Page 8 of The Firm

At five A.M. the alarm clock exploded on the new bed table under the new lamp, and was immediately silenced. Mitch staggered through the dark house and found Hearsay waiting at the back door. He released him into the backyard and headed for the shower. Twenty minutes later he found his wife under the covers and kissed her goodbye. She did not respond.

With no traffic to fight, the office was ten minutes away. He had decided his day would start at five-thirty, unless someone could top that; then he would be there at five, or four-thirty, or whenever it took to be first. Sleep was a nuisance. He would be the first lawyer to arrive at the Bendini Building on this day, and every day until he became a partner. If it took the others ten years, he could do it in seven. He would become the youngest partner in the history of The Firm, he had decided.

The vacant lot next to the Bendini Building had a ten-foot chain-link fence around it and a guard by the gate. There was a parking place inside with his name spray-painted between the yellow lines. He stopped by the gate and waited. The uniformed guard emerged from the darkness and approached the driver's door. Mitch pushed a button, lowered the window and produced a plastic card with his picture on it.

"You must be the new man," the guard said as he held the card.

"Yes. Mitch McDeere."

"I can read. I should've known by the car."

"What's your name?" Mitch asked.

"Dutch Hendrix. Worked for the Memphis Police Department for thirty-three years."

"Nice to meet you, Dutch."

"Yeah. Same to you. You start early, don't you?"

Mitch smiled and took the ID card. "No, I thought everyone would be here."

Dutch managed a smile. "You're the first. Mr. Locke will be along shortly."

The gate opened and Dutch ordered him through. He found his name in white on the asphalt and parked the spotless BMW all by itself on the third row from the building. He grabbed his empty burgundy eel-skin attache case from the rear seat and gently closed the door. Another guard waited by the rear entrance. Mitch introduced himself and watched as the door was unlocked. He checked his watch. Exactly five-thirty. He was relieved that this hour was early enough. The rest of The Firm was still asleep.

He nipped on the light switch in his office and laid the attache case on the temporary desk. He headed for the coffee room down the hall, turning on lights as he went. The coffeepot was one of those industrial sizes with multi-levels, multi-burners, multi-pots and no apparent instructions on how to operate any of it. He studied this machine for a moment as he emptied a pack of coffee into the filter. He poured water through one of the holes in the top and smiled when it began dripping in the right place.

In one corner of his office were three cardboard boxes full of books, files, legal pads and class notes he had accumulated in the previous three years. He sat the first one on his desk and began removing its contents. The materials were categorized and placed in neat little piles around the desk.

After two cups of coffee, he found the bar review materials in box number three. He walked to the window and opened the blinds. It was still dark. He did not notice the figure suddenly appear in the doorway.

"Good morning!"

Mitch spun from the window and gawked at the man. "You scared me," he said, and breathed deeply.

"I'm sorry. I'm Nathan Locke. I don't believe we've met."

"I'm Mitch McDeere. The new man." They shook hands.

"Yes, I know. I apologize for not meeting you earlier. I was busy during your earlier visits. I think I saw you at the funerals Monday."

Mitch nodded and knew for certain he had never been within a hundred yards of Nathan Locke. He would have remembered. It was the eyes, the cold black eyes with layers of black wrinkles around them. Great eyes. Unforgettable eyes. His hair was white and thin on top with thickets around the ears, and the whiteness contrasted sharply with the rest of his face. When he spoke, the eyes narrowed and the black pupils glowed fiercely. Sinister eyes. Knowing eyes.

"Maybe so," Mitch said, captivated by the most evil face he had ever encountered. "Maybe so."

"I see you're an early riser."

"Yes, sir."

"Well, good to have you."

Nathan Locke withdrew from the doorway and disappeared. Mitch checked the hall, then closed the door. No wonder they keep him on the fourth floor away from everyone, he thought. Now he understood why he didn't meet Nathan Locke before he signed on. He might have had second thoughts. Probably hid him from all the prospective recruits. He had, without a doubt, the most ominous, evil presence Mitch had ever felt. It was the eyes, he said to himself again, as he propped his feet on the desk and sipped coffee. The eyes.

