Page 23 of The Firm

On a friday, at noon, two weeks before Christmas, Abby said goodbye to her students and left St. Andrew's for the holidays. At one, she parked in a lot full of Volvos and BMWs and Saabs and more Peugeots and walked hurriedly through the cold rain into the crowded terrarium where the young affluent gathered to eat quiche and fajitas and black bean soup among the plants. This was Kay Quin's current hot spot of the year, and this was the second lunch they'd had in a month. Kay was late, as usual.

It was a friendship still in the initial stages of development. Cautious by nature, Abby had never been one to rush into chumminess with a stranger. The three years at Harvard had been friendless, and she had learned a great deal of independence. In six months in Memphis she had met a handful of prospects at church and one at school, but she moved cautiously.

At first Kay Quin had pushed hard. She was at once a tour guide, shopping consultant and even a decorator. But Abby had moved slowly, learning a little with each visit and watching her new friend carefully. They had eaten several times in the Quin home. They had seen each other at firm dinners and functions, but always in a crowd. And they had enjoyed each other's company over four long lunches at whatever happened to be the hottest gathering place at that moment for the young and beautiful Golden MasterCard holders in Memphis. Kay noticed cars and homes and clothes, but pretended to ignore it all. Kay wanted to be a friend, a close friend, a confidante, an intimate. Abby kept the distance, slowly allowing her in.

The reproduction of a 1950s jukebox sat below Abby's table on the first level near the bar, where a standing-room crowd sipped and waited for tables. After ten minutes and two Roy Orbisons, Kay emerged from the crowd at the front door and looked upward to the third level. Abby smiled and waved.

They hugged and pecked each other properly on the cheeks, without transferring lipstick.

"Sorry I'm late," Kay said.

"That's okay. I'm used to it."

"This place is packed," Kay said, looking around in amazement. It was always packed. "So you're out of school?"

"Yes. As of an hour ago. I'm free until January 6."

They admired each other's outfits and commented on how slim and in general how beautiful and young they were.

Christmas shopping at once became the topic, and they talked of stores and sales and children until the wine arrived. Abby ordered scampi in a skillet, but Kay stuck with the old fern-bar standby of broccoli quiche.

"What're your plans for Christmas?'' Kay asked.

"None yet. I'd like to go to Kentucky to see my folks, but I'm afraid Mitch won't go. I've dropped a couple of hints, both of which were ignored."

"He still doesn't like your parents?"

"There's been no change. In fact, we don't discuss them. I don't know how to handle it."

"With great caution, I would imagine."

"Yeah, and great patience. My parents were wrong, but I still need them. It's painful when the only man I've ever loved can't tolerate my parents. I pray every day for a small miracle."

"Sounds like you need a rather large miracle. Is he working as hard as Lamar says?"

"I don't know how a person could work any harder. It's eighteen hours a day Monday through Friday, eight hours on Saturday, and since Sunday is a day of rest, he puts in only five or six hours. He reserves a little time for me on Sunday."

"Do I hear a touch of frustration?"

"A lot of frustration, Kay. I've been patient, but it's getting worse. I'm beginning to feel like a widow. I'm tired of sleeping on the couch waiting for him to get home."

"You're there for food and sex, huh?"

"I wish. He's too tired for sex. It's not a priority anymore. And this is a man who could never get enough. I mean, we almost killed each other in law school. Now, once a week if I'm lucky. He comes home, eats if he has the energy and goes to bed. If I'm really lucky, he might talk to me for a few minutes before he passes out. I'm starved for adult conversation, Kay. I spend seven hours a day with eight-year-olds, and I crave words with more than three syllables. I try to explain this to him, and he's snoring. Did you go through this with Lamar?"

"Sort of. He worked seventy hours a week for the first year. I think they all do. It's kind of like initiation into the fraternity. A male ritual in which you have to prove your manliness. But most of them run out of gas after a year, and cut back to sixty or sixty-five hours. They still work hard, but not the kamikaze routine of the rookie year."

"Does Lamar work every Saturday?"

"Most Saturdays, for a few hours. Never on Sunday. I've put my foot down. Of course, if there's a big deadline or it's tax season, then they all work around the clock. I think Mitch has them puzzled."

"He's not slowing down any. In fact, he's possessed. Occasionally he won't come home until dawn. Then it's just a quick shower, and back to the office."

"Lamar says he's already a legend around the office."

Abby sipped her wine and looked over the rail at the bar. "That's great. I'm married to a legend."

"Have you thought about children?"

"It requires sex, remember?"

"Come on, Abby, it can't be that bad."

"I'm not ready for children. I can't handle being a single parent. I love my husband, but at this point in his life, he would probably have a terribly important meeting and leave me alone in the labor room. Eight centimeters dilated. He thinks of nothing but that damned law firm."

Kay reached across the table and gently took Abby's hand. "It'll be okay," she said with a firm smile and a wise look. "The first year is the hardest. It gets better, I promise."

Abby smiled. "I'm sorry."

The waiter arrived with their food, and they ordered more wine. The scampi simmered in the butter-and-garlic sauce and produced a delicious aroma. The cold quiche was all alone on a bed of lettuce with a sickly tomato wedge.

