At eight-thirty A.M. on Tuesday, Nina formed neat piles out of the rubble and debris on his desk. She enjoyed this early-morning ritual of straightening the desk and planning his day. The appointment book lay unobstructed on a corner of his desk. She read from it. "You have a very busy day today, Mr. McDeere."
Mitch flipped through a file and tried to ignore her. "Every day is busy."
"You have a meeting at ten o'clock in Mr. Mahan's office on the Delta Shipping appeal."
"I can't wait," Mitch mumbled.
"You have a meeting at eleven-thirty in Mr. Tolar's office on the Greenbriar dissolution, and his secretary informed me it would last at least two hours."
"Why two hours?"
"I'm not paid to ask those questions, Mr. McDeere. If I do I might get fired. At three-thirty, Victor Milligan wants to meet with you."
"Again, Mr. McDeere, I'm not supposed to ask questions. And you're due in Frank Mulholland's office downtown in fifteen minutes."
"Yes, I know. Where is it?"
"The Cotton Exchange Building. Four or five blocks up Front at Union. You've walked by it a hundred times."
"Fine. What else?"
"Shall I bring you something back from lunch?"
"No, I'll grab a sandwich downtown."
"Wonderful. Do you have everything for Mulholland?"
He pointed to the heavy black briefcase and said nothing. She left, and seconds later Mitch walked down the hall, down the stairs and out the front door. He paused for a second under a streetlight, then turned and walked quickly toward downtown. The black briefcase was in his right hand, the burgundy eel-skin attache was in his left. The signal.
In front of a green building with boarded windows, he stopped next to a fire hydrant. He waited a second, then crossed Front Street. Another signal.
On the ninth floor of the Cotton Exchange Building, Tammy Greenwood of Greenwood Services backed away from the window and put on her coat. She locked the door behind her and pushed the elevator button. She waited. She was about to encounter a man who could easily get her killed.
Mitch entered the lobby and went straight to the elevators. He noticed no one in particular. A half dozen businessmen were in the process of talking as they came and went. A woman was whispering into a pay phone. A security guard loitered near the Union Avenue entrance. He pushed the elevator button and waited, alone. As the door opened, a young clean-cut Merrill Lynch type in a black suit and sparkling wing tips stepped into the elevator. Mitch had hoped for a solitary ride upward.
Mulholland's office was on the seventh floor. Mitch pushed the seven button and ignored the kid in the black suit. As the elevator moved, both men dutifully stared at the blinking numbers above the door. Mitch eased to the rear of the small elevator and set the heavy briefcase on the floor, next to his right foot. The door opened on the fourth floor, and Tammy walked nervously in. The kid glanced at her. Her attire was remarkably conservative. A simple, short knit dress with no plunging necklines. No kinky shoes. Her hair was tinted to a soft shade of red. He glanced again and pushed the Close Door button.
Tammy brought aboard a large black briefcase, identical to Mitch's. She ignored his eyes, stood next to him, quietly setting it next to his. On the seventh floor, Mitch grabbed her briefcase and left the elevator. On the eighth floor, the cute young man in the black suit made his departure, and on the ninth floor Tammy picked up the heavy black briefcase full of files from Bendini, Lambert & Locke and took it to her office. She locked and bolted the door, quickly removed her coat and went to the small room where the copier was waiting and running. There were seven files, each at least an inch thick. She laid them neatly on the folding table next to the copier and took the one marked "Koker-Hanks to East Texas Pipe." She unhooked the aluminum clasp, removed the contents from the file and carefully placed the stack of documents and letters and notes into the automatic feed. She pushed the Print button and watched as the machine made two perfect copies of everything.
Thirty minutes later, the seven files were returned to the briefcase. The new files, fourteen of them, were locked away in a fireproof file cabinet hidden in a small closet, which was also locked. Tammy placed the briefcase near the door, and waited.
* * *
Frank Mulholland was a partner in a ten-man firm that specialized in banking and securities. His client was an old man who had founded and built a chain of do-it-yourself hardware stores and at one point had been worth eighteen million before his son and a renegade board of directors took control and forced him into retirement. The old man sued. The company countersued. Everybody sued everybody, and the suits and countersuits had been hopelessly deadlocked for eighteen months. Now that the lawyers were fat and happy, it was time to talk settlement. Bendini, Lambert & Locke handled the tax advice for the son and the new board, and two months earlier Avery had introduced Mitch to the hostilities. The plan was to offer the old man a five-million-dollar package of common stock, convertible warrants and a few bonds.
