The first time Mitch McDeere stepped into the ornate lobby of the Peabody hotel in downtown Memphis, he was two months shy of his 25th birthday. He was a third-year student at Harvard Law and would graduate the following spring number four in his class. In his pocket, he had three splendid job offers from mega firms, two in New York and one in Chicago. None of his friends could understand why he would waste a trip to visit a firm in Memphis, which was not exactly in the major leagues of Big Law.
He’d been driven by greed. Though the Bendini firm was small, only 40 lawyers, it was offering more money and perks and a faster track to a partnership.
But he had rationalised the greed, even managed to deny it, and convinced himself that a small-town kid would feel more at home in a smaller city. The firm had a family feel to it, and no one ever left. Not alive anyway. He should have known that an offer too good to be true came with serious strings and baggage. He and his wife Abby lasted only seven months and were lucky to escape.
Back then, they had walked through the lobby, holding hands and gawking at the rich furnishings, oriental rugs, art, and the fabulous fountain in the centre with ducks swimming in circles. They were still swimming and he wondered if they were the same ducks. The memories came in a torrent: the giddiness of being heavily recruited; the relief that law school was almost over; the unbounded certainty of a bright future; a new career, new home, fancy car, fat salary.
He and Abby had even talked of starting a family. Sure, he’d had some doubts, but they had begun to dissipate the moment he entered the Peabody. How could he have been so foolish? Had it really been 15 years? They were just kids back then, and so naive.
Three blocks away, on Front Street, he stood and stared at a five-story edifice once known as the Bendini Building.
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Now 41 and a successful partner with New York firm Scully & Pershing, he almost shuddered at the memories of his brief but complicated time in Memphis. He recalled names and saw old faces, all of them gone now, either dead or living quiet lives elsewhere. The building had been renovated, renamed, and was now packed with condos advertising views of the river. He walked on and found Lansky’s Deli, an old Memphis tradition that had not changed. He went in, took a seat on a stool at the counter, and asked for coffee.
To his right was a row of booths, all empty in the late afternoon. The third one was exactly where he’d been sitting when an FBI agent appeared out of nowhere and began quizzing him about his firm.
It had been the beginning of the end, the first clear signal things were not as they seemed. Mitch closed his eyes and replayed the entire conversation, word for word.
When the coffee was gone, he paid for it and left and walked to Main Street where he caught a trolley for a short ride. Some of the buildings were different, some looked the same. Many of them reminded him of events he had struggled to erase from his mind.
He got off at a park, found a seat on a bench under a tree, and called the office to see what chaos he was missing. He called Abby and checked on the boys. All was well at home. No, he was not being followed. No one remembered him.
At dusk, he wandered back to the Peabody and took the elevator to the top. The bar on the roof was a popular spot to watch the sunset over the river and have drinks with friends, usually on Friday afternoon after a hard week.
During his first visit, his recruiting trip, he and Abby had been entertained there by younger members of the firm and their spouses. Everyone had a spouse. All the lawyers were men. Those were the unwritten rules at Bendini back then. Later, when they were alone, they had a quiet drink on the roof and made the calamitous decision to take the job.
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He got a beer, leaned on a railing, and watched the Mississippi River wind its way past Memphis on its eternal voyage to New Orleans. Massive barges loaded with soybeans inched along under the bridge to Arkansas as the sun finally set beyond the endless flat farm fields.
Nostalgia failed him. The days of such promise had vanished within weeks as their lives became an unbelievable nightmare.
The town of Sumrall was two hours east of Memphis, one hour west of Nashville. It was the county seat and had a population of 18,000, a big number for that part of the rural South. Mitch followed the signs and soon found himself on Main Street, which was one side of the town square.
A well-preserved 19th century courthouse sat in the centre of the square with statues, gazebos, monuments, and benches scattered about, all protected by the shade of massive oak trees. Mitch parked in front of a dress shop and walked around the square. As always, there was no shortage of lawyers and small firms. Again he wondered why his old friend would choose such a life.
They met at Harvard in the late fall of Mitch’s third year, when the most prestigious law firms made their annual trek to the school. The recruiting game was the payoff, not for hard work because that was the drill at every law school, but for being smart and lucky enough to get accepted to Harvard.
