The Partner - Page 42

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EVIDENTLY five was a perfect time for everyone. Not a single courthouse employee left for home once word reached every corner of every office, a process that took only minutes.

A real estate secretary for a large law firm was busy checking a land tide in the office of the Chancery Clerk when she overheard the latest Patrick report. She raced to the phone and called her office. Within minutes the entire legal community along the Coast knew that Lanigan was about to plead guilty in some strange deal, and would attempt to do so secretly at five in the main courtroom.

The notion of a clandestine hearing to complete a backroom deal made for a frenzy of phone calls; calls to other lawyers, to wives, to favorite reporters, to partners out of town. In less than thirty minutes, half the city knew Patrick was about to make an appearance and a deal, and most likely walk.

The hearing would have attracted less attention had it been advertised in the newspaper and posted on billboards. It was to be quick and secretive. Mystery engulfed it. It was the legal system protecting one of its own.

They grouped in pockets of hushed gossip in the courtroom, whispering while watching people stream in, and guarding their seats. The crowd grew and gave further credence to the hearsay. All these people couldn't be wrong. And when the reporters arrived, the rumors were immediately confirmed as facts.

"He's here," someone said, a court clerk up near the bench, and the curious began finding seats.

Patrick smiled for the two cameramen rushing to meet him by the back door. He was led to the same jury room on the second floor, where the handcuffs were removed. His khakis were an inch too long, so he methodically rolled them up and cuffed them. Karl entered and asked the deputies to wait in the hall.

"So much for a quiet little appearance," Patrick said.

"Secrets are hard to keep around here. Nice clothes."

"Thanks."

"This reporter I know from the Jackson paper asked me to ask you-"

"Absolutely not. Not a word to anybody."

"That's what I figured. When are you leaving?"

"I don't know. Soon."

"Where's the girl?"

"Europe."

"Can I go with you?"

"Why?"

"Just want to watch."

"I'll send you a video."

"Gee thanks."

"Would you really leave? If you had the chance to walk away, to vanish right now, would you do it?"

"With or without ninety million?"

"Either way."

"Of course not. It's not the same. I love my wife, you didn't. I have three great kids, your situation was different. No, I wouldn't run. But I don't blame you."

"Everybody wants to run, Karl. At some point in life, everybody thinks about walking away. Life's always better on the beach or in the mountains. Problems can be left behind. It's inbred in us. We're the products of immigrants who left miserable conditions and came here in search of a better life. And they kept moving west, packing up and leaving, always looking for the pot of gold. Now, there's no place to go."

"Wow. I hadn't thought of it through a historical perspective."

"It's a stretch."

"I wish my grandparents had clipped someone for ninety million before they left Poland."

"I gave it back."

"I hear there might be a small nest egg left over."

"One of many unfounded rumors."

"So you're saying the next trend will be looting of clients' money, the burning of dead bodies, and the flight to South America, where, of course, there are beautiful women just waiting to be caressed?"

"It's working well so far."

"Those poor Brazilians. All these crooked lawyers coming their way."

Sandy entered the room with yet another sheet of paper for another signature. "Trussel is really edgy," he said to Karl. "The pressure is getting to him. His phone is ringing off the hook."

"What about Parrish?"

"Nervous as a whore in church."

"Let's get it done before they get cold feet," Patrick said as he signed his name.

A bailiff walked to the bar and announced that court was about to convene, so please have a seat. People hushed and moved hurriedly for empty spaces. Another bailiff closed the double doors. Spectators lined the walls. Every clerk in the courthouse had business near the bench. It was almost five-thirty.

Judge Trussel entered with his customary rigid dignity, and everybody stood. He welcomed them, thanked them for their interest in justice, especially at this late hour of the day. He and the District Attorney had agreed that a quick hearing would reek of a sleazy deal, so things would proceed deliberately. They had even discussed postponing it, but decided a delay would give the impression that they had been caught trying to sneak something through.

Patrick was led through the door by the jury box, and stood next to Sandy in front of the bench. He did not look at his audience. Parrish stood nearby, anxious to perform. Judge Trussel flipped through the file, inspecting every word on every page.

"Mr. Lanigan," he finally said, deeply and slowly. For the next thirty minutes, everything would be said in slow motion. "You have filed several motions."

"Yes, Your Honor," Sandy said. "Our first is a motion to reduce the charges from capital murder to mutilating a corpse."

The words echoed through the still courtroom. Mutilating a corpse?

