The Partner - Page 23

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PATRICK WAS SITTING in bed watching "Jeopardy" with his shirt off and the blinds drawn. A dim table light was on. "Sit here," he told Kaii, pointing to the end of his bed. He waited just long enough for Karl to see the burns on his chest, then quickly slipped on a tee shirt. The sheet was up to his waist.

"Thanks for coming," he said. He turned the TV off, and the room grew even darker.

"Pretty nasty burns, Patrick," Karl said as he sat on the edge of the bed, as far away as possible, his right foot hanging off the edge. Patrick pulled his knees to his chest. Under the sheet, he still looked painfully thin.

"It was ugly," he said, his hands wrapped tightly around his knees. "Doc says they're healing okay. But I'll need to stay here for a while."

"I have no problem with that, Patrick. No one is screaming for you to be moved to the jail."

"Not yet. But I bet the press will start soon."

"Relax, Patrick. That decision will be made by me."

He seemed relieved. "Thanks, Karl. You know I can't survive in jail. You've seen it."

"What about Parchman? It's a hundred times worse."

There was a long pause as Karl wished he could take back the words. It was instantaneous, and cruel. "I'm sorry," he said. "That was uncalled for."

"I'll kill myself before I go to Parchman."

"I don't blame you. Let's talk about something pleasant."

"You can't keep this case, can you, Karl?"

"No. Of course not. I'll have to recuse myself."

"When?"

"Pretty soon."

"Who'll get it?"

"Either Trussel or Lanks, probably Trussel." Karl stared at him intently as he spoke. Patrick was having trouble with eye contact. Karl was waiting for a telling flicker from the eyes, followed by a grin, then a laugh as Patrick broke down and bragged about his escapades. "Come on, Patrick," Karl wanted to say. "Let's hear it. Tell me the whole story."

But the eyes were distant. This was not the same Patrick.

Karl felt compelled to try. "Where'd you get that chin?"

"Bought it in Rio."

"And the nose?"

"Same place, same time. You like it?"

"It's handsome."

"In Rio, they have drive-through plastic surgery shops."

"I hear they have beaches."

"Unbelievable beaches."

"Did you meet any girls down there?"

"A couple."

Sex was not a subject Patrick had ever dwelt on. He enjoyed a long, admiring gaze at an attractive woman, but, to Karl's knowledge, he had remained faithful to Trudy throughout their marriage. Once, at deer camp, they had compared notes about their wives. Patrick had admitted it was a challenge to keep Trudy satisfied.

A long pause, and Karl realized Patrick was in no hurry to talk. The first minute passed in silence, and the second one dragged on. Karl was happy to visit, even delighted to see his friend, but there was a limit to how long he could sit in a dark room and stare at the walls.

"Look, Patrick, I will not hear your case, so I'm not here as your Judge. I'm not your lawyer. I'm your friend. You can talk to me."

Patrick reached for a small can of orange juice with a straw in it. "Would you like something to drink?"

"No."

He took a short drink and put the can back on the table. "I guess it sounds romantic, doesn't it? The dream of simply walking away, vanishing into the night and when the sun comes up you're somebody new. All your problems are left behind-the drudgery of work, the heartbreak of a bad marriage, the pressure of becoming more and more affluent. You have that dream, don't you, Karl?"

"I guess everybody does at some point. How long did you plan it?"

"A long time. I seriously doubted that the baby was mine. I decided-"

"I beg your pardon."

"It's true, Karl. I'm not the father. Trudy slept around throughout our marriage. I loved the child as best I could, but I was miserable. I gathered evidence and promised myself I would confront Trudy, but it was easy to put off. Oddly enough, I sort of got used to the idea that she had a lover. I was planning to leave, but I just didn't know how to do it. So I read a couple of underground books on how to change identities and obtain new papers. It's not complicated. Just takes a little thought and planning."

"So you grew a beard and gained fifty pounds."

"Yeah, I was amazed at how different I looked with the beard. That was right about the time I made partner, and I was already burned out. I was married to a woman who wasn't faithful, playing with a child who wasn't mine, working with a bunch of people I couldn't stand. Something clicked,,Karl. I was driving one day along Highway 90, headed somewhere important but stuck in traffic, and I looked out across the Gulf. There was a lonely little sailboat barely moving on the horizon. And I wanted so desperately to be on it, to sail away to some place where no one knew me. I sat there, watching it move, aching so badly to swim out to it. I cried, Karl. Can you believe that?"

"We all have days like that."

"Then I snapped, and I was never the same afterward. I knew I would vanish."

"How long did it take?"

"I had to be patient. Most people get in a hurry when they decide to disappear, and they make mistakes. I had time. I wasn't broke or running from creditors. I bought a two-million-dollar life insurance policy, and that took three months. I knew I couldn't leave Trudy and the baby with nothing. I started gaining the weight, eating like a maniac. I changed my will. I convinced Trudy that we should make our funeral and burial arrangements, and I did it without arousing suspicions."

"Cremation was a nice touch."

"Thanks. I highly recommend it."

"Makes it impossible to determine cause of death and identity, a few important things like that."

