Page 45 of The Firm

Nathan Locke's annual three-day post-April 15 vacation in Vail had been canceled. By DeVasher, on orders from Lazarov. Locke and Oliver Lambert sat in the office on the fifth floor and listened. DeVasher was reporting the bits and pieces and trying unsuccessfully to put the puzzle together.

"His wife leaves. Says she's gotta go home to her mother, who's got lung cancer. And that she's tired of a bunch of his crap. We've detected a little trouble here and there over the months. She bitched a little about his hours and all, but nothing this serious. So she goes home to Mommy. Says she don't know when she's coming back. Mommy's sick, right? Removed a lung, right? But we can't find a hospital that's heard of Maxine Sutherland. We've checked every hospital in Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee. Seems odd, doesn't it, fellas?"

"Come on, DeVasher," Lambert said. "My wife had surgery four years ago, and we flew to the Mayo Clinic. I know of no law requiring one to have surgery within a hundred miles of home. That's absurd. And these are society people. Maybe she checked in under another name to keep it quiet. Happens all the time."

Locke nodded and agreed. "How much has he talked to her?"

"She calls about once a day. They've had some good talks, about this and that. The dog. Her mom. The office. She told him last night she ain't coming back for at least two months."

"Has she ever indicated which hospital?" asked Locke.

"Never. She's been real careful. Doesn't talk much about the surgery. Mommy is supposedly home now. If she ever left."

"What're you getting at, DeVasher?" asked Lambert.

"Shut up and I'll finish. Just suppose it's all a ruse to get her outta town. To get her away from us. From what's coming down. Follow?"

"You're assuming he's working with them?" asked Locke.

"I get paid for making those assumptions, Nat. I'm assuming he knows the phones are bugged, and that's why they're so careful on the phone. I'm assuming he got her outta town to protect her."

"Pretty shaky," said Lambert. "Pretty shaky."

DeVasher paced behind his desk. He glared at Ollie and let it pass. "About ten days ago, somebody makes a bunch of unusual copies on the fourth floor. Strange because it was three in the morning. According to our records, when the copies were made only two lawyers were here. McDeere and Scott Kimble. Neither of whom had any business on the fourth floor. Twenty-four access numbers were used. Three belong to Lamar Quin's files. Three belong to Sonny Capps. The other eighteen belong to McDeere's files. None belong to Kimble. Victor Milligan left his office around two-thirty, and McDeere was working in Avery's office. He had taken him to the airport. Avery says he locked his office, but he could have forgotten. Either he forgot or McDeere's got a key. I pressed Avery on this, and he feels almost certain he locked it. But it was midnight and he was dead tired and in a hurry. Could've forgotten, right? But he did not authorize McDeere to go back to his office and work. No big deal, really, because they had spent the entire day in there working on the Capps return. The copier was number eleven, which happens to be the closest one to Avery's office. I think it's safe to assume McDeere made the copies."

"How many?"

"Two thousand and twelve."

"Which files?"

"The eighteen were all tax clients. Now, I'm sure he'd explain it all by saying he had finished the returns and was merely copying everything. Sounds pretty legitimate, right? Except the secretaries always make the copies, and what the hell was he doing on the fourth floor at three A.M. running two thousand copies? And this was the morning of April 7. How many of your boys finish their April 15 work and run all the copies a week early?"

He stopped pacing and watched them. They were thinking. He had them. "And here's the kicker. Five days later his secretary entered the same eighteen access numbers on her copier on the second floor. She ran about three hundred copies, which, I ain't no lawyer, but I figure to be more in line. Don't you think?"

They both nodded, but said nothing. They were lawyers, trained to argue five sides of every issue. But they said nothing. DeVasher smiled wickedly and returned to his pacing. "Now, we caught him making two thousand copies that cannot be explained. So the big question is: What was he copying? If he was using wrong access numbers to run the machine, what the hell was he copying? I don't know. All of the offices were locked, except, of course, Avery's. So I asked Avery. He's got a row of metal cabinets where he keeps the real files. He keeps 'em locked, but he and McDeere and the secretaries have been rummaging through those files all day. Could've forgot to lock 'em when he ran to meet the plane. Big deal. Why would McDeere copy legitimate files? He wouldn't. Like everybody else on the fourth floor, Avery's got those four wooden cabinets with the secret stuff. No one touches them, right? Firm rules. Not even other partners. Locked up tighter than my files. So McDeere can't get in without a key. Avery showed me his keys. Told me he hadn't touched those cabinets in two days, before the seventh. Avery has gone through those files, and everything seems in order. He can't tell if they've been tampered with. But can you look at one of your files and tell if it's been copied? No, you can't. Neither can I. So I pulled the files this morning, and I'm sending them to Chicago. They're gonna check 'em for fingerprints. Take about a week."

