The Partner - Page 15

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OPERATING FROM A SUITE at the Hay-Adams Hotel, Stephano spent the morning playing telephone tag with harried corporate executives. It had been easy to convince Benny Aticia that he was about to be arrested, photographed, printed, and otherwise harassed by the FBI. Convincing egos like Paul Atterson at Monarch-Sierra Insurance and Frank Jill at Northern Case Mutual was another matter. Both were typical CEO's, serious white men with huge salaries and large staffs to keep away anything unpleasant. Arrests and prosecutions were for the lower classes.

The FBI proved quite helpful. Hamilton Jaynes dispatched agents to both headquarters-Monarch's in Palo Alto and Northern Case MutuaPs in St. Paul- with instructions to call on both men and ask a bunch of questions about the search and capture of one Patrick Lanigan.

Both threw in the towel by lunch. Call off the dogs, they said to Stephano. The search is over. Cooperate fully with the FBI, and for heaven's sakes do something to get these agents out of our headquarters. It was very embarrassing.

And so the consortium unraveled. Stephano had kept it together for four years, and in doing so earned himself almost a million dollars. He'd spent another 2.5 million of his client's, and he could claim success. They'd found Lanigan. They had not found the ninety million, but it was still around. It had not been spent. There was a chance of recouping it.

BENNY ARICIA was in the suite with Stephano throughout the morning, reading papers, making calls of his own, listening as Stephano worked the phones. At one, he called his attorney in Biloxi and got the news that Patrick had arrived. And amid almost no fanfare. The local TV ran the story at noon, complete with a shot of the Air Force cargo plane roaring overhead as it landed at Keesler. That was as close as they were allowed. The local Sheriff confirmed that the boy was back.

He had listened to the torture tape three times, often stopping it to replay his favorite spots. Once, two days ago on a flight to Florida, he had listened to it with earphones as he sipped a drink in first class and smiled at the blood-curdling sounds of a man begging for mercy. But the smiles were rare for Benny these days. He was certain Patrick had told what he knew, and it wasn't enough. Patrick knew he would someday get caught; that's why he shrewdly placed the money with the girl, who then hid it from everyone, including Patrick. Brilliant. Nothing short of it.

"What will it take to find her?" he asked Stephano, as the two lunched on soup sent up by room service. The question had been asked many times already.

"What, or how much?"

"How much, I guess."

"Can't answer that. We have no idea where she is, but we know where she's from. And we know she'll likely surface somewhere around Biloxi, now that her man's there. It can be done."

"How much?"

"Just guessing, I'd say a hundred thousand, with no guarantees. Put up the money, and when it's gone, we quit."

"Any chance the feds will know we're still looking?"

"Nope."

Benny stirred his soup-tomatoes and noodles. Down one point nine million already, it seemed foolish not to give it one last shot. The odds were long, but the reward could be enormous. It was the same game he'd played for four years now.

"And if you find her?" he asked.

"We'll make her talk," Stephano said, and they exchanged grimaces at the unpleasant thought of doing to a woman what they'd done to Patrick.

"What about his lawyer?" Aricia finally asked. "Can't we bug his office, tap his phones, somehow listen in when he talks to his client. Surely they'll talk about my money."

"It's a possibility. Are you serious?"

"Serious? I got ninety million out there, Jack. Minus a third for those bloodsucking lawyers. Of course I'm serious."

"It could be tricky. The lawyer's not stupid, you know. And his client's a cautious fellow."

"Come on, Jack. You're supposed to be the best. You're certainly the most expensive."

"We'll do a preliminary-trail him for a couple of days, see his layout. There's no rush. His client isn't moving for a while. Right now I'm more concerned with getting the feds outta my hair. I need to do a few trivial things like reopen my office and get the bugs outta my phones."

Aricia waved him off. "How much will it cost me?"

"I don't know. We'll talk about it later. Finish your lunch. The lawyers are waiting."

Stephano left first, on foot, and waved politely to the two agents parked illegally on I Street, down from the hotel. He walked briskly to his lawyer's office, seven blocks away. Benny waited ten minutes and caught a cab.

