GREAT BENEFIT'S DEMISE MIGHT BE BIG news in Cleveland, but Memphis is hardly concerned. There's no word of it in Wednesday's paper. There is a brief story about Cliff Riker. The autopsy revealed he died of multiple blows to the head with a blunt instrument. His widow has been arrested and released. His family wants justice. His funeral is tomorrow in the small town which he and Kelly fled.
As Deck and I scour the paper, a fax arrives from Peter Corsa's office. It's a copy of a long front-page story in the Cleveland paper, and it's filled with the latest developments in the PinnConn scandal. At least two grand juries are swinging into action. Lawsuits are being filed by the truckload against the company and its subsidiaries, most specifically Great Benefit, whose bankruptcy filing merits a sizable story of its own. Lawyers are scrambling everywhere.
M. Wilfred Keeley was detained yesterday afternoon at JFK as he was waiting to board a flight to Heathrow. His wife was with him and they claimed to be sneaking away
for a quick holiday. They could not, however, produce the name of a hotel anywhere in Europe at which they were expected.
It appears as though the companies have been looted in the past two months. The cash initially went to cover bad investments, then it was preserved and wired to havens around the world. At any rate, it's gone.
The first phone call of the day comes from Leo Drum-mond. He tells me about Great Benefit as if I know nothing. We chat briefly, and it's hard to tell who's the more depressed. Neither of us will get paid for the war we've just waged. He does not mention his dispute with his former client over my offer to settle, and at this point it's moot. His former client is in no condition to maintain a malpractice action. It has effectively avoided the Black verdict, so it can't claim it suffered because of Drum-mond's bad legal work. Trent & Brent has dodged a major bullet.
The second call is from Roger Rice, Miss Birdie's new lawyer. He congratulates me on the verdict. If he only knew. He says he's been thinking about me since he saw my face in the Sunday paper. Miss Birdie's trying to change her will again, and they're sick of her in Florida. Delbert and Randolph finally succeeded in obtaining her signature on a homemade document which they took to the lawyers in Atlanta and demanded the full disclosure of their dear mother's assets. The lawyers stonewalled. The brothers besieged Atlanta for two days. One of the lawyers called Roger Rice, and the truth came out. Delbert and Randolph asked this lawyer point-blank if their mother had twenty million dollars. The lawyer couldn't help but laugh, and this upset the boys. They eventually concluded that Miss Birdie was playing games, and they drove back to Florida.
Late Monday night, Miss Birdie called Roger Rice, at
home, and informed him she was headed to Memphis. She said she'd been trying to call me, but I seemed very busy. Mr. Rice told her about the trial and the fifty-mil-lion-dollar verdict, and this seemed to excite her. "How nice," she said. "Not bad for a yard boy." She seemed terribly excited by the fact that I am now rich.
Anyway, Rice wants to forewarn me that she might arrive any day now. I thank him.
MORGAN WILSON has thoroughly reviewed the Riker file, and is not inclined to prosecute. However, her boss, Al Vance, is undecided. I follow her into his office.
Vance was elected district attorney many years ago, and gets himself reelected with ease. He's about fifty, and at one time had serious aspirations of a higher political life. The opportunity,never arose, and he's been content to stay in this office. He possesses a quality that is quite rare among prosecutors-he doesn't like cameras.
He congratulates me on the verdict. I'm gracious and don't want to talk about it, for reasons best kept to myself at this moment. I suspect that in less than twenty-four hours the news about Great Benefit will be reported in Memphis, and the awe in which I'm now held will instantly disappear.
"These people are nuts," he says, tossing the file on his desk. "They've been calling here like crazy, twice this morning. My secretary has talked to Riker's father and one of his brothers."
"What do they want?" I ask.
"Death for your client. Forgo the trial, and just strap her in the electric chair now, today. Is she out of jail?"
"Is she hiding?"
"Good. They're so damned stupid they make threats
against her. They don't know it's against the law to do this. These are really sick people."
The three of us are unanimous in our opinion that the Rikers are quite ignorant and very dangerous.
"Morgan doesn't want to prosecute," Vance continues. Morgan nods her head.
"It's very simple, Mr. Vance," I say. "You can take it to the grand jury, and you might get lucky and get an indictment. But if you take it to trial, you'll lose. I'll wave that damned aluminum bat in front of the jury, and I'll bring in a dozen experts on domestic abuse. I'll make her a symbol, and you guys will look terrible trying to convict her. You won't get one vote out of twelve from the jury."