Mulholland was not impressed with the plan. His client was not greedy, he explained repeatedly, and he knew he would never regain control of the company. His company, remember. But five million was not enough. Any jury of any degree of intelligence would be sympathetic to the old man, and a fool could see the lawsuit was worth at least, well ... at least twenty million!
After an hour of sliding proposals and offers and counteroffers across Mulholland's desk, Mitch had increased the package to eight million and the old man's lawyer said he might consider fifteen. Mitch politely repacked his attache case and Mulholland politely escorted him to the door. They promised to meet again in a week. They shook hands like best friends.
The elevator stopped on the fifth floor, and Tammy walked casually inside. It was empty, except for Mitch. When the door closed, he said, "Any problems?"
"Nope. Two copies are locked away."
"How long did it take?"
It stopped on the fourth floor, and she picked up the empty briefcase. "Noon tomorrow?" she asked.
"Yes," he replied. The door opened and she disappeared onto the fourth floor. He rode alone to the lobby, which was empty except for the same security guard. Mitchell McDeere, Attorney and Counselor at Law, hurried from the building with a heavy briefcase in each hand and walked importantly back to his office.
* * *
The celebration of Abby's twenty-fifth birthday was rather subdued. Through the dim candlelight in a dark corner of Grisanti's, they whispered and tried to smile at each other. It was difficult. Somewhere at that moment in the restaurant an invisible FBI agent was holding a cassette tape that he would insert into a cigarette machine in the lounge at precisely nine o'clock, and Mitch was supposed to be there seconds later to retrieve it without being seen or caught by the bad guys, whoever they were and whatever they looked like. And the tape would reveal just how much cold hard cash the McDeeres would receive in return for evidence and a subsequent life on the run.
They picked at their food, tried to smile and carry on an extended conversation, but mainly they fidgeted and glanced at their watches. The dinner was brief. By eight forty-five they were finished with the plates. Mitch left in the direction of the rest room, and he stared into the dark lounge as he walked by. The cigarette machine was in the corner, exactly where it should be.
They ordered coffee, and at exactly nine Mitch returned to the lounge, to the machine, where he nervously inserted six quarters and pulled the lever under Marlboro Lights, in memory of Eddie Lomax. He quickly reached into the tray, took the cigarettes and, fishing around in the darkness, found the cassette tape. The pay telephone next to the machine rang, and he jumped. He turned and surveyed the lounge. It was empty except for two men at the bar watching the television behind and above the bartender. Drunk laughter exploded from a dark corner far away.
Abby watched every step and move until he sat across from her. She raised her eyebrows. "And?"
"I got it. Your basic black Sony cassette tape." Mitch sipped coffee and smiled innocently while quickly surveying the crowded dining room. No one was watching. No one cared.
He handed the check and the American Express card to the waiter. "We're in a hurry," he said rudely. The waiter returned within seconds. Mitch scribbled his name.
The BMW was indeed wired. Heavily wired. Tarrance's gang had very quietly and very thoroughly examined it with magnifying glasses while waiting for the Greyhound four days earlier. Expertly wired, with terribly expensive equipment capable of hearing and recording the slightest sniffle or cough. But the bugs could only listen and record; they could not track. Mitch thought that was awfully nice of them, just to listen but not follow the movements of the BMW.
It left the parking lot of Grisanti's with no conversation between its occupants. Abby carefully opened a portable tape recorder and placed the cassette inside. She handed Mitch the earphones, which he, stuck onto his head. She pushed the Play button. She watched him as he listened and drove aimlessly toward the interstate.
The voice belonged to Tarrance: "Hello, Mitch. Today is Tuesday, March 9, sometime after nine P.M. Happy Birthday to your lovely wife. This tape will run about ten minutes, and I instruct you to listen to it carefully, once or twice, then dispose of it. I had a face-to-face meeting with Director Voyles last Sunday and briefed him on everything. By the way, I enjoyed the bus ride. Director Voyles is very pleased with the way things are going, but he thinks we've talked long enough. He wants to cut a deal, and rather quickly. He explained to me in no uncertain terms that we have never paid three million dollars and we're not about to pay it to you. He cussed a lot, but to make a long story short, Director Voyles said we could pay a million cash, no more. He said the money would be deposited in a Swiss bank and no one, not even the IRS, would ever know about it. A million dollars, tax-free. That's our best deal, and Voyles said you can go to hell if you said no. We're gonna bust that little firm, Mitch, with or without you."
Mitch smiled grimly and stared at the traffic racing past them on the 1-240 loop. Abby watched for a sign, a signal, a grunt or groan, anything to indicate good news or bad. She said nothing.
