Page 35 of The Firm

For only the second time in his career, Mitch was allowed to visit the palatial dining room on the fifth floor. Avery's invitation came with the explanation that the partners were all quite impressed with the seventy-one hours per week he averaged in billing for the month of February, and thus they wished to offer the small reward of lunch. It was an invitation no associate could turn down, regardless of schedules and meetings and clients and deadlines and all the other terribly important and urgently critical aspects of careers at Bendini, Lambert & Locke. Never in history had an associate said No to an invitation to the dining room. Each received two invitations per year. Records were kept.

Mitch had two days to prepare for it. His first impulse was to decline, and when Avery first mentioned it a dozen lame excuses crossed his mind. Eating and smiling and chatting and fraternizing with criminals, regardless of how rich and polished, was less attractive than sharing a bowl of soup with a homeless down at the bus station. But to say No would be a grievous breach of tradition. And as things were going, his movements were already suspicious enough.

So he sat with his back to the window and forced smiles and small talk in the direction of Avery and Royce McKnight and, of course, Oliver Lambert. He knew he would eat at the same table with those three. Knew it for two days.

He knew they would watch him carefully but nonchalantly, trying to detect any loss of enthusiasm, or cynicism, or hopelessness. Anything, really. He knew they would hang on his every word, regardless of what he said. He knew they would lavish praise and promises upon his weary shoulders.

Oliver Lambert had never been more charming. Seventy-one hours a week for a February for an associate was a firm record, he said as Roosevelt served prime rib. All the partners were amazed, and delighted, he explained softly while glancing around the room. Mitch forced a smile and sliced his serving. The other partners, amazed or indifferent, were talking idly and concentrating on the food. Mitch counted eighteen active partners and seven retirees, those with the khakis and sweaters and relaxed looks about them.

"You have remarkable stamina, Mitch," Royce McKnight said with a mouthful. He nodded politely.

Yes, yes, I practice my stamina all the time,he thought to himself. As much as possible, he kept his mind off Joe Hodge and Marty Kozinski and the other three dead lawyers memorialized on the wall downstairs. But it was impossible to keep his mind off the pictures of the girl in the sand, and he wondered if they all knew.

Had they all seen the pictures? Passed them around during one of these little lunches when it was just the partners and no guests? DeVasher had promised to keep them to himself, but what's a promise from a thug? Of course they'd seen them. Voyles said every partner and most of the associates were in on the conspiracy.

For a man with no appetite, he managed the food nicely. He even buttered and devoured an extra roll, just to appear normal. Nothing wrong with his appetite.

"So you and Abby are going to the Caymans next week?" Oliver Lambert said.

"Yes. It's her spring break, and we booked one of the condos two months ago. Looking forward to it."

"It's a terrible time to go," Avery said in disgust. "We're a month behind right now."

"We're always a month behind, Avery. So what's another week? I guess you want me to take my files with me?"

"Not a bad idea. I always do."

"Don't do it, Mitch," Oliver Lambert said in mock protest. "This place will be standing when you return. You and Abby deserve a week to yourselves."

"You'll love it down there," Royce McKnight said, as if Mitch hap never been and that thing on the beach didn't happen and no one knew anything about any photographs.

"When do you leave?" Lambert asked.

"Sunday morning. Early."

"Are you taking the Lear?"

"No. Delta nonstop."

Lambert and McKnight exchanged quick looks that Mitch was not supposed to see. There were other looks from the other tables, occasional quick glances filled with curiosity that Mitch had caught since he entered the room. He was there to be noticed.

"Do you scuba-dive?" asked Lambert, still thinking about the Lear versus the Delta nonstop.

"No, but we plan to do some snorkeling."

"There's a guy on Rum Point, on the north end, name of Adrian Bench, who's got a great dive lodge and will certify you in one week. It's a hard week, lot of instruction, but it's worth it."

In other words, stay away from Abanks,Mitch thought. "What's the name of the lodge?" he asked.

"Rum Point Divers. Great place."

Mitch frowned intelligently as if making a mental note of this helpful advice. Suddenly, Oliver Lambert was hit with sadness. "Be careful, Mitch. It brings back memories of Marty and Joe."

Avery and McKnight stared at their plates in a split-second memorial to the dead boys. Mitch swallowed hard and almost sneered at Oliver Lambert. But he kept a straight face, even managed to look sad with the rest of them. Marty and Joe and their young widows and fatherless children. Marty and Joe, two young wealthy lawyers expertly killed and removed before they could talk. Marty and Joe, two promising sharks eaten by their own. Voyles had told Mitch to think of Marty and Joe whenever he saw Oliver Lambert.

