The whistler, p.10
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       The Whistler, p.10
 

           John Grisham

  yes, ladies and gentlemen, I think we finally have a glimpse of the elusive Vonn Dubose. He was carrying a brown leather satchel that appeared to be filled with something. As he pressed the doorbell, he glanced around, and did not appear to be the least bit nervous. She let him in. He stayed thirty-six minutes, and when he reappeared he was carrying what looked like the same bag, though by the way he carried it, he might have left something behind. Can’t really tell. He got in his vehicle and left. Fifteen minutes later, she did the same. This meeting takes place, as I said, on the first Wednesday of every month, and we are led to believe it is prearranged without the benefit of phones or e-mail.”

  Myers shoved his empty shrimp basket aside, took another swallow, and from his ever-present olive-colored leather courier bag removed two unmarked files. He glanced around and handed one file to Lacy and one to Hugo. All the photos were eight by ten and in color, and apparently taken from across the street. Number one was the rear of the Lexus with the license plate clearly identifiable.

  Greg said, “Of course I checked the tags; car’s registered to our gal Claudia McDover, evidently one of the few assets in her name. Purchased new last year from a dealer in Pensacola.”

  Number two was full length of Claudia, her face partially hidden behind large sunglasses. Lacy studied her four-inch heels and asked, “How do you know who designed the shoes?”

  “The mole knows,” Myers said, and left it at that.

  Number three was Claudia with her back to the camera as she opened the front door, presumably with a key, though one was not visible. Number four was the black Mercedes SUV parked beside the Lexus, its license plate also clearly visible. Myers said, “It’s registered to a man whose address is a high-rise condo near Destin, and not surprisingly his name is not Vonn Dubose. We’re still digging. Take a look at number five.”

  Number five was the man himself, a nice-looking, well-tanned Florida retiree in a golf shirt and golf slacks, thin and balding with a gold watch on his left wrist. Myers said, “To my knowledge, and I have no idea what’s in the FBI files, but I suspect they have nothing, this is the only photo of Vonn Dubose.”

  “Who took it?” Lacy asked.

  “Guy with a camera. It’s also on video. Let’s just say the mole is resourceful.”

  “Not good enough, Greg,” Lacy shot back with a flash of anger. “It’s obvious someone is watching McDover’s movements. Who is it? You’re still playing cat and mouse and I’d like to know why.”

  Hugo said, “Look, Greg, we need to trust you, but we have to know what you know. Someone is following McDover. Who the hell is it?”

  Out of habit, and an irritating one, Myers glanced around again, saw things were still clear, removed his aviator shades, and said in a low voice, “I get my information from the middleman, still unnamed as far as you’re concerned. He deals with the mole, whose name I still don’t know and I’m still not sure I want to know. When the mole has something important to pass along, the middleman tracks me down, hands it over, I give it to you. I’m sorry if you don’t like this arrangement, but please keep in mind that the mole and the middleman and me and you and everyone involved in this little story could easily wake up dead one day, with a bullet between the eyes. I don’t care if you trust me or not. My job is to pass along enough information to help you nail Judge Claudia McDover. What else do you need?” A quick sip from his sweaty mug, and, “Now, please return to photo number five. We don’t know if this guy is Vonn Dubose, but let’s assume he is. Check out his bag. Brown leather, large, more of a satchel than a briefcase, well worn, or maybe just the distressed look that’s currently popular, and not small. This is no thin attaché containing a couple of files. No, this bag is being used to carry something. What? Well, our guy speculates that McDover and Dubose meet on the first Wednesday of each month for an exchange. Why would Dubose, who’s dressed like a golfer, need a rather significant bag this late in the day? He’s obviously delivering something. Check out photo number six. It was taken thirty-six minutes after number five. Same guy, same bag. If you study the video, you can argue that the bag possibly weighs less just by the way he moves with it. Frankly, I can’t tell.”

  “So he takes her the cash once a month,” Lacy said.

  “He takes something to the condo.”

  “How recent are these photos?” Hugo asked.

  “Twelve days ago, August 3.”

  “But there’s no way to verify if this is really Vonn Dubose?” Lacy asked.

