Page 52 of The Firm

Joey Morolto and his squad of storm troopers landed at the Pensacola airport in a chartered DC-9 before sunrise Friday. Lazarov waited with two limos and eight rented vans. He briefed Joey on the past twenty-four hours as the convoy left Pensacola and traveled east on Highway 98. After an hour of briefing, they arrived at a twelve-floor condo called the Sandpiper, in the middle of the Strip at Destin. An hour from Panama City Beach. The penthouse on the top floor had been procured by Lazarov for only four thousand dollars a week. Off-season rates. The remainder of the twelfth floor and all of the eleventh had been leased, for the goons.

Mr. Morolto snapped orders like an agitated drill sergeant. A command post was set up in the great room of the penthouse, overlooking the calm emerald water. Nothing suited him. He wanted breakfast, and Lazarov sent two vans to a Delchamps supermarket nearby. He wanted McDeere, and Lazarov asked him to be patient.

By daybreak, the troops had settled into their condos. They waited.

Three miles away along the beach, and within view of the Sandpiper, F. Denton Voyles and Wayne Tarrance sat on the balcony of an eighth-floor room at the Sandestin Hilton. They drank coffee, watched the sun rise gently on the horizon and talked strategy. The night had not gone well. The car had not been found. No sign of Mitch. With sixty FBI agents and hundreds of locals scouring the coast, they should have at least found the car. With each passing hour, the McDeeres were farther away.

In a file by a coffee table inside were the warrants. For Ray McDeere, the warrant read: escape, unlawful flight, robbery and rape. Abby's sin was merely being an accomplice. The charges for Mitch required more creativity. Obstruction of justice and a nebulous racketeering charge. And of course the old standby, mail fraud. Tarrance was not sure where the mail fraud fit, but he worked for the FBI and had never seen a case that did not include mail fraud.

The warrants were issued and ready and had been fully discussed with dozens of reporters from newspapers and television stations throughout the Southeast. Trained to maintain a stone face and loathe the press, Tarrance was having a delightful time with the reporters.

Publicity was needed. Publicity was critical. The authorities must find the McDeeres before the Mob did.

Rick Acklin ran through the room to the balcony. "They've found the car!"

Tarrance and Voyles jumped to their feet. "Where?"

"Panama City Beach. In the parking lot of a high rise."

"Call our men in, every one of them!" Voyles yelled. "Stop searching everywhere. I want every agent in Panama City Beach. We'll turn the place inside out. Get all the locals you can. Tell them to set up roadblocks on every highway and gravel road in and out of there. Dust the car for prints. What's the town look like?"

"Similar to Destin. A twelve-mile strip along the beach with hotels, motels, condos, the works," Acklin answered.

"Start our men door to door at the hotels. Is her composite ready?"

"Should be," Acklin said.

"Get her composite, Mitch's composite, Ray's composite and Ray's mug shot in the hands of every agent and cop. I want people walking up and down the Strip waving those damn composites."

"Yes, sir."

"How far away is Panama City Beach?"

"About fifty minutes due east."

"Get my car."

* * *

The phone woke Aaron Rimmer in his room at the Perdido Beach Hilton. It was the investigator with the Baldwin County Sheriff's Department. They found the car, Mr. Rimmer, he said, in Panama City Beach. Just a few minutes ago. About a mile from the Holiday Inn. On Highway 98. Sorry again about the girl, he said. Hope she's doing better, he said.

Mr. Rimmer said thanks, and immediately called Lazarov at the Sandpiper. Ten minutes later, he and his roommate, Tony, and DeVasher and fourteen others were speeding east. Panama City Beach was three hours away.

In Destin, Lazarov mobilized the storm troopers. They moved out quickly, piled into the vans and headed east. The blitzkrieg had begun.

It took only a matter of minutes for the U-Haul to become a hot item. The assistant manager of the rental company in Nashville was a guy named Billy Weaver. He opened the office early Friday morning, fixed his coffee and scanned the paper. On the bottom half of the front page, Billy read with interest the story about Ray McDeere and the search along the coast. And then Abby was mentioned. Then the escapee's brother, Mitch McDeere, was mentioned. The name rang a bell.

Billy opened a drawer and flipped through the records of outstanding rentals. Sure enough, a man named McDeere had rented a sixteen-footer late Wednesday night. M. Y. McDeere, said the signature, but the driver's license read Mitchell Y. From Memphis.

Being a patriot and honest taxpayer, Billy called his cousin at Metro Police. The cousin called the Nashville FBI office, and fifteen minutes later, the U-Haul was a hot item.

Tarrance took the call on the radio while Acklin drove. Voyles was in the back seat. A U-Haul? Why would he need a U-Haul? He left Memphis without his car, clothes, shoes or toothbrush. He left the dog unfed. He took nothing with him, so why the U-Haul?

The Bendini records, of course. Either he left Nashville with the records in the truck or he was in the truck en route to get them. But why Nashville?

* * *

Mitch was up with the sun. He took one long, lustful look at his wife with the cute blond hair and forgot about sex. It could wait. He let her sleep. He walked around the stacks of boxes in the small room and went to the bathroom. He showered quickly and slipped on a gray sweat suit he'd bought at a Wal-Mart in Montgomery. He eased along the beach for a half mile until he found a convenience store. He bought a sackful of Cokes, pastries and chips, sunglasses, caps and three newspapers.

