The Firm - Page 18

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Avery smiled at the computer printout. "For the month of October you billed an average of sixty-one hours per week."

"I thought it was sixty-four," Mitch said.

"Sixty-one is good enough. In fact, we've never had a first-year man average so high in one month. Is it legitimate?"

"No padding. In fact, I could've pushed it higher."

"How many hours are you working a week?"

"Between eighty-five and ninety. I could bill seventy-five if I wanted to."

"I wouldn't suggest it, at least not now. It could cause a little jealousy around here. The younger associates are watching you very closely."

"You want me to slow down?"

"Of course not. You and I are a month behind right now. I'm just worried about the long hours. A little worried, that's all. Most associates start like wildfire - eighty - and ninety-hour weeks - but they burn out after a couple of months. Sixty-five to seventy is about average. But you seem to have unusual stamina."

"I don't require much sleep."

"What does your wife think about it?"

"Why is that important?"

"Does she mind the long hours?"

Mitch glared at Avery, and for a second thought of the argument the previous night when he arrived home for dinner at three minutes before midnight. It was a controlled fight, but the worst one yet, and it promised to be followed by others. No ground was surrendered. Abby said she felt closer to Mr. Rice next door than to her husband.

"She understands. I told her I would make partner in two years and retire before I was thirty."

"Looks like you're trying."

"You're not complaining, are you? Every hour I billed last month was on one of your files, and you didn't seem too concerned about overworking me."

Avery laid the printout on his credenza and frowned at Mitch. "I just don't want you to burn out or neglect things at home."

It seemed odd receiving marital advice from a man who had left his wife. He looked at Avery with as much contempt as he could generate. "You don't need to worry about what happens at my house. As long as I produce around here you should be happy."

Avery leaned across the desk. "Look, Mitch, I'm not very good at this sort of thing. This is coming from higher up. Lambert and McKnight are worried that maybe you're pushing a bit too hard. I mean, five o'clock in the morning, every morning, even some Sundays. That's pretty intense, Mitch."

"What did they say?"

"Nothing much. Believe it or not, Mitch, those guys really care about you and your family. They want happy lawyers with happy wives. If everything is lovely, then the lawyers are productive. Lambert is especially paternalistic. He's planning to retire in a couple of years, and he's trying to relive his glory years through you and the other young guys. If he asks too many questions or gives a few lectures, take it in stride. He's earned the right to be the grandfather around here."

"Tell them I'm fine, Abby's fine, we're all happy and I'm very productive."

"Fine, now that that's out of the way, you and I leave for Grand Cayman a week from tomorrow. I've got to meet with some Caymanian bankers on behalf of Sonny Capps and three other clients. Mainly business, but we always manage to work in a little scuba diving and snorkeling. I told Royce McKnight you were needed, and he approved the trip. He said you probably needed the R and R. Do you want to go?"

"Of course. I'm just a little surprised."

"It's business, so our wives won't be going. Lambert was a little concerned that it may cause a problem at home."

"I think Mr. Lambert worries too much about what happens at my home. Tell him I'm in control. No problems."

"So you're going?"

"Sure, I'm going. How long will we be there?"

"Couple of days. We'll stay in one of The Firm's condos. Sonny Capps may stay in the other one. I'm trying to get plane, but we may have to fly commercial."

"No problem with me."

* * *

Only two of the passengers on board the Cayman Airways 727 in Miami wore ties, and after the first round of complimentary rum punch Avery removed his and stuffed it in his coat pocket. The punch was served by beautiful brown Caymanian stewardesses with blue eyes and comely smiles. The women were great down there, Avery said more than once.

