The Partner - Page 7

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ATTORNEY ETHAN RAPLEY left his dark attic, XXshowered and shaved and poured eyedrops into his bloodshot retinas, and sipped strong coffee as he found a semiclean navy blazer to wear downtown. He hadn't been to the office in sixteen days. Not that he was missed, and he certainly didn't miss anyone there. They faxed him when they needed him, and he faxed them back. He wrote the briefs and memos and motions the firm needed to survive, and he did the research for people he despised. He was occasionally forced to put on a tie and meet a client or attend some hideous conference with his fellow partners. He hated his office; he hated the people, even the ones he barely knew; he hated every book on every shelf and every file on every desk. He hated the photos on his wall, and the smell of everything-the stale coffee in the hall, the chemicals near the copier, the perfume of the secretaries. Everything.

Yet, he caught himself almost smiling as he eased through the late afternoon traffic along the Coast. He nodded at an old acquaintance as he walked rather briskly down the Vieux Marche. He actually spoke to the receptionist, a woman he helped pay but whose last name he couldn't recall.

In the conference room, a crowd mingled; mostly lawyers from nearby offices, a judge or two, some courthouse types. It was after five, and the mood was loud and festive. Cigar smoke filled the air.

Rapley found the liquor on a table at one end of the room, and spoke to Vitrano as he poured a Scotch and tried to appear pleased. At the other end, a variety of bottled waters and soft drinks was being ignored.

"It's been like this all afternoon," Vitrano said as they looked at the crowd and listened to the happy talk. "Soon as word got out, this place started hopping."

The Patrick news raced through the legal community along the Coast in a matter of minutes. Lawyers thrive on gossip, tend even to embellish it, and repeat it with amazing rapidity. Rumors were heard, collected, invented. He weighs a hundred and thirty pounds and speaks five languages. The money was found. The money is gone forever. He lived in near poverty. Or was it a mansion? He lived alone. He has a new wife and three kids. They know where the money is. They haven't a clue.

All rumors eventually got back to the money. As the friends and the curious gathered in the conference room and chatted about this and that, everything drifted back to the money. Secrets were scarce among this crowd. For years now everyone knew the firm lost one third of ninety million. And the remotest chance of collecting that money brought in the friends and the curious for a drink or two and a story or a rumor and an update and the inevitable, "Damn, I hope they find the money."

Rapley disappeared into the crowd with his second drink. Bogan slugged down sparkling water and chatted with a judge. Vitrano worked the crowd and confirmed or denied as much as possible. Havarac huddled in a corner with an aging court reporter who suddenly found him cute.

The liquor flowed as night fell. Hopes were raised and raised as the gossip got recycled.

PATRICK essentially was the evening news on the Coast station. It reported little else. There were Mast and Parrish staring grimly at the bank of microphones as if they'd been whipped and dragged there against their wills. There was a close-up of the front door of the law office, with no comments from anyone inside. There was a drippy little chronicle from Patrick's gravesite, complete with brooding possibilities of what may have happened to the poor soul whose ashes were buried down there. There was a flashback to the fiery crash four years earlier, with shots of the site and the burned hulk of Mr. Patrick Lanigan's Chevy Blazer. No comments from the wife, the FBI, the Sheriff. No comments from the players, but lots of wild speculation from the reporters.

The news also played well in New Orleans, Mobile, Jackson, and even Memphis. CNN picked it up mid-evening, and ran it nationally for an hour before sending it abroad. It was such an irresistible story.

It was almost 7 A.M., Swiss time, when Eva saw it in her hotel room. She had fallen asleep with the TV on sometime after midnight, and had slept on and off throughout the night, waiting as long as possible for news of Patrick before drifting away. She was tired and scared. She wanted to go home but knew she couldn't.

Patrick was alive. He had promised her a hundred times they would never kill him if and when they found him. For the first time, she believed him.

How much had he told them? That was the question.

How badly was he hurt? How much did they get from him?

She whispered a short prayer and thanked God that Patrick was still alive.

Then she made a checklist.

