The Partner - Page 24

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TNDERHILL WAS BACK. Fresh from eight hours of watching videos and reviewing notes in another room. He walked in, gave a generic hello in the general direction of Stephano arid his lawyer, then got to work. "If we could pick up where you left off yesterday, Mr. Stephano."

"Where might that be?"

"Your invasion of Brazil."

"Right. Well, let's see. It's a big country. A hundred and sixty million people, more square miles than the lower forty-eight, and a history of being a marvelous place to hide, especially if you're on the run. Nazis favored it for years. We put together a dossier on Lanigan, had it translated into Portuguese. We had a police artist work with some computer people to develop a series of color-enhanced renderings of what Lanigan looked like now. We spent hours with the sailboat charter captain in Orange Beach, as well as with the bankers in Nassau, and together they helped us develop a series of detailed sketches of Lanigan. We even met with the partners in the firm and went over the sketches. They, in turn, showed them to the secretaries. One of the partners, Mr. Bogan, even took the best rendering to the widow Lanigan for her opinion."

"Now that you've caught him, were your photos close?"

"Fairly close. The chin and the nose threw us off a bit."

"Please continue."

"We hurried to Brazil, and found three of the best private investigative firms in the country. One in Rio, one in Sao Paulo, and one in Recife, in the northeast. We were paying top dollar, so we hired the very best. We put them together as a team, and gathered them in Sao Paulo for a week. We listened to them. They developed the story that Patrick should be an American fugitive wanted for the kidnap and murder of the daughter of a wealthy family, a family now offering a reward for information about his whereabouts. The murder of a child was, of course, designed to arouse more sympathy than stealing money from a bunch of lawyers.

"We went straight to the language schools, flashing pictures of Lanigan and offering cash. The reputable schools slammed their doors. Others looked at the pictures but couldn't help. By this time, we had a lot of respect for Lanigan, and we didn't think he'd run the risk of studying in a place where questions were asked and records were kept. So we targeted the private tutors, of which there are only about a million in Brazil. It was tedious work."

"Did you offer cash up front?"

"We did what our Brazilian agents wanted to do, which was to show the pictures, tell the story of the murdered child, then wait for a reaction. If there was a nibble, then we'd gently drop the hint about some reward money."

"Any nibbles?"

"A few, here and there. But we never paid any money, at least not to language tutors."

"To others?"

Stephano nodded as he glanced at a sheet of paper. "In April of '94, we found a plastic surgeon in Rio who showed some interest in Lanigan's pictures. He toyed with us for a month, and finally convinced us he had worked on Lanigan. He had some photos of his own, before and after shots. He played us perfectly, and we eventually agreed to pay him a quarter of a million dollars, cash, offshore, for his entire file."

"What was in the file?"

"Just the basics. Clear frontal photos of our man before and after the surgery. It was really odd because Lanigan had insisted on no photos. He wanted no trail whatsoever, just hard cash for the alterations. Wouldn't give his real name, said he was a businessman from Canada who suddenly wanted to look younger. The surgeon heard this all the time, and he knew the guy was on the run. He kept a hidden camera in his office, thus the photos."

"Could we see them?"

"Certainly." The lawyer was aroused for the moment and slid a manila envelope down the table to

Underbill, who opened it and only glanced at the photos.

"How did you find the doctor?"

"At the same time we were checking language schools and tutors, we were also pursuing other professions. Forgers, plastic surgeons, importers."

"Importers?"

"Yeah, there's a Portuguese word for these guys, but 'importers' is a very rough translation. They're a shady group of specialists who can get you into Brazil and then get you lost-new names, new papers, the best places to live and hide. We found them to be impenetrable. We had pretty much the same bad luck with the forgers. They can't afford to talk about their clients. It's very bad for business."

"But the doctors were different?"

"Not really. They don't talk. But we hired a plastic surgeon as a consultant, and he gave us the names of some of his sleazier brethren who worked on the nameless. That's how we found the doctor in Rio."

"This was over two years after Lanigan disappeared."

"That's correct."

"Was this the first evidence that he was actually in the country?"

"The very first, yes."

"What did you do for the first two years?"

"Spent a lot of money. Knocked on a lot of doors. Chased a lot of worthless leads. As I said, it's a big country."

"How many men were working for you in Brazil?"

"At one point, I was paying sixty agents. Thankfully, they're not as expensive as Americans."