Kay picked a glob of broccoli and chewed on it. "You know, Abby, The Firm encourages children."

"I don't care. Right now I don't like. I'm competing with The Firm, and I'm losing badly. So I could care less what they want. They will not plan my family for me. I don't understand why they are so interested in things which are none of their business. That place is eerie, Kay. I can't put my finger on it, but those people make my skin crawl."

"They want happy lawyers with stable families."

"And I want my husband back. They're in the process of taking him away, so the family is not so stable. If they'd get off his back, perhaps we could be normal like everyone else and have a yard full of children. But not now."

The wine arrived, and the scampi cooled. She ate it slowly and drank her wine. Kay searched for less sensitive areas.

"Lamar said Mitch went to the Caymans last month."

"Yes. He and Avery were there for three days. Strictly business, or so he says. Have you been there?"

"Every year. It's a beautiful place with gorgeous beaches and warm water. We go in June of each year, when school is out. The Firm owns two huge condos right on the beach."

"Mitch wants to vacation there in March, during my spring break."

"You need to. Before we had kids, we did nothing but lie on the beach, drink rum and have sex. That's one reason furnishes the condos and, if you're lucky, the airplane. They work hard, but they appreciate the need for leisure."

"Don't mention to me, Kay. I don't want to hear about what they like or dislike, or what they do or don't do, or what they encourage or discourage."

"It'll get better, Abby. I promise. You must understand that your husband and my husband are both very good lawyers, but they could not earn this kind of money anywhere else. And you and I would be driving new Buicks instead of new Peugeots and Mercedes-Benzes."

Abby cut a shrimp in half and rolled it through the butter and garlic. She stabbed a portion with a fork, then pushed her plate away. The wineglass was empty. "I know, Kay, I know. But there is a hell of a lot more to life than a big yard and a Peugeot. No one around here seems to be aware of that. I swear, I think we were happier living in a two-room student apartment in Cambridge."

"You've only been here a few months. Mitch will slow down eventually, and you'll get into your routine. Before long there will be little McDeeres running around the backyard, and before you know it, Mitch will be a partner. Believe me, Abby, things will get much better. You're going through a period we've all been through, and we made it."

"Thanks, Kay, I certainly hope you're right."

* * *

The park was a small one, two or three acres on a bluff above the river. A row of cannons and two bronze statues memorialized those brave Confederates who had fought to save the river and the city. Under the monument to a general and his horse a wino tucked himself away. His cardboard box and ragged quilt provided little shelter from the bitter cold and the tiny pellets of frozen rain. Fifty yards below, the evening traffic rushed along Riverside Drive. It was dark.

Mitch walked to the row of cannons and stood gazing at the river and the bridges leading to Arkansas. He zipped his raincoat and flipped the collar around his ears. He looked at his watch. He waited.

The Bendini Building was almost visible six blocks away. He had parked in a garage in midtown and taken a taxi back to the river. He was sure he had not been followed. He waited.

The icy wind blowing up from the river reddened his face and reminded him of the winters in Kentucky after his parents were gone. Cold, bitter winters. Lonely, desolate winters. He had worn someone else's coats, passed down from a cousin or a friend, and they had never been heavy enough. Secondhand clothes. He dismissed those thoughts.

The frozen rain turned to sleet and the tiny pieces of ice stuck in his hair and bounced on the sidewalk around him. He looked at his watch.

There were footsteps and a figure in a hurry walking toward the cannons. Whoever it was stopped, then approached slowly.

"Mitch?" It was Eddie Lomax, dressed in jeans and a full-length rabbit coat. With his thick mustache and white cowboy hat he looked like an ad for a cigarette. The Marlboro Man.

"Yeah, it's me."

Lomax walked closer, to the other side of the cannon. They stood like Confederate sentries watching the river.

"Have you been followed?" Mitch asked.

"No, I don't think so. You?"

"No."

Mitch stared at the traffic on Riverside Drive, and beyond, to the river. Lomax thrust his hands deep into his pockets. "You talked to Ray, lately?" Lomax asked.

"No." The answer was short, as if to say, "I'm not standing here in the sleet to chitchat."

"What'd you find?" Mitch asked, without looking.

Lomax lit a cigarette, and now he was the Marlboro Man. "On the three lawyers, I found a little info. Alice Knauss was killed in a car wreck in 1977. Police report said she was hit by a drunk driver, but oddly enough, no such driver was ever found. The wreck happened around midnight on a Wednesday. She had worked late down at the office and was driving home. She lived out east, in Sycamore View, and about a mile from her condo she gets hit head - on by a one-ton pickup. Happened on New London Road. She was driving a fancy little Fiat and it was blown to pieces. No witnesses. When the cops got there, the truck was empty. No sign of a driver. They ran the plates and found that the truck had been stolen in St. Louis three days earlier. No fingerprints or nothing."

"They dusted for prints?"

"Yeah. I know the investigator who handled it. They were suspicious but had zero to go on. There was a broken bottle of whiskey on the floorboard, so they blamed it on a drunk driver and closed the file."

