The Partner - Page 14

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FOR HIS RETURN HOME, Patrick chose a pair of aqua surgeon's scrubs, very baggy and loose-fitting because he wanted nothing to aggravate his burns. The flight would be nonstop, but still more than two hours, and he needed to be as comfortable as possible. The doctor gave him a small bottle of pain pills, just in case, and also a file with his medical records. Patrick thanked him. He shook hands with Luis and said good-bye to a nurse.

Agent Myers waited outside his door with four large uniformed Military Police. "I'll make a deal with you, Patrick," he said. "If you behave, no handcuffs and leg chains now. Once we land, though, I have no choice."

"Thanks," Patrick said, and began walking gingerly down the hallway. His legs ached from toe to hip, and his knees were weak from lack of use. He held his head high, shoulders back, and nodded politely to the nurses as he walked past. Down the elevator to the basement, where a blue van waited with two more MP's, armed and scowling at the empty cars parked nearby. A strong hand under the arm, and Patrick was helped up and onto the middle bench. An MP handed him a pair of cheap aviator sunglasses. "Tfou'll need these," he said. "It's bright as hell out there."

The van never left the base. It moved slowly over blistering asphalt, through half-guarded checkpoints, never reaching thirty miles per hour. Not a word was spoken inside the van. Patrick looked through the thick shades and through the tinted windows at rows of barracks, then rows of offices, then a hangar. He had been there four days, he thought. Maybe three. He couldn't be sure because the drugs blurred the earlier hours. An air conditioner roared from the dash and kept them cool. He gripped his medical file, the only physical thing he owned at the moment

He thought of Ponta Pori, his home now, and wondered if he had been missed. What had they done to his house? Was the maid cleaning it? Probably not. And what about his car, the little red Beetle he loved so much? He knew only a handful of people in town. What were they saying about him? Probably nothing.

What difference did it make now? Regardless of the gossip in Ponta Pora, the folks in Bikm had certainly missed him. The prodigal son returns. The most famous Biloxian on the planet conies home, and how will they greet him? With leg chains and subpoenas. Why not a parade down Highway 90, along the Coast, to celebrate this local boy who made good? He put them on the map; he made their town famous. How many of them had been shrewd enough to own ninety million dollars?

He almost chuckled at his own silliness.

What jail would they put him in? As a lawyer, he had, at various times, seen all the local jails-City of Biloxi, Harrison County, even a federal holding cell at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi. He wouldn't be that lucky.

Would he get a cell to himself, or share it with common thieves and crackheads? An idea hit. He opened the file and quickly scanned the doctor's release notes. There it was, in bold letters-

PATIENT SHOULD REMAIN HOSPITALIZED FOR AT LEAST ANOTHER WEEK

God bless him! Why hadn't he thought of this before? The drugs. His poor system had been subjected to more narcotics in the past week than he'd taken in a lifetime. His lapses in memory and judgment could be blamed on the chemicals.

He needed desperately to get a copy of his release to Sandy so that a nice little bed could be prepared for him, preferably in a private room with nurses running back and forth. That was the incarceration he had in mind. Put ten cops by the door, he didn't care. Just fix him up with an adjustable bed and remote control, and by all means keep him away from the common criminals.

"I need to make a phone call," he said, past the MP's, in the general direction of the driver. There was no response.

They stopped at a large hangar with a cargo jet parked in front of it. The MP's waited outside, in the sun, while Patrick and Agent Myers went inside the small office and haggled over whether there existed a constitutional right for an accused to not only make a phone call to his attorney but also to fax along a document.

Patrick prevailed after calmly threatening all sorts of vile litigation against Brent, and the doctor's release instructions were faxed to the law office of Sandy Mc-Dennott in New Orleans.

After a long visit to the men's room, Patrick rejoined his escorts and slowly climbed the steps into the Air Force cargo plane.

FT LANDED at Keesler Air Force Base at twenty minutes before noon. Much to Patrick's surprise, and a little to his dismay, there were no festivities awaiting his arrival. No throng of cameras and reporters. No mob of old friends rushing forth to offer assistance in his hour of need.

The landing field had been sealed off for the moment by higher orders. The press had been excluded. A large group congregated near the front gate, a mile and a half away, and for good measure taped and photographed the plane as it flew over. They were greatly disappointed, too.

Frankly, Patrick wanted the press to see him as he emerged from the plane in his carefully selected surgeon's scrubs, and awkwardly limped his way down the steps to the tarmac, and then shuffled like a crippled dog in leg chains and handcuffs. It could have been a powerful image, the first seen by all tibose potential jurors out there.

As expected, the Coast's morning paper had run the story of his lawsuit against the FBI on the front page, as the lead story, with the pictures large and in color. Only the meanest of souls couldn't muster a trace of sympathy for Patrick, at least at this moment. The other side-the government, the prosecutors, the investigators-had been softened by the blow. It was to have been a glorious day for law enforcement; the return of a master thief, and a lawyer at that! Instead, the local office of the FBI had its phones unplugged and doors locked to keep reporters out. Only Cutter ventured forth, and he did so secretively. It was his duty to meet Patrick as soon as he touched ground.