They spent the afternoon in a conference room crowded with lawyers and paralegals. The agreements were faxed back and forth between the lawyers-Ste-phano's and the FBI's. Eventually both sides got what they wanted. The criminal charges aigainst Stephano were dropped and would not be pursued against his clients. The FBI received his written promise to divulge everything he knew about the search and capture of Patrick Lanigan.

Stephano truly planned to tell most of what he knew. The search was over; thus there was no longer anything to hide. The interrogation had produced little, just the name of a Brazilian lawyer who had the money. Now she had vanished, and he seriously doubted the FBI had the time and desire to pursue her. Why should they? The money didn't belong to them.

And though he worked hard not to show it, he desperately wanted the FBI out of his life. Mrs. Stephano was severely rattled, and the pressure at home was enormous. If he didn't reopen his office quickly, he'd be out of business.

So, he planned to tell them what they wanted to hear, most of it anyway. He'd take Benny's money, what was left of it, and chase the girl some more, maybe get lucky. And he'd send a crew to New Orleans to watch Lanigan's lawyer. The FBI didn't need to know these little details.

SINCE THERE WASNT an available square inch in the federal building in Biloxi, Cutter asked Sheriff Sweeney to find a spot at the county jail. Sweeney reluctantly agreed, though the idea of the FBI spending time in his offices was unsettling. He cleaned out a storage room and installed a table and some chairs. The Lanigan Room was christened.

There was little to store there. No one Suspected murder when Patrick died, and so there was no effort at gathering physical clues, at least not for the first six weeks. When the money vanished, suspicions grew, but by then the trail was cold.

Cutter and Ted Grimshaw, the chief investigator for Harrison County, carefully examined and inventoried their meager evidence. There were ten large color photos of the burned-out Chevy Blazer, and they tacked these on one wall. They had been taken by Grimshaw.

The fire had been extremely hot; now they knew why. Patrick no doubt had loaded the interior with plastic containers of gasoline. That would account for the melted aluminum seat frames, the blown-out windows, the disintegrated dashboard, and the scant remains of the body. Six photos were of the corpse, such as it was-a small pile of charred matter with half a pelvic bone protruding. It had come to rest on the floorboard of the passenger's side. The Blazer had flipped several times after it left the highway and barreled down a ravine. It burned on its right side.

Sheriff Sweeney had kept it for a month, then sold it for scrap with three other abandoned wrecks. Later, he wished he hadn't.

There were half a dozen photos of the site around the vehicle, trees and shrubs burned black. The volunteers had fought the fire for an hour before extinguishing it.

How convenient that Patrick wanted to be cremated. According to Trudy (and they had a typed statement given by her a month after the funeral), Patrick had suddenly decided he wanted to be cremated with his ashes buried in Locust Grove, the loveliest cemetery in the county. This decision was made almost eleven months before he disappeared. He'd even changed his will and included language directing his executor, Trudy, or in the event she died with him his alternate executor, Karl Huskey, to carry out the cremation. He also included specific details about his funeral and burial.

His excuse for doing this had been the death of a client who had not planned well. The family had fought viciously about how to bury the client, and Patrick had been pulled into the fray. He even made Trudy pick out her cemetery plot. She picked one next tq his, but both knew she would quickly move it if something happened to him first.

The mortician later told Grimshaw that ninety percent of the cremating had been done in the Blazer. When he weighed the ashes after cooking the remains for an hour at two thousand degrees, the scales registered just four ounces, by far the smallest amount he'd ever registered. He could tell nothing about the body -male, female, black, white, young, old, alive or dead before the fire. There was simply no way. He didn't really try, to be honest about the whole thing.

They had no corpse, no autopsy report, no idea who John Doe was. Fire is the surest way to destroy evidence, and Patrick had done a splendid job of covering his tracks.

HE'D SPENT the weekend in an old hunting cabin near the small town of Leaf, up in Greene County, at the edge of the De Soto National Forest. He and a law school friend from Jackson had bought the cabin two years earlier with modest plans to make small improvements. It was quite rustic. They hunted deer in the fall and winter, and turkeys in the spring. With the ups and downs of his marriage, he was spending more and more weekends at the cabin. It was only an hour and a half away. He claimed to be able to work there. It was very remote and quiet. His friend, the co-owner, had all but forgotten about it.