"Mr. Parrish," His Honor said. It had been agreed that Parrish would do the bulk of the talking. The burden would be his to explain to the court, for the record, and, more important, for the press and the citizenry listening out there.

He did a wonderful job of detailing recent developments. Wasn't a murder, after all, but something far less. The state did not oppose the reduction of charges, because it no longer believed that Mr. Lanigan killed anyone. He paced around the courtroom in his best Perry Mason routine, unshackled by the customary rules of etiquette and procedure. He was the spin doctor for all sides.

"Next, we have a motion by the defendant for this court to accept a plea of guilty to the charge of mutilating a corpse. Mr. Parrish?"

The second act was similar to the first, with Parrish relishing the story of poor old Clovis. Patrick could feel the heated stares as Parrish delighted in as many details as Sandy had given them. "At least I didn't kill anyone!" Patrick wanted to scream.

"How do you plead, Mr. Lanigan?" His Honor asked.

"Guilty," Patrick said, firmly but with no pride.

"Does the state have a recommended sentence?" the Judge asked the prosecutor.

Parrish walked to his table, fumbled through his notes, paced back toward the bench, and along the way finally said, "Yes, Your Honor. I have a letter from a Ms. Deena Postell of Meridian, Mississippi. She is the only surviving grandchild of Clovis Goodman." He handed a copy to Trussel as if it were something brand-new. "In the letter, Ms. Postell pleads with this court not to prosecute Mr. Lanigan for burning her grandfather's corpse. He's been dead for over four years, and the family cannot survive any more suffering and agony. Evidently, Ms. Postell was quite close to her grandfather, and took his death very hard."

Patrick cut his eyes at Sandy. Sandy wasn't about to look at Patrick.

"Have you spoken with her?" the Judge asked.

"Yes. About an hour ago. She became quite emotional on the phone, and pleaded with me not to reopen this sad case. She vowed that she would not testify in any trial, nor would she cooperate with the prosecution in any way." Parrish again walked to his table and rifled through some more papers. He spoke to the Judge but addressed the courtroom. "Given the feelings of the family, it is the recommendation of the state that the defendant be sentenced to serve twelve months in jail, that the incarceration be suspended pending good behavior, that he pay a fine of five thousand dollars and all court costs, and be placed on probation."

"Mr. Lanigan, do you agree with this sentence?" Trussel asked.

"Yes, Your Honor," Patrick said, barely able to lift his head.

"It is so ordered. Anything further?" Trussel picked up his gavel, and waited. Both lawyers shook their heads.

"We are adjourned," he said, rapping it loudly.

Patrick turned and made a quick exit from the courtroom. Gone again, vanished before their very eyes.

He waited with Sandy for an hour in Huskey's office while darkness settled in and the last of the courtroom stragglers reluctantly gave it up and went home. Patrick was anxious to leave.

At seven, he said a long, fond good-bye to Karl. He thanked him for being there, for standing by him, for everything, and he promised to keep in touch. On his way out the door, he also thanked him again for serving as one of his pallbearers.

"Anytime," Karl said. "Anytime."

THEY LEFT BILOXI in Sandy's Lexus-Sandy at the wheel, Patrick sitting low in the passenger's seat, subdued and taking in for the last time the lights along the Gulf. They passed the casinos on the beaches at Biloxi and Gulfport, the pier at Pass Christian, and then the lights spread out as they crossed the Bay of St. Louis.

Sandy handed him the phone number, and he called her hotel. It was 3 A,M. in London, but she grabbed the phone as if she were watching it. "Eva, it's me," he said, with restraint. Sandy almost stopped the car so he could get out while they talked. He tried not to listen.

"We're leaving Biloxi now, on the way to New Orleans. Yes, I'm fine. I've never felt better. And you?"

He listened for a long time, his eyes closed, his head leaning back.

"What's today?" he asked.

"Friday, November sixth," Sandy said.

"I'll meet you in Aix, at the Villa Gallici, on Sunday. Right. Yes. I'm fine, dear. I love you. Go back to sleep, and I'll call you in a few hours."

They crossed into Louisiana in silence, and somewhere over Lake Pontchartrain, Sandy said, "I had a very interesting visitor this afternoon."

"Really, who?"

"Jack Stephano."

"Here, in Biloxi?"

"Yes. He found me at the hotel, said he was finished with the Aricia case and was on his way to Florida for a vacation."

"Why didn't you kill him?"

