Page 25 of The Firm

The snow cleared long before Christmas, leaving the ground wet and making way for the traditional Southern holiday weather of gray skies and cold rain. Memphis had seen two white Christmases in the past ninety years, and the experts predicted no more in the century.

There was snow in Kentucky, but the roads were clear. Abby called her parents early Christmas morning after she packed. She was coming, she said, but she would be alone. They were disappointed, they said, and suggested that perhaps she should stay if it was causing trouble. She insisted. It was a ten-hour drive. Traffic would be light, and she would be there by dark.

Mitch said very little. He spread the morning paper on the floor next to the tree and pretended to concentrate as she loaded her car. The dog hid nearby under a chair, as if waiting for an explosion. Their gifts had been opened and arranged neatly on the couch. Clothes and perfume and albums, and for her, a full-length fox coat. For the first time in the young marriage, there was money to spend at Christmas.

She draped the coat over her arm and walked to the paper. "I'm leaving now," she said softly, but firmly.

He stood slowly and looked at her.

"I wish you would come with me," she said.

"Maybe next year." It was a lie, and they knew it. But it sounded good. It was promising.

"Please be careful."

"Take care of my dog."

"We'll be fine."

He took her shoulders and kissed her on the cheek. He looked at her and smiled. She was beautiful, much more so than when they married. At twenty-four, she looked her age, but the years were becoming very generous.

They walked to the carport, and he helped her into the car. They kissed again, and she backed down the driveway.

Merry Christmas,he said to himself. Merry Christmas,he said to the dog.

After an hour of watching the walls, he threw two changes of clothes in the BMW, placed Hearsay in the front seat and left town. He drove south on Interstate 55, out of Memphis, into Mississippi. The road was deserted, but he kept an eye on the rearview mirror. The dog whimpered precisely every sixty minutes, and Mitch would stop on the shoulder - if possible, just over a hill. He would find a cluster of trees where he could hide and watch the traffic while Hearsay did his business. He noticed nothing. After five stops, he was sure he was not being followed. They evidently took off Christmas Day.

In six hours he was in Mobile, and two hours later he crossed the bay at Pensacola and headed for the Emerald Coast of Florida. Highway 98 ran through the coastal towns of Navarre, Fort Walton Beach, Destin and Sandestin. It encountered clusters of condominiums and motels, miles of shopping centers, then strings of run-down amusement parks and low rent T-shirt shops, most of which had been locked and neglected since Labor Day. Then it went for miles with no congestion, no sprawl, just an awesome view of the snowy-white beaches and brilliant emerald waters of the Gulf. East of Sandestin, the highway narrowed and left the coast, and for an hour he drove alone on the two-lane with nothing to look at but the woods and an occasional self-serve gas station or quick-shop convenience store.

At dusk, he passed a high rise, and a sign said Panama City Beach was eight miles ahead. The highway found the coast again at a point where it forked and offered a choice between the bypass to the north and the scenic route straight ahead on what was called the Miracle Strip. He chose the scenic route next to the beach - the strip that ran for fifteen miles by the water and was lined on both sides with condos, cheap motels, trailer parks, vacation cottages, fast-food joints and T-shirt shops. This was Panama City Beach.

Most of the ten zillion condos were empty, but there were a few cars parked about and he assumed that some families vacationed on the beach for Christmas. A hot-weather Christmas. At least they're together, he said to himself. The dog barked, and they stopped by a pier where men from Pennsylvania and Ohio and Canada fished and watched the dark waters.

They cruised the Miracle Strip by themselves. Hearsay stood on the door and took in the sights, barking at the occasional flashing neon of a cinder-block motel advertising its openness and cheap rates. Christmas on the Miracle Strip closed everything but a handful of diehard coffee shops and motels.

He stopped for gas at an all-night Texaco with a clerk who seemed uncommonly friendly.

"San Luis Street?" Mitch asked.

"Yes, yes," the clerk said with an accent and pointed to the west. "Second traffic light to the right. First left. That's San Luis."

The neighborhood was a disorganized suburb of antique mobile homes. Mobile, yes, but it was apparent they had not moved in decades. The trailers were packed tightly together like rows of dominoes. The short, narrow driveways seemed inches apart and were filled with old pickups and rusted lawn furniture. The streets were crowded with parked cars, junk cars, abandoned cars. Motorcycles and bicycles leaned on the trailer hitches and lawn-mower handles protruded from beneath each home. A sign called the place a retirement village - "San Pedro Estates - A Half Mile from the Emerald Coast." It was more like a slum on wheels, or a project with a trailer hitch.

