The Firm - Page 24

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At the intersection of Madison and Cooper in midtown, the old two-story buildings had been renovated into singles bars and watering holes and gift shops and a handful of good restaurants. The intersection was known as Overton Square, and it provided Memphis with its best nightlife. A playhouse and a bookstore added a touch of culture. Trees lined the narrow median on Madison. The weekends were rowdy with college students and sailors from the Navy base, but on weeknights the restaurants were full but quiet and uncrowded. Paulette's, a quaint French place in a white stucco building, was noted for its wine list and desserts and the gentle voice of the man at the Steinway. With sudden affluence came a collection of credit cards, and the McDeeres had used theirs in a quest for the best restaurants in town. Paulette's was the favorite, so far.

Mitch sat in the corner of the bar, drinking coffee and watching the front door. He was early, and had planned it that way. He had called her three hours earlier and asked if he could have a date for seven. She asked why, and he said he would explain later. Since the Caymans he had known someone was following, watching, listening. For the past month he had spoken carefully on the phone, had caught himself watching the rearview mirror, had even chosen his words around the house. Someone was watching and listening, he was sure.

Abby rushed in from the cold and glanced around the parlor for her husband. He met her in the front of the bar and pecked her on the cheek. She removed her coat, and they followed the maitre d' to a small table in a row of small tables which were all full with people within earshot. Mitch glanced around for another table, but there were none. He thanked him and sat across from his wife.

"What's the occasion?" she asked suspiciously.

"Do I need a reason to have dinner with my wife?"

"Yes. It's seven o'clock on Monday night, and you're not at the office. This is indeed a special occasion."

A waiter squeezed between their table and the next, and asked if they wanted a drink. Two white wines, please. Mitch glanced around the dining room again and caught a glimpse of a gentleman sitting alone five tables away. The face looked familiar. When Mitch looked again, the face slid behind a menu.

"What's the matter, Mitch?"

He laid his hand on hers and frowned. "Abby, we gotta talk."

Her hand flinched slightly and she stopped smiling. "About what?"

He lowered his voice. "About something very serious."

She exhaled deeply and said, "Can we wait for the wine. I might need it."

Mitch looked again at the face behind the menu. "We can't talk here."

"Then why are we here?"

"Look, Abby, you know where the rest rooms are? Down the hall over there, to your right?"

"Yes, I know."

"There's a rear entrance at the end of the hall. It goes out to the side street behind the restaurant. I want you to go to the rest room, then out the door. I'll be waiting next to the street."

She said nothing. Her eyebrows lowered and the eyes narrowed. Her head leaned slightly to the right.

"Trust me, Abby. I can explain later. I'll meet you outside and we'll find another place to eat. I can't talk in here."

"You're scaring me."

"Please," he said firmly, squeezing her hand. "Everything is fine. I'll bring your coat."

She stood with her purse and left the room. Mitch looked over his shoulder at the man with the familiar face, who suddenly stood and welcomed an elderly lady to his table. He did not notice Abby's exit.

In the street behind Paulette's, Mitch draped the coat over Abby's shoulders and pointed eastward. "I can explain," he said more than once. A hundred feet down the street, they walked between two buildings and came to the front entrance of the Bombay Bicycle Club, a singles bar with good food and live blues. Mitch looked at the head-waiter, then surveyed the two dining rooms, then pointed to a table in the rear corner. "That one," he said.

Mitch sat with his back to the wall and his face toward the dining room and the front door. The corner was dark. Candles lit the table. They ordered more wine.

Abby sat motionless, staring at him, watching every move and waiting.

"Do you remember a guy named Rick Acklin from Western Kentucky?"

"No," she said without moving her lips.

"He played baseball, lived in the dorm. I think you may have met him once. A very nice guy, real clean-cut, good student. I think he was from Bowling Green. We weren't good friends, but we knew each other."

She shook her head and waited.

"Well, he finished a year before we did and went to law school at Wake Forest. Now he's with the FBI. And he's working here in Memphis." He watched her closely to see if "FBI" would have an impact. It did not. "And today I'm eating lunch at Obleo's hot-dog place on Main Street, when Rick walks up out of nowhere and says hello. Just like it was a real coincidence. We chat for a few minutes, and another agent, guy by the name of Tarrance, walks up and has a seat. It's the second time Tarrance has chased me down since I passed the bar."

"The second...?"

"Yes. Since August."

"And these are ... FBI agents?"

"Yes, with badges and everything. Tarrance is a veteran agent from New York. Been here about two years. Acklin is a rookie they brought in three months ago."

"What do they want?"

The wine arrived and Mitch looked around the club. A band was tuning up on a small stage in a far corner. The bar was crowded with well-dressed professional types chitting and chatting relentlessly. The waiter pointed to the unopened menus. "Later," Mitch said rudely.

"Abby, I don't know what they want. The first visit was in August, right after my name was printed in the paper for passing the bar." He sipped his wine and detailed play by play the first Tarrance visit at Lansky's Deli on Union, the warnings about whom not to trust and where not to talk, the meeting with Locke and Lambert and the other partners. He explained their version of why the FBI was so interested in and said that he discussed it with Lamar and believed every word Locke and Lambert had said.

