After three days of unbillable time, of no production, of exile from their sanctuaries, of turkey and ham and cranberry sauce and new toys that came unassembled, the rested and rejuvenated lawyers of Bendini, Lambert & Locke returned to the fortress on Front Street with a vengeance. The parking lot was full by seven-thirty. They sat fixed and comfortable behind their heavy desks, drank coffee by the gallon, meditated over mail and correspondence and documents and mumbled incoherently and furiously into their Dictaphones. They barked orders at secretaries and clerks and paralegals, and at each other. There were a few "How was your Christmas?" greetings in the halls and around the coffeepots, but small talk was cheap and unbillable. The sounds of typewriters, intercoms and secretaries all harmonized into one glorious hum as the mint recovered from the nuisance of Christmas. Oliver Lambert walked the halls, smiling with satisfaction and listening, just listening to the sounds of wealth being made by the hour.
At noon, Lamar walked into the office and leaned across the desk. Mitch was deep into an oil and gas deal in Indonesia.
"Lunch?" Lamar asked.
"No, thanks. I'm behind."
"Aren't we all? I thought we could run down to the Front Street Deli for a bowl of chili."
"I'll pass. Thanks."
Lamar glanced over his shoulder at the door and leaned closer as if he had extraordinary news to share. "You know what today is, don't you?"
Mitch glanced at his watch. "The twenty-eighth."
"Right. And do you know what happens on the twenty-eighth of December of every year?"
"You have a bowel movement."
"Yes. And what else?"
"Okay. I give up. What happens?"
"At this very moment, in the dining room on the fifth floor, all the partners are gathered for a lunch of roast duck and French wine."
"Wine, for lunch?"
"Yes. It's a very special occasion."
"After they eat for an hour, Roosevelt and Jessie Frances will leave and Lambert will lock the door. Then it's all the partners, you see. Only the partners. And Lambert will hand out a financial summary for the year. It's got all the partners listed, and beside each name is a number that represents their total billing for the year. Then on the next page is a summary of the net profits after expenses. Then, based on production, they divide the pie!"
Mitch hung on every word. "And?"
"And, last year the average piece of pie was three hundred and thirty thousand. And, of course, it's expected to be even higher this year. Goes up every year."
"Three hundred and thirty thousand," Mitch repeated slowly.
"Yep. And that's just the average. Locke will get close to a million. Victor Milligan will run a close second."
"And what about us?"
"We get a piece too. A very small piece. Last year it was around nine thousand, on the average. Depends on how long you've been here and production."
"Can we go watch?"
"They wouldn't sell a ticket to the President. It's supposed to be a secret meeting, but we all know about it. Word will begin drifting down late this afternoon."
"When do they vote on who to make the next partner?"
"Normally, it would be done today. But, according to rumor, there may not be a new partner this year because of Marty and Joe. I think Marty was next in line, then Joe. Now, they might wait a year or two."
"So who's next in line?"
Lamar stood straight and smiled proudly. "One year from today, my friend, I will become a partner in Bendini, Lambert & Locke. I'm next in line, so don't get in my way this year."
"I heard it was Massengill - a Harvard man, I might add."
"Massengill doesn't have a prayer. I intend to bill a hundred and forty hours a week for the next fifty-two weeks, and those birds will beg me to become a partner. I'll go to the fourth floor, and Massengill will go to the basement with the paralegals."
"I'm putting my money on Massengill."
"He's a wimp. I'll run him into the ground. Let's go eat a bowl of chili, and I'll reveal my strategy."
"Thanks, but I need to work."
Lamar strutted from the office and passed Nina, who was carrying a stack of papers. She laid them on a cluttered corner of the desk. "I'm going to lunch. Need anything?"
"No. Thanks. Yes, a Diet Coke."
The halls quietened during lunch as the secretaries escaped the building and walked toward downtown to a dozen small cafes and delicatessens nearby. With half the lawyers on the fifth floor counting their money, the gentle roar of commerce took an intermission.