He found San Luis Street and suddenly felt nervous. It was winding and narrow with smaller trailers in worse shape than the other "retirement homes." He drove slowly, anxiously watching street numbers and observing the multitude of out-of-state license plates. The street was empty except for the parked and abandoned cars.

The home at 486 San Luis was one of the oldest and smallest. It was scarcely bigger than a camper. The original paint job looked to be silver, but the paint was cracked and peeling, and a dark green layer of mold covered the top and inched downward to a point just above the windows. The screens were missing. One window above the trailer hitch was badly cracked and held together with gray electrical tape. A small covered porch surrounded the only entrance. The storm door was open, and through the screen Mitch could see a small color television and the silhouette of a man walking by.

This was not what he wanted. By choice, he had never met his mother's second husband, and now was not the time. He drove on, wishing he had not come.

He found on the Strip the familiar marquee of a Holiday Inn. It was empty, but open. He hid the BMW away from the highway, and registered under the name of Eddie Lomax of Danesboro, Kentucky. He paid cash for a single room with an ocean view.

The Panama City Beach phone book listed three Waffle Huts on the Strip. He lay across the motel bed and dialed the first number. No luck. He dialed the second number, and again asked for Eva Ainsworth. Just a minute, he was told. He hung up. It was 11 P.M. He had slept for two hours.

The taxi took twenty minutes to arrive at the Holiday Inn, and the driver began by explaining that he had been home enjoying leftover turkey with his wife and kids and kinfolks when the dispatcher called, and how it was Christmas and he hoped to be with his family all day and not worry about work for one day of the year. Mitch threw a twenty over the seat and asked him to be quiet.

"What's at the Waffle Hut, man?" the driver asked.

"Just drive."

"Waffles, right?" He laughed and mumbled to himself. He adjusted the radio volume and found his favorite soul station. He glanced in the mirror, looked out the windows, whistled a bit, then said, "What brings you down here on Christmas?"

"Looking for someone."

"Who?"

"A woman."

"Ain't we all. Anyone in particular?"

"An old friend."

"She at the Waffle Hut?"

"I think so."

"You some kinda private eye or something?"

"No."

"Seems mighty suspicious to me."

"Why don't you just drive."

The Waffle Hut was a small, rectangular, boxlike building with a dozen tables and a long counter facing the grill, where everything was cooked in the open. Large plate-glass windows lined one side next to the tables so the customers could take in the Strip and the condos in the distance while they enjoyed their pecan waffles and bacon. The small parking lot was almost full, and Mitch directed the driver to an empty slot near the building.

"Ain't you getting out?" the driver asked.

"No. Keep the meter running."

"Man, this is strange."

"You'll get paid."

"You got that right."

Mitch leaned forward and rested his arms on the front seat. The meter clicked softly as he studied the customers inside. The driver shook his head, slumped in the seat, but watched out of curiosity.

In the corner next to the cigarette machine a table of fat tourists with long shirts, white legs and black socks drank coffee, and all talked at the same time while glancing at the menus. The leader, the one with an unbuttoned shirt, a heavy gold chain draped upon his chest hair, thick gray sideburns and a Phillies baseball cap, looked repeatedly toward the grill, in search of a waitress.

"You see her?" asked the driver.

Mitch said nothing, then leaned forward and frowned. She appeared from nowhere and stood at the table with her pen and order book. The leader said something funny, and the fat people laughed. She never smiled, just kept writing. She was frail and much thinner. Almost too thin. The black-and-white uniform fit snugly and squeezed her tiny waist. Her gray hair was pulled tightly and hidden under the Waffle Hut bonnet. She was fifty-one, and from the distance she looked her age. Nothing worse. She seemed sharp. When she finished scribbling she snatched the menus from their hands, said something polite, almost smiled, then disappeared. She moved quickly among the tables, pouring coffee, handing ketchup bottles and giving orders to the cook.

Mitch relaxed. The meter ticked slowly.

"Is that her?" asked the driver.

"Yes."

"What now?"

"I don't know."

"Well, we found her, didn't we?"

Mitch followed her movements and said nothing. She poured coffee for a man sitting alone. He said something, and she smiled. A wonderful, gracious smile. A smile he had seen a thousand times in the darkness staring at the ceiling. His mother's smile.

A light mist began to fall and the intermittent wipers cleaned the windshield every ten seconds. It was almost midnight, Christmas Day.

The driver tapped the wheel nervously and fidgeted. He sank lower in the seat, then changed stations. "How long we gonna sit here?"

"Not long."

"Man, this is weird."

"You'll be paid."

"Man, money ain't everything. It's Christmas. I got kids at home, kinfolks visiting, turkey and wine to finish off, and here I am sitting at the Waffle Hut so you can look at some old woman through the window."

