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?"
Lamar closed his eyes. "FBI," he mumbled.
"That's right. He had a badge and everything."
"Where did you meet him?"
"He found me at Lansky's Deli on Union. He knew who I was, knew I'd just been admitted. Says he knows all about. They watch us real close."
"Have you told Avery?"
"No. No one but you. I'm not sure what to do."
Lamar picked up the phone. "We need to tell Avery. I think this has happened before."
"What's going on, Lamar?"
Lamar talked to Avery's secretary and said it was an emergency. In a few seconds he was on the other end. "We've got a small problem, Avery. An FBI agent contacted Mitch yesterday. He's in my office."
Lamar listened, then said to Mitch, "He's got me on hold. Said he was calling Lambert."
"I take it this is pretty serious," Mitch said.
"Yes, but don't worry. There's an explanation. It's happened before."
Lamar held the receiver closer and listened to the instructions. He hung up. "They want us in Lambert's office in ten minutes."
Avery, Royce McKnight, Oliver Lambert, Harold O'Kane and Nathan Locke were waiting. They stood nervously around the small conference table and tried to appear calm when Mitch entered the office.
"Have a seat," Nathan Locke said with a short, plastic smile. "We want you to tell us everything."
"What's that?" Mitch pointed to a tape recorder in the center of the table.
"We don't want to miss anything," Locke said, and pointed to an empty chair. Mitch sat and stared across the table at Black Eyes. Avery sat between them. No one made a sound.
"Okay. I was eating lunch yesterday at Lansky's Deli on Union. This guy walks up and sits across my table. He knows my name. Shows me a badge and says his name is Wayne Tarrance, Special Agent, FBI. I look at the badge, and it's real. He tells me he wants to meet because we'll get to know each other. They watch this firm real close and he warns me not to trust anyone. I ask him why, and he said he doesn't have time to explain, but he will later. I don't know what to say, so I just listen. He says he will contact me later. He gets up to leave and tells me they saw me at the funerals. Then he says the deaths of Kozinski and Hodge were not accidents. And he leaves. The entire conversation lasted less than five minutes."
Black Eyes glared at Mitch and absorbed every word. "Have you ever seen this man before?"
"Whom did you tell?"
"Only Lamar. I told him first thing this morning."
"Did he leave you a phone number to call?"
"I want to know every word that was said," Locke demanded.
"I've told you what I remember. I can't recall it verbatim."
"Are you certain?"
"Let me think a minute." A few things he would keep to himself. He stared at Black Eyes, and knew that Locke suspected more.
"Let's see. He said he saw my name in the paper and knew I was the new man here. That's it. I've covered everything. It was a very brief conversation."
"Try to remember everything," Locke persisted.
"I asked him if he wanted some of my tea. He declined."
The tape recorder was turned off, and the partners seemed to relax a little. Locke walked to the window. "Mitch, we've had trouble with the FBI, as well as the IRS. It's been going on for a number of years. Some of our clients are high rollers - wealthy individuals who make millions, spend millions and expect to pay little or no taxes. They pay us thousands of dollars to legally avoid taxes. We have a reputation for being very aggressive, and we don't mind taking chances if our clients instruct us to. We're talking about very sophisticated businessmen who understand risks. They pay dearly for our creativeness. Some of the shelters and write-offs we set up have been challenged by the IRS. We've slugged it out with them in tax litigation for the past twenty years. They don't like us, we don't like them. Some of our clients have not always possessed the highest degree of ethics, and they have been investigated and harassed by the FBI. For the past three years, we, too, have been harassed.
"Tarrance is a rookie looking for a big name. He's been here less than a year and has become a thorn. You are not to speak to him again. Your brief conversation yesterday was probably recorded. He is dangerous, extremely dangerous. He does not play fair, and you'll learn soon enough that most of the feds don't play fair."
"How many of these clients have been convicted?"
"Not a single one. And we've won our share of litigation with the IRS."
"What about Kozinski and Hodge?"
"Good question," answered Oliver Lambert. "We don't know what happened. It first appeared to be an accident, but now we're not sure. There was a native of the islands on board with Marty and Joe. He was the captain and divemaster. The authorities down there now tell us they suspect he was a key link in a drug ring based in Jamaica and perhaps the explosion was aimed at him. He died, of course."
"I don't think we'll ever know," Royce McKnight added. "The police down there are not that sophisticated. We've chosen to protect the families, and as far as we're concerned, it was an accident. Frankly, we're not sure how to handle it."
"Don't breathe a word of this to anyone," Locke instructed. "Stay away from Tarrance, and if he contacts you again, let us know immediately. Understand?"
"Don't even tell your wife," Avery said.