The voice continued: "We'll take care of you, Mitch. You'll have access to FBI protection anytime you think you need it. We'll check on you periodically, if you want. And if you want to move on to another city after a few years, we'll take care of it. You can move every five years if you want, and we'll pick up the tab and find jobs for you. Good jobs with the VA or Social Security or Postal Service. Voyles said we'd even find you a high-paying job with a private government contractor. You name it, Mitch, and it's yours. Of course, we'll provide new identities for you and your wife, arid you can change every year if you desire. No problem. Or if you got a better idea, we'll listen. You wanna live in Europe or Australia, just say so. You'll get special treatment. I know we're promising a lot, Mitch, but we're dead serious and we'll put it in writing. We'll pay a million in cash, tax-free, and set you up wherever you choose. So that's the deal. And in return, you must hand us, and the Moroltos. We'll talk about that later. For now, your time is up. Voyles is breathing down my neck, and things must happen quickly. Call me at that number Thursday night at nine from the pay phone next to the men's rest room in Houston's on Poplar. So long, Mitch."
He sliced a finger across his throat, and Abby pushed the Stop button, then Rewind. He handed her the earphones, and she began to listen intently.
It was an innocent walk in the park, two lovebirds holding hands and strolling casually through the cool, clear moonlight. They stopped by a cannon and gazed at the majestic river inching ever so slowly toward New Orleans. The same cannon where the late Eddie Lomax once stood in a sleet storm and delivered one of his last investigative reports.
Abby held the cassette in her hand and watched the river below. She had listened to it twice and refused to leave it in the car, where who knows who might snatch it. After weeks of practicing silence, and then speaking only outdoors, words were becoming difficult.
"You know, Abby," Mitch finally said as he tapped the wooden wheel of the cannon, "I've always wanted to work with the post office. I had an uncle once who was a rural mail carrier. That would be neat."
It was a gamble, this attempt at humor. But it worked. She hesitated for three seconds, then laughed slightly, and he could tell she indeed thought it was funny. "Yeah, and I could mop floors in a VA hospital."
"You wouldn't have to mop floors. You could change bedpans, something meaningful, something inconspicuous. We'd live in a neat little white frame house on Maple Street in Omaha. I'd be Harvey and you'd be Thelma, and we'd need a short, unassuming last name."
"Poe," Abby added.
"That's great. Harvey and Thelma Poe. The Poe family. We'd have a million dollars in the bank but couldn't spend a dime because everyone on Maple Street would know it and then we'd become different, which is the last thing we want."
"I'd get a nose job."
"But your nose is perfect."
"Abby's nose is perfect, but what about Thelma's? We'd have to get it fixed, don't you think?"
"Yeah, I suppose." He was immediately tired of the humor and became quiet. Abby stepped in front of him, and he draped his arms over her shoulders. They watched a tug quietly push a hundred barges under the bridge. An occasional cloud dimmed the moonlight, and the cool winds from the west rose intermittently, then dissipated.
"Do you believe Tarrance?" Abby asked.
"In what way?"
"Let's suppose you do nothing. Do you believe one day they'll eventually infiltrate?"
"I'm afraid not to believe."
"So we take the money and run?"
"It's easier for me to take the money and run, Abby. I have nothing to leave behind. For you, it's different. You'll never see your family again."
"Where would we go?"
"I do not know. But I wouldn't want to stay in this country. The feds cannot be trusted entirely. I'll feel safer in another country, but I won't tell Tarrance."
"What's the next step?"
"We cut a deal, then quickly go about the job of gathering enough information to sink the ship. I have no idea what they want, but I can find it for them. When Tarrance has enough, we disappear. We take our money, get our nose jobs and disappear."
"How much money?"
"More than a million. They're playing games with the money. It's all negotiable."
"How much will we get?"
"Two million cash, tax-free. Not a dime less."
"Will they pay it?"
"Yes, but that's not the question. The question is, will we take it and run?"
She was cold, and he draped his coat over her shoulders. He held her tightly. "It's a rotten deal, Mitch," she said, "but at least we'll be together."
"The name's Harvey, not Mitch."
"Do you think we'll be safe, Harvey?"
"We're not safe here."
"I don't like it here. I'm lonely and scared."
"I'm tired of being a lawyer."
"Let's take the money and haul ass."
"You've got a deal, Thelma."
She handed the cassette tape to him. He glanced at it, then threw it far below, beyond Riverside Drive, in the direction of the river. They held hands and strolled quickly through the park toward the BMW parked on Front Street.