Cutter was waiting with Sheriff Sweeney, two Air Force officers from the base, and Sandy.

"Hello, Patrick. Welcome home," the Sheriff said.

Patrick extended his hands, cuffed at the wrist, and tried to shake hands. "Hello, Raymond," he answered with a smile. They knew each other well, a common acquaintance between local cops and local lawyers. Raymond Sweeney had been the chief deputy of Har-rison County nine years earlier when Patrick arrived in town.

Cutter stepped forward to introduce himself, but as soon as Patrick heard "FBI" he turned his face and nodded at Sandy. A navy van, one remarkably similar to the van that had just deposited him at the plane in Puerto Rico, was nearby. They piled in, with Patrick in the back next to his lawyer.

"Where are we going?" Patrick whispered.

"To the base hospital," Sandy whispered back. "For medical reasons."

"Good job."

The van puttered along at a snail's pace, past a checkpoint where the guard lifted his eyes from the sports page just for a second, then down a quiet street with officers' quarters on both sides.

Life on the run was filled with dreams, some at night during sleep, real dreams, and some when the mind was awake but drifting. Most were terrifying, the nightmares of die shadows growing bolder and larger. Others were pleasant wishes of a rosy future, free of the past. These were rare, Patrick had learned. Life on the run was life in the past. There was no closure.

Other dreams were intriguing musings of the return home. Who would be there to greet him? Would the Gulf air feel and smell the same? When would he return, in what season? How many friends would seek him, and how many would avoid him? He could think of a handful of people he wanted to see, but he was not sure if they wanted to see him. Was he a leper now? Or a celebrity to be embraced? Probably neither.

There was a certain, very small comfort in the end of the chase. Horrendous problems lay ahead, but for now he could ignore what was behind. The truth was, Patrick had never been able to completely relax and enjoy his new life. Not even the money could calm his fears. This very day was inevitable; he'd known it all along. He had stolen too much money. A lot less, and the victims might not have been so determined.

He noticed small things as he rode along. The driveways were paved, which was quite rare in Brazil, at least in Ponta Pora. And the children wore sneakers as they played. In Brazil, they were always barefoot, the soles of their feet as tough as rubber. He suddenly missed his quiet street, Rua Tiradentes, with the groups of boys dribbling soccer balls in search of a game.

"Are you okay?" Sandy asked. He nodded, still wearing the aviator shades. Sandy reached into his briefcase and removed a copy of the Coast paper. The headline screamed,

LANIGAN SUES FBI FOR TORTURE AND ABUSE

The two photos consumed half the front page.

Patrick admired it for a moment. "I'll read it later."

Cutter sat directly in front of Patrick, and of course he was listening to his prisoner breathe. Conversation was out of the question, which suited Patrick fine. The van entered the parking lot of the base hospital, and stopped at the emergency entrance. They took Patrick through a service door, then along a hallway where the nurses were waiting for a quick inspection of their new patient. Two lab technicians stopped ahead of them, and one actually said, "Welcome home, Patrick." A real smartass.

No red tape here. No preadmission forms. No questions about insurance or who's paying for what. He was taken straight to the third floor and placed in a room at the end of the hall. Cutter had a few banal comments and instructions, as did the Sheriff. Limited phone use, guards by the door, meals in the room. What else can you say to a prisoner? They left, and only Sandy remained.

Patrick sat on the edge of his bed, his feet dangling. "I'd like to see my mother," he said.

"She's on her way. She'll be here at one."

"Thanks."

"What about your wife and daughter?"

"I'd like to see Ashley Nicole, but not now. I'm sure she doesn't remember me. By now, she thinks I'm a monster. For obvious reasons, I'd rather not see Trudy."

There was a loud knock on the door, and Sheriff Sweeney was back, now holding a rather thick stack of papers. "Sorry to disturb, Patrick, but this is business. I thought it best to get this over with."

"Sure, Sheriff," Patrick said, bracing for the onslaught.

"I need to serve these on you. First, this here is an indictment returned by the grand jury of Harrison County for capital murder."

Patrick took it and, without looking at it, handed it to Sandy.

"This here is a summons and a complaint for divorce, filed by Trudy Lanigan over in Mobile."

"What a surprise," Patrick said as he took it, "On what grounds?"

"I haven't read it. This is a summons and complaint filed by a Mr. Benjamin Aricia."

"Who?" Patrick asked, in a flat effort at humor. The Sheriff didn't crack a smile.

"This is a summons and complaint filed by your old law firm."

"How much are they after?" Patrick asked, taking the summons ^and complaint.

"I haven't read it. This is a summons and complaint filed by Monarch-Sierra Insurance Company."

"Oh yes. I remember those boys." He passed it to Sandy, whose hands were now full while the Sheriff's were empty.

"Sorry, Patrick," Sweeney said.