Mitch sat by the window and tried to conceal the excitement of his first trip out of the country. He had found a book on the Cayman Islands in a library. There were three islands, Grand Cayman, Little Cayman and Cayman Brae. The two smaller ones were sparsely populated and seldom visited. Grand Cayman had eighteen thousand people, twelve thousand registered corporations and three hundred banks. The population was twenty percent white, twenty percent black, and the other sixty percent wasn't sure and didn't care. Georgetown, the capital, in recent years had become an international tax haven with bankers as secretive as the Swiss. There were no income taxes, corporate taxes, capital-gains taxes, estate or gift taxes. Certain companies and investments were given guarantees against taxation for fifty years. The islands were a dependent British territory with an unusually stable government. Revenue from import duties and tourism funded whatever government was necessary. There was no crime or unemployment.

Grand Cayman was twenty-three miles long and eight miles wide in places, but from the air it looked much smaller. It was a small rock surrounded by clear, sapphire water.

The landing almost occurred in a lagoon, but at the last second a small asphalt strip came forth and caught the plane. They disembarked and sang their way through customs. A black boy grabbed Mitch's bags and threw them with Avery's into the trunk of a 1972 Ford Ltd. Mitch tipped him generously.

"Seven Mile Beach!" Avery commanded as he turned up the remnants of his last rum punch.

"Okay, mon," the driver drawled. He gunned the taxi and laid rubber in the direction of Georgetown. The radio blared reggae. The driver shook and gyrated and kept a steady beat with his fingers on the steering wheel. He was on the wrong side of the road, but so was everybody else. Mitch sank into the worn seat and crossed his legs. The car had no airconditioning except for the open windows. The muggy tropical air rushed across his face and blew his hair. This was nice.

The island was flat, and the road into Georgetown was busy with small, dusty European cars, scooters and bicycles. The homes were small one-stories with tin roofs and neat, colorful paint jobs. The lawns were tiny with little grass, but the dirt was neatly swept. As they neared the town the houses became shops, two - and three-story white frame buildings where tourists stood under the canopies and took refuge from the sun. The driver made a sharp turn and suddenly they were in the midst of a downtown crowded with modern bank buildings.

Avery assumed the role of tour guide. "There are banks here from everywhere. Germany, France, Great Britain, Canada, Spain, Japan, Denmark. Even Saudi Arabia and Israel. Over three hundred, at last count. It's become quite a tax haven. The bankers here are extremely quiet. They make the Swiss look like blabbermouths."

The taxi slowed in heavy traffic, and the breeze stopped. "I see a lot of Canadian banks," Mitch said.

"That building right there is the Royal Bank of Montreal. We'll be there at ten in the morning. Most of our business will be with Canadian banks."

"Any particular reason?"

"They're very safe, and very quiet."

The crowded street turned and dead-ended into another one. Beyond the intersection the glittering blue of the Caribbean rose to the horizon. A cruise ship was anchored in the bay.

"That's Hogsty Bay," Avery said. "That's where the pirates docked their ships three hundred years ago. Black-beard himself roamed these islands and buried his loot. They found some of it a few years ago in a cave east of here near Bodden Town."

Mitch nodded as if he believed this tale. The driver smiled in the rearview mirror.

Avery wiped the sweat from his forehead. "This place has always attracted pirates. Once it was Black-beard, now it's modern-day pirates who form corporations and hide their money here. Right, mon?"

"Right, mon," the driver replied.

"That's Seven Mile Beach," Avery said. "One of the most beautiful and most famous in the world. Right, mon?"

"Right, mon."

"Sand as white as sugar. Warm, clear water. Warm, beautiful women. Right, mon?"

"Right, mon."

"Will they have the cookout tonight at the Palms?"

"Yes, mon. Six o'clock."

"That's next door to our condo. The Palms is a popular hotel with the hottest action on the beach."

Mitch smiled and watched the hotels pass. He recalled the interview at Harvard when Oliver Lambert preached about how frowned on divorce and chasing women. And drinking. Perhaps Avery had missed those sermons. Perhaps he hadn't.

The condos were in the center of Seven Mile Beach, next door to another complex and the Palms. As-expected, the units owned by The Firm were spacious and richly decorated. Avery said they would sell for at least half a million each, but they weren't for sale. They were not for rent. They were sanctuaries for the weary lawyers of Bendini, Lambert & Locke. And a few very favored clients.

