The Partner - Page 5

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THE LAW FIRM Patrick worked for before he died filed for bankruptcy protection a year after his funeral. After his death, the firm's letterhead properly included him: Patrick S. Lanigan, 1954-1992. He was listed up in the right-hand corner, just above the paralegals. Then the rumors got started and wouldn't stop. Before long, everyone believed he had taken the money and disappeared. After three months, no one on the Gulf Coast believed he was dead. His name came off the letterhead as the debts piled up.

The four remaining partners were still together, attached unwillingly at the hip by the bondage of bankruptcy. Their names had been joined on the mortgages and the bank notes, back when they were rolling and on the verge of serious wealth. They had been joint defendants in several unwinnable lawsuits; thus the bankruptcy. Since Patrick's departure, they had tried every possible way to divorce one another, but nothing would work. Two were raging alcoholics who drank at the office behind locked doors, but never together. The other two were in recovery, still teetering on the brink of sobriety.

He took their money. Their millions. Money they had already spent long before it arrived, as only lawyers can do. Money for their richly renovated office building in downtown Biloxi. Money for new homes, yachts, condos in the Caribbean. The money was on the way, approved, the papers signed, orders entered; they could see it, smell it, almost touch it when their dead partner snatched it at the last possible second.

He was dead. They buried him on February 11, 1992. They had consoled the widow and put his rotten name on their handsome letterhead. Yet six weeks later, he somehow stole their money.

They had brawled over who was to blame. Charles Bogan, the firm's senior partner and its iron hand, had insisted the money be wired from its source into a new account offshore, and this made sense after some discussion. It was ninety million bucks, a third of which the firm would keep, and it would be impossible to hide that kind of money in Biloxi, population fifty thousand. Someone at the bank would talk. Soon everyone would know. All four vowed secrecy, even as they made plans to display as much of their new wealth as possible. There had even been talk of a firm jet, a six-seater.

So Bogan took his share of the blame. At forty-nine, he was the oldest of the four, and, at the moment, the most stable. He was also responsible for hiring Patrick nine years earlier, and for this he had received no small amount of grief.

Doug Vitrano, the litigator, had made the fateful decision to recommend Patrick as the fifth partner. The other three had agreed, and when Lanigan was added to the firm name, he had access to virtually every file in the office. Bogan, Rapley, Vitrano, Havarac, and Lanigan, Attorneys and Counselors-at-Law. A large ad in the yellow pages claimed "Specialists in Offshore Injuries." Specialists or not, like most firms they would take almost anything if the fees were lucrative. Lots of secretaries and paralegals. Big overhead, and the strongest political connections on the Coast.

They were all in their mid- to late forties. Havarac had been raised by his father on a shrimp boat. His hands were still proudly calloused, and he dreamed of choking Patrick until his neck snapped. Rapley was severely depressed and seldom left his home, where he wrote briefs in a dark office in the attic.

BOGAN AND VITRANO were at their desks just after nine when Agent Cutter entered the building on Vieux Marche, in the old section of Biloxi. He smiled at the receptionist and asked if any of the lawyers were in. It was a fair question. They were known as a bunch of drunks who occasionally showed up for work.

She led him to a small conference room and gave him coffee. Vitrano came first, looking remarkably starched and clear-eyed. Bogan was just seconds behind. They mixed sugar in the coffee and talked about the weather.

In the months immediately following the disappearance of both Patrick and the money, Cutter would

drop in periodically and deliver the latest update on the FBI's investigation. They became pleasant acquaintances, though the meetings were always disheartening. As the months became years, the updates grew further apart. And the updates had the same endings: no trace of Patrick. It had been almost a year since Cutter had spoken to any of them.

And so they figured he was simply being nice, happened to be downtown for something, probably wanted a cup of coffee, and this would be routine and quick.

Cutter said, "We have Patrick in custody."

Charlie Bogan closed his eyes and displayed every one of his teeth. "Oh my God!" he exclaimed, then buried his face in his palms. "Oh my God."

Vitrano's head fell back, his mouth too fell open. He gazed in utter disbelief at the ceiling. "Where?" he managed to ask.

"He's at a military base in Puerto Rico. He was captured in Brazil."

