The Partner - Page 19

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SANDY'S SECRETARY was clipping his photo and the story of yesterday's brief court appearance from the New Orleans paper when the call came. She immediately found him, extracted him from a crowded deposition, and put him on the phone.

Leah Pires was back. She said hello and immediately asked if he'd had his office checked for bugs. Sandy said yes, just yesterday. She was in a hotel suite on Canal, a few blocks over, and she suggested the meeting take place there. A suggestion from her carried more weight than a directive from a federal judge. Whatever she wanted. He was excited just to hear her voice.

She was in no hurry, so Sandy strolled leisurely down Poydras, then to Magazine, then to Canal. He refused to watch his back. Patrick's paranoia was understandable-poor guy had lived on the run until the ghosts finally caught him. But no one could ever convince Sandy that the same people would shadow him. He was a lawyer in a high-profile case. The bad guys would be crazy to tap his phones and stalk him. One bungled move, and serious damage could be done to the case against Patrick.

But he had contacted a local security firm and made an appointment to have his offices swept for bugs. This was his client's wish, not his.

Leah greeted him with a firm handshake and a quick smile, but he could tell instantly that she had many things on her mind. She was barefoot, in jeans and a white cotton tee shirt, very casual, the way most Brazilians probably are, he thought. He'd never been down there. The closet door was open; there weren't many clothes hanging. She was moving around quickly, living out of a suitcase, probably on the run just as Patrick had been until last week. She poured coffee for both of them, and asked him to sit at the table.

"How is he?" she asked.

"He's healing. The doctor says he'll be fine."

"How bad was it?" she asked quietly. He loved her accent, slight as it was.

"Pretty rough." He reached into his briefcase, removed a folder, and slid it to her. "Here."

She frowned at the sight of the first photo, then mumbled something in Portuguese. Her eyes watered as she looked at the second one. "Poor Patrick," she said to herself. "Poor baby."

She took her time with the photos, gently wiping tears with the back of her hand until Sandy found the presence of mind to get her a tissue. She wasn't ashamed to cry over the pictures, and when she was finished with them she placed them in a neat stack and put them back in the folder.

"I'm sorry," Sandy said. He could think of nothing else to offer. "Here's a letter from Patrick," he finally said.

She finished her crying and poured more coffee. "Are any of the injuries permanent?" she asked.

"The doctor thinks probably not. There will be scarring, but with time everything should heal."

"Mentally, how is he?"

"He's okay. He's sleeping even less. He has nightmares constantly, both day and night. But with medication, he's getting better. I honestly can't imagine what he's going through." He took a sip of coffee and said, "I guess he's lucky to be alive."

"He always said they wouldn't kill him."

There was so much to ask her. The lawyer in Sandy almost screamed out an endless barrage: Did Patrick know they were close behind him? Did he know the chase was about to end? Where was she when they were closing in? Did she live with him? How did they hide the money? Where is the money now? Is it safe? Please, tell me something. I'm the lawyer. I can be trusted.

"Let's talk about his divorce," she said, abruptly changing the subject. She could sense his curiosity. She stood and walked to a drawer where she removed a thick file and placed it before him. "Did you see Trudy on TV last night?" she asked.

"Yes. Pathetic, wasn't it?"

"She's very pretty," Leah said.

"Yes, she is. I'm afraid Patrick made the mistake of marrying her for her looks."

"He wouldn't be the first."

"No, he wouldn't."

"Patrick despises her. She is a bad person, and she was unfaithful to him throughout their marriage."

"Unfaithful?"

"Yes. It's all in the file there. The last year they were together, Patrick hired an investigator to watch her. Her lover was a man named Lance Maxa, and they were seeing each other all the time. There are even some photographs of Lance coming and going from Patrick's house when he was away. There are pictures of Lance and Trudy sunbathing by Patrick's pool, naked of course."

Sandy took the file and flipped quickly until he found the photographs. Naked as newborns. He smiled wickedly. "This will add something to the divorce."

"Patrick wants the divorce, you understand. He will not contest it. But she needs to be silenced. She's having a nice time saying all those bad things about Patrick."

"This should shut her up. What about the child?"

Leah took her seat and looked him squarely in the eyes. "Patrick loves Ashley Nicole, but there is one problem. He is not the father."

He shrugged as if he heard this every day. "Who is?"