"He couldn't copy those files," Lambert said.

"What else would he copy, Ollie? I mean, everything's locked on the fourth floor and the third floor. Everything, except Avery's office. And assuming he and Tarrance are whispering in each other's ears, what would he want from Avery's office? Nothing but the secret files."

"Now you're assuming he's got keys," Locke said.

"Yes. I'm assuming he's made a set of Avery's keys."

Ollie snorted and gave an exasperated laugh. "This is incredible. I don't believe it."

Black Eyes glared at DeVasher with a nasty smile. "How would he get a copy of the keys?"

"Good question, and one that I can't answer. Avery showed me his keys. Two rings, eleven keys. He keeps 'em with him at all times. Firm rule, right? Like a good little lawyer's supposed to do. When he's awake, the keys are in his pocket. When he's asleep away from home, the keys are under the mattress."

"Where's he traveled in the last month?" Black Eyes asked.

"Forget the trip to see Capps in Houston last week. Too recent. Before that, he went to Grand Cayman for two days on April 1."

"I remember," said Ollie, listening intently.

"Good for you, Ollie. I asked him what he did both nights, and he said nothing but work. Sat at a bar one night, but that's it. Swears he slept by himself both nights." DeVasher pushed a button on a portable tape recorder. "But he's lying. This call was made at nine-fifteen, April 2, from the phone in the master bedroom of Unit A." The tape began:

"He's in the shower." First female voice.

"Are you okay?" Second female voice.

"Yeah. Fine. He couldn't do it if he had to."

"What took so long?"

"He wouldn't wake up."

"Is he suspicious?"

"No. He remembers nothing. I think he's in pain."

"How long will you be there?"

"I'll kiss him goodbye when he gets out of the shower. Ten, maybe fifteen minutes."

"Okay. Hurry."

DeVasher punched another button and continued pacing. "I have no idea who they are, and I haven't confronted Avery. Yet. He worries me. His wife has filed for divorce, and he's lost control. Chases women all the time. This is a pretty serious breach of security, and I suspect Lazarov will go through the roof."

"She talked like it was a bad hangover," Locke said.

"Evidently."

"You think she copied the keys?" Ollie asked.

DeVasher shrugged and sat in his worn leather chair. The cockiness vanished. "It's possible, but I doubt it. I've thought about it for hours. Assuming it was some woman he picked up in a bar, and they got drunk, then it was probably late when they went to bed. How would she make copies of the keys in the middle of the night on that tiny island? I just don't think so."

"But she had an accomplice," Locke insisted.

"Yeah, and I can't figure that out. Maybe they were trying to steal his wallet and something went wrong. He carries a couple of thousand in cash, and if he got drunk, who knows what he told them. Maybe she planned to lift the money at the last second and haul ass. She didn't do it. I don't know."

"No more assumptions?" Ollie asked.

"Not now. I love to make them, but it goes too far to assume these women took the keys, somehow managed to copy them in the middle of the night on the island, without his knowledge, and then the first one crawled back in the bed with him. And that somehow all of this is related to McDeere and his use of the copier on the fourth floor. It's just too much."

"I agree," said Ollie.

"What about the storage room?" asked Black Eyes.

"I've thought about that, Nat. In fact, I've lost sleep thinking about it. If she was interested in the records in the storage room, there must be some connection with McDeere, or someone else poking around. And I can't make that connection. Let's say she found the room and the records, what could she do with them in the middle of the night with Avery asleep upstairs?"

"She could read them."

"Yeah, there's only a million. Keep in mind, now, she must have been drinking along with Avery, or he would've been suspicious. So she's spent the night drinking and screwing. She waits until he goes to sleep, then suddenly she has this urge to go downstairs and read bank records. It don't work, boys."

"She could work for the FBI," Ollie said proudly.

"No, she couldn't."

"Why?"

"It's simple, Ollie. The FBI wouldn't do it because the search would be illegal and the records would be inadmissible. And there's a much better reason."

"What?"

"If she was a Fibbie, she wouldn't have used the phone. No professional would've made that call. I think she was a pickpocket."

