The steward brought a selection of single malts to the top deck where French had settled them in for a nightcap and another story, with a view of Biloxi flickering in the distance. Ray did not drink whiskey and certainly knew nothing about single malts, but he went along with the ritual because he knew French would get even drunker. The truth was flowing in torrents now, and Ray wanted all of it.
They settled on Lagavulin because of its smokiness, whatever that meant. There were four others, lined like proud old sentries in distinctive regalia, and Ray vowed he'd had enough to drink. He'd sip and spit and if he got the chance he'd toss it overboard. To his relief, the steward poured tiny servings in short thick glasses heavy enough to crack floors.
It was almost ten but felt much later. The Gulf was dark, no other boats were visible. A gentle wind blew from the south and rocked the King of Torts just slightly.
"Who knows about the money?" French asked, smacking his lips.
"Me, you, whoever hauled it up there."
"That's your man."
"Who is he?"
A long sip, more smacking. Ray brought the whiskey to his lips and wished he hadn't. Numb as they were, they burned all over again.
"Gordie Priest. He worked for me for eight or so years, first as a gofer, then a runner, then a bagman. His family has been on the coast forever, always on the edges. His father and uncles ran numbers, whores, moonshine, honky-tonks, nothing legal. They were part of what was once known as the coast mafia, a bunch of thugs who disdained honest work. Twenty years ago they controlled some things around here, now they're history. Most of them went to jail. Gordie's father, a man I knew very well, got shot outside a bar near Mobile. A pretty miserable lot, really. My family has known them for years."
He was implying that his family had been part of the same bunch of crooks, but he couldn't say it. They'd been the front guys, the lawyers who smiled for the cameras and cut the backroom deals.
"Gordie went to jail when he was about twenty, a stolen car ring that covered a dozen states. I hired him when he got out, and over time he became one of the best runners on the coast. He was particularly good at the offshore cases. He knew the guys on the rigs, and when there was a death or injury he'd get the case. I'd give him a nice percentage. Gotta take care of your runners. One year I paid him almost eighty thousand, all of it in cash. He blew it, of course, casinos and women. Loved to go to Vegas and stay drunk for a week, throw money around like a big shot. He acted like an idiot but he wasn't stupid. He was always up and down. When he was broke he'd scramble and make some money. When he had money, he'd manage to lose it."
"I'm sure this is all headed my way," Ray said.
"Hang on," French said.
"After the Gibson case early last year, the money hit like a tidal wave. I had favors to repay. Lots of cash got hauled around. Cash to lawyers who were sending me their cases. Cash to doctors who were screening thousands of new clients. Not all of it was illegal. mind you, but a lot of folks didn't want records. I made the mistake of using Gordie as the delivery boy. I thought I could trust him. I thought he would be loyal. I was wrong."
French had finished one sample and was ready for another. Ray declined and pretended to work on the Lagavulin.
"And he drove the money up to Clanton and left it on the front porch?" Ray said.
"He did, and three months after that he stole a million dollars from me, in cash, and disappeared. He has two brothers, and at any-given time during the past ten years one of the three has been in prison. Except for now. Now they're all on parole, and they're trying to extort big money out of me. Extortion is a serious crime, you know, but I can't exactly go to the FBI."
"What makes you think he's after the three million bucks?"
"Wiretaps. We picked it up a few months ago. I've hired some pretty serious characters to find Gordie."
"What will you do if you find him?"
"Oh, there's a price on his head."
"You mean, like a contract?"
And with that, Ray reached for another single malt.
HE SLEPT on the boat, in a large room somewhere under the water, and when he found his way to the main deck the sun was high in the east and the air was already hot and sticky. The captain said good morning and pointed forward, where he found French yelling into a phone.
The faithful steward materialized out of thin air and presented a coffee. Breakfast was up on the top deck at the scene of the single malts, now under a canopy for shade.
"I love to eat outdoors," French announced as he joined Ray. "You slept for ten hours."
