Nina entered the office in a rush with a stack of paper work and laid it before her boss. "I need signatures," she demanded, and handed him his pen.
"What is all this?" Mitch asked as he dutifully scribbled his name.
"Don't ask. Just trust me."
"I found a misspelled word in the Landmark Partners agreement."
"It's the computer."
"Okay. Get the computer fixed."
"How late are you working tonight?"
Mitch scanned the documents and signed off on each. "I don't know. Why?"
"You look tired. Why don't you go home early, say around ten or ten-thirty, and get some rest. Your eyes are beginning to look like Nathan Locke's."
"Your wife called."
"I'll call her in a minute."
When he finished she restacked the letters and documents. "It's five o'clock. I'm leaving. Oliver Lambert is waiting on you in the first-floor library."
"Oliver Lambert! Waiting on me?"
"That's what I said. He called not more than five minutes ago. Said it was very important."
Mitch straightened his tie and ran down the hall, down the stairs, and walked casually into the library. Lambert, Avery and what appeared to be most of the partners sat around the conference table. All of the associates were present, standing behind the partners. The seat at the head of the table was empty, and waiting. The room was quiet, almost solemn. There were no smiles. Lamar was close by and refused to look at him. Avery was sheepish, sort of embarrassed. Wally Hudson twirled the end of his bow tie and slowly shook his head.
"Sit down, Mitch," Mr. Lambert said gravely. "We have something to discuss with you." Doug Turney closed the door.
He sat and searched for any small sign of reassurance. None. The partners rolled their chairs in his direction, squeezing together in the process. The associates surrounded him and glared downward.
"What is it?" he asked meekly, looking helplessly at Avery. Small beads of sweat surfaced above his eyebrows. His heart pounded like a jackhammer. His breathing was labored.
Oliver Lambert leaned across the edge of the table and removed his reading glasses. He frowned sincerely, as if this would be painful. "We've just received a call from Nashville, Mitch, and we wanted to talk with you about it."
The bar exam. The bar exam. The bar exam. History had been made. An associate of the great Bendini firm had finally flunked the bar exam.He glared at Avery, and wanted to scream, "It's all your fault!" Avery pinched his eyebrows as if a migraine had hit and avoided eye contact. Lambert eyed the other partners suspiciously and returned to McDeere.
"We were afraid this would happen, Mitch."
He wanted to speak, to explain that he deserved just one more chance, that the exam would be given again in six months and he would ace it, that he would not embarrass them again. A thick pain hit below the belt.
"Yes, sir," he said humbly, in defeat.
Lambert moved in for the kill. "We aren't supposed to know these things, but the folks in Nashville told us that you made the highest score on the bar exam. Congratulations, Counselor."
The room exploded with laughter and cheers. They gathered around and shook his hand, patted his back and laughed at him. Avery rushed forward with a handkerchief and wiped his forehead. Kendall Mahan slammed three bottles of champagne on the table and began popping corks. A round was poured into plastic wineglasses. He finally breathed and broke into a smile. He slugged the champagne, and they poured him another glass.
Oliver Lambert placed his arm gently around Mitch's neck and spoke. "Mitch, we are very proud of you. This calls for a little bonus. I have here a firm check in the amount of two thousand dollars, which I am presenting to you as a small reward for this achievement."
There were whistles and catcalls.
"This is, of course, in addition to the substantial raise you have just earned."
More whistles and catcalls. Mitch took the check but did not look at it.
Mr. Lambert raised his hand and asked for quiet. "On behalf of The Firm, I would like to present you with this." Lamar handed him a package wrapped in brown paper. Mr. Lambert peeled it off and threw it on the table.
"It's a plaque which we prepared in anticipation of this day. As you can see, it is a bronzed replica of a piece of firm stationery, complete with every name. As you can also see, the name of Mitchell Y. McDeere has been added to the letterhead."
Mitch stood and awkwardly received the award. The color had returned to his face, and the champagne was beginning to feel good. "Thank you," he said softly.
* * *
Three days later the Memphis paper published the names of the attorneys who passed the bar exam. Abby clipped the article for the scrapbook and sent copies to her parents and Ray.