"Let's not talk about that."

"Sorry."

"Then I got wind of Mr. Benny Aricia, and his little war with the Pentagon and Platt & Rockland Industries. Bogan kept him under wraps. I dug deeper and found out that Vitrano and Rapley and Havarac were all in on the deal. All the partners but me. They changed, Karl, all of them. They became secretive and devious. Sure I was the new guy, but I was a partner after all. They had voted unanimously to make me a full partner, and two months later they were dodging me while they conspired with Aricia. Suddenly, I was the guy doing all the traveling, which worked out just beautifully for everyone. Trudy could arrange her little trysts. The partners could meet with Aricia without hiding. They sent me everywhere, which was fine with me too because I was making plans. Once I went to Fort Lauderdale for three days of depositions, and while I was there I found a guy in Miami who could do perfect papers. Two thousand bucks and I had a new driver's license, passport, Social Security card, and voter registration papers from right here in Harrison County. Carl Hildebrand was my name, in honor of you."

"I'm touched."

"In Boston, I tracked down a guy who can get you lost. For a thousand bucks I had my own one-day seminar on how to vanish. In Dayton, I hired a surveillance expert who taught me about bugs and mikes and dirty little devices like that. I was patient, Karl. Very patient. I stayed at the office at odd hours, and gathered as much of the Aricia story as I could get. I listened hard, quizzed secretaries, rummaged through the garbage. Then I began wiring offices, just a couple at first to learn how it's done. I wired Vltrano's, and I couldn't believe what I heard. They were going to kick me out of the firm, Karl. Can you believe it? They knew their cut from the Aricia settlement would be around thirty million, and they were planning to split it four ways. But the pieces would not be equal. Bo-gan, of course, would get more, something close to ten million. He had to take care of some people in Washington. The other three would get five million, and the rest would be spent on the firm. I, as it was planned, would be on the streets."

"When was this?"

"Throughout most of '91. Aricia's claim got tentative Justice approval to settle on December 14, 1991, and at that time it was taking about ninety days to get the money. Not even the Senator could speed things along."

"Tell me about the car wreck."

Patrick shifted his weight, then kicked his legs from under the sheet and got out of bed. "A cramp," he mumbled as he stretched his back and legs. He stood by the bathroom door, rocking gently from one foot to the other, looking down at Karl. "It was a Sunday."

"February ninth."

"Right. February ninth. I spent the weekend at my cabin, and as I was driving home I had a wreck, got killed, and went to heaven."

Karl watched him closely and never smiled. "Try it again," he said.

"Why, Karl?"

"Morbid fascination."

"Is that all?"

"I promise. It was such a masterful job of deceit, Patrick. How'd you do it?"

"I may have to skip a few of the details."

"I'm sure you will."

"Let's take a walk. I'm tired of this place."

They entered the hall, and Patrick explained to his guards that he and the Judge needed a stroll. The deputies followed at a distance. A nurse smiled and asked if she could bring anything. Two Diet Cokes, Patrick said politely. Patrick walked very deliberately, saying nothing until they came to the end of the hallway, where plate-glass windows overlooked the parking lot. They sat on a vinyl bench, looking back down the hall, where the deputies waited fifty feet away with their backs turned to them.

Patrick wore scrub pants, no socks, leather sandals.

"Have you seen pictures of the crash site?" he asked, very quietly.

"Yes."

"I found it the day before. The ravine is fairly steep, and I thought it was the perfect place to have the accident. I waited until about ten, Sunday night, and left the cabin. I stopped at a little store at the county line."

"Verhall's."

"Right, Verhall's. I filled the tank."

"Twelve gallons, fourteen dollars and twenty-one cents, paid with a credit card."

"That sounds right. I chatted with Mrs. Verhall, then left. There wasn't much traffic. Two miles away, I turned pnto a gravel road and went a mile to a spot I had picked out. I stopped, opened the trunk, and proceeded to get dressed. I had a set of gear used by dirt bikers-a helmet, shoulder pads, knee and hand pads, the works. I quickly put it on over my clothing, everything but the helmet, then returned to the highway, where I drove south. The first time, there was a car behind me. The second time, there was a car coming toward me in the distance. I braked hard anyway, leaving skid marks. There was no traffic the third time. I put the helmet on, took a deep breath, and left the road. It was scary as hell, Karl."

Karl figured that at this point there was another body somewhere in the car, either dead or alive, but he wouldn't ask. At least not now.

"I was only doing about thirty when I left the road, but thirty feels like ninety when you're airborne and trees are flying by. I was bouncing, snapping small trees. The windshield cracked. I was steering right and left, dodging as best I could, but a big pine tree caught the left front. The airbag exploded, and for a second I was knocked out. There was a tumbling sensation, then all was still. I opened my eyes, and felt a sharp pain in my left shoulder. No blood. I was dangling somehow, and I realized that the Blazer had come to rest on its right side. I began crawling out. By the time I got out of the damned thing, I knew I was lucky. My shoulder wasn't broken, just jammed. I walked around the Blazer and was amazed at how well I had wrecked it. The roof had caved in just above my head. Another six inches and I'm not sure I could've gotten out."