As Mitch expected, Nina brought food when she reported at eight-thirty. She offered Mitch a doughnut, and he took two. She inquired as to whether she should bring enough food every morning, and Mitch said he thought it would be nice of her.

"What's that?" she asked, pointing at the stacks of files and notes on the desk.

"That's our project for the day. We need to get this stuff organized."

"No dictating?"

"Not yet. I meet with Avery in a few minutes. I need this mess filed away in some order."

"How exciting," she said as she headed for the coffee room.

Avery Tolar was waiting with a thick, expandable file, which he handed to Mitch. "This is the Capps file. Part of it. Our client's name is Sonny Capps. He lives in Houston now, but grew up in Arkansas. Worth about thirty million and keeps his thumb on every penny of it. His father gave him an old barge line just before he died, and he turned it into the largest towing service on the Mississippi River. Now he has ships, or boats, as he calls them, all over the world. We do eighty percent of his legal work, everything but the litigation. He wants to set up another limited partnership to purchase another fleet of tankers, this one from the family of some dead Chink in Hong Kong. Capps is usually the general partner, and he'll bring in as many as twenty-five limited partners to spread the risk and pool their resources.

This deal is worth about sixty-five million. I've done several limited partnerships for him and they're all different, all complicated. And he is extremely difficult to deal with. He's a perfectionist and thinks he knows more than I do. You will not be talking to him. In fact, no one here talks to him but me. That file is a portion of the last partnership I did for him. It contains, among other things, a prospectus, an agreement to form a partnership, letters of intent, disclosure statements and the limited partnership agreement itself. Read every word of it. Then I want you to prepare a rough draft of the partnership agreement for this venture."

The file suddenly grew heavier. Perhaps five-thirty was not early enough.

The partner continued. "We have about forty days, according to Capps, so we're already behind. Marty Kozinski was helping with this one, and as soon as I review his file I'll give it to you. Any questions?"

"What about the research?"

"Most of it is current, but you'll need to update it. Capps earned over nine million last year and paid a pittance in taxes. He doesn't believe in paying taxes, and holds me personally responsible for every dime that's sent in. It's all legal, of course, but my point is that this is high-pressure work. Millions of dollars in investment and tax savings are at stake. The venture will be scrutinized by the governments of at least three countries. So be careful."

Mitch flipped through the documents. "How many hours a day do I work on this?"

"As many as possible. I know the bar exam is important, but so is Sonny Capps. He paid us almost a half a million last year in legal fees."

"I'll get it done."

"I know you will. As I told you, your rate is one hundred an hour. Nina will go over the time records with you today. Remember, don't ignore the billing."

"How could I forget?"

* * *

Oliver Lambert and Nathan Locke stood before the metal door on the fifth floor and stared at the camera above. Something clicked loudly and the door opened. A guard nodded. DeVasher waited in his office.

"Good morning, Ollie," he said quietly while ignoring the other partner.

"What's the latest?" Locke snapped in DeVasher's direction without looking at him.

"From where?" DeVasher asked calmly.

"Chicago."

"They're very anxious up there, Nat. Regardless of what you believe, they don't like to get their hands dirty. And, frankly, they just don't understand why they have to."

"What do you mean?"

"They're asking some tough questions, like why can't we keep our people in line?"

"And what're you telling them?"

"That everything's okay. Wonderful. The great Bendini firm is solid. The leaks have been plugged. Business as usual. No problems."

"How much damage did they do?" asked Oliver Lambert.

"We're not sure. We'll never be sure, but I don't think they ever talked. They had decided to, no doubt about that, but I don't think they did. We've got it from a pretty good source there were FBI agents en route to the island the day of the accident, so we think they planned to rendezvous to spill their guts."

"How do you know this?" asked Locke.

"Come on, Nat. We've got our sources. Plus, we had people all over the island. We do good work, you know."

"Evidently."

"Was it messy?"

"No, no. Very professional."

"How'd the native get in the way?"

"We had to make it look good, Ollie."

"What about the authorities down there?"