Mitch had discovered a deli three blocks from the Bendini Building between Front Street and Riverside Drive, near the river. It was a dark hole in the wall with few customers and greasy chili dogs. He liked it because he could sneak away and proofread a document while he ate. Now that he was a full-blown associate, he could eat a hot dog for lunch and bill a hundred and fifty an hour.
A week after his name was in the paper, he sat by himself at a table in the rear of the deli and ate a chili dog with a York. The place was empty. He read a prospectus an inch thick. The Greek who ran the place was asleep behind the cash register.
A stranger approached his table and stopped a few feet away. He unraveled a piece of Juicy Fruit, making as much noise as possible. When it was apparent he was not being seen, he walked to the table and sat down. Mitch looked across the red-checkered tablecloth and laid the document next to the iced tea.
"Can I help you?" he asked.
The stranger glanced at the counter, glanced at the empty tables and glanced behind him. "You're McDeere, aren't you?"
It was a rich brogue, undoubtedly Brooklyn. Mitch studied him carefully. He was about forty, with a short military haircut on the sides and a wisp of gray hair hanging almost to his eyebrows. The suit was a three-piece, navy in color, made of at least ninety percent polyester. The tie was cheap imitation silk. He wasn't much of a dresser, but there was a certain neatness about him. And an air of cockiness.
"Yeah. Who are you?" Mitch asked.
He grabbed his pocket and whipped out a badge. "Tarrance, Wayne Tarrance, Special Agent, FBI." He raised his eyebrows and waited for a response.
"Have a seat," Mitch said.
"Don't mind if I do."
"Do you want to frisk me?"
"Not till later. I just wanted to meet you. Saw your name in the paper and heard you were the new man at Bendini, Lambert & Locke."
"Why should that interest the FBI?"
"We watch that firm pretty close."
Mitch lost interest in the chili dog and slid the plate to the center of the table. He added more sweetener to his tea in a large Styrofoam cup.
"Would you like something to drink?" Mitch asked.
"Why do you watch the Bendini firm?"
Tarrance smiled and looked toward the Greek. "I can't really say at this point. We got our reasons, but I didn't come here to talk about that. I came here to meet you, and to warn you."
"To warn me?"
"Yes, to warn you about The Firm."
"Three things. Number one, don't trust anyone. There's not a single person in that firm you can confide in. Remember that. It will become important later on. Number two, every word you utter, whether at home, at the office or anywhere in the building, is likely to be recorded. They might even listen to you in your car."
Mitch watched and listened intently. Tarrance was enjoying this.
"And number three?" Mitch asked.
"Number three, money don't grow on trees."
"Would you care to elaborate?"
"I can't right now. I think you and I will become very close. I want you to trust me, and I know I'll have to earn your trust. So I don't want to move too fast. We can't meet at your office, or my office, and we can't talk on the phone. So from time to time I'll come find you. In the meantime, just remember those three things, and be careful."
Tarrance stood and reached for his wallet. "Here's my card. My home number is on the back. Use it only from a pay phone."
Mitch studied the card. "Why should I be calling you?"
"You won't need to for a while. But keep the card."
Mitch placed it in his shirt pocket.
"There's one other thing," Tarrance said. "We saw you at the funerals of Hodge and Kozinski. Sad, really sad. Their deaths were not accidental."
He looked down at Mitch with both hands in his pockets and smiled.
"I don't understand."
Tarrance started for the door. "Gimme a call sometime, but be careful. Remember, they're listening."
* * *
A few minutes after four a horn honked and Dutch bolted to his feet. He cursed and walked in front of the headlights. "Dammit, Mitch. It's four o'clock. What're you doing here?"
"Sorry, Dutch. Couldn't sleep. Rough night." The gate opened.
By seven-thirty he had dictated enough work to keep Nina busy for two days. She bitched less when her nose was glued to the monitor. His immediate goal was to become the first associate to justify a second secretary.
At eight o'clock he parked himself in Lamar's office and waited. He proofed a contract and drank coffee, and told Lamar's secretary to mind her own business. He arrived at eight-fifteen.
"We need to talk," Mitch said as he closed the door. If he believed Tarrance, the office was bugged and the conversation would be recorded. He was not sure whom to believe.
"You sound serious," Lamar said.
"Ever hear of a guy named Tarrance, Wayne Tarrance?"