And now, for a mere million bucks, he was expected to do what Marty and Joe were about to do, without getting caught. Perhaps a year from now the next new associate would be sitting here and watching the saddened partners talk about young Mitch McDeere and his remarkable stamina and what a helluva lawyer he would have been but for the accident. How many would they kill?

He wanted two million. Plus a couple of other items.

After an hour of important talk and good food, the lunch began breaking up as partners excused themselves, spoke to Mitch and left the room. They were proud of him, they said. He was their brightest star of the future. The future of Bendini, Lambert & Locke. He smiled and thanked them.

* * *

About the time Roosevelt served the banana cream pie and coffee, Tammy Greenwood Hemphill of Greenwood Services parked her dirty brown Rabbit behind the shiny Peugeot in the St. Andrew's Episcopal School parking lot. She left the motor running. She took four steps, stuck a key into the trunk of the Peugeot and removed the heavy black briefcase. She slammed the trunk and sped away in the Rabbit. From a small window in the teachers' lounge, Abby sipped coffee and stared through the trees, across the playground and into the parking lot in the distance. She could barely see her car. She smiled and checked her watch. Twelve-thirty, as planned.

Tammy weaved her way carefully through the noon traffic in the direction of downtown. Driving was tedious when watching the rearview mirror. As usual, she saw nothing. She parked in her designated place across the street from the Cotton Exchange Building.

There were nine files in this load. She arranged them neatly on the folding table and began making copies. Sigalas Partners, Lettie Plunk Trust, HandyMan Hardware and two files bound loosely with a thick rubber band and marked Avery's Files. She ran two copies of every sheet of paper in the files and meticulously put them back together. In a ledger book, she entered the date, time and name of each file. There were now twenty-nine entries. He said there would eventually be about forty. She placed one copy of each file into the locked and hidden cabinet in the closet, then repacked the briefcase with the original files and one copy of each.

Pursuant to his instructions, a week earlier she had rented in her name a twelve-by-twelve storage room at the Summer Avenue Mini Storage. It was fourteen miles from downtown, and thirty minutes later she arrived and unlocked number 38C. In a small cardboard box she placed the other copies of the nine files and scribbled the date on the end of the flap. She placed it next to three other boxes on the floor.

At exactly 3 P.M., she wheeled into the parking lot, stopped behind the Peugeot, opened its trunk and left the briefcase where she'd found it.

Seconds later, Mitch stepped from the front door of the Bendini Building and stretched his arms. He breathed deeply and gazed up and down Front Street. A lovely spring day. Three blocks to the north and nine floors up, in the window, he noticed the blinds had been pulled all the way down. The signal. Good. Everything's fine. He smiled to himself, and returned to his office.

* * *

At three o'clock the next morning, Mitch eased out of bed and quietly pulled on a pair of faded jeans, flannel law school shirt, white insulated socks and a pair of old work boots. He wanted to look like a truck driver. Without a word, he kissed Abby, who was awake, and left the house. East Meadowbrook was deserted, as were all the streets between home and the interstate. Surely they would not follow him at this hour.

He drove Interstate 55 south for twenty-five miles to Senatobia, Mississippi. A busy, all-night truck stop called the 4-55 shone brightly a hundred yards from the four-lane. He darted through the trucks to the rear where a hundred semis were parked for the night. He stopped next to the Truck Wash bay and waited. A dozen eighteen-wheelers inched and weaved around the pumps.

A black guy wearing a Falcons football cap stepped from around the corner and stared at the BMW. Mitch recognized him as the agent in the bus terminal in Knoxville. He killed the engine and stepped from the car.

"McDeere?" the agent asked.

"Of course. Who else? Where's Tarrance?"

"Inside in a booth by the window. He's waiting."

Mitch opened the door and handed the keys to the agent. "Where are you taking it?"

"Down the road a little piece. We'll take care of it. You were clean coming out of Memphis. Relax."

He climbed into the car, eased between two diesel pumps and headed for the interstate. Mitch watched his little BMW disappear as he entered the truck-stop cafe. It was three forty-five.

The noisy room was filled with heavy middle-aged men drinking coffee and eating store-bought pies. They picked their teeth with colored toothpicks and talked of bass fishing and politics back at the terminal. Many spoke with loud Northern twangs. Merle Haggard wailed from the jukebox.

The lawyer moved awkwardly toward the rear until he saw in an unlit corner a familiar face hidden beneath aviator's sunshades and the same Michigan State baseball cap. Then the face smiled. Tarrance was holding a menu and watching the front door. Mitch slid into the booth.

"Hello, good buddy," Tarrance said. "How's the truckin'?"

"Wonderful. I think I prefer the bus, though."

"Next time we'll try a train or something. Just for variety. Laney get your car?"

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