Page 43 of The Firm

A week before April 15, the workaholics at Bendini, Lambert & Locke reached maximum stress and ran at full throttle on nothing but adrenaline. And fear. Fear of missing a deduction or a write-off or some extra depreciation that would cost a rich client an extra million or so. Fear of picking up the phone and calling the client and informing him that the return was now finished and, sorry to say, an extra eight hundred thousand was due. Fear of not finishing by the fifteenth and being forced to file extensions and incurring penalties and interest. The parking lot was full by 6 A.M. The secretaries worked twelve hours a day. Tempers were short. Talk was scarce and hurried.

With no wife to go home to, Mitch worked around the clock. Sonny Capps had cursed and berated Avery because he owed $450,000. On earned income of six million. Avery had cursed Mitch, and together they plowed through the Capps files again, digging and cursing. Mitch created two very questionable write-offs that lowered it to $320,000. Capps said he was considering a new tax firm. One in Washington.

With six days to go, Capps demanded a meeting with Avery in Houston. The Lear was available, and Avery left at midnight. Mitch drove him to the airport, receiving instructions along the way.

Shortly after 1:30 A.M., he returned to the office. Three Mercedeses, a BMW and a Jaguar were scattered through the parking lot. The security guard opened the rear door, and Mitch rode the elevator to the fourth floor. As usual, Avery locked his office door. The partners' doors were always locked. At the end of the hall, a voice could be heard. Victor Milligan, head of tax, sat at his desk and said ugly things to his computer. The other offices were dark and locked.

Mitch held his breath and stuck a key into Avery's door. The knob turned, and he was inside. He switched on all the lights and went to the small conference table where he and his partner had spent the day and most of the night. Files were stacked like bricks around the chairs. Papers thrown here and there. IRS Reg. books were piled on top of each other.

Mitch sat at the table and continued his research for Capps. According to the FBI notebook, Capps was a legitimate businessman who had used for The Firm at least eight years. The Fibbies weren't interested in Sonny Capps.

After an hour, the talking stopped and Milligan closed and locked the door. He took the stairs without saying good night. Mitch quickly checked each office on the fourth floor, then the third. All empty. It was almost 3 A.M.

Next to the bookshelves on one wall of Avery's office, four solid-oak file cabinets sat undisturbed. Mitch had noticed them for months but had never seen them used. The active files were kept in three metal cabinets next to the window. Secretaries dug through these, usually while Avery yelled at them. He locked the door behind him and walked to the oak cabinets. Locked, of course. He had narrowed it down to two small keys, each less than an inch long. The first one fit the first cabinet, and he opened it.

From Tammy's inventory of the contraband in Nashville, he had memorized many of the names of the Cayman companies operating with dirty money that was now clean. He thumbed through the files in the top drawer, and the names jumped at him. Dunn Lane, Ltd., Eastpointe, Ltd., Virgin Bay Ltd., Inland Contractors, Ltd., Gulf-South, Ltd. He found more familiar names in the second and third drawers. The files were filled with loan documents from Cayman banks, wire-transfer records, warranty deeds, leases, mortgage deeds and a thousand other papers. He was particularly interested in Dunn Lane and Gulf-South. Tammy had recorded a significant number of documents for these two companies.

He picked out a Gulf-South file full of wire-transfer records and loan documents from the Royal Bank of Montreal. He walked to a copier in the center of the fourth floor and turned it on. While it warmed, he casually glanced around. The place was dead. He looked along the ceilings. No cameras. He had checked it many times before. The Access Number light flashed, and he punched in the file number for Mrs. Lettie Plunk. Her tax return was sitting on his desk on the second floor, and it could spare a few copies. He laid the contents on the automatic feed, and three minutes later the file was copied. One hundred twenty-eight copies, charged to Lettie Plunk. Back to the file cabinet. Back to the copier with another stack of Gulf-South evidence. He punched in the access number for the file of Greenmark Partners, a real estate development company in Bartlett, Tennessee. Legitimate folks. The tax return was sitting on his desk and could spare a few copies. Ninety-one, to be exact.

Mitch had eighteen tax returns sitting in his office waiting to be signed and filed. With six days to go, he had finished his deadline work. All eighteen received automatic billings for copies of Gulf-South and Dunn Lane evidence. He had scribbled their access numbers on a sheet of notepaper, and it sat on the table next to the copier. After using the eighteen numbers, he accessed with three numbers borrowed from Lamar's files and three numbers borrowed from the Capps files.