"Patrick doesn't know. Probably Lance. It seems as if Lance and Trudy have been together for some time. It goes back to high school even."

"How does he know he's not the father?"

"When the child was fourteen months old, Patrick obtained a small blood sample by pricking her finger.

He sent it, along with a sample of his, to a lab where DNA tests were run. His suspicions were correct. He is definitely not the father of the child. The report is in the file."

Sandy had to walk around a bit to sort things out. He stood in the window and watched the traffic on Canal. Another clue in the Patrick puzzle had just fallen into place. The question of the moment was this: How long had Patrick planned his departure from his old life? Bad wife, bastard child, horrible accident, no corpse, elaborate theft, take the money and run. The planning was astonishing. Everything had worked perfectly, until now of course.

"Then why fight the divorce?" he asked, still looking below. "If he doesn't want the child, why bring up the trash?"

Sandy knew the answer, but he wanted her to explain it. In doing so, she would give the first glimpse of the rest of the master plan.

"You bring up the trash only to her lawyer," she said. "You show him the file, all of it. At that point, they'll be anxious to settle."

"Settle, as in money."

"Correct."

"What type of settlement?"

"She gets nothing."

"What is there to get?"

"Depends. It could be a small fortune, or a large one."

Sandy turned and glared at her. "I cannot negotiate a property settlement if I don't know how much my client has. At some point, you guys have to clue me in."

"Be patient," she said, thoroughly unruffled. "With time, you'll know more."

"Does Patrick really think he can buy his way out of this?"

"He'll certainly try."

"It won't work."

"Do you have a better idea?"

"No."

"I didn't think so. It's our only chance."

Sandy relaxed and leaned against the wall. "It would be helpful if you guys would tell me more."

"We will. I promise. But first, we'll take care of the divorce. Trudy has to relinquish all claims to his assets."

"That should be easy. And fun."

"Get it done, and we'll chat again next week."

It was suddenly time for Sandy to leave. She was on her feet, gathering papers. He took his files and placed them in his briefcase. "How long will you be here?" he asked.

"Not long," she said, and handed him an envelope. "That's a letter for Patrick. Tell him I'm fine, I'm moving around, and so far I haven't seen anyone behind me."

Sandy took the envelope and tried to make eye contact. She was nervous and anxious for him to leave. He wanted to help her, or at least to offer, but he knew whatever he said at this point would be dismissed.

She forced a smile and said, "You have a job to do. So do it. Patrick and I will worry about the rest."

WHILE STEPHANO TOLD his story in Washington, Benny Aricia and Guy set up camp in Biloxi. They leased a three-bedroom condo on the Back Bay, and installed phones and a fax.

The theory was that the girl would have to surface in Biloxi. Patrick was confined, and for the foreseeable future his life was fairly predictable. He wasn't going anywhere. She would have to come to him. And they had to catch her when she did.

Aricia had budgeted a hundred thousand for this last little campaign, and that would be the end of it, he swore to himself. Down almost two million, he simply had to stop burning money while he had some left. Northern Case Mutual and Monarch-Sierra, the other two members of his shaky partnership, had thrown in the towel. Stephano would keep the FBI happy with his tall tales, while hopefully Guy and the rest of the organization could find the girl. It was a longshot.

Osmar and his boys were still loitering in the streets of Rio, watching the same places each day. If she came back, they would see her. Osmar used a lot of men, but they worked cheap down there.

RETURNING to the Coast brought back bitter feelings in Benny Aricia. He had moved there in 1985 as an executive of Platt & Rockland Industries, a mammoth conglomerate which had sent him around the world for twenty years as a troubleshooter. One of the company's more profitable divisions was New Coastal Shipyards in Pascagoula, between Biloxi and Mobile. In 1985, New Coastal received a twelve-billion-dollar Navy contract to build four Expedition Class nuclear submarines, and someone upstairs decided Benny needed a permanent home.

Raised in New Jersey, educated in Boston, and the husband, at the time, of a repressed socialite, he was miserable living on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. He considered it a serious diversion from the corporate hierarchy he longed for. His wife left him after two years in Biloxi.