Mitch found an apple on Nina's desk and rubbed it clean. He opened a manual on IRS regulations, laid it on the copier behind her desk and touched the green Print button. A red warning lit up and flashed the message: Insert File Number. He backed away and looked at the copier. Yes, it was a new one. Next to the Print button was another that read Bypass. He stuck his thumb on it. A shrill siren erupted from within the machine, and the entire panel of buttons turned bright red. He looked around helplessly, saw no one and frantically grabbed the instruction manual.
"What's going on here?" someone demanded over the wailing of the copier.
"I don't know!" Mitch yelled, waving the manual.
Lela Pointer, a secretary too old to walk from the building for lunch, reached behind the machine and flipped a switch. The siren died.
"What the hell?" Mitch said, panting.
"Didn't they tell you?" she demanded, grabbing the manual and placing it back in its place. She drilled a hole in him with her tiny fierce eyes, as if she had caught him in her purse.
"Obviously not. What's the deal?"
"We have a new copying system," she lectured downward through her nose. "It was installed the day after Christmas. You must code in the file number before the machine will copy. Your secretary was supposed to tell you."
"You mean this thing will not copy unless I punch in a ten-digit number?"
"What about copies in general, with no particular file?"
"Can't be done. Mr. Lambert says we lose too much money on unbilled copies. So, from now on, every copy is automatically billed to a file. You punch in the number first. The machine records the number of copies and sends it to the main terminal, where it goes on the client's billing account."
"What about personal copies?"
Lela shook her head in total frustration. "I can't believe your secretary didn't tell you all this."
"Well, she didn't, so why don't you help me out."
"You have a four-digit access number for yourself. At the end of each month you'll be billed for your personal copies."
Mitch stared at the machine and shook his head. "Why the damned alarm system?"
"Mr. Lambert says that after thirty days they will cut off the alarms. Right now, they're needed for people like you. He's very serious about this. Says we've been losing thousands on unbilled copies."
"Right. And I suppose every copier in the building has been replaced."
She smiled with satisfaction. "Yes, all seventeen."
"Thanks." Mitch returned to his office in search of a file number.
* * *
At three that afternoon, the celebration on the fifth floor came to a joyous conclusion, and the partners, now much wealthier and slightly drunker, filed out of the dining room and descended to their offices below. Avery, Oliver Lambert and Nathan Locke walked the short hallway to the security wall and pushed the button. DeVasher was waiting.
He waved at the chairs in his office and told them to sit down. Lambert passed around hand-wrapped Hondurans, and everyone lit up.
"Well, I see we're all in a festive mood," DeVasher said with a sneer. "How much was it? Three hundred and ninety thousand, average?"
"That's correct, DeVasher," Lambert said. "It was a very good year." He puffed slowly and blew smoke rings at the ceiling.
"Did we all have a wonderful Christmas?" DeVasher asked.
"What's on your mind?" Locke demanded.
"Merry Christmas to you too, Nat. Just a few things. I met with Lazarov two days ago in New Orleans. He does not celebrate the birth of Christ, you know. I brought him up to date on the situation down here, with emphasis on McDeere and the FBI. I assured him there had been no further contact since the initial meeting. He did not quite believe this and said he would check with his sources within the Bureau. I don't know what that means, but who am I to ask questions? He instructed me to trail McDeere twenty-four hours a day for the next six months. I told him we were already doing so, sort of. He does not want another Hodge-Kozinski situation. He's very distressed about that. McDeere is not to leave the city on firm business unless at least two of us go with him."
"He's going to Washington in two weeks," Avery said.
"American Tax Institute. It's a four-day seminar that we require of all new associates. It's been promised to him, and he'll be very suspicious if it's canceled."
"We made his reservations in September," Ollie added.
"I'll see if I can clear it with Lazarov," DeVasher said. "Give me the dates, flights and hotel reservations. He won't like this."
"What happened Christmas?" Locke asked.