"Is that all?"

"For now. I'll stop by the clerk's office in town to see if any more suits have been filed."

"Send 'em over. Sandy here works fast."

They shook hands, this time without the intrusion of cuffs, and the Sheriff left.

"I always liked Raymond," Patrick said, hands on hips, slowly bending at the knees. He made it halfway down before stopping and easing up. "A long way to go, Sandy. I'm bruised to the bone."

"Great. Helps our lawsuit." Sandy flipped through the papers. "Seems Trudy is really upset with you. She wants you out of her life."

"I've tried my best. What are the grounds?"

"Abandonment and desertion. Mental cruelty."

"Poor thing."

"Are you planning to contest it?"

"Depends on what she wants."

Sandy flipped another page. "Well, just scanning here, it appears she wants a divorce, full custody of the child with the termination of all your parental rights, including the right of visitation, all real and personal property jointly owned at the time of your disappearance-that's what she's calling it, your disappearance -plus, oh yes, here it is, a fair and reasonable percentage of the assets you may have acquired since your disappearance."

"Surprise, surprise."

"That's all she wants, for now anyway."

"I'll give her the divorce, Sandy, and gladly. But it won't be as easy as she thinks."

"What do you have in mind?"

"We'll talk about it later. I'm tired."

"We have to talk sometime, Patrick. Whether you realize it or not, we have many things to discuss."

"Later. I need to rest now. Mom will be here in a minute."

"Fine. By the time I drive, fight New Orleans traffic, park and walk, it takes two hours to get from here to my office. When, exactly, might you want to meet again?"

"I'm sorry, Sandy. I'm tired, okay? How about tomorrow morning? I'll get rested up, and we'll work all day."

Sandy relaxed and placed the papers in his briefcase. "Sure, pal. I'll be here at ten."

"Thanks, Sandy."

He left, and Patrick rested comfortably for about eight minutes before his room was suddenly filled with all sorts of health care professionals, an all-female team. "Hi, I'm Rose, your head nurse. We need to examine you. Can we take off your shirt here?" It was not a request. Rose was already pulling on the shirt. Two other nurses, equally as thick as Rose, appeared on each side and began to undress Patrick. They seemed to enjoy it. Another nurse stood ready with a thermometer and a box of other dreadful instruments. A technician of some variety gawked from the end of the bed. An orderly in an orange coat hovered near the door.

They had invaded as a team, and for fifteen minutes performed various tasks upon his body. He closed his eyes and simply took it. They left as fast as they had come.

PATRICK AND HIS MOTHER had a tearful reunion. He apologized only once, for everything. She lovingly accepted, and forgave him, as only a mother can do. Her joy at seeing him displaced any ill will and bitterness that had naturally crept up during the past four days.

Joyce Lanigan was sixty-eight years old, in reasonably good health with only high blood pressure to struggle with. Her husband, Patrick's father, had left her for a younger woman twenty years earlier, then promptly died of a heart attack. Neither she nor Patrick attended his funeral in Texas. The second wife was pregnant at the time. Her child, Patrick's half brother, killed two undercover narcotics officers when he was seventeen, and now sat on death row in Hunts-ville, Texas. This little bit of dirty family laundry was unknown in New Orleans and Biloxi. Patrick had never told Trudy, his wife of four years. Nor had he told Eva. Why should he?

What a cruel twist. Both sons of Patrick's father were now charged with capital murder. One had been convicted. The other was well on his way.

Patrick was in college when his father left, then died. His mother adjusted badly to the life of a divorced middle-aged woman with no professional skills and no history of employment. The divorce settlement allowed her to keep the house and provided her with barely enough money to live on without having to find a job. She occasionally worked as a substitute teacher in a local elementary school, but she preferred to stay at home, puttering in the garden, watching soap operas, drinking tea with old ladies in the neighborhood.

Patrick had always found his mother to be a depressing person, especially after his father left, an event that didn't particularly bother him because he wasn't much of a father anyway. And he wasn't much of a husband either. Patrick had encouraged his mother to get out of the house, find a job, find a cause, live a little. She had a new lease on life.

But she enjoyed the misery too much. Over the years, as Patrick got busier and busier with his law-yering, he spent less time with her. He moved to Bi-loxi, married a woman his mother couldn't tolerate, and on and on.

HE ASKED about aunts and uncles and cousins, people he had lost contact with long before his death; people he had hardly thought of in the past four years. He asked only because he was expected to ask. For the most part, they were doing fine.

No, he did not want to see any of them.

They were anxious to see him.

Odd. They'd never been anxious to see him before.

They were very concerned about him.

Odd, too.

They chatted warmly for two hours, and the passage of time was quickly erased. She scolded him about his weight. "Sickly" was her word. She quizzed him about his new chin and nose, and his dark hair. She said all sorts of motherly things, then she left for New Orleans. He promised to keep in touch.

He had always promised that, she thought to herself as she drove away. But he'd rarely kept in touch.



Tags: John Grisham Thriller
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