I continue. "I don't care what his family does. But if they bully you into prosecuting this case, you'll be sorry. They'll hate you even more when the jury slam-dunks it and we walk."
"He's right, Al," Morgan says. "There's no way to get a conviction."
Al was ready to throw in the towel before we walked in here, but he needed to hear it from both of us. He agrees to dismiss all charges. Morgan promises to fax me a letter to this effect by late morning.
I thank them and leave quickly. The moods are shifting rapidly. I'm alone in the elevator, and I can't help but grin at myself in the polished brass above the numbered buttons. All charges will be dismissed! Forever!
I practically run through the parking lot to my car.
THE BULLET was fired from the street, pierced the window in the front office, left a neat hole no more than half an inch wide, left another hole in the Sheetrock, and ended its journey deep in the wall. Deck happened to be in the front office when he heard the shot. The bullet missed him by no more than ten feet, but this was close
enough. He did not run to the window immediately. He dove under the table, and waited for a few minutes.
Then he locked the door, and waited for someone to check on him. No one did. It happened around ten-thirty, while I was meeting with Al Vance. Apparently, no one saw the gunman. If the shot was heard by anyone else, we'll never know it. The sounds of random bullets are not uncommon in this part of town.
The first call Deck made was to Butch, who was asleep. Twenty minutes later, Butch was in the office, heavily armed and working to calm Deck.
They're examining the hole in the window when I arrive, and Deck tells me what happened. I'm sure Deck shakes and twitches when he's sound asleep, and he's really trembling now. He tells us he's fine, but his voice is squeaky. Butch says he'll wait just below the window and catch them if they come back. In his car he has two shotguns and an AK-47 assault rifle. God help the Rikers if they plan another drive-by shooting.
I can't get Booker on the phone. He's out of town taking depositions with Marvin Shankle, so I write him a brief letter in which I promise to call later.
DECK AND I decide on a private lunch, away from admiring throngs, out of the range of stray bullets. We buy deli sandwiches and eat in Miss Birdie's kitchen. Butch is parked in the drive behind my Volvo. If he doesn't get to shoot the AK-47 today, he'll be devastated.
The weekly cleaning service was in yesterday, so the house is fresh and temporarily without the smell of mildew. It's ready for Miss Birdie.
The deal we cut is painless and simple. Deck gets the files he wants, and I get two thousand dollars, to be paid within ninety days. He'll associate other lawyers if he has to. He'll also farm out any of my active files he doesn't want. The Ruffins' collection cases will be sent back to Booker. He won't like it, but he'll get over it.
Sorting through the files is easy. It's sad how few cases and clients we've generated in six months.
The firm has thirty-four hundred dollars in the bank, and a few outstanding bills.
We agree on the details as we eat, and the business aspect of the separation is easy. The personal untangling is not. Deck has no future. He cannot pass the bar. exam, and there's no place for him to go. He'll spend a few weeks cleaning up my files, but he can't operate without a Bruiser or a Rudy to front for him. We both know this, but it's left unsaid.
He confides in me that he's broke. "Gambling?" I ask.
"Yeah. It's the casinos. I can't stay away from them." He's relaxed now, almost sedate. He takes a large bite from a dill-pickle and crunches loudly.
When we started our firm last summer, we had just been handed an equal split in the Van Landel settlement. We had fifty-five hundred dollars each, and we both put up two thousand. I was forced to dip into my savings a few times, but I have twenty-eight hundred in the bank, money I've saved by living frugally and burying it when I could. Deck doesn't spend it either. He just blows it at the blackjack tables.
"I talked to Bruiser last night," he says, and I'm not surprised.
"Where is he?"
"Is Prince with him?"
This is good news, and I'm relieved to hear it. I'm sure Deck has known it for some time.
"So they made it," I say, looking out the window, trying
to imagine those two with straw hats and sunglasses. They both lived in such darkness here.
"Yeah. I don't know how. Some things you don't ask." Deck has a blank look on his face. He's deep in thought. "The money's still here, you know."
"Four million, cash. It's what they skimmed from the -clubs."
"Yep. In one spot. Locked in the basement of a warehouse. Right here in Memphis."
