The WhistlerJohn Grisham
Ann Stoltz arrived late Monday morning to spend a day or two with her daughter. Fortunately, her son was not in the room, though it was apparent he had not yet closed down his office and moved out. Lacy explained that Gunther was running errands. The good news was that he would be leaving around noon, because, of course, Atlanta was collapsing in his absence and the city had to be saved. The even better news was that her doctor planned to release her on the following day. She had convinced him her hair would grow just as fast at home.
A nurse removed stitches as Ann prattled on about the gossip down in Clearwater. A physical therapist arrived for half an hour of stretching and he gave Lacy a chart of exercises to work on every day at home. When Gunther returned, he had a sackful of deli sandwiches and the urgent news that he must get home. After an hour with his mother, he couldn’t wait to leave the hospital. After four days with him, Lacy needed a break.
He was wiping tears as he said good-bye. He begged Lacy to call him for anything, especially if slimeballs like insurance adjusters and ambulance-chasing lawyers came slithering around. He knew exactly how to handle such people. On the way out, he gave his mother a perfunctory peck on the cheek, and he was gone. Lacy closed her eyes and enjoyed the silence for a long time.
The following day, Tuesday, an orderly rolled her out of the hospital and helped her into Ann’s car. She was perfectly capable of making the walk herself, but the hospital had its rules. Fifteen minutes later, Ann parked in the lot beside Lacy’s building. Lacy looked at it and said, “Only eight days ago, but it seems like a month.”
Ann said, “I’ll get the crutches.”
“I don’t need crutches, Mom, and I’m not using them.”
“But the physical therapist said—”
“Please. He’s not here, and I know what I can do.”
She walked without a limp into her apartment. Simon, her British neighbor, was waiting. He had been caring for Frankie, the Frenchie, and when Lacy saw her dog she slowly bent to her knees and grabbed him.
“How do I look?” Lacy asked Simon.
“Well, pretty good, I’d say, in spite of it all. I suppose things could be worse.”
“You should’ve seen me a week ago.”
“It’s good seeing you now, Lacy. We’ve been quite worried.”
“Let’s have some tea.”
It was exhilarating to be out of the hospital, and Lacy chattered away as Simon and Ann listened and laughed. The conversation stayed clear of Hugo and the accident. There would be enough of that later. Lacy hit her stride telling Gunther stories, all of which seemed even funnier now that he was gone.
Ann kept saying, “His father raised him, not me.”
Throughout the afternoon, Lacy called friends, napped off and on, stretched and exercised precisely as told, laid off the painkillers, nibbled on nuts and fruit bars, and looked at a few of her work files.
At 4:00 p.m., Michael arrived for a meeting and Ann went to the nearest mall. Claiming to have a stiff back, Michael said he needed to stay on his feet. So he paced, back and forth along the wide front window of her apartment, walking and talking, a man troubled by his thoughts. “Are you sure you don’t want to take a leave of absence?” he asked. “We can cover your salary for thirty days.”
“And what would I do for thirty days around here, Michael? Pull my hair out just as it starts sprouting?”
“You need the rest. The doctors said so.”
“Forget it,” she said bluntly. “I’m not calling time-out. I’ll be at the office next week, scars and all.”
“That’s what I figured. Have you talked to Verna?”
“No. You discouraged it, remember?”
“Right. Nothing has changed since Sunday. She’s out of money, of course, no surprise there, and eager to collect the life insurance.”
“You know his salary, Michael. They were living week to week. Can we help in some way?”
“I don’t think so. None of us are exactly overpaid. Plus, it’s a big family. She’ll survive until the checks arrive. Long term, though, it’s going to be rough with four kids and half a salary.”
“Unless the lawsuits work.”
“A big unknown.” He stopped for a sip of water. She was reclining on the sofa, exhausted after her first few hours of freedom. He said, “We have two weeks, Lacy. Two weeks to either serve the complaint on McDover or let it lapse. Do you still want the case or should I give it to Justin?”
“It’s mine, Michael, all mine, especially now.”
“Why am I not surprised? Frankly, I don’t think Justin is quite ready for it, nor does he want it. Can’t blame him for that.”
“I’m keeping it.”
“Fine, then do you have a plan? As it now stands, the complaint, signed by our pal Greg Myers, who is in hiding and had better remain so, alleges bribery in the form of the ownership of four condos in Rabbit Run, properties given to McDover by developers in return for favorable rulings. The complaint has very few specifics and no evidence. It gives the names of the foreign companies that are the official owners, but we have no way of proving that she is involved in the background. We can walk in with subpoenas and take her files and records and such, but I seriously doubt we’ll learn much. If the criminal activity is as sophisticated as Myers says it is, then I find it difficult to believe McDover would leave any of her dirty records where they might be found. So, it’s probably best to save the subpoenas for later. McDover will lawyer up and bring in more legal talent than I care to think about. It will become a slugfest where every move we make is hotly contested by the other side. And, in the end, there’s an excellent chance McDover can prove that she purchased the condos as investments, something not unheard of in Florida.”