Platt & Rockland was a public company with twenty-one billion in stockholders' equity, eighty thousand employees in thirty-six divisions in a hundred and three countries. It retailed office supplies, cut timber, made thousands of consumer products, sold insurance, drilled for natural gas, shipped containerized cargo, mined copper, and among many other ventures, built nuclear submarines. It was a sprawling mass of decentralized companies, and as a rule, the left hand seldom knew what the right one was doing. It amassed huge profits in spite of itself.

Benny dreamed of streamlining the company, of selling off the junk and investing in the prosperous divisions. He was unabashedly ambitious, and through the ranks of upper managers it was well known that he wanted the top job.

To him, life in Biloxi was a cruel joke, a pit stop from the fast lane orchestrated by his enemies within the company. He detested contracting with the government, detested the red tape and bureaucrats and arrogance from the Pentagon. He hated the snail's pace with which the submarines were built.

In 1988, he asked to be transferred, and was denied. A year later, the rumors of serious cost overruns on the Expedition project surfaced. Construction came to a halt as government auditors and Pentagon brass descended on New Coastal Shipyards. Benny was on the hot seat, and the end was near.

As a defense contractor, Platt & Rockland had a rich history of cost overruns, overbilling, and false claims. It was a way of doing business, and when discovered, the company typically fired everybody near the controversy and negotiated with the Pentagon for a small repayment.

Benny went to a local attorney, Charles Bogan, the senior partner in a small firm which included a young partner named Patrick Lanigan. Bogan's cousin was a U.S. Senator from Mississippi. The Senator was a rabid hawk who chaired the subcommittee on military appropriations, and was dearly loved by the armed services.

Lawyer Bogan's mentor was now a federal judge, and thus the small firm was as politically well connected as any in Mississippi. Benny knew this, and carefully selected Bogan.

The False Claims Act, also known as the Whistle-Blower Law, was designed by Congress to encourage those with knowledge of overbilling in government contracts to come forward. Benny studied the act thoroughly, and even had an in-house lawyer dissect it for him before he went to Bogan.

He claimed he could prove a scheme by Platt & Rockland to overbill the government some six hundred million dollars on the Expedition project. He could feel the ax dropping, and he refused to be the fall guy. By squealing, he would lose any chance of ever finding comparable work. Platt & Rockland would flood the industry with rumors of his own wrongdoing. He would be blacklisted. It would be the end of Benny's corporate life. He understood very well how the game was played.

Under the act, the whistle-blower may receive fifteen percent of the amount repaid to the government by the offending corporation. Benny had the documentation to prove Platt & Rockland's scheme. He needed Bogan's expertise and clout to collect the fifteen percent.

Bogan hired private engineers and consultants to review and make sense of the thousands of documents Aricia was feeding him from inside New Coastal Shipyards. The scheme was tied together nicely, and it turned out not to be so intricate after all. The company was doing what it had always done-charging multiple prices for the same materials, and fabricating paperwork. The practice was so ingrained at Platt & Rockland that only two upper managers at the shipyards knew it existed. Benny claimed to have stumbled upon it by accident.

A clear and convincing case was assembled by the lawyers, and they filed suit in federal court in September of 1990. The lawsuit alleged six hundred million dollars in fraudulent claims submitted by Platt & Rockland. Benny resigned the day the suit was filed.

The lawsuit was meticulously prepared and researched, and Bogan pressed hard. So did his cousin. The Senator had been placed in the loop long before the actual filing, and monitored it with great interest once it arrived in Washington. Bogan did not come cheap; nor did the Senator. The firm's fee would be the standard one third. One third of fifteen percent of six hundred million dollars. The Senator's cut was never ascertained.

Bogan leaked enough dirt to the local press to keep the pressure on in Mississippi, and the Senator did the same in Washington. Platt & Rockland found itself besieged by hideous publicity. It was pinned to the ropes, its money cut off, its stockholders angry. A dozen managers at New Coastal Shipyards were fired. More terminations were promised.

As usual, Platt & Rockland negotiated hard with Justice, but this time made no progress. After a year, it agreed to repay the six hundred million dollars, and to sin no more. Because two of the subs were half-built, the Pentagon agreed not to yank the contract. Thus, Platt & Rockland could finish what was planned as a twelve-billion-dollar project, but was now well on its way to twenty billion.

Benny got set to receive his fortune. Bogan and the other partners in the firm got set to spend theirs. Then Patrick disappeared, followed by their money.



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