He slept until housekeeping got tired of waiting. Checkout was noon, no exceptions, and when the maid banged on the door at eleven forty-five he yelled something through the door and jumped in the shower.
His car looked fine, no pry marks or dents or scrapes around the rear. He unlocked the trunk and quickly peered inside: three black plastic garbage bags stuffed with money. All was normal until he got behind the wheel and saw an envelope tucked under the windshield wiper in front of him. He froze and stared at it, and it seemed to stare back at him from thirty inches away. Plain white, legal size, no visible markings, at least on the side touching the glass.
Whatever it was, it couldn't be good. It wasn't a flyer for a pizza delivery or some clown running for office. It wasn't a ticket for expired parking because parking was free at the Acropolis casino.
It was an envelope with something in it.
He slowly crawled out of the car and looked around on the chance he'd spot someone out there. He lifted the wiper, took the envelope, and examined it as if it might be crucial evidence in a murder trial. Then he got back in the car because he figured someone was watching.
Inside was another trifold, another color digital picture printed off the computer, this one of unit 37F at Chaney's Self-Storage in Charlottesville, Virginia, 930 miles and at least eighteen hours away by car. Same camera, same printer, no doubt the same photographer who no doubt knew that 37F was not the last unit Ray had used to hide the money.
Though he was too numb to move, Ray drove away in a hurry. He sped along Highway 90 watching everything behind him, then suddenly veered to the left and turned onto a street that he followed north for a mile until he abruptly pulled into the parking lot of a Laundromat. No one was following. For an hour he watched every car and saw nothing suspicious. For comfort, his pistol was next to his seat, ready for action. And even more comforting was the money sitting just inches away. He had everything he needed.
The call from Mr. French's scheduling secretary came at eleven-fifteen. Crucial matters had conspired to make lunch impossible, but an early dinner would be his pleasure. She asked if Ray would come to the great man's office around 4 P.M., and the evening would proceed from there.
The office, a flattering photo of which appeared on the Web site, was a stately Georgian home overlooking the Gulf, on a long lot shaded with oaks and Spanish moss. Its neighbors were of similar architecture and age.
The rear had recently been converted into a parking lot with tall brick walls around it and security cameras scanning back and forth. A metal gate was opened for Ray and closed behind him by a guard dressed like a Secret Service agent. He parked in a reserved place, and another guard escorted him up to the rear of the building, where a crew was busy laying tile while another planted shrubs. A major renovation of the office and premises was rapidly winding down.
"The governor's coming in three days," the guard whispered.
"Wow," Ray said.
French's personal office was on the second floor, but he was not in it. He was still on his yacht, out in the Gulf, explained a comely young brunette in a tight, expensive dress. She led him into Mr. French's office anyway and asked him to wait in a sitting area by the windows. The room was paneled in blond oak and held enough heavy leather sofas, chairs, and ottomans to furnish a hunting lodge. The desk was the size of a swimming pool and covered with scale models of great yachts.
"He likes boats, huh?" Ray said, looking around. He was expected to be impressed.
"Yes, he does." With a remote she opened a cabinet and a large flat screen slid out. "He's in a meeting," she said, "but he'll be on in just a moment. Would you like a drink?"
"Thanks, black coffee."
There was a tiny camera in the top right corner of the screen, and Ray assumed he and Mr. French were about to chat via satellite. His irritation at waiting was slowly building. Normally, it would've been boiling by now, but he was captivated by the show that was unfolding around him. He was a character in it. Relax and enjoy it, he told himself. You have plenty of time.
She returned with the coffee, which, of course, was served in fine china, F&F engraved on the side of the cup. •-• "Can I step outside?" Ray asked.
"Certainly." She smiled and returned to her desk.
There was a long balcony through a set of doors. Ray sipped his coffee at the railing and admired the view. The wide front lawn ended at the highway, and beyond it was the beach and the water. No casinos were visible, not much in the way of development. Below him, on the front porch, some painters were chattering back and forth as they moved their ladders. Everything about the place looked and felt new. Patton French had just won the lottery.