The pickpocket theory was explained to Lazarov, who poked a hundred holes but could devise nothing better. He ordered changes in all the locks on the third and fourth floors, and the basement, and both condos on Grand Cayman. He ordered a search for all the locksmiths on the island - there couldn't be many, he said - to determine if any had reproduced keys the night of April 1 or the early morning of April 2. Bribe them, he told DeVasher. They'll talk for a little money. He ordered a fingerprint examination of the files from Avery's office. DeVasher proudly explained he had already started this. McDeere's prints were on file with the state bar association.

He also ordered a sixty-day suspension of Avery Tolar. DeVasher suggested this might alert McDeere to something unusual. Fine, said Lazarov, tell Tolar to check into the hospital with chest pains. Two months off - doctor's orders. Tell Tolar to clean up his act. Lock up his office. Assign McDeere to Victor Milligan.

"You said you had a good plan to eliminate McDeere," DeVasher said.

Lazarov grinned and picked his nose. "Yeah. I think we'll use the plane. We'll send him down to the islands on a little business trip, and there will be this mysterious explosion."

"Waste two pilots?" asked DeVasher.

"Yeah. It needs to look good."

"Don't do it anywhere around the Caymans. That'll be too coincidental."

"Okay, but it needs to happen over water. Less debris. We'll use a big device, so they won't find much."

"That plane's expensive."

"Yeah. I'll run it by Joey first."

"You're the boss. Let me know if we can help down there."

"Sure. Start thinking about it."

"What about your man in Washington?" DeVasher asked.

"I'm waiting. I called New York this morning, and they're checking into it. We should know in a week."

"That would make it easy."

"Yeah. If the answer is yes, we need to eliminate him within twenty-four hours."

"I'll start planning."

* * *

The office was quiet for a Saturday morning. A handful of partners and a dozen associates loitered about in khakis and polos. There were no secretaries. Mitch checked his mail and dictated correspondence. After two hours he left. It was time to visit Ray.

For five hours, he drove east on Interstate 40. Drove like an idiot. He drove forty-five, then eighty-five. He darted into every rest stop and weigh station. He made sudden exits from the left lane. He stopped at an underpass and waited and watched. He never saw them. Not once did he notice a suspicious car or truck or van. He even watched a few eighteen-wheelers. Nothing. They simply were not back there. He would have caught them.

His care package of books and cigarettes was cleared through the guard station, and he was pointed to stall number nine. Minutes later, Ray sat through the thick screen.

"Where have you been?" he said with a hint of irritation. "You're the only person in the entire world who visits me, and this is only the second time in four months."

"I know. It's tax season, and I've been swamped. I'll do better. I've written, though."

"Yeah, once a week I get two paragraphs. 'Hi, Ray. How's the bunk? How's the food? How are the walls? How's the Greek or Italian? I'm fine. Abby's great. Dog's sick. Gotta run. I'll come visit soon. Love, Mitch.' You write some rich letters, little brother. I really treasure them."

"Yours aren't much better."

"What have I got to say? The guards are selling dope. A friend got stabbed thirty-one times. I saw a kid get raped. Come on, Mitch, who wants to hear it?"

"I'll do better."

"How's Mom?"

"I don't know. I haven't been back since Christmas."

"I asked you to check on her, Mitch. I'm worried about her. If that goon is beating her, I want it stopped. If I could get out of here, I'd stop it myself."

"You will." It was a statement, not a question. Mitch placed a finger over his lips and nodded slowly. Ray leaned forward on his elbows and stared intently.

Mitch spoke softly. "Espanol. Hable despotic." Spanish. Speak slowly.

Ray smiled slightly. "Cudndo?" When?

"La semana proximo." Next week.

"Que dia?" What day?

Mitch thought for a second. "Maries o miercoles." Tuesday or Wednesday.

"Que tiempo?" What time?

Mitch smiled and shrugged, and looked around.

"How's Abby?" Ray asked.

"She's been in Kentucky for a couple of weeks. Her mother's sick." He stared at Ray and softly mouthed the words "Trust me."

"What's wrong with her?"

"They removed a lung. Cancer. She's smoked heavy all her life. You should quit."

"I will if I ever get out of here."

Mitch smiled and nodded slowly. "You've got at least seven more years."

"Yeah, and escape is impossible. They try it occasionally, but they're either shot or captured."

"James Earl Ray went over the wall, didn't he?" Mitch nodded slowly as he asked the question. Ray smiled and watched his brother's eyes.

"But they caught him. They bring in a bunch of mountain boys with bloodhounds, and it gets pretty nasty. I don't think anyone's ever survived the mountains after they got over the wall."

"Let's talk about something else," Mitch said.

"Good idea."