From the balcony off the second-floor bedroom, Mitch watched the small boats drift aimlessly over the sparkling sea. The sun was beginning its descent and the small waves reflected its rays in a million directions. The cruise ship moved slowly away from the island. Dozens of people walked the beach, kicking sand, splashing in the water, chasing sand crabs and drinking rum punch and Jamaican Red Stripe beer. The rhythmic beat of Caribbean music drifted from the Palms, where a large open-air thatched-roof bar attracted the beachcombers like a magnet. From a grass hut nearby they rented snorkeling gear, catamarans and volleyballs.

Avery walked to the balcony in a pair of brilliant orange-and-yellow flowered shorts. His body was lean and hard, with no flab. He owned part interest in a health club in Memphis and worked out every day. Evidently there were some tanning beds in the club. Mitch was impressed.

"How do you like my outfit?" Avery asked.

"Very nice. You'll fit right in." "I've got another pair if you'd like."

"No, thanks. I'll stick to my Western Kentucky gyrh shorts."

Avery sipped on a drink and took in the scenery. "I've been here a dozen times, and I still get excited. I've thought about retiring down here."

"That would be nice. You could walk the beach and chase sand crabs."

"And play dominoes and drink Red Stripe. Have you ever had a Red Stripe?"

"Not that I recall."

"Let's go get one."

* * *

The open-air bar was called Rumheads. It was packed with thirsty tourists and a few locals who sat together around a wooden table and played dominoes. Avery fought through the crowd and returned with two bottles. They found a seat next to the domino game.

"I think this is what I'll do when I retire. I'll come down here and play dominoes for a living. And drink Red Stripe."

"It's good beer."

"And when I get tired of dominoes, I'll throw some darts." He nodded to a corner where a group of drunk Englishmen were tossing darts at a board and cursing each other. "And when I get tired of darts, well, who knows what I'll do. Excuse me." He headed for a table on the patio where two string bikinis had just sat down. He introduced himself, and they asked him to have a seat. Mitch ordered another Red Stripe and went to the beach. In the distance he could see the bank buildings of Georgetown. He walked in that direction.

The food was placed on folding tables around the pool. Grilled grouper, barbecued shark, pompano, fried shrimp, turtle and oysters, lobster and red snapper. It was all from the sea, and all fresh. The guests crowded around the tables and served themselves while waiters scurried back and forth with gallons of rum punch. They ate on small tables in the courtyard overlooking Rumheads and the sea. A reggae band tuned up. The sun dipped behind a cloud, then over the horizon.

Mitch followed Avery through the buffet and, as expected, to a table where the two women were waiting. They were sisters, both in their late twenties, both divorced, both half drunk. The one named Carrie had fallen in heat with Avery, and the other one, Julia, immediately began making eyes at Mitch. He wondered what Avery had told them.

"I see you're married," Julia whispered as she moved next to him.

"Yes, happily."

She smiled as if to accept the challenge. Avery and his woman winked at each other. Mitch grabbed a glass of punch and gulped it down. '

He picked at his food and could think of nothing but Abby. This would be hard to explain, if an explanation became necessary. Having dinner with two attractive women who were barely dressed. It would be impossible to explain. The conversation became awkward at the table, and Mitch added nothing. A waiter set a large pitcher on the table, and it quickly was emptied. Avery became obnoxious. He told the women Mitch had played for the New York Giants, had two Super Bowl rings. Made a million bucks a year before a knee injury ruined his career. Mitch shook his head and drank some more. Julia drooled at him and moved closer.

The band turned up the volume, and it was time to dance. Half the crowd moved to a wooden dance floor under two trees, between the pool and the beach. "Let's dance!" Avery yelled, and grabbed his woman. They ran through the tables and were soon lost in the crowd of jerking and lunging tourists.

He felt her move closer, then her hand was on his leg. "Do you wanna dance?" she asked.


Tags: John Grisham Suspense