The Partner - Page 11

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IT TOOK SANDY an hour to bully his way through the outer walls of the Navy base. His new client had not made things easy. No one seemed to know he was expected. He was forced to rely upon the attorney's usual repertoire: threats of instantaneous lawsuits, threats of ominous phone calls to senators and others in high places, and loud and angry complaints of all sorts of rights violations. He made it to the hospital office at dark, and hit another line of defense. But this time a nurse simply called Patrick.

His room was dark, lit only by the bluish light of the muted television hanging high in a corner-a soccer game from Brazil. The two old pals shook hands gently. They had not seen each other in six years. Patrick kept a sheet pulled to his chin, hiding his wounds. For the moment, the soccer game seemed more important than serious conversation.

If Sandy was hoping for a warm reunion, he quickly adjusted to a subdued one. While trying not to stare, he studied Patrick's face. It was thin, almost gaunt, with a newly squared chin and a sharper nose. He could pass for someone else, but for the eyes. And the voice was unmistakable.

"Thanks for coming," Patrick said. All of his words were very soft, as if the act of speaking required great effort and thought.

"Sure. Didn't have much of a choice, you know. Your friend is very persuasive."

Patrick closed his eyes and bit his tongue. He said a quick prayer of thanks. She was out there and she was fine.

"How much did she pay you?" he asked.

"A hundred thousand."

"Good," Patrick said, and then said no more. A long pause, and Sandy slowly realized that their conversations would be built around long silent intervals.

"She's fine," he said. "She's a beautiful woman. She's smart as hell and fully in control of whatever she's supposed to be in control of. In case you're wondering."

"That's nice."

"When was the last time you saw her?"

"Couple of weeks. I've lost track of time."

"Is she the wife, girlfriend, mistress, hooker-"

"Lawyer."

"Lawyer?"

"Yes, lawyer." Sandy was amused by this. Patrick shut down again, no words, no movement anywhere under the sheet. Minutes passed. Sandy took a seat in the only chair, content to wait for his friend. Patrick was reentering an ugly world where the wolves were waiting, and if he wanted to lie there and stare at the ceiling then that was fine with Sandy. They would have lots of time to talk. And no shortage of topics.

He was alive, and right now nothing else mattered. Sandy amused himself by recalling images of the funeral and burial, of the casket being lowered on a cold and cloudy day, of the priest's last words and Trudy's controlled sobs. It was downright funny, to think that old Patrick had been hiding in a tree not far away watching them grieve, as had been reported for three days now.

He laid low somehow, then snatched the money. Some men crack up when they near forty. The midlife crisis drives them to a new wife, or back to college. Not old Patrick. He celebrated his angst by killing himself, stealing ninety million dollars, and disappearing.

The real dead body in the car suddenly erased the humor, and Sandy wanted to talk. "There's quite a welcome committee back home, Patrick," he said.

"Who's the chairman?"

"Hard to say. Trudy filed for divorce two days ago, but that's the least of your problems."

"You're right about that. Let me guess, she wants half of the money."

"She wants many things. The grand jury has indicted you for capital murder. State not federal."

"I've watched it on television."

"Good. So you know about all the lawsuits."

"Yeah. CNN has been quite diligent in keeping me up to date."

"You can't blame them, Patrick. It's such a wonderful story."

"Thanks."

"When do you want to talk?"

Patrick rolled to his side and gazed past Sandy. There was nothing to look at but the wall, painted antiseptic white, but he wasn't looking at it. "They tortured me, Sandy," he said, his voice even quieter, and breaking.

"Who?"

"They taped wires to my body and shot current through me until I talked."

Sandy stood and walked to the edge of the bed. He placed his hand on Patrick's shoulder. "What did you tell them?"

"I don't know. I can't remember everything. They were shooting drugs in me. Here, look." He lifted his left arm so Sandy could inspect the bruises.

Sandy found a switch and flipped on the table lamp so he could see. "Good Lord," he said.

"They kept on about the money," Patrick said. "I blacked out, then I came to and they shocked me some more. I'm afraid I told them about the girl, Sandy."

"The lawyer?"

"Yeah, the lawyer. What name did she give you?"

"Leah."

"Okay, good. Her name is Leah then. I might have told them about Leah. In fact, I'm almost certain I did."

"Told who, Patrick?"