"He said he was sorry. Said his boys got a little carried away down there when they caught you, wanted me to pass along his apologies."

"What a guy. I'm sure he didn't stop by just to apologize."

"No, he didn't. He told me about the mole in Brazil, about the Pluto Group and the rewards, and he asked me point-blank if the girl, Eva, was your Judas. I said I had no idea."

"Why does he care?"

"Good question. He said his curiosity has the best of him. He paid over a million bucks in rewards, got his man, but didn't get the money, and he said he won't be able to sleep until he knows. I sort of believed him."

"Sounds reasonable."

"He doesn't have a dog in the fight anymore, or something like that. His words, not mine."

Patrick put his left ankle on his right knee, and gently touched the burn. "What does he look like?" he asked.

"Fifty-five, very Italian, lots of groomed gray hair, black eyes, a handsome man. Why?"

"Because I've seen him everywhere. For the last three years, half the strangers I've seen in the outback of Brazil have been Jack Stephano. I've been chased in my sleep by a hundred men, all of whom turned out to be Jack Stephano. He has ducked in alleys, hidden behind trees, followed on foot at night in Sao Paulo, tagged behind me on motor scooters and chased me in cars. I've thought about Stephano more than I have my own mother."

"The chase is over."

"I finally got tired of it, Sandy. I gave up. Life on the run is quite an adventure, very thrilling and romantic, until you learn that someone is back there. While you're sleeping, someone is trying to find you. While you're having dinner with a wonderful woman in a city of ten million, someone is knocking on doors, quietly showing your photo to a clerk, offering small bribes for information. I stole too much money, Sandy. They had to come after me, and when I learned they were already in Brazil, I knew the end would come."

"What do you mean, you gave up?"

Patrick breathed heavily and shifted his weight. He looked through his window at the waters below, and tried to organize his thoughts. "I gave up, Sandy. I got tired of running, and I gave up."

"Yeah, I've already heard that."

"I knew they would find me, so I decided to do it on my terms, not theirs."

"I'm listening."

"The rewards were my idea, Sandy. Eva would fly to Madrid, then to Atlanta, where she would meet with the boys from Pluto. They were paid to contact Stephano and handle the flow of information and money. We milked the money out of Stephano, and eventually led him to me, to my little house in Ponta Pora."

Sandy turned slowly, his face blank, mouth open and crooked to one side, his eyes vacant.

"Watch where you're going," Patrick said, pointing to the road.

Sandy jerked the wheel and brought the car back into the right lane. "You're lying," he said without moving his lips. "I know you're lying."

"Nope. We collected one million, one hundred fifty thousand bucks from Stephano, and it's hidden now, probably in Switzerland with the rest of it."

"You don't know where it is?"

"She's been taking care of it. I'll find out when I see her."

Sandy was too shocked to say anything else. Patrick decided to help. "I knew they would grab me, and I knew they would try to -. make me talk. But I had no idea this would happen." He pointed to the burn above his left ankle. "I thought it might get ugly, but they damned near killed me, Sandy. They finally broke me, and I told them about Eva. By then, she was gone, and so was the money."

"You could've easily been killed," Sandy managed to say. He was driving with his right hand, scratching his head with his left.

"That's true. Very true. But two hours after I was captured, the FBI in Washington knew Stephano had me. That's what saved my life. Stephano couldn't kill me, because the feds knew about it."

"But how-"

"Eva called Cutter in Biloxi. He called Washington."

Sandy wanted to stop the car, get out and scream. Lean over the side of the bridge, and let flow an endless string of blue profanities. Just when he thought he had been clued in to Patrick's past, this latest twist came crashing in.

"You were a damned fool if you let them catch you."

"Oh really. Did I not just walk out of the courtroom a free man? Did I not just talk with a woman I love dearly, a woman who happens to be keeping a small fortune for me? The past is finally gone, Sandy. Don't you see? There's no one looking for. me anymore."

"So many things could've gone wrong."

"Yeah, but they didn't. I had the money, the tapes, the Clovis alibi. And I had four years to plan everything."

"The torture wasn't planned."

"No, but the scars will heal. Don't ruin the moment, Sandy. I'm on a roll."

Sandy dropped him off at his mother's house, his childhood home, where a cake was in the oven. Mrs. Lanigan asked him to stay, but he knew they needed time alone. Plus he hadn't seen his wife and kids in four days. Sandy drove away, his brain still swirling.



Tags: John Grisham Thriller
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