Bogan stood and walked to a corner, next to some bookcases, where he hid his face and tried to hold back the tears. "Oh my God," he kept repeating.

"Are you sure it's him?" Vitrano asked in disbelief.

"Positive."

"Tell me more," Vitrano said.

"Like what?"

"Like how did you find him? And where? And what was he doing? What does he look like?"

"We didn't find him. He was given to us."

Bogan sat down at the table, a handkerchief over his nose. "I'm sorry," he said, embarrassed.

"Do you know a man named Jack Stephano?" Cutter asked.

They both nodded with some reluctance.

"Are you part of his little consortium?"

They both shook their heads in the negative.

"You're lucky. Stephano found him, tortured him, damned near killed him, then gave him to us."

"I like the part about the torture," Vitrano said. "Tell us about that."

"Skip it. We picked him up last night in Paraguay, flew him to Puerto Rico. He's in the hospital there. He'll be released and sent here in a few days."

"What about the money?" Bogan managed to ask, his voice scratchy and dry.

"No sign of it. But then, we don't know what Stephano knows."

Vitrano stared at the table, his eyes dancing. Patrick had stolen ninety million dollars when he disappeared four years earlier. It would be impossible to spend all of it. He could have bought mansions and helicopters and lots of women and still have tens of millions left. Surely they could find it. The firm's fee was a third.

Maybe, just maybe.

Bogan worked on his moist eyes and thought of his ex-wife, a congenial woman who'd turned vicious when the sky fell. She had felt disgraced after the bankruptcy, and so she took their youngest child and moved to Pensacola where she filed for divorce and made ugly accusations. Bogan was drinking and using coke. She knew it and beat him over the head with it. He couldn't offer much resistance. He eventually cleaned himself up, but was still denied access to the child.

Oddly enough, he still loved his ex-wife; still dreamed of getting her back. Maybe the money would get her attention. Maybe there was hope. Surely they could find it.

Cutter broke the silence. "Stephano's in all sorts of trouble. There were burns all over Patrick's body where they tortured him."

"Good," Vitrano said with a smile.

"You expect sympathy from us?" Bogan asked.

"Anyway, Stephano is a side issue. We'll watch him, maybe he'll lead us to the money."

"The money will be easy to find," Vitrano said. "There was a dead body. Somebody got killed by our boy Patrick. It's a death penalty case, open and shut. Murder for the sake of money. Patrick will sing when the pressure is applied."

"Better yet, give him to us," Bogan said, without a smile. "Ten minutes, and we'll know everything."

Cutter glanced at his watch. "I gotta go. I have to go to Point Clear and break the news to Trudy."

Bogan and Vitrano snorted in perfect unison, then laughed. "Oh, she doesn't know?" Bogan said.

"Not yet."

"Please video it," Vitrano said, still laughing quietly. "I'd love to see her face."

"I'm actually looking forward to it," Cutter said.

"The bitch," Bogan said.

Cutter stood and said, "Tell the other partners, but sit on it until noon. We've scheduled a press conference then. I'll be in touch."

They didn't say a word for a long time after he left. There were so many questions, so much to say. The room spun with possibilities and scenarios.

THE VICTIM of a fiery one-car collision, on a rural road with no witnesses, Patrick was laid to rest by his lovely wife Trudy on February 11, 1992. She was a striking widow, dressed in black Armani, and as they shoveled dirt onto his casket she was already spending the money.

His will left everything to her. It was simple and had been recently updated. Hours before the funeral mass, Trudy and Doug Vitrano had carefully opened the lockbox in Patrick's office and inventoried the contents. They found the will, two car titles, the deed to the Lanigan home, a life insurance policy in the amount of half a million dollars that Trudy knew about, and another policy for two million that she'd never heard of.

Vitrano had quickly scanned the unexpected policy. It had been purchased by Patrick eight months earlier. Trudy was the sole beneficiary. The same company had sold both policies, and it was huge and solvent.

She swore she knew nothing about it, and the smile on her face convinced Vitrano she was genuinely shocked. Funeral or no funeral, Trudy was quite thrilled about her good fortune. With her pain eased considerably, she somehow managed to suffer through the funeral service and burial without a serious breakdown.

The life insurance company balked, as they all do initially, but Vitrano made sufficient threats to force payment. Four weeks after the burial, Trudy got her two and a half million.