He closed his eyes and grimaced as the pain returned to his legs. The muscles were still raw and the cramping had begun. He gently rolled again and rested on his back. He pulled the sheet down to his waist. "Look, Sandy," he said, waving his hand across the two nasty burns on his chest. "Here's the proof."

Sandy leaned a bit closer and inspected the evidence -the red sores surrounded by shaved skin. "Who did this?" he asked again.

"I don't know. A bunch of people. There was a whole room full of them."

"Where?"

Patrick felt sorry for his friend. He was so eager to know what had happened, and not just about the torture. Sandy, as well as the rest of the world, wanted the irresistible details. It was indeed a wonderful story, but he wasn't sure how much he could tell. No one knew the details of the car crash that burned John Doe. But he could tell his lawyer and friend about his seizure and torture. He shifted his weight again and pulled the sheet up to his neck. Drug free for two days now, he was coping with the pain and trying mightily to avoid more injections. "Pull that chair closer and take a seat, Sandy. And turn off that switch. The light bothers me."

Sandy hurriedly followed orders. He sat as close to the bed as possible. "This is what they did to me, Sandy," Patrick said in the semidarkness. He started in Ponta Pora, with the jogging and the small car with a flat tire, and told the entire story of how they grabbed him.

ASHLEY NICOLE was twenty-five months old when her father was buried. She was too young to remember Patrick. Lance was the only man who lived in the house, the only man she'd ever seen with her mom.

He took her to school occasionally. They sometimes ate dinner as a family.

After the funeral, Trudy hid all photos and other evidence of her life with Patrick. Ashley Nicole had never heard his name mentioned.

But after three days of reporters camping on their street, the child naturally was asking questions. Her mother was acting strange. There was so much tension around the house that even a six-year-old could feel it. Trudy waited until Lance left for a visit with the lawyer, then she sat her daughter on her bed for a little chat.

She began by admitting that she had been married before. Actually, she had been married twice before, but she figured Ashley Nicole wouldn't need to know about the first husband until she was much older. The second husband was the issue for the moment.

"Patrick and I were married for four years, and then he did a very bad thing."

"What?" Ashley Nicole asked, wide-eyed and absorbing more than Trudy wanted.

"He killed a man, and he made it look like, well, there was a big car wreck, you see, a big fire, and it was Patrick's car, and the police found a body inside the car, once the fire was out, and the police figured it was Patrick. Everybody did. Patrick was gone, burned up in his car, and I was very sad. He was my husband. I loved him dearly, and he was suddenly gone. We buried him in the cemetery. Now, four years later, they found Patrick off hiding on the other side of the world. He ran away and hid."

"'Why?"

"Because he stole a bunch of money from his friends, and since he's a very bad man he wanted to keep all of this money for himself." "He killed a man and he stole money." "That's right, honey. Patrick is not a nice person." "I'm sorry you were married to him, Mommy." "Yes. But look, honey, there's something you need to understand. You were born when Patrick and I were married." She let the words drift through the air, and watched the little eyes to see if she caught the message. Evidently not. She squeezed Ashley Nicole's hand and said "Patrick is your father."

She looked blankly at her mother, the wheels turning rapidly in her head. "But I don't want him to be-"

"I'm sorry, honey. I was gonna tell you when you were much older, but Patrick is about to come back now, and it's important for you to know." "What about Lance? Isn't he my father?" "No. Lance and I are just together, that's all." Trudy had never allowed her to refer to Lance as her father. And Lance, for his part, had never shown the slightest interest in approaching the arena of fatherhood. Trudy was a single mom. Ashley Nicole had no father. This was perfectly common and acceptable.

"Lance and I have been friends for a long time," Trudy said, keeping the initiative and trying to prevent a thousand questions. "Very close friends. He loves you very much, but he is not your father. Not your real father anyway. Patrick, I'm afraid, is your real father, but I don't want you to worry about him." "Does he want to see me?"

"I don't know, but I'll fight forever to keep him away from you. He is a very bad person, honey. He left you when you were two years old. He left me. He stole a bunch of money and disappeared. He didn't care about us then, and he doesn't care about us now. He wouldn't be coming back if they hadn't caught him. We would never have seen him again. So don't worry about Patrick and what he might do."

Ashley Nicole crawled across the end of the bed and cuddled in her mother's lap. Trudy squeezed and patted her. "It's going to be all right, honey. I promise. I hated to tell you this, but with all those reporters out there and all the stuff on television, well, I just thought it best."