For a poor kid like Mitch, the recruiting was especially thrilling because he could smell money for the first time in his life.
Lamar Quinn had been sent with the team because he was only seven years older than Mitch, and a more youthful image was always important. He and his wife Kay had embraced the McDeeres as soon as they arrived in Memphis.
There had been no contact in 15 years. The internet made it easy to snoop around and see what folks were doing, especially lawyers, who as a breed, and regardless of their success or lack of it, enjoyed all the attention they could generate. It was good for business.
Lamar’s website was rather simple, but then so was his practice: the bland offering of deeds, wills, no-fault divorces, property transactions, and, of course, ‘Personal Injuries!’ Every small-town lawyer dreamed of landing some good car wrecks.
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There was no mention of such unpleasantries as Lamar’s indictment, guilty plea, and prison sentence. His office was above a sporting goods store. Mitch lumbered up the creaky steps, took a deep breath, and opened the door. A large woman behind a computer screen paused and offered a sweet smile. “Good morning.”
“Good morning. Is Lamar around?”
“He’s in court,” she said, nodding behind her in the general direction of the courthouse. “A trial?” “No, just a hearing. Should be over soon. Can I help you?” Mitch handed her a Scully business card and said, “Name’s Mitch McDeere. I’ll try to catch him over there. Which courtroom?”
“There’s only one. Second floor.”
It was a handsome courtroom of the old variety: stained wood trimmings, tall windows, portraits of white, dead, male dignitaries on the walls. Mitch eased in and took a seat on the back row. He was the only spectator. The judge was gone and Lamar was chatting with another lawyer. When he finally saw Mitch he was startled, but kept talking. When he finished, he slowly made his way down the centre aisle and stopped at the end of the row. It was almost noon and the court was empty.
They watched each other for a moment before Lamar asked, “What are you doing here?” “Just passing through.”
It was a sarcastic response.
Only a lost idiot would be passing through such a backwater place as Sumrall. Lamar had lost so much hair he was hardly recognisable.
What remained was grey. Like a lot of men, he was trying to replace the thinness on top with the thickness of a beard. But it too was grey, as it usually is, and only added to the ageing. He eased down the row in front of Mitch, stopped ten feet away, and leaned on the pew in front.
He had yet to smile and asked, “Anything in particular you want to discuss?”
“Not really. I think about you occasionally and just wanted to say hello.”
“Hello. You know, Mitch, I think about you too. I spent 27 months in a federal pen because of you, so you’re rather hard
to forget.” “You spent 27 months in a federal pen because you were a willing member of a criminal conspiracy, one that tried its best to entice me to join. I managed to escape, barely. You got a grudge, so do I.”
In the background a clerk walked in front of the bench. They watched her and waited until she was gone, then resumed staring at each other. Lamar gave a slight shrug and said, “Okay, fair enough. I did the crime and did the time. It’s not something I dwell on.”
“I’m not here to start trouble. I was hoping we could have a pleasant chat and bury the hatchet, so to speak.” Lamar took a deep breath and said, “Well, if nothing else, I admire you for being here. I thought I’d never see you again.”
“Same here. You were the only real friend I had back in those days, Lamar. We had some good times together, in spite of the pressure and all. Abby and Kay hit it off nicely. We have fond memories of you guys.”
“Well, we don’t. We lost everything, Mitch, and it was easy to blame it all on you.”
“The firm was going down, Lamar, you know that. The FBI was hot on the trail and closing in. They picked me because I was the new guy and they figured I was the weak link.”
“And they were right.”
“Damned right they were. Since I had done nothing wrong, I made the decision to protect myself. I cooperated and ran like a scared dog. The FBI couldn’t even find me.”
“Where’d you go?”
Mitch smiled and slowly got to his feet. “That is a long story. Can I buy lunch?”
“No, but let’s find a table.”
Extracted by Matt Nixson from The Exchange by John Grisham, published today by Hodder priced £22. Visit expressbookshop.com or call Express Bookshop on 020 3176 3832. Free UK P&P on orders over £25
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