“You don’t sound too enthused, Michael.”
“I’m never enthused by one of our cases, but we really have no choice. By now both of us believe Myers. We believe what’s in the complaint and we believe his other stories of wholesale corruption, money laundering, bribery, not to mention murder.”
“Well, now that you mentioned murder, let’s talk about it. There was a gang involved, Michael. First, the informant who lured us to a spot deep inside the reservation, then vanished in mid-sentence. Second, the guy driving the truck. Third, his partner who joined him at the scene, took our cell phones, then gave him a ride in the getaway car. Add the guy who stole the truck. Somebody tampered with the seat belts and air bags in my car. So if you have that many foot soldiers there must be a brain or two calling the shots. That adds up to a gang. If we assume it’s Dubose, and I’m at a loss to give you the name of another suspect, then it sounds like the type of violence that’s right down his alley. Hugo was murdered, Michael, and we can’t solve it. I doubt seriously if the Tappacola can either.”
“Are you suggesting the FBI?”
“You and I both know that’s where it’s going, eventually. The question is when. If we invite them to the party now, then we run the risk of alienating Greg Myers, who’s still the most important player here because of the mole. If Myers gets mad and disappears, we lose a source that cannot be replaced. A great source who might possibly one day break the case. So we wait. We serve the complaint and McDover will lawyer up as you say, but she will not know what we know. She and Dubose will assume that we believe poor Hugo was killed by a drunk driver and I got hit in the cross fire. They’ll assume we know nothing about her fondness for private jets, expensive travel, trips to New York, Singapore, Barbados, you name it. They will not have a clue that we suspect Phyllis Turban even exists. All we have is this one rather lame little complaint signed by a guy they’ve never heard of and can’t find.”
“So why do we bother with it?” Michael asked. She was definitely back, her mind clicking right along. Post-concussion, post-swelling, there obviously was no damage. As always, she raked in the facts quicker than anyone and looked around corners for the big picture.
“Two reasons, and both of equa
l importance,” she said. “First, to keep Myers happy and busy digging. If we break this case, Michael, it will likely come down to the dirt provided by the mole, who knows a lot and has access to our judge. Second, we need to watch McDover’s reaction to the complaint. Myers is probably right. She has no idea of what’s coming. For the past eleven years she and Dubose have had their way bulldozing the county, skimming cash from the casino, bribing anyone who raised an eyebrow, breaking legs, or worse. The money has been too easy and it’s probably deadened their senses. Think of it, Michael, the cash has been flowing for eleven years and no one with authority has ever come snooping around. We show up with the complaint and it rocks their world.”
Geismar stopped pacing and stared at a funky creation with four mismatched legs. “A chair?” he asked.
“Indeed, a Philippe Starck knockoff.”
“He live around here?”
“No, he does not. It works. Have a seat.”
Slowly, Michael settled into the chair and seemed surprised when it did not collapse. He gazed out the window and saw the Capitol in the distance. “Nice view.”
“That’s my plan,” she said. “Do you have a different one?”
“No, not now.”
By Wednesday, Lacy was bored and contemplating a return to work. Her face looked much better but she was still reluctant to be seen by her colleagues. Ann shopped and ran errands and did whatever Lacy wanted, but she was getting bored too. She drove Lacy to the grocery store and to a doctor’s appointment. She drove her to the office of an insurance adjuster who handed over a check for the Prius, a total loss. Ann was a terrible driver and poked along regardless of the traffic. Lacy was numb with fear of moving vehicles, and her mother’s dangerous driving didn’t help matters.
Lacy was sleeping well and without pain medication. Her physical therapy was progressing nicely and her appetite was returning. So it was no surprise when Ann announced over Wednesday dinner that she needed to go home. Very diplomatically, Lacy encouraged this. She appreciated her mother’s care and concern, but she was clearly on the mend and tired of the babysitting. She wanted her space all to herself.
More important, she’d met someone, a physical therapist who’d dropped by late Tuesday for a quick session, one carefully observed by Ann. His name was Rafe and he was in his mid-twenties, a good ten years younger, which didn’t bother Lacy at all. There was a spark or two as he worked on her knee, and perhaps another as he said good-bye. He did not seem the least bit bothered by her cuts and bruises. She e-mailed him a short hey-howdy Wednesday night, and he responded within an hour. Back and forth a few times, and it was established that neither was in a relationship and both were interested in a drink.