"Why are those people out there?" she asked, clutching her mother's arms.

"I don't know. I wish they would leave."

"What do they want?"

"Pictures of you. Pictures of me. Pictures they can put in the newspapers when they talk about Patrick and all die bad things he's done."

"So they're out there because of Patrick?"

"Yes, honey."

She turned and looked at Trudy square in the eyes, and said, "I hate Patrick."

Trudy shook her head as if the child were naughty, then she clutched her tightly, and smiled.

LANCE WAS BORN and raised on Point Cadet, an old fishing community on a small peninsula jutting into the Bay of Biloxi. The Point was a working neighborhood where the immigrants landed and the shrimpers lived. He grew up in the streets on the Point, and still had many friends there, one of whom was Cap. It was Cap who had been behind the wheel of the van loaded with marijuana when the narcs stopped them. They had awakened Lance, who'd been asleep with his shotgun amid the thick blocks of can-nabis. Cap and Lance had used the same lawyer, received the same sentence, and at nineteen been sent away together.

Cap ran a pub and loan-sharked money to cannery workers. Lance met him for a drink in the rear of the pub, something they tried to do at least once a month, though Cap saw less and less of Lance now that Trudy had become wealthy and they had flioved to Mobile. His friend was troubled. Cap had read the papers, had in fact been waiting for Lance to appear with a long face, looking for a sympathetic ear.

They caught up on the gossip over beer-who had won how much at the casinos, where the newest crack source was, who was being shadowed by the DEA- the usual idle chitchat of small-time Coast crooks still dreaming of riches.

Cap despised Trudy, and in the past he had often laughed at Lance for trailing behind her wherever she might go. "So how's the whore?" he asked.

"She's fine. Worried, you know, since they've caught him."

"She oughta be worried. How much life insurance did she collect?"

"Coupla mill."

"Paper said two point five. Way that bitch spends it, though, I'm sure there ain't much left."

"It's safe."

"Safe my ass. Paper said she's already been sued by the life insurance company."

"We got lawyers too."

"Yeah, but you ain't here 'cause you got lawyers, Lance, are you? You're here 'cause you need help. Lawyers can't do what she needs."

Lance smiled and sipped his beer. He lit a cigarette, something he could never do around Trudy. "Where's Zeke?"

"That's exactly what I figured," Cap said angrily. "She gets in trouble, her money is threatened, and so she sends you down here looking for Zeke or some other klutz you can grease to do something stupid. He gets caught. You get caught. You take the fall and she forgets your name. You're a dumbass, Lance, you know that."

"Yeah, I know. Where's Zeke?"

"In jail."

"Where?"

"Texas. Feds got him. running guns. You're stupid, you know that. Don't do this. When they bring your guy back, there'll be cops crawling all around him. They'll lock him away some place, his mother can't even get near him. There's serious money at stake here, Lance. They gotta protect this guy until he breaks and tells where he's buried it, you know. You try to hit him, and you'll kill half a dozen cops. And die tryin'."

"Not if it's done right."

"And I suppose you know how to do it. Could that be because you ain't ever done it before? When did you get so damned smart?"

"I can find the right people."

"For how much?"

"Whatever it takes."

"You got fifty grand?"

"Yeah."

Cap took a deep breath and glanced around his pub. Then he leaned forward on his elbows and glared at his friend. "Lemme tell you why it's a bad idea, Lance. You never were too bright, you know. Girls always liked you because they think you're cute, but thinking was never your strong suit."

"Thanks, pal."

"Everybody wants this guy alive. Think about it. Everybody. Feds. The lawyers. The cops. The guy whose money got stolen. Everybody. Except, of course, that fleabag who lets you live in her house. She needs him dead. If you pull this, and somehow knock him off, the cops go straight to her. She, of course, will be completely innocent because you'll be there to take the fall. That's what little stud puppies are for. He's dead. She keeps the money, which you and I know is the only thing that matters to her, and you go back to Parchman because you've got a record, remember? For the rest of your life. She won't even write you."

"Can we get it done for fifty?"

"We?"

"Yeah. Me and you."

"I can give you a name, that's all. I'm not touching this. It won't work, and there's nothing in it for me."

"Who is it?"

"A guy from New Orleans. He hangs around here some."

"Can you make the call?"

"Yeah, but that's it. And remember, I told you not to mess with this."



Tags: John Grisham Thriller
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