  “Not to my knowledge. Again, Dubose has never been arrested. He has no criminal record, no identity. He uses only cash for living expenses. He hides behind underlings and associates and leaves no trail. We’ve done some digging, and I’m sure you have too, and there’s no driver’s license, Social Security number, or passport issued to a Vonn Dubose, anywhere in this country. He has a driver, as we can see. He could be living as Joe Blow for all we know, with perfect papers.”

  Myers reached into his trick bag and pulled out two more files. He handed one to Hugo and one to Lacy, who asked, “What’s this?”

  “A detailed summary of McDover’s travel over the past seven years. Dates, places, chartered jets, and so on. She almost always goes with her buddy Phyllis Turban, who hires the jets and pays the bills. Turban also books the rooms when they use hotels. She handles all the details. Nothing, so far, is in McDover’s name.”

  “And why is this valuable?” Lacy asked.

  “By itself, it’s not that useful, but it does lend credence to the theory that these high-flying gals spend a shit pot full of money jetting around the country, presumably buying valuable things with dirty cash. Their combined earnings would not cover the cost of the jet fuel. We know the judge’s salary. I can guess what Turban nets, and I’ll bet it’s less than McDover’s take-home. There might come a time when it’s necessary to build a case based on net worth and consumption and assets, so I’m gathering all the dirt I can find.”

  Hugo said, “Please keep digging. We need plenty of help.”

  “You’re not serious about dismissing my complaint. I mean, hell, look at the photos. How can you argue she doesn’t own this condo when she’s been going there for at least seven years and she has the key? It’s registered to a shell in Belize and it’s worth, on today’s market, at least a million.”

  “Does she ever spend the night there, or entertain?” Lacy asked.

  “Don’t think so.”

  “I checked it out last week,” Hugo said. “Played golf and took photos from the fairway.”

  Myers shot him a quizzical look. “What did you learn?”

  “Absolutely nothing. A complete waste of time, like most rounds of golf.”

  “Try bonefishing. It’s much more fun.”

  —

  As Lacy was painting her toenails near the end of a Cary Grant movie, her phone buzzed with an unknown caller. A voice told her it might be Myers, and the voice was right.

  “Breaking news,” he said. “Tomorrow is Friday.”

  “How’d you guess?”

  “Hang on. Looks like the girls are headed to New York. Claudia will catch a jet at the airport at Panama City around noon, exact time doesn’t matter because when you lease a jet you leave when you want. Lear 60, tail number N38WW, owned and operated by a charter company based in Mobile. Presumably, her lawyer pal will be on board and they’re off to New York for fun and games, probably with a sackful of cash to do some serious shopping. In case you don’t know, there’s virtually no security with private jet travel. No scanners for bags or body searches. I guess the smart guys at Homeland Security figure rich people have little interest in blowing up their own jets en route. Anyway, you could literally pack a hundred pounds of pure heroin and fly anywhere domestically.”

  “Interesting, but where’s the payoff ?”

  “If I were you, and if I had nothing better to do, I’d be hanging around the general aviation terminal, it’s called Gulf Aviation, and have a look. I’d keep Hugo in the
car because you don’t see too many black folks in the charter business so he might stand out. I’d also keep him in the car with a camera to take a few photos. Maybe Phyllis will get off the plane for a pit stop in the girls’ room. Who knows? You might learn a lot and you can certainly see who you’re dealing with.”

  “Would I be conspicuous?”

  “Lacy, dear, you’re always conspicuous. You’re too pretty not to be. Wear some jeans, pull your hair back, try different glasses. You’ll be okay. There’s a lounge area with magazines and newspapers and people sit there all the time. If anybody asks, just say you’re waiting on a passenger. The place is open to the public so you won’t be trespassing. I’d take a good look at Claudia. See what she’s wearing, but also what she’s taking with her. I wouldn’t expect to see pockets stuffed with cash, but there might be an extra bag or two. Sort of a lark but not a bad way to spend some time. Personally, I’d like the chance to bump into a Florida gal who just happens to be the most corrupt judge in the history of America. And one who will soon be all over the front page, though she hasn’t a clue. Go for it.”