"Mr. Atlee," she called, and Ray stepped inside the office. On the screen was the face of Patton French, hair slightly disheveled, reading glasses perched on his nose, eyes frowning above them. "There you are," he barked. "Sorry for the delay. Have a seat there, if you will, Ray, so I can see you."
She pointed and Ray sat.
"How are you?" French asked.
"Great, look, sorry for the mix-up, all my fault, but I've been on one of these damned conference calls all afternoon, just couldn't get away. I was thinking it would be a lot quieter here on the boat for dinner, whatta you think? My chef's a damned sight better than anything you'll find on land. I'm only thirty minutes out. We'll have a drink, just the two of us, then a long dinner and we'll talk about your father. It'll be enjoyable, I promise."
When he finally shut up, Ray said, "Will my car be secure here?" '. - :
"Of course. Hell, it's in a compound. I'll tell the guards to sit on the damned thing if you want."
"Okay Do I swim out?" : "No, I've got boats. Dickie'll bring you."
Dickie was the same thick young man who'd escorted Ray into the building. Now he escorted him out, where a very long silver Mercedes was waiting. Dickie drove it like a tank through the traffic to the Point Cadet Marina, where a hundred small vessels were docked. One of the larger ones just happened to be owned by Pat-ton French. Its name was the Lady of Justice.
"The water's smooth, take about twenty-five minutes," Dickie said as they climbed on board. The engines were running. A steward with a thick accent asked Ray if he'd like a drink. "Diet soda," he said. They cast off and puttered through the rows of slips and past the marina until they were away from the pier. Ray climbed to the upper deck and watched the shoreline fade into the distance.
Anchored ten miles from Biloxi was the King of Torts, a hundred-forty-foot luxury yacht with a crew of five and plush quarters for a dozen friends. The only passenger was Mr. French, and he was waiting to greet his dinner guest. "A real pleasure, Ray" he said as he pumped his hand and then squeezed his shoulder.
"A pleasure for me as well," Ray said, holding his ground because French liked close contact. He was an inch or two taller, with a nicely tanned face, fierce blue eyes that squinted and did not blink.
"I'm so glad you came," French said, squeezing Ray's hand. Fraternity brothers couldn't have pawed each other with more affection.
"Stay here, Dickie," he barked to the deck below. "Follow me, Ray," he said, and they were off, up one short flight to the main deck, where a steward in a white jacket was waiting with a starched F&F towel folded perfectly over his arm. "What'll you have?" he demanded of Ray.
Suspecting that French was not a man who toyed with light booze, Ray said, "What's the specialty of the house?"
"Iced vodka, with a twist of lime."
"I'll try it," Ray said.
"It's a great new vodka from Norway. You'll love it." The man knew his vodkas.
He was wearing a black linen shirt, buttoned at the neck, and tan linen shorts, perfectly pressed and hanging nicely on his frame. There was a slight belly, but he was thick through the chest and his forearms were twice the normal size. He liked his hair because he couldn't keep his hands out of it.
"How about the boat?" he asked, waving his hands from stern to bow. "It was built by a Saudi prince, one of the lesser ones, a coupla years ago. Dumb-ass put a fireplace in it, can you believe that? Cost him twenty million or so, and after a year he traded it in for a two-hundred-footer."
"It's amazing," Ray said, trying to sound sufficiently awed. The world of yachting was one he had never been near, and he suspected that after this episode he would forever keep his distance.
"Built by the Italians," French said, tapping a railing made of some terribly expensive wood.
"Why do you stay out here, in the Gulf?" Ray asked.
"I'm an offshore kind of guy, ha, ha. If you know what I mean. Sit." French pointed, and they lowered themselves into two long deck chairs. When they were nestled in, French nodded to the shore. "You can barely see Biloxi, and this is close enough. I can do more work out here in one day than in a week at the office. Plus I'm transitioning from one house to the next. A divorce is in the works. This is where I hide."
"This is the biggest yacht in Biloxi now, and most folks can spot it. The current wife thinks I've sold it, and if I get too close to the shore then her slimy little lawyer might swim out and take a picture of it. Ten miles is close enough."