"Not much. His wife went to her home in Kentucky. She's still there. McDeere took the dog and drove to Panama City Beach, Florida. We think he went to see his mom, but we're not sure. Spent one night at a Holiday Inn on the beach. Just he and the dog. Pretty boring. Then he drove to Birmingham, stayed in another Holiday Inn, then early, yesterday morning he drove to Brushy Mountain to visit his brother. Harmless trip."
"What's he said to his wife?" asked Avery.
"Nothing, as far as we can tell. It's hard to hear everything."
"Who else are you watching?" asked Avery.
"We're listening to all of them, sort of sporadically. We have no real suspects, other than McDeere, and that's just because of Tarrance. Right now all's quiet."
"He's got to go to Washington, DeVasher," Avery insisted.
"Okay, okay. I'll get it cleared with Lazarov. He'll make us send five men for surveillance. What an idiot!"
* * *
Ernie's Airport Lounge was indeed near the airport. Mitch found it after three attempts and parked between two four-wheel-drive swampmobiles with real mud caked on the tires and headlights. The parking lot was full of such vehicles. He looked around and instinctively removed his tie. It was almost eleven. The lounge was deep and long and dark with colorful beer signs flashing in the painted windows.
He looked at the note again, just to be sure.
Dear Mr. McDeere:
Please meet me at Ernie's Lounge on Winchester tonight-late. It's about Eddie Lomax. Very important.
Tammy Hemphill, his secretary
The note had been tacked on the door to the kitchen when he arrived home. He remembered her from the one visit to Eddie's office, back in November. He remembered the tight leather skirt, huge breasts, bleached hair, red sticky lips and smoke billowing from her nose. And he remembered the story about her husband, Elvis.
The door opened without incident, and he slid inside. A row of pool tables covered the left half of the room. Through the darkness and black smoke, he could make out a small dance floor in the rear. To the right was a long saloon-type bar crowded with cowboys and cowgirls, all drinking Bud longnecks. No one seemed to notice him. He walked quickly to the end of the bar and slid onto the stool. "Bud longneck," he told the bartender.
Tammy arrived before the beer. She was sitting and waiting on a crowded bench by the pool tables. She wore tight washed jeans, faded denim shirt and kinky red high-heels. The hair had just received a fresh bleaching.
"Thanks for coming," she said into his face. "I've been waiting for four hours. I knew of no other way to find you."
Mitch nodded and smiled as if to say, "It's okay. You did the right thing."
"What's up?" he said.
She looked around. "We need to talk, but not here."
"Where do you suggest?"
"Could we maybe drive around?"
"Sure, but not in my car. It, uh, it may not be a good idea."
"I've got a car. It's old, but it'll do."
Mitch paid for the beer and followed her to the door. A cowpoke sitting near the door said, "Getta loada this. Guy shows up with a suit and picks her up in thirty seconds." Mitch smiled at him and hurried out the door. Dwarfed in a row of massive mud-eating machinery was a well-worn Volkswagen Rabbit. She unlocked it, and Mitch doubled over and squeezed into the cluttered seat. She pumped the accelerator five times and turned the key. Mitch held his breath until it started.
"Where would you like to go?" she asked.
Where we can't be seen,Mitch thought. "You're driving."
"You're married, aren't you?" she asked.
"Yes, and my husband would not understand this situation right here. That's why I chose that dump back there. We never go there."
She said this as if she and her husband were discriminating critics of dark redneck dives.
"I don't think my wife would understand either. She's out of town, though."
Tammy drove in the direction of the airport. "I've got an idea," she said. She clutched the steering wheel tightly and spoke nervously.
"What's on your mind?" Mitch asked.
"Well, you heard about Eddie."
"When did you last see him?"
"We met ten days or so before Christmas. It was sort of a secret meeting."
"That's what I thought. He kept no records of the work he was doing for you. Said you wanted it that way. He didn't tell me much. But me and Eddie, well, we, uh, we were... close."
Mitch could think of no response.
"I mean, we were very close. Know what I mean?"