"What authorities? It's a tiny, peaceful island, Ollie. Last year they had one murder and four diving accidents. As far as they're concerned, it's just another accident. Three accidental drownings."

"What about the FBI?" asked Locke.

"Don't know."

"I thought you had a source."

"We do. But we can't find him. We've heard nothing as of yesterday. Our people are still on the island and they've noticed nothing unusual."

"How long will you stay there?"

"Couple of weeks."

"What happens if the FBI shows up?" asked Locke.

"We watch them real close. We'll see them when they get off the plane. We'll follow them to their hotel rooms. We may even bug their phones. We'll know what they eat for breakfast and what they talk about. We'll assign three of our guys for every one of theirs, and when they go to the toilet we'll know it. There ain't nothing for them to find, Nat. I told you it was a clean job, very professional. No evidence. Relax."

"This makes me sick, DeVasher," Lambert said.

"You think I like it, Ollie? What do you want us to do? Sit back and let them talk? Come on, Ollie, we're all human. I didn't want to do it, but Lazarov said do it. You wanna argue with Lazarov, go ahead. They'll find you floating somewhere. Those boys were up to no good. They should've kept quiet, driven their little fancy cars and played big-shot lawyers. No, they gotta get sanctimonious."

Nathan Locke lit a cigarette and blew a heavy cloud of smoke in the general direction of DeVasher. The three sat in silence for a moment as the smoke settled across his desk. He glared at Black Eyes but said nothing.

Oliver Lambert stood and stared at the blank wall next to the door. "Why did you want to see us?" he asked.

DeVasher took a deep breath. "Chicago wants to bug the home phones of all nonpartners."

"I told you," Lambert said to Locke.

"It wasn't my idea, but they insist on it. They're very nervous up there, and they wanna take some extra precautions. You can't blame them."

"Don't you think it's going a bit too far?" asked Lambert.

"Yeah, it's totally unnecessary. But Chicago doesn't think so."

"When?" asked Locke.

"Next week or so. It'll take a few days."

"All of them?"

"Yes. That's what they said."

"Even McDeere?"

"Yes. Even McDeere. I think Tarrance will try again, and he might start at the bottom this time."

"I met him this morning," said Locke. "He was here before me."

"Five thirty-two," answered DeVasher.

* * *

The law school memorabilia were removed to the floor and the Capps file spread across the desk. Nina brought a chicken salad sandwich back from lunch, and he ate it as he read and as she filed away the junk on the floor. Shortly after one, Wally Hudson, or J. Walter Hudson as letterhead declared him, arrived to begin the study for the bar exam. Contracts were his specialty. He was a five-year member of The Firm and the only Virginia man, which he found odd because Virginia had the best law school in the country, in his opinion. He had spent the last two years developing a new review course for the contracts section of the exam. He was quite anxious to try it on someone, and McDeere happened to be the man. He handed Mitch a heavy three-ring notebook that was at least four inches thick and weighed as much as the Capps file.

The exam would last for four days and consist of three parts, Wally explained. The first day would be a four-hour multiple-choice exam on ethics. Gill Vaughn, one of the partners, was the resident expert on ethics and would supervise that portion of the review. The second day would be an eight-hour exam known simply as multi-state. It covered most areas of the law common to all states. It, too, was multiple-choice and the questions were very deceptive. Then the heavy action. Days three and four would be eight hours each and cover fifteen areas of substantive law. Contracts, Uniform Commercial Code, real estate, torts, domestic relations, wills, estates, taxation, workers' compensation, constitutional law, federal trial procedure, criminal procedure, corporations, partnerships, insurance and debtor-creditor relations. All answers would be in essay form, and the questions would emphasize Tennessee law. The Firm had a review plan for each of the fifteen sections.

"You mean fifteen of these?" Mitch asked as he lifted the notebook.

Wally smiled. "Yes. We're very thorough. No one in this firm has ever flunked - "

"I know. I know. I won't be the first."

"You and I will meet at least once a week for the next six weeks to go through the materials. Each session will last about two hours, so you can plan accordingly. I would suggest each Wednesday at three."

"Morning or afternoon?"

"Afternoon."

"That's fine."