A wire ran from the copier through a hole in the wall and down the inside of a closet, where it connected with wires from three other copiers on the fourth floor. The wire, larger now, ran down through the ceiling and along a baseboard to the billing room on the third floor, where a computer recorded and billed every copy made within. An innocuous-looking little gray wire ran from the computer up a wall and through the ceiling to the fourth floor, and then up to the fifth, where another computer recorded the access code, the number of copies and the location of the machine making each copy.

* * *

At 5 P.M., April 15, Bendini, Lambert & Locke shut down. By six, the parking lot was empty, and the expensive automobiles reassembled two miles away behind a venerable seafood establishment called Anderton's. A small banquet room was reserved for the annual April 15 blowout. Every associate and active partner was present, along with eleven retired partners. The retirees were tanned and well rested; the actives were haggard and frayed. But they were all in a festive spirit, ready to get plastered. The stringent rules of clean living and moderation would be forgotten this night. Another firm rule prohibited any lawyer or secretary from working on April 16.

Platters of cold boiled shrimp and raw oysters sat on tables along the walls. A huge wooden barrel filled with ice and cold Moosehead greeted them. Ten cases stood behind the barrel. Roosevelt popped tops as quickly as possible. Late in the night, he would get drunk with the rest of them, and Oliver Lambert would call a taxi to haul him home to Jessie Frances. It was a ritual.

Roosevelt's cousin, Little Bobby Blue Baker, sat at a baby grand and sang sadly as the lawyers filed in. For now, he was the entertainment. Later, he would not be needed.

Mitch ignored the food and took an icy green bottle to a table near the piano. Lamar followed with two pounds of shrimp. They watched their colleagues shake off coats and ties and attack the Moosehead.

"Get 'em all finished?" Lamar asked, devouring the shrimp.

"Yeah. I finished mine yesterday. Avery and I worked on Sonny Capps's until five P.M. It's finished."

"How much?"

"Quarter of a mill."

"Ouch." Lamar turned up the bottle and drained half of it. "He's never paid that much, has he?"

"No, and he's furious. I don't understand the guy. He cleared six million from all sorts of ventures, and he's mad as hell because he had to pay five percent in taxes."

"How's Avery?"

"Somewhat worried. Capps made him fly to Houston last week, and it did not go well. He left on the Lear at midnight. Told me later Capps was waiting at his office at four in the morning, furious over his tax mess. Blamed it all on Avery. Said he might change firms."

"I think he says that all the time. You need a beer?"

Lamar left and returned with four Mooseheads. "How's Abby's mom?"

Mitch borrowed a shrimp and peeled it. "She's okay, for now. They removed a lung."

"And how's Abby?" Lamar was watching his friend, and not eating.

Mitch started another beer. "She's fine."

"Look, Mitch, our kids go to St. Andrew's. It's no secret Abby took a leave of absence. She's been gone for two weeks. We know it, and we're concerned."

"Things will work out. She wants to spend a little time away. It's no big deal, really."

"Come on, Mitch. It's a big deal when your wife leaves home without saying when she'll return. At least that's what she told the headmaster at school."

"That's true. She doesn't know when she'll come back. Probably a month or so. She's had a hard time coping with the hours at the office."

The lawyers were all present and accounted for, so Roosevelt shut the door. The room became noisier. Bobby Blue took requests.

"Have you thought about slowing down?" Lamar asked.

"No, not really. Why should I?"

"Look, Mitch, I'm your friend, right? I'm worried about you. You can't make a million bucks the first year."

Oh yeah, he thought. I made a million bucks last week. In ten seconds the little account in Freeport jumped from ten thousand to a million ten thousand. And fifteen minutes later, the account was closed and the money was resting safely in a bank in Switzerland. Ah, the wonder of wire transfer. And because of the million bucks, this would be the first and only April 15 party of his short, but distinguished legal career. And his good friend who is so concerned about his marriage will most likely be in jail before long. Along with everyone else in the room, except for Roosevelt. Hell, Tarrance might get so excited he'll indict Roosevelt and Jessie Frances just for the fun of it.

Then the trials. "I, Mitchell Y. McDeere, do solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. So help me God." And he'd sit in the witness chair and point the finger at his good friend Lamar Quin. And Kay and the kids would be sitting in the front row for jury appeal. Crying softly.

He finished the second beer and started the third. "I know, Lamar, but I have no plans to slow down. Abby will adjust. Things'll be fine."