  “We’ll give it a try.”

  11

  Judge McDover parked close to the space where Hugo sat rather awkwardly in Lacy’s Prius, his face hidden behind a newspaper, his camera by his side. To go with his collection of thoroughly useless photos of the east nine at Rabbit Run, he could now add a few shots of a Lear 60 out there on the tarmac. As Claudia rolled her small suitcase across the parking lot and headed for the front door of Gulf Aviation, he snapped a few of her backside. At fifty-six, she was slender and, at least from the rear, could pass for a lady twenty years younger. Actually, he had to admit, from this angle she looked better than Verna, who, after child number four, was struggling to drop the weight. He simply couldn’t stop the habit of staring at the backsides of all nicely shaped females.

  After she disappeared inside, Hugo put away his camera and his newspaper and fell asleep.

  —

  After years in crime, Claudia McDover had gradually learned how to think like a suspect. She noticed everything, from the black guy sitting in the passenger’s seat of the small Toyota reading a newspaper, which seemed a bit odd at noon, to the cute redhead who worked the front desk and gave her a big smile, to the harried business guy in the dark suit whose flight was obviously late, to the pretty girl on the sofa flipping through a copy of Vanity Fair. She seemed a bit out of place. In a matter of seconds Claudia sized up the lobby, deemed it safe and clear, and filed away all the faces. In her world, every phone could be tapped, every stranger could be watching, every letter could be violated, every e-mail could be hacked. But she wasn’t paranoid and did not live in fear. She was only cautious, and after years of practice her caution was second nature.

  A young man in a crisp uniform stepped forward, introduced himself as one of the pilots, and took her suitcase. The cute redhead hit a button, the doors slid open, and Claudia left the terminal. Such exits, though short on drama and unwitnessed by the world, still gave her a thrill. While the masses queued up in endless lines and waited for flights that were crowded, delayed, or canceled, and finally, if lucky, were then herded like cattle onto dirty airplanes packed with seats far too narrow for modern American rumps, she, Judge Claudia McDover of Florida’s Twenty-Fourth Judicial District, strolled like a queen to her private jet, where the champagne was on ice and the flight would be on time and nonstop.

  Phyllis was waiting. Once the pilots were strapped in and busy with their routines, Claudia gave her a kiss and held her hand. After takeoff, and once the jet leveled off at thirty-eight thousand feet, Phyllis popped the cork on a bottle of Veuve Clicquot and they toasted, as always, the Tappacola tribe.

  They had met during their second year of law school at Stetson, and the similarities had been remarkable. Both were reeling from terrible first marriages. Both had chosen law school for the wrong reasons. Claudia had been wiped out and humiliated by her husband and his nasty lawyers and was plotting revenge. Phyllis’s divorce decree required her ex to cover the cost of her continued education. She chose med school to drag things out as long as possible, but bombed the MCAT. She turned to law school and clipped him for three more years of postgraduate study. She and Claudia began dating on the sly during their third year, then went their separate ways after graduation. They were women in a weak job market and grabbed what they could find. Claudia went to a small firm in a small town. Phyllis worked as a public defender in Mobile until she got tired of street criminals and found refuge in an office practice. Now that the Indians had made them rich, they traveled in style, lived in understated luxury, and were plotting their final getaway to a place yet to be determined.

  When the champagne was gone, both fell asleep. For seventeen years, Claudia had worked diligently at her job because she was, after all, always up for reelection. Phyllis, too, put in long hours in her busy little firm. They never had enough sleep. Two and a half hours after leaving Florida, the jet touched down at Teterboro, New Jersey, home to more private aircraft than any other airport in the world. A black town car was waiting and whisked them away. Twenty minutes later they arrived at their building in Hoboken, a sleek new high-rise on the Hudson, directly across the river from the financial district. From their perch on the fourteenth floor, they had a spectacular view of downtown Manhattan. Lady Liberty was only a stone’s throw away. The apartment was spacious and sparsely decorated. It was an investment, not a home, just a place to keep until they chose to flip it. It was, of course, owned by an offshore shell entity, this one domiciled in the Canary Islands.