"Did I really?" Ray asked, looking again at his watch, which was still on Eastern time. He was on a yacht in the Gulf of Mexico, unsure of the day or time, a million miles from home, and now burdened with the knowledge that some very nasty people were chasing him.
The table was spread with breads and cereals. "Tin Lu down there can fix anything you want," French was saying. "Bacon, eggs, waffles, grits."
"This is fine, thanks."
French was fresh and hyper, already tackling another grueling day with the energy that could only come from the prospect of a half a billion or so in fees. He was wearing a white linen shirt, buttoned at the top like the black one last night, shorts, loafers. His eyes were clear and dancing around. "Just picked up another three hundred Minitrin cases," he said as he dumped a generous portion of flakes into a large bowl. Every dish had the obligatory F&F monogram splashed on it.
Ray had had enough of mass torts. "Good, but I'm more interested in Gordie Priest."
"We'll find him. I'm already making calls."
"He's probably in town." Ray pulled a folded sheet of paper from his rear pocket. It was the photo of 37F he'd found yesterday morning on his windshield. French looked at it and stopped eating.
"And this is up in Virginia?" he asked.
"Yep, the second of three units I rented. They've found the first two, I'm sure they know about the third. And they knew exactly where I was yesterday morning."
"But they obviously don't know where the money is. Otherwise, they would have simply taken it from the trunk of your car while you were asleep. Or they would've pulled you over somewhere between here and Clanton and put a bullet in your ear."
"You don't know what they're thinking."
"Sure I do. Think like a crook, Ray. Think like a thug."
"It may come easy for you, but it's harder for some folks."
"If Gordie and his brothers knew you had three million bucks in the trunk of your car, they would take it. Simple as that." He put the photo down and attacked his flakes.
"Nothing is simple," Ray said.
"What do you wanna do? Leave the money with me?"
"Don't be stupid, Ray. Three million tax-free dollars."
"Useless if I get the ole bullet in the ear. I have a very nice salary."
"The money is safe. Keep it where it is. Give me some time to find these boys, and they'll be neutralized."
The neutralization sapped any appetite Ray had.
"Eat, man!" French barked when Ray grew still.
"I don't have the stomach for this. Dirty money, bad guys breaking into my apartment, chasing me all over the Southeast, wiretaps, contract killers. What the hell am I doing - here?"
French never stopped chewing. His intestines were lined with brass. "Keep cool," he said. "And the money'll be yours."
"I don't want the money."
"Of course you do."
"No I don't."
"Then give it to Forrest."
"What a disaster."
"Give it to charity. Give it your law school. Give it to something that makes you feel good."
"Why don't I just give it to Gordie so he won't shoot me?"
French gave his spoon a rest and looked around as if others were lurking. "All right, we spotted Gordie last night over in Pascagoula," he said, an octave lower. "We're hot on his trail, okay? I think we'll have him within twenty-four hours."
;And he'll be neutralized?"
"He'll be iced."
"Gordie'll be history. Your money'll be safe. Just hang on, okay."
"I'd like to leave now."
French wiped skim milk off his bottom lip, then picked up his miniradio and told Dickie to get the boat ready. Minutes later, they were ready to board.
"Take a look at these," French said, handing over an eight-by-twelve manila envelope.
"What is it?"
"Photos of the Priest boys. Just in case you bump into them."
RAY IGNORED the envelope until he stopped in Hattiesburg, ninety minutes north of the coast. He bought gas and a dreadful shrink-wrapped sandwich, then was off again, in a hurry to get to Clanton, where Harry Rex knew the sheriff and all his deputies.
Gordie had a particularly menacing sneer, one that had been captured by a police photographer in 1991. His brothers, Slatt and Alvin, were certainly no prettier. Ray couldn't tell the oldest from the youngest, not that it mattered. None of the three resembled the others. Bad breeding. Same mother, no doubt different fathers.
They could have a million each, he didn't care. Just leave me alone.