IF THE JUDGE wanted a pizza, then the Judge got a pizza. It was fetched from Hugo's, an old family bistro on Division Street, near the Point and far away from the fast-food places lining the beach. It was delivered by a deputy to Room 312. Patrick smelled it as it left the elevator. He stared at it when Karl opened the box at the foot of his bed. He closed his eyes and sucked in the heavenly aroma of black olives, portobello mushrooms, Italian sausage, green peppers, and six different cheeses. He had eaten a thousand pizzas from Hugo's, especially during the last two years of his old life, and he had been dreaming of this one for a week now. Home did have certain advantages.

"You look like death warmed over. Eat up," Karl said.

Patrick devoured his first slice of pizza without a word, then went for a second.

"How did you get so skinny?" Karl asked, chomping away.

"Can we get some beer?" Patrick asked.

"No. Sorry. You're in jail, remember."

"Losing weight is between the ears. Make up your mind, it's easy. I suddenly had plenty of motivation to starve myself."

"How fat did you get?"

"The Friday before I disappeared, I weighed two hundred thirty-six pounds. I dropped forty-seven pounds the first six weeks. This morning I weighed one-sixty."

"You look like a refugee. Eat."

"Thanks."

"You were at the cabin."

Patrick wiped his chin with a paper napkin and placed his slice back in the box. He sipped from his Diet Coke. "Yeah, I was at the cabin. It was around eleven-thirty. I entered through the front door, and didn't turn on any lights. There's another cabin a half a mile away, up on a ridge and visible from mine. It's owned by some people from Hattiesburg, and while I didn't think they were there that weekend, I had to be careful. I covered the small bathroom window with a dark towel, turned on the light, and quickly shaved. Then I cut my hair. Then I dyed it, a dark brown, almost black."

"Sorry I missed that."

"It was quite becoming. It was odd. I even felt like a different person as I stared at the mirror. Then I cleaned up my mess, wiped up all the hair and whiskers because I knew they would go through the place with a fine-tooth comb, and I packed away the dye box and tubes. I changed into heavy clothing. I made a pot of strong coffee and drank half of it. The other half went in a thermos for my journey. At 1 A.M., I left the cabin in a hurry. I didn't expect the cops to show up that night, but there was always the chance. I knew it would take time to identify the Blazer and call Trudy, and someone might suggest that they go to the cabin for some reason. I didn't expect this to happen, but by 1 A.M. I was anxious to leave."

"Did you have any concern for Trudy?"

"Not particularly. I knew she would handle the shock well, and that she would do a marvelous job of getting me buried. She'd be a model widow for about a month, and then she would get the life insurance money. It would be her finest hour. Lots of attention, lots of money. No, Karl, I had no love for the woman. Nor any concern."

"Did you ever go back to the cabin?"

"No."

Karl could not, would not, hold the next question. "Pepper's shotgun and camping gear were found under one of the beds. How'd they get there?"

Patrick glanced up for a second as if surprised, then he looked away. Karl absorbed this reaction, because he would think about it many times over the next few days. A jolt, then a glance, and then unable to answer truthfully, a diversion to the wall.

The line from the old movie said, "When you commit a murder you make twenty-five mistakes. If you can think of fifteen of them, you're a genius." Perhaps Patrick, in all his meticulous scheming, had simply forgotten about Pepper's things. In the rush of the moment, he had hurried a bit too much.

"I don't know," he said, almost grunting it, still looking at the wall.

Karl had got what he wanted, and he pressed on. "Where did you go?"

"The bike ride from hell," Patrick said, perking up and anxious to move on. "It was forty degrees, which on a motorcycle going down a highway at night feels like twenty below. I stayed on the back roads, away from traffic, moving slowly because the wind cut through me like a knife. I crossed into Alabama, and again kept off the main roads. A dirt bike on a highway at three in the morning might give a bored cop something to do, so I avoided towns. I finally made it to the outskirts of Mobile around four in the morning. A month earlier I had found a small motel where they took cash and asked no questions. I sneaked into the parking lot, hid the bike behind the motel, and walked in the front door as if I had just gotten out of a cab. Thirty bucks for a room, cash, no paperwork. It took an hour to thaw out. I slept for two hours and woke up with the sun. When did you hear about it, Karl?"

"I guess about the time you were dirt-hiking through the countryside. Doug Vitrano called me at a few minutes after three. Woke me up, which really ticks me off now. Losing sleep and grieving while you were playing Easy Rider and rambling off to the good life."

"I wasn't home free."

"No, but you certainly weren't worried about your friends."

"I feel bad about that, Karl."

"No you don't."

"You're right, I don't." Patrick was relaxed, animated, into his story, grinning now.