At last, Lacy thought, maybe something good might come from this catastrophe.
In bed, flipping through a magazine, Lacy was startled by an e-mail from Verna. It read,
Lacy—Sorry not to have written or called sooner. I hope you’re doing fine and recuperating. I’m so relieved your injuries were not as bad as they could have been. Me, I’m hanging on by a thread. Actually, I am completely overwhelmed with anything and everything. The kids are a mess and refuse to go to school. Pippin cries even more. At times they’re all crying and I want to give up. But I refuse to break down in front of them. They need someone to be strong, so I just go hide in the shower and bawl my eyes out. I can barely survive each day and I hate the thought of tomorrow. Tomorrow without Hugo. Next week, next month, next year without Hugo. I cannot comprehend the future. The present is a nightmare. The past seems so long ago and so happy that it makes me sick. My mother is here, along with my sister, so I’m getting plenty of help with the kids. But nothing is real; everything seems artificial. They can’t stay so they’ll leave soon and I’ll be here with four kids and no husband. I’d like to see you but not now. I need some time. When I think of you I think of Hugo and the way he died. Sorry. Please, just give me some time. Don’t answer right now. Verna
Lacy read it twice and went back to her magazine. She would think about Verna tomorrow.
Ann finally got away late Thursday morning, several hours after Lacy had hoped. Wonderfully alone for the first time in ten days, she fell onto the sofa with Frankie and enjoyed the stillness. She closed her eyes and heard nothing, and it was lovely. Then she thought of Verna and of all the horrible sounds echoing through the Hatch home—crying kids and ringing phones and kinfolk shuffling in and out. She felt guilty for the contrast.
She closed her eyes and was about to catch a wink when Frankie growled softly. There was a man standing at her door.
Lacy went to the front window for a closer look. The door was locked. She felt safe. One quick push of a button on the security panel and all manner of alarms would erupt. The man was vaguely familiar—deep tan, lots of long gray hair.
Mr. Greg Myers, she decided. On dry land.
She spoke through the intercom. “Hello.”
His voice was familiar. “Looking for Lacy Stoltz,” he said.
“And who are you?”
“Last name is Myers.”
She opened the door with a grin and said hello. As he stepped inside, she scanned the parking lot and noticed nothing unusual.
“Where’s the Panama hat and gaudy shirt?” she asked.
“I save that for the boat. What happened to all that beautiful hair?”
She pointed to the ugly scar on her head. “Twenty-four stitches and still pretty sore.”
“You look great, Lacy. I was so afraid you were badly injured. The newspapers have not said much about your condition, only that you had a head injury.”
“Have a seat. I assume you want a beer.”
“No, I’m driving. Just some water.”
She pulled two bottles of fizzy water out of the fridge and they sat at a small table in the breakfast nook. “So you’ve kept up through the papers?” she asked.
“Yes, an old habit, I suppose. Since I live on a boat I need some contact with reality.”
“I haven’t looked at a newspaper since the wreck.”
“You haven’t missed much. As for you and Hugo, they’ve already moved on.”
“I’m assuming I was easy to find here.”
“Quite. You’re not trying to hide, are you?”
“No. I’m not living like that, Greg. I’m not afraid.”
“Must be nice. Look, Lacy, I’ve just driven five hours from Palm Harbor. I want to know what happened. You gotta tell me. It wasn’t an accident, was it?”
“No, it wasn’t.”
“Okay. I’m listening.”
“We’ll talk, but first a question. Do you still use the same phones you were using a month ago?”
He thought for a second and said, “One of them.”
“And where is it right now?”
“On the boat. Palm Harbor.”
“Is Carlita on the boat?”
“Can you call Carlita right now, tell her to get the phone and toss it overboard? Now! You have no choice.”
“Sure.” Myers whipped out a burner and did as instructed. When he ended the call, he said, “Okay, what was that all about?”
“It’s part of the story.”
“Let’s hear it.”
Throughout the narrative, Myers at times showed remorse, and at times seemed indifferent to the tragedy. “What a mistake,” he mumbled more than once as Lacy described taking the bait from the informant.
“Was there an autopsy?” he asked. As far as Lacy knew, an autopsy had never been mentioned.
“No. Why would they do an autopsy?”
“I don’t know. Just curious.”
Lacy closed her eyes and began tapping her forehead as if in a trance.
“What is it?” Myers asked.
“He had a light, a light on his head, like a miner or something.”
“I guess. I can see it now.
He looked at me through my window,