Ray was waiting by the U-Haul when he returned. They spread the papers on Ray's bed. It was worse than they expected. Mobile, Pensacola and Montgomery had frontpage stories with composites of Ray and Mitch, along with the mug shot again. Abby's composite had not been released, according to the Pensacola paper.

As composites go, they were close here and there and badly off in other areas. But it was hard to be objective.

Hell, Mitch was staring at his own composite and trying to give an unbiased opinion about how close it was. The stories were full of all sorts of wild statements from one Wayne Tarrance, special agent, FBI. Tarrance said Mitchell McDeere had been spotted in the Gulf Shores - Pensacola area; that he and Ray both were known to be heavily armed and extremely dangerous; that they had vowed not to be taken alive; that reward money was being gathered; that if anyone saw a man who faintly resembled either of the McDeere brothers, please call the local police.

They ate pastries and decided the composites were not close. The mug shot was even comical. They eased next door and woke Abby. They began unpacking the Bendini Papers and assembling the video camera.

At nine, Mitch called Tammy, collect. She had the new IDs and passports. He instructed her to Federal Express them to Sam Fortune, front desk, Sea Gull's Rest Motel, 16694 Highway 98, West Panama City Beach, Florida. She read to him the front-page story about himself and his small gang. No composites.

He told her to ship the passports, then leave Nashville. Drive four hours to Knoxville, check into a big motel and call him at Room 39, Sea Gull's Rest. He gave her the number.

* * *

Two FBI agents knocked on the door of the old ragged trailer at 486 San Luis. Mr. Ainsworth came to the door in his underwear. They flashed their badges.

"So whatta you want with me?" he growled.

An agent handed him the morning paper. "Do you know those two men?"

He studied the paper. "I guess they're my wife's boys. Never met them."

"And your wife's name is?"

"Eva Ainsworth."

"Where is she?"

Mr. Ainsworth was scanning the paper. "At work. At the Waffle Hut. Say they're around here, huh?"

"Yes, sir. You haven't seen them?"

"Hell no. But I'll get my gun."

"Has your wife seen them?"

"Not to my knowledge."

"Thanks, Mr. Ainsworth. We've got orders to set up watch here in the street, but we won't bother you."

"Good. These boys are crazy. I've always said that."

A mile away, another pair of agents parked discreetly next to a Waffle Hut and set up watch.

By noon, all highways and county roads into the coast around Panama City Beach were blocked. Along the Strip, cops stopped traffic every four miles. They walked from one T-shirt shop to the next, handing out composites. They posted them on the bulletin boards in Shoney's, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and a dozen more fast-food places. They told the cashiers and waitresses to keep their eyes open for the McDeeres. Very dangerous people.

* * *

Lazarov and his men camped at the Best Western, two miles west of the Sea Gull's Rest. He rented a large conference room and set up command. Four of his troops were dispatched to raid a T-shirt shop, and they returned with all sorts of tourist clothes and straw hats and caps. He rented two Ford Escorts and equipped them with police scanners. They patrolled the Strip and listened to the endless squawking. They immediately caught the search for the U-Haul and joined in. DeVasher strategically spread the rented vans along the Strip. They sat innocently in large parking lots and waited with their radios.

Around two, Lazarov received an emergency call from an employee on the fifth floor of the Bendini Building. Two things. First, an employee snooping around the Caymans had found an old locksmith who, after being paid, recalled making eleven keys around midnight of April 1. Eleven keys, on two rings. Said the woman, a very attractive American, a brunette with nice legs, had paid cash and was in a hurry. Said the keys had been easy, except for the Mercedes key. He wasn't sure about that one. Second, a banker from Grand Cayman called. Thursday at 9:33 A.M., ten million dollars had been wired from the Royal Bank of Montreal to the Southeastern Bank in Nashville.

Between four and four-thirty, the police scanners went wild. The squawking was nonstop. A clerk at the Holiday Inn made a probable ID of Abby, as the woman who paid cash for two rooms at 4:17 A.M., Thursday. She paid for three nights, but had not been seen since the rooms were cleaned around one on Thursday. Evidently, neither room had been slept in Thursday night. She had not checked out, and the rooms were paid for through noon Saturday. The clerk saw no sign of a male accomplice. The Holiday Inn was swamped with cops and FBI agents and Morolto thugs for an hour. Tarrance himself interrogated the clerk.

They were there! Somewhere in Panama City Beach. Ray and Abby were confirmed. It was suspected Mitch was with them, but it was unconfirmed. Until 4:58, Friday afternoon.

The bombshell. A county deputy pulled into a cheap motel and noticed the gray-and-white hood of a truck. He walked between two buildings and smiled at the small U-Haul truck hidden neatly between a row of two-story rooms and a large garbage Dumpster. He wrote down all the numbers on the truck and called it in.

It hit! In five minutes the motel was surrounded. The owner charged from the front office and demanded an explanation. He looked at the composites and shook his head. Five FBI badges napped in his face, and he became cooperative.