"And how much are they offering you?"
"Ten percent. If I can get it to Miami, Bruiser says he can do the rest."
"Don't do it, Deck."
"You'll get caught and sent to jail."
"I doubt it. The feds aren't watching anymore. They don't have a clue about the money. Everybody assumes Bruiser took enough with him and he doesn't need anymore."
"Does he need it?"
"I don't know. But he sure as hell wants it."
"Don't do it, Deck."
"It's a piece of cake. The money will fit in a small U-Haul truck. Bruiser says it'll take two hours max to load it. Drive the U-Haul to Miami, and wait for instructions. It'll take two days, and it'll make me rich."
His voice has a faraway tone to it. There's no doubt in my mind that Deck will try this. He and Bruiser have been planning it. I've said enough. He's not listening.
We leave Miss Birdie's house and walk to my apartment. Deck helps me haul a few clothes to my car. I load the trunk and half the backseat. I'm not going back to the office, so we say our good-byes by the garage.
"I don't blame you for leaving," he says.
"Be careful, Deck."
We embrace for an awkward second or two, and I almost choke up.
"You made history, Rudy, do you know that?"
"We did it together."
"Yeah, and what do we have to show for it?"
"We can always brag."
We shake hands, and Deck's eyes are wet. I watch him shuffle and jerk down the drive, and get in the car with Butch. They drive away.
I write a long letter to Miss Birdie, and promise to call later. I leave it on the kitchen table because I'm sure she'll be home soon. I check the house once again, and say good-bye to my apartment.
I drive to a branch bank and close my savings account. A stack of twenty-eight one-hundred-dollar bills has a nice feel to it. I hide it under the floor mat.
IT'S NEARLY DARK when I knock on the Blacks' front door. Dot opens it, and almost smiles when she sees it's me.
The house is dark and quiet, still very much in mourning. I doubt if it will ever change. Buddy's in bed with the flu.
Over instant coffee, I gently break the news that Great Benefit has gone belly-up, that she's been shafted once more. Barring a miracle far off in the distance, ,we won't get a dime. I'm not surprised at her reaction.
There appear to be several complex reasons for Great Benefit's death, but right now it's important for Dot to think she pulled the trigger. Her eyes gleam and her entire face is happy as it sinks in. She put them out of business. One little, determined woman in Memphis, Tennessee, bankrupted them sumbitches.
She'll go to Donny Ray's grave tomorrow and tell him about it.
KELLY IS WAITING anxiously in the den with Betty Norvelle. She clutches a small leather bag I bought her yesterday. In it are a few toiletries and a few items of clothing donated by the shelter. It holds everything she owns.
We sign the paperwork, and thank Betty. We hold hands as we walk quickly to the car. We take a deep breath once inside, then we drive away.
The gun's under the seat, but I've stopped worrying.
"Dear, which direction?" I ask when we get on the interstate loop that circles the city. We laugh at this, because it is so absolutely wonderful. It doesn't matter where we go!
"I'd like to see mountains," she says.
"Me too. East or West?"
"Then West it is."
"I want to see snow."
"I think we can find some."
She cuddles closer and rests her head on my shoulder. I rub her legs.
We cross the river and enter Arkansas. The Memphis skyline fades behind us. It's amazing how little we've planned for this. We didn't know until this morning that she'd be able to leave the county. But the charges were dropped, and I have a letter from the district attorney himself. Her bond was canceled at three this afternoon.
We'll settle in a place where no one can find us. I'm not afraid of being followed, but I just want to be left alone. I don't want to hear about Deck and Bruiser. I don't want to hear about the fallout at Great Benefit. I don't want Miss Birdie calling me for legal advice. I don't want to
worry about Cliff's death and everything related to it. Kelly and I will talk about it one of these days, but not anytime soon.
We'll pick a small college town because she wants to go to school. She's only twenty. I'm still a kid myself. We're unloading some serious baggage here, and it's time to have fun. I'd love to teach history in high school. That shouldn't be hard to do. After all, I have seven years of college.
I will not, under any circumstances, have anything whatsoever to do with the law. I will allow my license to expire. I will not register to vote so they can't nail me for jury duty. I will never voluntarily set foot in another courtroom.
We smile and giggle as the land" flattens and the traffic lightens. Memphis is twenty miles behind us. I vow never to return.
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