Two guards stood by a window behind the row of visitors' booths. They were enjoying a stack of dirty pictures someone took with a Polaroid and tried to sneak through the guard station. They giggled among themselves and ignored the visitors. On the prisoners' side, a single guard with a stick walked benignly back and forth, half asleep.

"When can I expect little nieces and nephews?" Ray asked.

"Maybe in a few years. Abby wants one of each, and she would start now if I would. I'm not ready."

The guard walked behind Ray, but did not look. They stared at each other, trying to read each other's eyes.

"Addnde voy?" Ray asked quickly. Where am I going?

"Perdido Beach Hilton. We went to the Cayman Islands last month, Abby and I. Had a beautiful vacation."

"Never heard of the place. Where is it?"

"In the Caribbean, below Cuba."

"Que es mi nombre?" What is my name?

"Lee Stevens. Did some snorkeling. The water is warm and gorgeous. The Firm owns two condos right on Seven Mile Beach. All I paid for was the airfare. It was great."

"Get me a book. I'd like to read about it. Pasaporte?"

Mitch nodded with a smile. The guard walked behind Ray and stopped. They talked of old times in Kentucky.

* * *

At dusk he parked the BMW on the dark side of a suburban mall in Nashville. He left the keys in the ignition and locked the door. He had a spare in his pocket. A busy crowd of Easter shoppers moved en masse through the Sears doors. He joined them. Inside he ducked into the men's clothing department and studied socks and underwear while watching the door. Nobody suspicious. He left Sears and walked quickly through the crowd down the mall. A black cotton sweater in the window of a men's store caught his attention. He found one inside, tried it on and decided to wear it out of there, he liked it so much. As the clerk laid his change on the counter, he scanned the yellow pages for the number of a cab. Back into the mall, he rode the escalator to the first floor, where he found a pay phone. The cab would be there in ten minutes.

It was dark now, the cool early dark of spring in the South. He watched the mall entrance from inside a singles bar. He was certain he had not been followed through the mall. He walked casually to the cab. "Brentwood," he said to the driver, and disappeared into the back seat.

Brentwood was twenty minutes away. "Savannah Creek Apartments," he said. The cab searched through the sprawling complex and found number 480E. He threw a twenty over the seat and slammed the door. Behind an outside stairwell he found the door to 480E. It was locked.

"Who is it?" a nervous female voice asked from within. He heard the voice and felt weak.

"Barry Abanks," he said.

Abby pulled the door open and attacked. They kissed violently as he lifted her, walked inside and slammed the door with his foot. His hands were wild. In less than two seconds, he pulled her sweater over her head, unsnapped her bra and slid the rather loose-fitting skirt to her knees. They continued kissing. With one eye, he glanced apprehensively at the cheap, flimsy rented fold-a-bed that was waiting. Either that or the floor. He laid her gently on it and took off his clothes.

The bed was too short, and it squeaked. The mattress was two inches of foam rubber wrapped in a sheet. The metal braces underneath jutted upward and were dangerous.

But the McDeeres did not notice.

* * *

When it was good and dark, and the crowd of shoppers at the mall thinned for a moment, a shiny black Chevrolet Silverado pickup pulled behind the BMW and stopped. A small man with a neat haircut and sideburns jumped out, looked around and stuck a pointed screwdriver into the door lock of the BMW. Months later when he was sentenced, he would tell the judge that he had stolen over three hundred cars and pickups in eight states, and that he could break into a car and start the engine faster than the judge could with the keys. Said his average time was twenty-eight seconds. The judge was not impressed.

Occasionally, on a very lucky day, an idiot would leave the keys in the car, and the average time was reduced dramatically. A scout had found this car with the keys. He smiled and turned them. The Silverado raced away, followed by the BMW.

The Nordic jumped from the van and watched. It was too fast. He was too late. The pickup just pulled up, blocked his vision for an instant, then wham!, the BMW was gone. Stolen! Before his very eyes. He kicked the van. Now, how would he explain this?

He crawled back into the van and waited for McDeere.

After an hour on the couch, the pain of loneliness had been forgotten. They walked through the small apartment holding hands and kissing. In the bedroom, Mitch had his first viewing of what had become known among the three as the Bendini Papers. He had seen Tammy's notes and summaries, but not the actual documents. The room was like a chessboard with rows of neat stacks of papers. On two of the walls, Tammy had tacked sheets of white poster board, then covered them with the notes and lists and flowcharts.

One day soon he would spend hours in the room, studying the papers and preparing his case. But not tonight. In a few minutes, he would leave her and return to the mall.

She led him back to the couch.

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