Trudy pretended to resent his weekends away, but Lance was usually lurking nearby, just waiting for Patrick to leave town.

Sunday night, February 9, 1992, Patrick called to tell his wife he was leaving the cabin. He'd finished a complicated brief for an appeal, and he was tired. Lance lingered for another hour before easing into the darkness.

Patrick stopped at Verhall's Country Store on Highway 15 at the divide between Stone and Hanison counties. He bought twelve gallons of gas for fourteen dollars and twenty-one cents and paid for it with a credit card. He chatted with Mrs. Verhall, an older lady he'd become acquainted with. She knew many of the hunters who passed through, especially the ones who liked to linger and brag of their exploits in the woods, like Patrick. She said later that he was in good spirits, though he claimed to be tired because he had worked all weekend. She remembered thinking that this was odd. An hour later she heard the police and fire trucks race by.

Eight miles down the road, Patrick's Blazer was found engulfed in a raging fire at the bottom of a steep ravine, eighty yards from the highway. A truck driver saw the fire first, and managed to get to within fifty feet of it before his eyebrows were singed. He radioed for help, then sat on a stump and watched helplessly as it burned. The Blazer was on its right side with its top facing away, and so it was impossible to see if anyone was in the vehicle. It wouldn't have made any difference. A rescue was utterly impossible.

By the time the first county deputy arrived, the fireball was so intense it was difficult to distinguish the outline of the Blazer. The grass and shrubs began to burn. A small volunteer pumper arrived, but it was low on water. More traffic stopped, and soon a nice crowd stood mutely, watching and listening to the roar down below. Since the driver of the Blazer was not among them, everyone believed that he or she was in there getting incinerated along with everything else.

Two larger trucks arrived, and the fire was eventually extinguished. Hours passed as Sheriff Sweeney waited for things to cool. It was almost midnight when he first spotted a blackened clump of something he thought might be a body. The coroner was nearby. The pelvic bone ended the speculation. Grimshaw took his photographs. They waited for the corpse to cool even more, then collected it and placed it in a cardboard box.

The raised lettering and numerals on the license plates were traced by flashlight, and at 3:30 A.M. Trudy received the phone call that made her a widow. For four and a half years, anyway.

The Sheriff decided not to move the car during the night. At dawn, he returned with five of his deputies to comb the area. They found ninety feet of skid marks on the highway, and they speculated that perhaps a deer had run in front of poor Patrick, causing him to lose control. Because the fire had spread in all directions, any possible clues as to what might have happened were destroyed. The only surprise was the discovery of a shoe a hundred and thirty-one feet from the Blazer. It was a lightly worn Nike Air Max running shoe, size ten, and Trudy readily identified it as being Patrick's. She wept profusely when they showed it to her.

The Sheriff speculated that the vehicle rolled and nipped a few times as it crashed through the ravine, and perhaps in the midst of all this the body was thrown around inside. The shoe came off, got thrown out during a flip, etc. It made as much sense as anything else.

They loaded the Blazer on a flatbed truck and took it away. By late afternoon, what was left of Patrick had been cremated. His memorial service was the next day, and it was followed by a brief graveside service, the one he watched through binoculars.

CUTTER AND GRIMSHAW looked at the lonely shoe in the center of the table. Beside it were various statements taken from witnesses-Trudy, Mrs. Verhall, the coroner, the mortician, even Grimshaw and the Sheriff-all saying exactly what they were expected to say. Only one surprise witness came forward in the months after the disappearance of the money. A young lady who lived near Verhall's store gave a sworn statement in which she claimed to have seen a red 1991 Chevy Blazer parked beside the road, precisely near the point where the fire occurred. She saw it twice. Once on Saturday night, then about twenty-four hours later around the time of the fire.

Her statement was taken by Grimshaw at her home in rural Harrison County, seven weeks after Patrick's funeral. By then, the death was shrouded in suspicion because the money had disappeared.



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