The Firm(17)

by John Grisham

"That's a lot of hours."

"Sounds that way, but it's deceptive. Most good lawyers can work eight or nine hours a day and bill twelve. It's called padding. It's not exactly fair to the client, but it's something everybody does. The great firms have been built by padding files. It's the name of the game."

"Sounds unethical."

"So is ambulance chasing by plaintiff's lawyers. It's unethical for a dope lawyer to take his fee in cash if he has a reason, to believe the money is dirty. A lot of things are unethical. What about the doctor who sees a hundred Medicare patients a day? Or the one who performs unnecessary surgery? Some of the most unethical people I've met have been my own clients. It's easy to pad a file when your client is a multimillionaire who wants to screw the government and wants you to do it legally. We all do it."

"Do they teach it?"

"No. You just sort of learn it. You'll start off working long, crazy hours, but you can't do it forever. So you start taking shortcuts. Believe me, Mitch, after you've been with us a year you'll know how to work ten hours and bill twice that much. It's sort of a sixth sense lawyers acquire."

"What else will I acquire?"

Lamar rattled his ice cubes and thought for a moment. "A certain amount of cynicism. This business works on you. When you were in law school you had some noble idea of what a lawyer should be. A champion of individual rights; a defender of the Constitution; a guardian of the oppressed; an advocate for your client's principles. Then after you practice for six months you realize we're nothing but hired guns. Mouthpieces for sale to the highest bidder, available to anybody, any crook, any sleazebag with enough money to pay our outrageous fees. Nothing shocks you. It's supposed to be an honorable profession, but you'll meet so many crooked lawyers you'll want to quit and find an honest job. Yeah, Mitch, you'll get cynical. And it's sad, really."

"You shouldn't be telling me this at this stage of my career."

"The money makes up for it. It's amazing how much drudgery you can endure at two hundred thousand a year."

"Drudgery? You make it sound terrible."

"I'm sorry. It's not that bad. My perspective on life changed radically last Thursday."

"You want to look at the house? It's marvelous."

"Maybe some other time. Let's just talk."

Chapter 6

At five A.M. the alarm clock exploded on the new bed table under the new lamp, and was immediately silenced. Mitch staggered through the dark house and found Hearsay waiting at the back door. He released him into the backyard and headed for the shower. Twenty minutes later he found his wife under the covers and kissed her goodbye. She did not respond.

With no traffic to fight, the office was ten minutes away. He had decided his day would start at five-thirty, unless someone could top that; then he would be there at five, or four-thirty, or whenever it took to be first. Sleep was a nuisance. He would be the first lawyer to arrive at the Bendini Building on this day, and every day until he became a partner. If it took the others ten years, he could do it in seven. He would become the youngest partner in the history of The Firm, he had decided.

The vacant lot next to the Bendini Building had a ten-foot chain-link fence around it and a guard by the gate. There was a parking place inside with his name spray-painted between the yellow lines. He stopped by the gate and waited. The uniformed guard emerged from the darkness and approached the driver's door. Mitch pushed a button, lowered the window and produced a plastic card with his picture on it.

"You must be the new man," the guard said as he held the card.

"Yes. Mitch McDeere."

"I can read. I should've known by the car."

"What's your name?" Mitch asked.

"Dutch Hendrix. Worked for the Memphis Police Department for thirty-three years."

"Nice to meet you, Dutch."

"Yeah. Same to you. You start early, don't you?"

Mitch smiled and took the ID card. "No, I thought everyone would be here."

Dutch managed a smile. "You're the first. Mr. Locke will be along shortly."

The gate opened and Dutch ordered him through. He found his name in white on the asphalt and parked the spotless BMW all by itself on the third row from the building. He grabbed his empty burgundy eel-skin attache case from the rear seat and gently closed the door. Another guard waited by the rear entrance. Mitch introduced himself and watched as the door was unlocked. He checked his watch. Exactly five-thirty. He was relieved that this hour was early enough. The rest of The Firm was still asleep.

He nipped on the light switch in his office and laid the attache case on the temporary desk. He headed for the coffee room down the hall, turning on lights as he went. The coffeepot was one of those industrial sizes with multi-levels, multi-burners, multi-pots and no apparent instructions on how to operate any of it. He studied this machine for a moment as he emptied a pack of coffee into the filter. He poured water through one of the holes in the top and smiled when it began dripping in the right place.

In one corner of his office were three cardboard boxes full of books, files, legal pads and class notes he had accumulated in the previous three years. He sat the first one on his desk and began removing its contents. The materials were categorized and placed in neat little piles around the desk.

After two cups of coffee, he found the bar review materials in box number three. He walked to the window and opened the blinds. It was still dark. He did not notice the figure suddenly appear in the doorway.

"Good morning!"

Mitch spun from the window and gawked at the man. "You scared me," he said, and breathed deeply.

"I'm sorry. I'm Nathan Locke. I don't believe we've met."

"I'm Mitch McDeere. The new man." They shook hands.

"Yes, I know. I apologize for not meeting you earlier. I was busy during your earlier visits. I think I saw you at the funerals Monday."

Mitch nodded and knew for certain he had never been within a hundred yards of Nathan Locke. He would have remembered. It was the eyes, the cold black eyes with layers of black wrinkles around them. Great eyes. Unforgettable eyes. His hair was white and thin on top with thickets around the ears, and the whiteness contrasted sharply with the rest of his face. When he spoke, the eyes narrowed and the black pupils glowed fiercely. Sinister eyes. Knowing eyes.

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