"If you say so. Kay wants you over tomorrow for a big steak. We'll cook on the grill and eat on the patio. How about it?"

"Yes, on one condition. No discussion about Abby. She went home to see her mother, and she'll be back. Okay?"

"Fine. Sure."

Avery sat across the table with a plate of shrimp. He began peeling them.

"We were just discussing Capps," Lamar said.

"That's not a pleasant subject," Avery replied. Mitch watched the shrimp intently until there was a little pile of about six freshly peeled. He grabbed them across the table and shoved the handful into his mouth.

Avery glared at him with tired, sad eyes. Red eyes. He struggled for something appropriate, then began eating the unpeeled shrimp. "I wish the heads were still on them," he said between bites. "Much better with the heads."

Mitch raked across two handfuls and began crunching. "I like the tails myself. Always been a tail man."

Lamar stopped eating and gawked at them. "You must be kidding."

"Nope," said Avery. "When I was a kid in El Paso, we used to go out with our nets and scoop up a bunch of fresh shrimp. We'd eat 'em on the spot, while they were still wiggling." Chomp, chomp. "The heads are the best part because of all the brain juices."

"Shrimp, in El Paso?"

"Yeah, Rio Grande's full of them."

Lamar left for another round of beer. The wear, tear, stress and fatigue mixed quickly with the alcohol and the room became rowdier. Bobby Blue was playing Steppenwolf. Even Nathan Locke was smiling and talking loudly. Just one of the boys. Roosevelt added five cases to the barrel of ice.

At ten, the singing started. Wally Hudson, minus the bow tie, stood on a chair by the piano and led the howling chorus through a riotous medley of Australian drinking songs. The restaurant was closed now, so who cared. Kendall Mahan was next. He had played rugby at Cornell and had an amazing repertoire of raunchy beer songs. Fifty untalented and drunk voices sang happily along with him.

Mitch excused himself and went to the rest room. A bus-boy unlocked the rear door, and he was in the parking lot. The singing was pleasant at this distance. He started for his car, but instead walked to a window. He stood in the dark, next to the corner of the building, and watched and listened. Kendall was now on the piano, leading his choir through an obscene refrain.

Joyous voices, of rich and happy people. He studied them one at a time, around the tables. Their faces were red. Their eyes were glowing. They were his friends - family men with wives and children - all caught up in this terrible conspiracy.

Last year Joe Hodge and Marty Kozinski were singing with the rest of them.

Last year he was a hotshot Harvard man with job offers in every pocket.

Now he was a millionaire, and would soon have a price on his head.

Funny what a year can do.

Sing on, brothers.

Mitch turned and walked away.

* * *

Around midnight, the taxis lined up on Madison, and the richest lawyers in town were carried and dragged into the back seats. Of course, Oliver Lambert was the soberest of the lot, and he directed the evacuation. Fifteen taxis in all, with drunk lawyers lying everywhere.

At the same time, across town on Front Street, two identical navy-blue-and-yellow Ford vans with Dustbusters painted brightly on the sides pulled up to the gate. Dutch Hendrix opened it and waved them through. They backed up to the rear door, and eight women with matching shirts began unloading vacuum cleaners and buckets filled with spray bottles. They unloaded brooms and mops and rolls of paper towels. They chattered quietly among themselves as they went through the building. As directed from above, the technicians cleaned one floor at a time, beginning with the fourth. The guards walked the floors and watched them carefully.

The women ignored them and buzzed about their business of emptying garbage cans, polishing furniture, vacuuming and scrubbing bathrooms. The new girl was slower than the others. She noticed things. She pulled on desk drawers and file cabinets when the guards weren't looking. She paid attention.

It was her third night on the job, and she was learning her way around. She'd found the Tolar office on the fourth floor the first night, and smiled to herself.

She wore dirty jeans and ragged tennis shoes. The blue Dustbusters shirt was extra large, to hide the figure and make her appear plump, like the other technicians. The patch above the pocket read Doris. Doris, the cleaning technician.

When the crew was half finished with the second floor, a guard told Doris and two others, Susie and Charlotte, to follow him. He inserted a key in the elevator panel, and it stopped in the basement. He unlocked a heavy metal door, and they walked into a large room divided into a dozen cubicles. Each small desk was cluttered, and dominated by a large computer. There were terminals everywhere. Black file cabinets lined the walls. No windows.

"The supplies are in there," the guard said, pointing to a closet. They pulled out a vacuum cleaner and spray bottles and went to work.

"Don't touch the desks," he said.

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