Abby hung on every word, but waited to start asking.

"And now, today, while I'm minding my own business, eating a foot-long with onions, this guy I went to college with walks up and tells me that they, the FBI, know for a fact that my phones are bugged, my home is wired and somebody down at Bendini, Lambert & Locke knows when I sneeze and take a crap. Think of it, Abby, Rick Acklin was transferred here after I passed the bar exam. Nice coincidence, huh?"

"But what do they want?"

"They won't say. They can't tell me, yet. They want me to trust them, and all that routine. I don't know, Abby. I have no idea what they're after. But they've chosen me for some reason."

"Did you tell Lamar about this visit?"

"No. I haven't told anyone. Except you. And I don't plan to tell anyone."

She gulped the wine. "Our phones are tapped?"

"According to the FBI. But how do they know?"

"They're not stupid, Mitch. If the FBI told me my phones were tapped, I'd believe them. You don't?"

"I don't know whom to believe. Locke and Lambert were so smooth and believable when they explained how fights with the IRS and the FBI. I want to believe them, but so much of it doesn't add up. Look at it this way - if The Firm had a rich client who was shady and worthy of FBI scrutiny, why would the FBI pick me, the rookie, the one who knows the least, and begin following me? What do I know? I work on files someone else hands me. I have no clients of my own. I do as I'm told. Why not go after one of the partners?"

"Maybe they want you to squeal on the clients."

"No way. I'm a lawyer and sworn to secrecy about the affairs of clients. Everything I know about a client is strictly confidential. The feds know that. No one expects a lawyer to talk about his clients."

"Have you seen any illegal deals?"

He cracked his knuckles and gazed around the dining room. He smiled at her. The wine had settled and was taking effect. "I'm not supposed to answer that question, even from you, Abby. But the answer is No. I've worked on files for twenty of Avery's clients and a few other ones here and there, and I've seen nothing suspicious. Maybe a couple of risky tax shelters, but nothing illegal. I've got a few questions about the bank accounts I saw in the Caymans, but nothing serious." Caymans! His stomach dropped as he thought of the girl on the beach. He felt sick.

The waiter loitered nearby and stared at the menus. "More wine," Mitch said, pointing at the glasses.

Abby leaned forward, near the candles, and looked bewildered. "Okay, who tapped our phones?"

"Assuming they're tapped, I have no idea. At the first meeting in August, Tarrance implied it was someone from. I mean, that's the way I took it. He said not to trust anyone at The Firm, and that everything I said was subject to being heard and recorded. I assumed he meant they were doing it."

"And what did Mr. Locke say about that?"

"Nothing. I didn't tell him. I kept a few things to myself."

"Someone has tapped our phones and wired our house?"

"And maybe our cars. Rick Acklin made a big deal of it today. He kept telling me not to say anything I didn't want recorded."

"Mitch, this is incredible. Why would a law firm do that?"

He shook his head slowly and looked into the empty wineglass. "I have no idea, babe. No idea."

The waiter set two new wineglasses on the table and stood with his hands behind him. "Will you be ordering?" he asked.

"In a few minutes," Abby said.

"We'll call you when we're ready," Mitch added.

"Do you believe it, Mitch?"

"I think something's up. There's more to the story."

She slowly folded her hands on the table and stared at him with a look of utter fear. He told the story of Hodge and Kozinski, starting with Tarrance at the deli, then to the Caymans and being followed and the meeting with Abanks. He told her everything Abanks had said. Then Eddie Lomax and the deaths of Alice Knauss, Robert Lamm and John Mickel.

"I've lost my appetite," she said when he finished.

"So have I. But I feel better now that you know."

"Why didn't you tell me sooner?"

"I hoped it would go away. I hoped Tarrance would leave me alone and find someone else to torment. But he's here to stay. That's why Rick Acklin was transferred to Memphis. To work on me. I have been selected by the FBI for a mission I know nothing about."

"I feel weak."

"We have to be careful, Abby. We must continue to live as if we suspect nothing."

"I don't believe this. I'm sitting here listening to you, but I don't believe what you're telling me. This is not real, Mitch. You expect me to live in a house that's wired and the phones are tapped and someone, somewhere is listening to everything we say."

"Do you have a better idea?"

"Yeah. Let's hire this Lomax guy to inspect our house."

"I've thought of that. But what if he finds something? Think about it. What if we know for sure that the house is wired? What then? What if he breaks a device that's been planted? They, whoever in hell they are, will know that we know. It's too dangerous, for now anyway. Maybe later."

"This is crazy, Mitch. I guess we're supposed to run out in the backyard to have a conversation."

"Of course not. We could use the front yard."

"At this moment, I don't appreciate your sense of humor."

"Sorry. Look, Abby, let's be normal and patient for a while. Tarrance has convinced me he's serious and he's not going to forget about me. I can't stop him. He finds me, remember. I think they follow me and wait in ambush. For the time being, it's important that we carry on as usual."

"Usual? Come to think of it, there's not much conversation around our house these days. I sort of feel sorry for them if they're waiting to hear meaningful dialogue. I talk to Hearsay a lot."

Tags: John Grisham Suspense