Mitch grunted and sipped the longneck.
"And he told me things I guess he wasn't supposed to tell me. Said you had a real strange case, that some lawyers in your firm had died under suspicious circumstances. And that you always thought somebody was following and listening. That's pretty weird for a law firm."
So much for the confidentiality,thought Mitch. "That it is."
She turned, made the exit to the airport and headed for the acres of parked cars.
"And after he finished his work for you, he told me once, just once, in bed, that he thought he was being followed. This was three days before Christmas. And I asked him who it was. He said he didn't know, but mentioned your case and something about it was probably related to the same people who were following you. He didn't say much."
She parked in the short-term section near the terminal.
"Who else would follow him?" Mitch asked.
"No one. He was a good investigator who left no trail. I mean, he was an ex-cop and an ex-con. He was very street-smart. He got paid to follow people and collect dirt. No one followed him. Never."
"So who killed him?"
"Whoever was following him. The paper made like he got caught snooping on some rich guy and was wasted. It's not true."
Suddenly, from out of nowhere, she produced a filter-tip 1000 and shot a flame at the end. Mitch rolled down the window.
"Mind if I smoke?" she asked.
"No, just blow it that way," he said, pointing to her window.
"Anyway, I'm scared. Eddie was convinced the people following you are extremely dangerous and extremely smart. Very sophisticated, was what he said. And if they killed him, what about me? Maybe they think I know something. I haven't been to the office since the day he was killed. Don't plan to go back."
"I wouldn't if I were you."
"I'm not stupid. I worked for him for two years and learned a lot. There's a lot of nuts out there. We saw all kinds."
"How did they shoot him?"
"He's got a friend in Homicide. Guy told me confidentially that Eddie got hit three times in the back of the head, point-blank range, with a .22 pistol. And they don't have a clue. He told me it was a very clean, professional job."
Mitch finished the longneck and laid the bottle on the floorboard with a half dozen empty beer cans. A very clean, professional job.
"It doesn't make sense," she repeated. "I mean, how could anyone sneak up behind Eddie, somehow get in the back seat and shoot him three times in the back of the head? And he wasn't even supposed to be there."
"Maybe he fell asleep and they ambushed him."
"No. He took all kinds of speed when he worked late at night. Stayed wired."
"Are there any records at the oflice?"
"You mean about you?"
"Yeah, about me."
"I doubt it. I never saw nothing in writing. He said you wanted it that way."
"That's right," Mitch said with relief.
They watched a 727 lift off to the north. The parking lot vibrated.
"I'm really scared, Mitch. Can I call you Mitch?"
"Sure. Why not?"
"I think he got killed because of the work he did for you. That's all it could be. And if they'd kill him because he knew something, they probably assume I know it too. What do you think?"
"I wouldn't take any chances."
"I might disappear for a while. My husband does a little nightclub work, and we can get mobile if we have to. I haven't told him all this, but I guess I have to. What do you think?"
"Where would you go?"
"Little Rock, St. Louis, Nashville. He's laid off, so we can move around, I guess." Her words trailed off. She lit another one.
A very clean, professional job, Mitch repeated to himself. He glanced at her and noticed a small tear on her cheek. She was not ugly, but the years in lounges and nightclubs were taking their toll. Her features were strong, and minus the bleach and heavy makeup she would be somewhat attractive for her age. About forty, he guessed.
She took a mighty drag and sent a cloud of smoke surging from the Rabbit. "I guess we're in the same boat, aren't we? I mean, they're after both of us. They've killed all those lawyers, now Eddie, and I guess we're next."
Don't hold back, baby, just blurt it out. "Look, let's do this. We need to keep in touch. You can't call me on the phone, and we can't be seen together. My wife knows everything, and I'll tell her about this little meeting. Don't worry about her. Once a week, write me a note and tell me where you are. What's your mother's name?"
"Good. That's your code name. Sign the name Doris on anything you send me."
"Do they read your mail too?"
"Probably so, Doris, probably so."