UNDER THE INDIFFERENT GAZE of two uniformed guards, and with the feeble assistance of Luis, his ancient Puerto Rican orderly, Patrick shuffled down the hallway in his bare feet and baggy white military boxer shorts. His wounds needed air-no clothing or bandages now. Just ointments and oxygen. His calves and thighs were painfully tender, and his knees and ankles quivered with each step.

He wanted to clear his head, dammit. He welcomed the pain from the open burns because it sharpened his brain. Only God knew what vile blend of chemicals had been pumped into his blood during the past three days.

The torture was a dense, horrible fog, but it was lifting now. As the chemicals broke down and dissolved and were flushed out, he began to hear his anguished screams. How much had he told them about the money?

He leaned on the windowsill in the empty canteen while the orderly fetched a soft drink. The ocean was a mile away, with rows of barracks in between. He was on some type of military base.

Yes, he'd admitted the money still existed, he remembered that because the shocks had ceased for a moment when this came out. Then he'd passed out, it seemed now, because there was a long break before he was awakened with cold water splashed in his face. He remembered how soothing the water felt, but they wouldn't allow him a drink. They had kept poking him with needles.

Banks. He'd almost given his life for the names of some lousy banks. With hot current running through his body, he had tracked the money for them from the moment he stole it from the United Bank of Wales in the Bahamas, onward to a bank in Malta, then to Panama, where no one could find it.

He didn't know where the money was once they'd snatched him. It still existed, all of it plus interest and earnings, he had most certainly told them that, he remembered now, remembered quite clearly because he had figured what the hell-they know I stole it, know I've got it, know it would be impossible to blow ninety million in four years-but he honestly didn't know precisely where the money was as his flesh melted.

The orderly handed him a soda and he said, "Obri-gado." Thanks in Portuguese. Why was he speaking Portuguese?

There had been a blackout then, after the money trail stopped. "Stop!" someone had yelled from the corner of the room, someone he never saw. They thought they'd killed him with the current.

He had no idea how long he was unconscious. At one point he woke up blind; the sweat and drugs and the horrific screaming had blinded him. Or was it a blindfold? He remembered that now-thinking that maybe it was a blindfold because maybe they were about to implement some new, even more hideous means of torture. Amputation of body parts, maybe. And he lay there naked.

Another shot in the arm, and suddenly his heart raced away and his skin jumped. His buddy was back with his little play toy. Patrick could see again. So who's got the money? he asked.

Patrick sipped his soda. The orderly loitered nearby, smiling pleasantly, the way he did for every patient. Patrick was suddenly nauseous, though he'd eaten little. He was light-headed and dizzy, but determined to remain on his feet so the blood would move and maybe he could think. He focused on a fishing boat, far on the horizon.

They'd blasted him a few times, wanting names. He had screamed his denials. They taped an electrode to his testicles, and the pain soared to a different level. Then there were blackouts.

Patrick couldn't remember. He simply couldn't remember the last stage of his torture. His body was on fire. He was near death. He had called her name, but was it to himself? Where was she now?

He dropped the soda and reached for the orderly.

STEPHANO WAITED until one in the morning before leaving the house. He drove down his dark street in his wife's car. He waved at the two agents sitting in a van at the intersection. He drove slowly so they could turn around and follow him. By the time he crossed the Arlington Memorial Bridge, there were at least two cars trailing.

The little convoy slid through empty streets until it reached Georgetown. Stephano held the advantage of knowing where he was going. He took a sudden right off K Street onto Wisconsin, then another on M. He parked illegally, and quickly, and walked half a block to a Holiday Inn.

He took the elevator to the third floor, where Guy was waiting in a suite. Back in the United States for the first time in months, he'd slept little in three days. Stephano couldn't have cared less.

There were six tapes, all labeled and neatly arranged, sitting on a table next to a battery-operated player. "The rooms next door are empty," Guy said, pointing in both directions. "So you can listen at full volume."

"It's nasty, I take it," Stephano said, staring at the tapes.

"Pretty sick. I'll never do it again."

"You can leave now."

"Good. I'm down the hall if you need me."

Guy left the room. Stephano made a call, and a minute later Benny Aricia knocked on the door. They ordered black coffee, and spent the rest of the night listening to Patrick scream in the jungles of Paraguay.

It was Benny's finest hour.



Tags: John Grisham Thriller
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