A week later, she was driving a red Rolls-Royce around Biloxi, and people began to hate her. Then the ninety million vanished in thin air, and the rumors got started.

Perhaps she wasn't a widow.

Patrick was the first suspect, and eventually the only one. The gossip grew vicious, so Trudy loaded her small daughter and her boyfriend, Lance, a holdover from high school, into the red Rolls and fled to Mobile, an hour east of Biloxi. She found a slick lawyer who gave her lots of advice on how to protect the money. She bought a beautiful old home in Point Clear, overlooking Mobile Bay, and put it in Lance's name.

Lance was a strong, handsome loser she'd first slept with at the age of fourteen. He'd been convicted of smuggling pot at nineteen, and spent three years in prison while she was having a wonderful time at college, playing cheerleader and seducing football players, a legendary party girl who also managed to graduate with honors. She married a wealthy fraternity boy, and divorced him after two years. Then she enjoyed the single life for a few years until, she met and married Patrick, a promising young lawyer who was new to the Coast. Their courtship had been long on passion and short on planning.

Through college, both marriages, and various short careers, Trudy had always kept Lance nearby. He was an addiction, a strapping, lusty boy she could never get enough of. She knew when she was fourteen that she would never be without Lance.

LANCE OPENED THE DOOR, bare-chested, black hair pulled back tightly into the obligatory ponytail, a large diamond earring in the left lobe. He sneered at Cutter as he sneered at the world, and didn't say a word.

"Is Trudy in?" Cutter asked.

"Maybe."

The badge flashed, and for a second the sneer vanished. "Agent Cutter, FBI. I've talked to her before."

Lance imported marijuana from Mexico with a large, fast boat Trudy had purchased for him. He sold the pot to a gang in Mobile. Business was slow because the DEA was asking questions.

"She's in the gym," Lance said, nodding past Cutter. "What do you want?"

Cutter ignored him and walked across the drive to a converted garage where the music was booming. Lance followed.

Trudy was in the midst of a high-level aerobics challenge being dictated to her by a supermodel on a large-screen TV at one end of the room. She bounced and gyrated and mouthed the words to a nameless song, and looked damned good doing it. Tight yellow spandex. Tight blond ponytail. Not an ounce of fat anywhere. Cutter could've watched for hours. Even her sweat was cute.

She did this two hours a day. At thirty-five, Trudy still looked like everybody's high school sweetheart.

Lance hit a switch and the video stopped. She twirled, saw Cutter, and gave him a look that would melt cheese. "Do you mind?" she snapped at Lance. Evidently, this workout was not to be disturbed.

"I'm Special Agent Cutter, FBI," he said, whipping out his badge and walking to her. "We met once before, a few years back."

She dabbed her face with a towel, a yellow one that matched the spandex. She was hardly breathing.

She flashed perfect teeth, and everything was okay. "What can I do for you?" Lance stood beside her. Matching ponytails.

"I have some wonderful news for you," Cutter said with a broad smile.

"What?"

"We've found your husband, Mrs. Lanigan, and he's alive."

A slight pause as it registered. "Patrick?" she said.

"He would be the one."

"You're lying," Lance sneered.

"Afraid not. He's in custody in Puerto Rico. Should make it back here in a week or so. Just thought you should hear the good news before we release it to the press."

Stunned and staggering, she backed away and sat on a workout bench next to a weight machine. Her glistening bronze flesh was growing pale. Her pliant body was crumbling. Lance scurried to help her. "Oh my God," she kept mumbling.

Cutter threw a card in front of them. "Call me if I can be of any help." They said nothing as he left.

It was obvious to him that she held no anger at having been duped by a man who faked his death. Nor was there the smallest hint of joy at his return. No relief whatsoever at the end of an ordeal.

There was nothing but fear; the horror of losing the money. The life insurance company would sue immediately.

WHILE CUTTER was in Mobile, another agent from the Biloxi office went to the home of Patrick's mother in New Orleans, and delivered the same news. Mrs. Lanigan was overcome with emotion, and begged the agent to sit for a while and answer questions. He stayed for an hour but had few answers for her. She cried for joy, and after he left she spent the rest of the day calling friends with the wonderful news that her only child was alive after all.



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