The grandfather's warmth returned to Oliver Lambert's face. He smiled and twirled his reading glasses. "Mitch, we know this is frightening, but we've grown accustomed to it. Let us handle it, and trust us. We are not afraid of Mr. Tarrance, the FBI, the IRS or anybody else because we've done nothing wrong. Anthony Bendini built this firm by hard work, talent and uncompromising ethics. It has been drilled into all of us. Some of our clients have not been saints, but no lawyer can dictate morals to his client. We don't want you worrying about this. Stay away from this guy - he is very, very dangerous. If you feed him, he'll get bolder and become a nuisance."
Locke pointed a crooked finger at Mitch. "Further contact with Tarrance will jeopardize your future with this firm."
"I understand," Mitch said.
"He understands," Avery said defensively. Locke glared at Tolar.
"That's all we have, Mitch," Mr. Lambert said. "Be cautious."
Mitch and Lamar hit the door and found the nearest stairway.
* * *
"Get DeVasher," Locke said to Lambert, who was on the phone. Within two minutes the two senior partners had been cleared and were sitting before DeVasher's cluttered desk.
"Did you listen?" Locke asked.
"Of course I listened to it, Nat. We heard every word the boy said. You handled it real well. I think he's scared and will run from Tarrance."
"What about Lazarov?"
"I gotta tell him. He's the boss. We can't pretend it didn't happen."
"What will they do?"
"Nothing serious. We'll watch the boy around the clock and check all his phone calls. And wait. He's not gonna move. It's up to Tarrance. He'll find him again, and the next time we'll be there. Try to keep him in the building as much as possible. When he leaves, let us know, if you can. I don't think it's that bad, really."
"Why would they pick McDeere?" asked Locke.
"New strategy, I guess. Kozinski and Hodge went to them, remember. Maybe they talked more than we thought. I don't know. Maybe they figure McDeere is the most vulnerable because he's fresh out of school and full of rookie idealism. And ethics - like our ethical friend Ollie here. That was good, Ollie, real good."
"Shut up, DeVasher."
DeVasher quit smiling and bit his bottom lip. He let it pass. He looked at Locke. "You know what the next step is, don't you? If Tarrance keeps pushing, that idiot Lazarov will call me one day and tell me to remove him. Silence him. Put him in a barrel and drop him in the Gulf. And when that happens, all of you honorable esquires will take your early retirement and leave the country."
"Lazarov wouldn't order a hit on an agent."
"Oh, it would be a foolish move, but then Lazarov is a fool. He's very anxious about the situation down here. He calls a lot and asks all sorts of questions. I give him all sorts of answers. Sometimes he listens, sometimes he cusses. Sometimes he says he's gotta talk to the board. But if he tells me to take out Tarrance, then we'll take out Tarrance."
"This makes me sick at my stomach," Lambert said.
"You wanna get sick, Ollie. You let one of your little Gucci-loafered counselors get chummy with Tarrance and start talking, you'll get a helluva lot worse than sick. Now, I suggest you boys keep McDeere so busy he won't have time to think about Tarrance."
"My God, DeVasher, he works twenty hours a day. He started like fire and he hasn't slowed down."
"Just watch him close. Tell Lamar Quin to get real tight with him so if he's got something on his mind, maybe he'll unload."
"Good idea," said Locke. He looked at Ollie. "Let's have a long talk with Quin. He's closest to McDeere, and maybe he can get closer."
"Look, boys," DeVasher said, "McDeere is scared right now. He won't make a move. If Tarrance contacts him again, he'll do what he did today. He'll run straight to Lamar Quin. He showed us who he confides in."
"Did he tell his wife last night?" asked Locke.
"We're checking the tapes now. It'll take about an hour. We've got so damned many bugs in this city it takes six computers to find anything."
* * *
Mitch stared through the window in Lamar's office and selected his words carefully. He said little. Suppose Tarrance was correct. Suppose everything was being recorded.
"Do you feel better?" Lamar asked.
"Yeah, I guess. It makes sense."
"It's happened before, just like Locke said."
"Who? Who was approached before?"
"I don't remember. Seems like it was three or four years ago."
"But you don't remember who it was?"
"No. Why is that important?"
"I'd just like to know. I don't understand why they would pick me, the new man, the one lawyer out of forty who knows the least about this firm and its clients. Why would they pick me?"
"I don't know, Mitch. Look, why don't you do as Locke suggested? Try to forget about it and run from this guy Tarrance. You don't have to talk to him unless he's got a warrant. Tell him to get lost if he shows up again. He's dangerous."
"Yeah, I guess you're right." Mitch forced a smile and headed for the door. "We're still on for dinner tomorrow night?"
"Sure. Kay wants to grill steaks and eat by the pool. Make it late, say around seven-thirty."
"See you then."