bottom line is profits. Always profits.
"And there's another reason. These guys - all guys, no women - take a lot of pride in their wealth, and everyone is expected to look and act affluent. It would be an insult to if an associate was forced to live in an apartment. They want you in a house, and after five years, in a bigger house. If we have some time this afternoon, I'll show you some of the partners' homes. When you see them, you won't mind the eighty-hour weeks."
"I'm used to them now."
"That's good, but law school doesn't compare with this. Sometimes they'll work a hundred hours a week during tax season."
Abby smiled and shook her head as if this impressed her a great deal. "Do you work?"
"No. Most of us don't work. The money is there, so we're not forced to, and we get little help with the kids from our husbands. Of course, working is not forbidden."
"Forbidden by whom?"
"I would hope not." Abby repeated the word "forbidden" to herself, but let it pass.
Kay sipped her coffee and watched the ducks. A small boy wandered away from his mother and stood near the fountain. "Do you plan to start a family?" Kay asked.
"Maybe in a couple of years."