"You woke up with the sun. A new man in a new world. All your worries and problems left behind."

"Most of them. It was terribly exciting, and also frightening. Sleep was difficult. I watched television until eight-thirty, saw nothing about my death, then showered, changed into fresh clothes-"

"Wait. Where was the hair dye box and tubes?"

"I threw them in a Dumpster somewhere in Washington County, Alabama. I called a cab, which in Mobile is not the easiest thing to do. The driver parked outside my room, and I left. No checkout. I left the dirt bike behind the motel and went to a mall which I knew opened at nine. I went to a department store and bought a navy jacket, some slacks, and a pair of loafers."

"How did you pay for them?"

"Cash."

"You didn't have a credit card?"

"Yes, I had a phony Visa I'd procured from a source in Miami. It was good for only a handful of charges, then it had to be discarded. I saved it for the rental car."

"How much cash did you have?"

"About twenty thousand."

"Where did it come from?"

"I'd been saving it for a while. I was making good money, though Trudy was doing her best to spend it faster than I could make it. I told the bookkeeper in the firm that I needed to reroute some money to keep it away from my wife. She said she did this all the time for the lawyers. It went to another account. I cashed it periodically, and stuffed it in a drawer. Satisfied?"

"Yes. You had just bought a pair of loafers."

"I went to another store and bought a white shirt and a tie. I changed in a mall rest room, and presto, I looked like any one of a million traveling salesmen. I bought some more clothes and accessories, put them in a new canvas bag, and called another cab. This one took me to the Mobile airport, where I ate breakfast and waited on a Northwest Airlink flight from Atlanta. It arrived. I fell in with the other commuters, all very busy and anxious to attack Mobile, and I stopped with two other guys at the Avis desk. They had reserved cars. Mine was a bit more complicated. I had a perfect driver's license from Georgia, along with my passport, just in case. I used the Visa, and I was very scared. The card number was a valid one-some poor guy in Decatur, Georgia, and I was terrified a computer would catch it and alarms would go off. But nothing happened. I filled out the paperwork and left in a hurry."

"What was your name?"

"Randy Austin."

"Big question, Randy," Karl said as he took a bite of pizza and chewed it slowly. "You were in the airport. Why didn't you simply get on a plane and leave?"

"Oh, I thought about it. As I was eating breakfast, I watched two planes take off, and I wanted so badly to hop on and leave. But there was unfinished business. It was a very tough decision."

"What was the unfinished business?"

"I think you know. I drove to Gulf Shores, then along the Coast east to Orange Beach, where I rented a small condo."

"One you had already checked out."

"Of course. I knew they would take cash. It was February, and cold; business was slow. I took a mild sedative and slept for six hours. I watched the evening news and saw where I'd died a fiery death. My friends were just devastated."

"You ass."

"I drove to the grocery and bought a bag of apples and some diet pills. After dark, I walked the beach for three hours, something I did every night while I was hiding around Mobile. Next morning, I sneaked into Pascagoula and got a newspaper, saw my fat smiling face on the front page, read about the tragedy, saw the touching little blurb you offered, and also saw that the funeral would be that afternoon at three. I went to

Orange Beach and rented a sailboat. Then drove to Biloxi in time for my service."

"The papers have said you watched your own burial."

"True. I hid in a tree in the woods beyond the cemetery, and watched through binoculars."

"That seems like an incredibly dumb thing to do."

"It was. Absolutely idiotic. But I was drawn to the place. I had to make certain, to see for myself that my trick had worked. And I guess by then, I was convinced I could get by with anything."

"I guess you had picked out the tree, the perfect spot."

"No. In fact, I wasn't sure I would do it. I left Mobile and drove west on the interstate, and I kept telling myself not to do it. Not to get near Biloxi."

"Your big ass climbed a tree?"

"I was motivated. It was an oak with thick branches."

"Thank God for that. I wish a limb had cracked and you'd fallen on your head."

"No you don't."

"Yes I do. We're huddled around the grave fighting back tears and consoling the widow, and you're perched on a limb like a fat frog laughing at us."

"You're just trying to be angry, Karl."

And he was right. Four and a half years had eliminated any anger Karl had felt. The truth was, he was delighted to be sitting there on the end of the hospital bed, eating pizza with Patrick and soaking up the coveted details.

However, the funeral was as far as they would get. Patrick had talked enough, and they were now back in his room, a place he didn't completely trust. "Tell me, how are Bogan and Vitrano and the boys?" he said, and relaxed on his pillows, already relishing what he was about to hear.



Tags: John Grisham Thriller
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