"It's my mother."

"Your what?"

"You heard me."

"Man, oh man. I get all kinds."

"Just shut up, okay?"

"Okay. Ain't you gonna talk to her? I mean it's Christmas, and you found your momma. You gotta go see her, don't you?"

"No. Not now."

Mitch sat back in the seat and looked at the dark beach across the highway. "Let's go."

At daybreak, he dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, no socks or shoes, and took Hearsay for a walk on the beach. They walked east, toward the first glow of orange peeking above the horizon. The waves broke gently thirty yards out and rolled quietly onto shore. The sand was cool and wet. The sky was clear and full of sea gulls talking incessantly among themselves. Hearsay ran boldly into the sea, then retreated furiously when the next wave of white foam approached. For a house dog, the endless stretch of sand and water demanded exploration. He ran a hundred yards ahead of Mitch.

After two miles they approached a pier, a large concrete structure running two hundred feet from the beach into the ocean. Hearsay, fearless now, darted onto it and ran to a bucket of bait next to two men standing motionless and staring down at the water. Mitch walked behind them, to the end of the pier, where a dozen fishermen talked occasionally to each other and waited for their lines to jump. The dog rubbed himself on Mitch's leg and grew still. A brilliant return of the sun was in progress, and for miles the water glistened and turned from black to green.

Mitch leaned on the railing and shivered in the cool wind. His bare feet were frozen and gritty. For miles along the beach in both directions, the hotels and condos sat quietly and waited for the day. There was no one on the beach. Another pier jutted into the water miles away.

The fishermen spoke with the sharp, precise words of those from the North. Mitch listened long enough to learn the fish were not biting. He studied the sea. Looking southeast, he thought of the Caymans, and Abanks. And the girl for a moment, then she was gone. He would return to the islands in March, for a vacation with his wife. Damn the girl. Surely he would not see her. He would dive with Abanks and cultivate a friendship. They would drink Heineken and Red Stripe at his bar and talk of Hodge and Kozinski. He would follow whoever was following him. Now that Abby was an accomplice, she would assist him.

* * *

The man waited in the dark beside the Lincoln Town Car. He nervously checked his watch and glanced at the dimly lit sidewalk that disappeared in front of the building. On the second floor a light was turned off. A minute later, the private eye walked from the building toward the car. The man walked up to him.

"Are you Eddie Lomax?" he asked anxiously.

Lomax slowed, then stopped. They were face-to-face. "Yeah. Who are you?"

The man kept his hands in his pockets. It was cold and damp, and he was shaking. "Al Kilbury. I need some help, Mr. Lomax. Real bad. I'll pay you right now in cash, whatever you want. Just help me."

"It's late, pal."

"Please. I've got the money. Name the price. You gotta help, Mr. Lomax." He pulled a roll of cash from his left pants pocket and stood ready to count.

Lomax looked at the money, then glanced over his shoulder. "What's the problem?"

"My wife. In an hour she's supposed to meet a man at a motel in South Memphis. I've got the room number and all. I just need you to go with me and take pictures of them coming and going."

"How do you know this?"

"Phone taps. She works with the man, and I've been suspicious. I'm a wealthy man, Mr. Lomax, and it's imperative I win the divorce. I'll pay you a thousand in cash now." He quickly peeled off ten bills and offered them.

Lomax took the money. "Okay. Let me get my camera."

"Please hurry. Everything's in cash, okay? No records."

"Suits me," said Lomax as he walked toward the building.

Twenty minutes later, the Lincoln rolled slowly through the crowded parking lot of a Days Inn. Kilbury pointed to a second-floor room on the back side of the motel, then to a parking space next to a brown Chevy van. Lomax backed carefully alongside the van and parked his Town Car. Kilbury again pointed to the room, again checked his watch and again told Lomax how much he appreciated his services. Lomax thought of the money. A thousand bucks for two hours' work. Not bad. He unpacked a camera, loaded the film and gauged the light. Kilbury watched nervously, his eyes darting from the camera to the room across the parking lot. He looked hurt. He talked of his wife and their wonderful years together, and why, oh why was she doing this?

Lomax listened and watched the rows of parked cars in front of him. He held his camera.

He did not notice the door of the brown van. It quietly and slowly slid open, just three feet behind him. A man in a black turtleneck wearing black gloves crouched low in the van and waited. When the parking lot was still, he jumped from the van, yanked open the left rear door of the Lincoln and fired three times into the back of Eddie's head. The shots, muffled with a silencer, could not be heard outside the car.

Eddie slumped against the wheel, already dead. Kilbury bolted from the Lincoln, ran to the van and sped away with the assassin.

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