The iced vodkas arrived, in tall narrow glasses, F&F engraved on the sides. Ray took a sip and the concoction burned all the way to his toes. French took a long pull and smacked his lips. "Whatta you think?" he asked proudly.
"Nice vodka," Ray said. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had one.
"Dickie brought fresh swordfish out for dinner. Sound okay?"
"And the oysters are good now."
"I went to law school at Tulane. I had three years of fresh oysters."
"I know," French said and pulled a small radio from his shirt pocket and passed along their dinner selections to someone below. He glanced at his watch and decided they would eat in two hours.
"You went to school with Hassel Mangrum," French said.
"Yes, he was a year ahead of me."
"We share the same trainer. Hassel has done well here on the coast. Got in early with the asbestos boys."
"I haven't heard from Hassel in twenty years."
"You haven't missed much. He's a jerk now, I suspect he was a jerk in law school."
"He was. How'd you know I went to school with Mangrum?"
"Research, Ray, extensive research." He swigged the vodka again. Ray's third sip went straight to his brain.
"We spent a bunch of dough investigating Judge Atlee, and his family, and his background, his rulings, his finances, everything we could find. Nothing illegal or intrusive, mind you, but old-fashioned detective work. We knew about your divorce, what's his name, Lew the Liquidator?"
Ray just nodded. He wanted to say something derogatory about Lew Rodowski and he wanted to rebuke French for digging through his past, but for a second the vodka was blocking signals. So he nodded.
"We knew your salary as a law professor, it's public record in Virginia, you know."
"Yes it is."
"Not a bad salary, Ray, but then it's a great law school."
"It is indeed."
"Digging through your brother's past was quite an adventure."
"I'm sure it was. It's been an adventure for the family."
"We read every ruling your father issued in damage suits and wrongful death cases. There weren't many, but we picked up clues. He was conservative with his awards, but he also favored the little guy, the workingman. We knew he would follow the law, but we also knew that old chancellors often mold the law to fit their notion of fairness. I had clerks doing the grunt work, but I read every one of his important decisions. He was a brilliant man, Ray, and always fair. I never disagreed with one of his opinions."
"You picked my father for the Gibson case?"
"Yes. When we made the decision to file the case in Chancery Court and try it without a jury, we also decided we did not want a local chancellor to hear it. We have three. One is related to the Gibson family. One refuses to hear any matter other than divorces. One is eighty-four, senile, and hasn't left the house in three years. So we looked around the state and found three potential fill-ins. Fortunately, my father and your father go back sixty years, to Sewanee and then law school at Ole Miss. They weren't close friends over the years, but they kept in touch."
"Your father is still active?"
"No, he's in Florida now, retired, playing golf every day. I'm the sole owner of the firm. But my old man drove to Clanton, sat on the front porch with Judge Atlee, talked about the Civil War and Nathan Bedford Forrest. They even drove to Shiloh, walked around for two days - the hornet's nest, the bloody pond. Judge Atlee got all choked up when he stood where General Johnston fell."
"I've been there a dozen times," Ray said with a smile.
"You don't lobby a man like Judge Atlee. Earwigging is the ancient term."
"He put a lawyer in jail once for that," Ray said. "The guy came in before court began and tried to plead his case. The Judge threw him in jail for half a day."
"That was that Chadwick fella over in Oxford, wasn't it?" French said smugly, and Ray was speechless.
"Anyway, we had to impress upon Judge Atlee the importance of the Ryax litigation. We knew he wouldn't want to come to the coast and try the case, but he'd do it if he believed in the cause."
"He hated the coast."
"We knew that, believe me, it was a huge concern. But he was a man of great principle. After refighting the war up there for two days, Judge Atlee reluctantly agreed to hear the case."
"Doesn't the Supreme Court assign the special chancellors?" Ray asked. The fourth sip sort of slid down, without burning, and the vodka was tasting better.
French shrugged it off. "Sure, but there are ways. We have friends."
In Fatten French's world, anyone could be bought.
The steward was back with fresh drinks. Not that they were needed, but they were taken anyway. French was too hyper to sit still for long. "Lemme show you the boat," he said, and bounced out of his chair with no effort. Ray climbed out carefully, balancing his glass.