  Phyllis took great delight in playing the international shell game, and was constantly moving money and companies around to find the hottest new tax haven. With time and experience, she had become an expert at hiding their money.

  After dark, they put on jeans and took a car into the city, to SoHo, where they dined at a tiny French bistro. Later, in a dimly lit bar, they sipped more champagne and giggled at how far they’d traveled, not just in distance, but in life.

  —

  The Armenian’s name was Papazian and they’d never known whether it was his first or last name. Not that it mattered. Their dealings were shrouded in secrecy. Neither side asked questions because no one wanted answers. He rang their doorbell at ten Saturday morning and, after the required pleasantries, opened his briefcase. On a small breakfast table he spread his dark blue felt and arranged his goodies—diamonds, rubies, and sapphires. As always, Phyllis served him a double espresso, which he sipped as he described each gem. After four years of doing business, they knew Papazian dealt in only the finest stones. He had a shop in midtown, where they had first met him, but now he was quite happy to make a house call. He had no clue who they were or where they came from. His only concern was the transaction, and the cash. In less than thirty minutes, they selected a fistful of his best—“portable wealth” as Phyllis liked to say—and handed over the money. He slowly counted $230,000 in $100 bills, mumbling all the while in his native tongue. When everyone was happy, he gulped down the last of his espresso, his second, and left their apartment.

  With the bulk of the dirty work out of the way, the girls got dressed and took a car into the city. They bought shoes at Barneys, had a long lunch at Le Bernardin, and eventually drifted to the diamond district, where they dropped in on one of their favorite dealers. With cash they bought a selection of new, uncirculated gold coins—Krugerrands from South Africa, Maple Leafs from Canada, and, to help the local economy, American Eagles. All cash, no paperwork, no records, no trail. The tiny shop had at least four surveillance cameras, and these had once been a concern. Someone somewhere might be watching, but those concerns had been set aside. In their business there were always risks. The trick was choosing which ones to accept.

  Saturday night they watched a musical on Broadway, dined afterward at Orso but saw no celebrities, and went to bed after midnight, content with another successful day of laundering. Late Sunday morning, t
hey packed their loot along with their handsome collection of new and horribly expensive shoes, and took a car back to Teterboro, where the jet was waiting for the return trip south.

  12

  Hugo was late for the meeting, and while they waited Geismar reviewed the new photos and the travel records as Lacy returned e-mails. “Any idea why these go back only seven years?” he asked.

  “None. Myers doesn’t know but speculates that the mole arrived on the scene at about that time. Obviously, the mole is someone close to McDover, and perhaps that’s when he or she got involved.”

  “Well, he or she is certainly spending some money. It’s hard to believe these photos could have been taken by someone sitting in a car on the street. It’s more likely that the photographer was inside one of the condos.”

  “There are four of them in a unit directly across the street,” Lacy said. “Two are available for rent, at a thousand a week. We are assuming he or she rented one, set up the camera, and knew precisely when McDover and Dubose would arrive. That’s some pretty serious intel.”

  “Indeed it is. Myers knows what he’s talking about, Lacy. These guys are doing some dirty business. Not sure we can prove it, but the evidence is looking stronger. What will McDover say when confronted with all this?”

  “I guess we’ll find out soon enough.”

  The door swung open and Hugo appeared. He said, “Sorry I’m late. Another rough night.” He tossed his briefcase on the table and took a sip from a tall coffee. “I would have been here sooner but I’ve been on the phone with a guy who won’t give me his name.”

  Geismar nodded, waiting, still holding one of the photos. Lacy said, “Okay?”

  “He called first around five this morning, a bit early but I just happened to be awake. Said he worked at the casino and had some information that might be useful. Said he knew we were investigating the tribe and the judge and he could help. I pressed a little and he hung up. About an hour ago, he called again, from a different number, and said he wanted to meet and talk about a deal. I asked what kind of deal and he got pretty vague. He said there was a lot of shady stuff going on and it was just a matter of time before it blew up. He’s a member of the tribe, knows the Chief and the folks who run the casino, and doesn’t want to get caught in the storm when it all hits the fan.”

  Hugo was pacing around the room, as was his habit of late. Sitting made him sleepy.

 
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