"That seems incredibly risky. You could've been killed or badly injured. Why not simply push the car down the ravine?"

"Wouldn't work. It had to look real, Karl. The ravine was not steep enough. This is flat country, remember."

"Why not put a brick on the accelerator and jump out of the way?"

"Bricks don't burn. If they'd found a brick in the car, maybe they would've been suspicious. I thought of everything, and I decided I could drive it into the trees and walk away. I had a seat belt, an airbag, a helmet."

"Evel Knievel himself."

The nurse brought the Diet Cokes, and wanted to chat for a moment. She finally left. "Where was I?" Patrick asked.

"I think you were about to torch it."

"Right. I listened for a moment. The left rear wheel was spinning, and that was the only sound. I couldn't see the highway, but I looked up in its direction and heard nothing. Absolutely nothing. It was a clean exit. The nearest house was a mile away. I was certain no one had heard the crash, but still I was in a hurry. I stripped off the helmet and the pads and threw them in the Blazer, then I ran farther down the ravine to a spot where I had hidden the gasoline."

"When?"

"Earlier in the day. Very early. At dawn. I had four two-gallon plastic jugs of gas, and I quickly hauled them up to the Blazer. It was dark as hell and I couldn't use a flashlight, but I had marked off a little path. I placed three of the containers in the Blazer, stopped, listened. Nothing from the highway. Not a sound anywhere. The adrenaline was pumping and my heart was in my throat. The last container I splashed inside and out, then threw it in with the rest. I backed off thirty feet or so, and lit a cigarette I had in my pocket. I threw it, backed up even farther, and ducked behind a tree. It landed on the Blazer, then the gas exploded. Sounded like a bomb. In an instant it was roaring from all the windows. I climbed up the steepest side of the ravine and found a vantage point probably a hundred feet away. I wanted to watch without getting caught. The fire was howling; I had no idea it would make so much noise. Some brush started to burn, and I thought maybe I had started a forest fire. Luckily it had rained on Friday, a hard rain that soaked the trees and ground cover." He took a drink of his soda. "I just realized I forgot to ask you about your family. I'm sorry, Karl. How's Iris?"

"Iris is fine. We can talk about the family later. Right now, I'd like to hear the story."

"Sure. Where was I? I'm so scatterbrained. It's all those drugs."

"Watching the car burn."

"Right. So the fire gets really hot, then the gas tank explodes and it's another bomb. I thought for a second I might get scorched. Debris flies through the air, and rattles through the trees as it falls. Finally, I hear something from the highway. Voices. People yelling. I can't see anybody, but there's a commotion. A long time passes and the fire spreads around the car. It's coming at me now, so I leave. I can hear a siren coming. I'm trying to find a creek I'd come across the day before a hundred yards or so through the woods. I'm going to follow it. And I'm looking for my dirt bike."

Karl hung on every word, absorbed every scene, made every step along the way with Patrick. This escape route had been the subject of many fierce debates in the months after the disappearance, and no one had a clue. "A dirt bike?"

"Yeah. An old one. I bought it for five hundred dollars cash from a used car dealer in Hattiesburg several months earlier. I played with it some in the woods. Nobody knew I had it."

"No title or registration?"

"Of course not. I gotta tell you, Karl, as I ran through the woods, looking for the creek, still scared but in one piece, and I heard the fire and voices fade behind me and the siren getting louder, I knew I was running to freedom. Patrick was dead, and he took with him a bad life. He would get honored and buried properly, and everyone would say good-bye. And before long people would start to forget about him. But me, I was running wildly to a new life. It was exhilarat-ing."

What about the poor guy burning in the car, Patrick? While you were running joyously through the woods someone else was dying in your place. Karl almost asked. Patrick seemed oblivious to the fact that he had committed murder.

"Then suddenly, I'm lost. The woods are dense, and somehow I stumble the wrong way. I get a small flashlight, and I figure it's safe to use it. I roam and backtrack until I can no longer hear the siren. At one point, I sit down on a stump and make myself get a grip. I'm in a panic. Wouldn't this be great? Survive the wreck only to die of starvation and exposure. I start walking again, get lucky and find the creek. Before long, I find the dirt bike. I push it a hundred yards, up the side of a hill, to an old logging trail, and of course by now my two-hundred-and-thirty-pound lumbering fat ass is practically dead. There's not a house within two miles, so I start the bike and follow the logging trail. I've ridden the area several times on the bike, so I know it well. I find a gravel road, and see the first house. I've got the bike jerry-rigged with aluminum tubes that act to muffle the engine, so I'm not making much noise. Before long, I'm on a paved road in Stone County. I stay away from the main highway, and stick to the back roads. A couple of hours later, I make it back to the cabin."

"Why did you go back to the cabin?"

"I had to regroup."

"Weren't you afraid of being seen by Pepper?"

Patrick didn't flinch at the question. Karl had timed it perfectly, and he watched for a reaction. None. Patrick studied his feet for a few seconds, then said, "Pepper was gone."



Tags: John Grisham Thriller
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