"As you know, contracts and the Uniform Commercial Code go hand in hand, so I've incorporated the UCC into those materials. We'll cover both, but it'll take more time. A typical bar exam is loaded with commercial transactions. Those problems make great essay questions, so that notebook will be very important. I've included actual questions from old exams, along with the model answers. It's fascinating reading."

"I can't wait."

"Take the first eighty pages for next week. You'll find some essay questions you'll need to answer."

"You mean homework?"

"Absolutely. I'll grade it next week. It's very important to practice these questions each week."

"This could be worse than law school."

"It's much more important than law school. We take it very seriously. We have a committee to monitor your progress from now until you sit for the exam. We'll be watching very closely."

"Who's on the committee?"

"Myself, Avery Tolar, Royce McKnight, Randall Dunbar and Kendall Mahan. We'll meet each Friday to assess your progress."

Wally produced a smaller, letter-sized notebook and laid it on the desk. "This is your daily log. You are to record the hours spent studying for the exam and the subjects studied. I'll pick it up every Friday morning before the committee meets. Any questions?"

"I can't think of any," Mitch said as he laid the notebook on top of the Capps file.

"Good. See you next Wednesday at three."

Less than ten seconds after he left, Randall Dunbar walked in with a thick notebook remarkably similar to the one left behind by Wally. In fact, it was identical, but not quite as thick. Dunbar was head of real estate and had handled the purchase and sale of the McDeere home in May. He handed Mitch the notebook, labeled Real Estate Law, and explained how his specialty was the most critical part of the exam. Everything goes back to property, he said. He had carefully prepared the materials himself over the past ten years and confessed that he had often thought of publishing them as an authoritative work on property rights and land financing. He would need at least one hour a week, preferably on Tuesday afternoon. He talked for an hour about how different the exam was thirty years ago when he took it.

Kendall Mahan added a new twist. He wanted to meet on Saturday mornings. Early, say seven-thirty.

"No problem," Mitch said as he took the notebook and placed it next to the others. This one was for constitutional law, a favorite of Kendall's, although he seldom got to use it, he said. It was the most important section of the exam, or at least it had been when he took it five years ago. He had published an article on First Amendment rights in the Columbia Law Review in his senior year there. A copy of it was in the notebook, in case Mitch wanted to read it. He promised to do so almost immediately.

The procession continued throughout the afternoon until half of The Firm had stopped by with notebooks, assignments of homework and requests for weekly meetings. No fewer than six reminded him that no member of The Firm had ever failed the bar exam.

When his secretary said goodbye at five, the small desk was covered with enough bar review materials to choke a ten-man firm. Unable to speak, he simply smiled at her and returned to Wally's version of contract law. Food crossed his mind an hour later. Then, for the first time in twelve hours, he thought of Abby. He called her.

"I won't be home for a while," he said.

"But I'm cooking dinner."

"Leave it on the stove," he said, somewhat shortly.

There was a pause. "When will you be home?" she asked with slow, precise words.

"In a few hours."

"A few hours. You've already been there half the day."

"That's right, and I've got much more to do."

"But it's your first day."

"You wouldn't believe it if I told you."

"Are you all right?"

"I'm fine. I'll be home later."

* * *

The starting engine awakened Dutch Hendrix, and he jumped to his feet. The gate opened and he waited by it as the last car left the lot. It stopped next to him.

"Evenin', Dutch," Mitch said.

"You just now leaving?"

"Yeah, busy day."

Dutch flashed his light at his wrist and checked the time. Eleven-thirty.

"Well, be careful," Dutch said.

"Yeah. See you in a few hours."

The BMW turned onto Front Street and raced away into the night. A few hours, thought Dutch. The rookies were indeed amazing. Eighteen, twenty hours a day, six days a week. Sometimes seven. They all planned to be the world's greatest lawyer and make a million dollars overnight. Sometimes they worked around the clock, slept at their desks. He had seen it all. But they couldn't last. The human body was not meant for such abuse. After about six months they lost steam. They would cut back to fifteen hours a day, six days a week. Then five and a half. Then twelve hours a day.

No one could work a hundred hours a week for more than six months.

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