Accompanied by a dozen agents, he took the keys and went door to door. Forty-eight doors.

Only seven were occupied. The owner explained as he unlocked doors that it was a slow time of the year at the Beachcomber Inn. All of the smaller motels struggle until Memorial Day, he explained.

Even the Sea Gull's Rest, four miles to the west, was struggling.

* * *

Andy Patrick received his first felony conviction at the age of nineteen and served four months for bad checks. Branded as a felon, he found honest work impossible, and for the next twenty years worked unsuccessfully as a small-time criminal. He drifted across the country shoplifting, writing bad checks and breaking into houses here and there. A small, frail nonviolent man, he was severely beaten by a fat, arrogant county deputy in Texas when he was twenty-seven. He lost an eye and lost all respect for the law.

Six months earlier, he landed in Panama City Beach and found an honest job paying four bucks an hour working the night shift at the front and only desk of the Sea Gull's Rest Motel. Around nine, Friday night, he was watching TV when a fat, arrogant county deputy swaggered through the door.

"Got a manhunt going on," he announced, and laid copies of the composites and mug shot on the dirty counter. "Looking for these folks. We think they're around here."

Andy studied the composites. The one of Mitchell Y. McDeere looked pretty familiar. The wheels in his smalltime felonious brain began to churn.

With his one good eye, he looked at the fat, arrogant county deputy and said, "Ain't seen them. But I'll keep an eye out."

"They're dangerous," the deputy said.

You're the dangerous one, Andy thought.

"Post these up on the wall there," the deputy instructed.

Do you own this damned place? Andy thought. "I'm sorry, but I'm not authorized to post anything on the walls."

The deputy froze, cocked his head sideways and glared at Andy through thick sunglasses. "Listen, Peewee, I authorized it."

"I'm sorry, sir, but I can't post anything on the walls unless my boss tells me to."

"And where is your boss?"

"I don't know. Probably in a bar somewhere."

The deputy carefully picked up the composites, walked behind the counter and tacked them on the bulletin board. When he finished, he glared down at Andy and said, "I'll come back in a coupla hours. If you remove these, I'll arrest you for obstruction of justice."

Andy did not flinch. "Won't stick. They got me for that one time in Kansas, so I know all about it."

The deputy's fat cheeks turned red and he gritted his teeth. "You're a little smart-ass, aren't you?"

"Yes, sir."

"You take these down and I promise you you'll go to jail for something."

"I've been there before, and it ain't no big deal."

* * *

Red lights and sirens screamed by the Strip a few feet away, and the deputy turned and watched the excitement. He mumbled something and swaggered out the door. Andy threw the composites in the garbage. He watched the squad cars dodge each other on the Strip for a few minutes, then walked through the parking lot to the rear building. He knocked on the door of Room 38.

He waited and knocked again.

"Who is it?" a woman asked.

"The manager," Andy replied, proud of his title. The door opened, and the man who favored the composite of Mitchell Y. McDeere slid out.

"Yes, sir," he said. "What's going on?"

He was nervous, Andy could tell. "Cops just came by, know what I mean?"

"What do they want?" he asked innocently.

Your ass, Andy thought. "Just asking questions and showing pictures. I looked at the pictures, you know?"

"Uh-huh," he said.

"Pretty good pictures," Andy said.

Mr. McDeere stared at Andy real hard.

Andy said, "Cop said one of them escaped from prison. Know what I mean? I been in prison, and I think everybody ought to escape. You know?"

Mr. McDeere smiled, a rather nervous smile. "What's your name?" he asked.

"Andy."

"I've got a deal for you, Andy. I'll give you a thousand bucks now, and tomorrow, if you're still unable to recognize anybody, I'll give you another thousand bucks. Same for the next day."

A wonderful deal, thought Andy, but if he could afford a thousand bucks a day, certainly he could afford five thousand a day. It was the opportunity of his career.

"Nope," Andy said firmly. "Five thousand a day."

Mr. McDeere never hesitated. "It's a deal. Let me get the money." He went in the room and returned with a stack of bills.

"Five thousand a day, Andy, that's our deal?"

Andy took the money and glanced around. He would count it later. "I guess you want me to keep the maids away?" Andy asked.

"Great idea. That would be nice."

"Another five thousand," Andy said.

Mr. McDeere sort of hesitated. "Okay, I've got another deal. Tomorrow morning, a Fed Ex package will arrive at the desk for Sam Fortune. You bring it to me, and keep the maids away, and I'll give you another five thousand."

"Won't work. I do the night shift."

"Okay, Andy. What if you worked all weekend, around the clock, kept the maids away and delivered my package? Can you do that?"

"Sure. My boss is a drunk. He'd love for me to work all weekend."

"How much money, Andy?"

Go for it, Andy thought. "Another twenty thousand."

Mr. McDeere smiled. "You got it."

Andy grinned and stuck the money in his pocket. He walked away without saying a word, and Mitch retreated to Room 38.

"Who was it?" Ray snapped.

Mitch smiled as he glanced between the blinds and the windows.

"I knew we would have to have a lucky break to pull this off. And I think we just found it."

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