"Autopsy?"

"No. It was pretty obvious how she died."

"Sounds suspicious."

"Very much so. All three of them are suspicious. Robert Lamm was the deer hunter in Arkansas. He and some friends had a deer camp in Izard County in the Ozarks. They went over two or three times a year during the season. After a morning in the woods, everyone returned to the cabin but Lamm. They searched for two weeks and found him in a ravine, partially covered with leaves. He had been shot once through the head, and that's about all they know. They ruled out suicide, but there was simply no evidence to begin an investigation."

"So he was murdered?"

"Apparently so. Autopsy showed an entry at the base of the skull and an exit wound that removed most of his face. Suicide would have been impossible."

"It could have been an accident."

"Possibly. He could have caught a bullet intended for a deer, but it's unlikely. He was found a good distance from the camp, in an area seldom used by hunters. His friends said they neither heard nor saw other hunters the morning he disappeared. I talked to the sheriff, who is now the ex-sheriff, and he's convinced it was murder. He claims there was evidence that the body had been covered intentionally."

"Is that all?"

"Yeah, on Lamm..."

"What about Mickel?"

"Pretty sad. He committed suicide in 1984 at the age of thirty-four. Shot himself in the right temple with a Smith & Wesson .357. He left a lengthy farewell letter in which he told his ex-wife he hoped she would forgive him and all that crap. Said goodbye to the kids and his mother. Real touching."

"Was it in his handwriting?"

"Not exactly. It was typed, which was not unusual, because he typed a good bit. He had an IBM Selectric in his office, and the letter came from it. He had a terrible handwriting."

"So what's suspicious?"

"The gun. He never bought a gun in his life. No one knows where it came from. No registration, no serial number, nothing. One of his friends in The Firm allegedly said something to the effect that Mickel had told him he had bought a gun for protection. Evidently he was having some emotional problems."

"What do you think?"

Lomax threw his cigarette butt in the frozen rain on the sidewalk. He cupped his hands over his mouth and blew in them. "I don't know. I can't believe a tax lawyer with no knowledge of guns could obtain one without registration or serial number. If a guy like that wanted a gun, he would simply go to a gun shop, fill out the papers and buy a nice, shiny new piece. This gun was at least ten years old and had been sanitized by professionals."

"Did the cops investigate?"

"Not really. It was open and shut."

"Did he sign the letter?"

"Yeah, but I don't know who verified the signature. He and his wife had been divorced for a year, and she had moved back to Baltimore."

Mitch buttoned the top button of his overcoat and shook the ice from his collar. The sleet was heavier, and the sidewalk was covered. Tiny icicles were beginning to form under the barrel of the cannon. The traffic slowed on Riverside as wheels began to slide and spin.

"So what do you think of our little firm?" Mitch asked as he stared at the river in the distance.

"It's a dangerous place to work. They've lost five lawyers in the past fifteen years. That's not a very good safety record."

"Five?"

"If you include Hodge and Kozinski. I've got a source telling me there are some unanswered questions."

"I didn't hire you to investigate those two."

"And I'm not charging you for it. I got curious, that's all."

"How much do I owe you?"

"Six-twenty."

"I'll pay cash. No records, okay?"

"Suits me. I prefer cash."

Mitch turned from the river and gazed at the tall buildings three blocks from the park. He was cold now, but in no hurry to leave. Lomax watched him from the corner of his eye.

"You've got problems, don't you, pal?"

"Wouldn't you say so?" Mitch answered.

"I wouldn't work there. I mean, I don't know all that you do, and I suspect you know a lot you're not telling. But we're standing here in the sleet because we don't want to be seen. We can't talk on the phone. We can't meet in your office. Now you don't want to meet in my office. You think you're being followed all the time. You tell me to be careful and watch my rear because they, whoever they are, may be following me. You've got five lawyers in that firm who've died under very suspicious circumstances, and you act like you may be next. Yeah, I'd say you got problems. Big problems."

"What about Tarrance?"

"One of their best agents; transferred in here about two years ago."

"From where?"

"New York."

The wino rolled from under the bronze horse and fell to the sidewalk. He grunted, staggered to his feet, retrieved his cardboard box and quilt and left in the direction of downtown. Lomax jerked around and watched anxiously. "It's just a tramp," Mitch said. They both relaxed.

"Who are we hiding from?" Lomax asked.

"I wish I knew."

Lomax studied his face carefully. "I think you know."

Mitch said nothing.

"Look, Mitch, you're not paying me to get involved. I realize that. But my instincts tell me you're in trouble, and I think you need a friend, someone to trust. I can help, if you need me. I don't know who the bad guys are, but I'm convinced they're very dangerous."

"Thanks," Mitch said softly without looking, as if it was time for Lomax to leave and let him stand there in the sleet for a while.

"I would jump in that river for Ray McDeere, and I can certainly help his little brother."

Mitch nodded slightly, but said nothing. Lomax lit another cigarette and kicked the ice from his lizard-skins. "Just call me anytime. And be careful. They're out there, and they play for keeps."

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