The whistler, p.11
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       The Whistler, p.11
 

           John Grisham

  Lacy said, “This could be interesting.”

  Geismar fell into his swivel and locked his hands behind his head. “Nothing else?”

  “No, but he wants to meet tonight. Said he works a late shift and is not free until after 9:00 p.m.”

  “You think he’s for real?” Geismar asked.

  “Who knows? He certainly sounded nervous and he used two different phones, probably disposable. He repeatedly asked me about secrecy and wanted to know how we can protect his identity. He said a lot of his people are fed up with the corruption but afraid to talk.”

  “Where does he want to meet?” Lacy asked.

  “He lives not far from the casino, on the reservation. He said he’ll find a spot and call us when we get close.”

  “We gotta be careful here,” Geismar said. “This could be a setup.”

  “I don’t think so,” Hugo said. “I got the impression I was talking to a guy who needs help and wants to help.”

  “Which cell phone are you using?”

  “BJC’s. I know the rules, Boss.”

  “Okay, how did he get your number?” Geismar asked. “So far, in this investigation, who have you given your numbers to? Both of you.”

  Hugo and Lacy looked at each other and tried to remember. She said, “Myers, Junior Mace, the authorities at the prison, Wilton Mace, Razko’s widow, Al Bennett, the lawyer who ran against McDover five years ago, Naylor at the Gaming Commission, and I think that’s it.”

  “That’s all,” Hugo said. “Driving in, I asked myself the same question.”

  “Sounds like enough to spring a leak,” Geismar said.

  “But none of those people are even remotely involved with Dubose and the corruption,” Lacy said.

  “As far as we know,” Hugo said.

  “So, you want to go?” Geismar asked.

  “Of course we’re going,” Lacy said.

  Geismar stood and walked to his narrow window. He said, “This could be the break. Someone on the inside.”

  “We’re going,” Lacy said.

  “Okay, but please be careful.”

  —

  They sat in Lacy’s car at the far end of the casino parking lot until almost 11:00 p.m., waiting for the informant to check in. It was a Monday night, a slow evening at the tables and slots. Hugo, of course, catnapped while Lacy was online with her iPad. At 10:56, he called with directions. They left the casino, drove two miles along a dark, narrow, winding road, and stopped at an abandoned metal building. An ancient portable sign informed them that it had once been a bingo hall. One home was visible in the distance. The bright lights of Treasure Key were far away. The night was hot and sticky and thick with mosquitoes. Hugo got out of the car and stretched his legs. At six feet two and two hundred pounds, and still with the all-American’s cockiness, he did not scare easily. Lacy was comforted by his presence. She would not have made the trip alone. Hugo redialed the most recent number but there was no answer.

  Something moved in the shadows along the side of the building. “Hello,” Hugo called into the darkness. Lacy got out of the car.

  A voice said, “Take a few steps this way.” A silhouette was partially visible and not moving. The man was wearing a cap and the red ember of a cigarette moved back and forth from his mouth. Together they inched forward until he said, “That’s far enough. You’re not going to see my face.”

  “Well, I guess you can see ours, right?” Hugo said.

  “That’s far enough. You are Mr. Hatch, right?”

  “That’s right.”

  “Who’s the girl?”

  “My name is Lacy Stoltz. We’re colleagues.”

  “You didn’t tell me you were bringing a woman out here.”

  “You didn’t ask,” Hugo shot back. “She’s my partner and we’re working together.”

  “I don’t like this.”

  “Too bad.”

  A pause as he took a puff and sized them up. He cleared his throat, spat, and said, “I understand you’re hot on the trail of Judge McDover.”

  “We work for the Florida Board on Judicial Conduct,” Lacy said. “We’re lawyers, not cops. Our job is to investigate complaints against judges.”

  “That judge needs to be in prison, along with a bunch of others.” His voice was quick and nervous. He blew a lungful of smoke and the cloud drifted into the thick air.

  “You said you work in the casino,” Hugo said.

  A long pause, then, “That’s right. What do you know about the judge?”

  Lacy said, “A complaint has been filed alleging some bad behavior. We’re not at liberty to go into details.”

  “Bad behavior, huh?” he said and offered a nervous laugh. He flicked the cigarette to the ground, where it glowed for a second. “Can you guys arrest people or are you just, you know, like, sticking your noses into this business?”

  Hugo said, “No, we don’t arrest people.”

  Another nervous laugh from the shadows. “Then I’m wasting my time. I need to talk to somebody with some clout.”

  Lacy said, “We have the authority to investigate and remove a judge if necessary.”

  “The judge is not the biggest problem here.”

  They waited for more but got nothing but silence. They strained to see the silhouette but it had apparently vanished. The man had eased away. Hugo took a few steps closer and said, “Are you there?” No response.

  “That’s far enough,” Lacy whispered. “I think he’s gone.”

  A few seconds passed in the uneasy stillness, and Hugo said, “I think you’re right.”

  “I don’t like this. Let’s get out of here.”

  They quickly opened their doors and got in the car. As she backed away, Lacy swept the side of the building with her headlights. No sign of anyone. She turned onto the road and headed in the direction of the casino. “Pretty strange,” Hugo said. “We could have had that conversation on the phone.”

  Headlights approached in the distance.

  “You think I scared him away?” she asked.

  “Who knows? If he’s legit, then he’s thinking about passing on information that could ruin some people. Naturally, he’s reluctant. I guess he got cold feet and ran.”

  Hugo tapped his waist and said, “This seat belt has come unlatched again. That’s the third time tonight. Why don’t you get it fixed?”

  Lacy glanced over and was about to say something when Hugo screamed. Blinding lights were in their lane. A pickup truck had crossed the center line. The collision was head-on, bumper to bumper, with a force so violent that her Prius went airborne and spun 180 degrees. At six thousand pounds and twice the weight of the Prius, the truck, a Dodge Ram 2500, got the better end of the collision. It came to rest on the shoulder of the narrow road, its mangled front end almost in a shallow ditch.

  The air bag in the steering wheel exploded onto Lacy’s chest and into her face, and knocked her dizzy. The crown of her head struck the ceiling of the Prius as it caved in, cutting a nasty gash across her skull. The air bag on the passenger’s side failed to open. With no seat belt and no air bag, Hugo smashed into the windshield, shattering it with his head and shoulders. The glass ripped his face to shreds and opened a long cut on his neck.

  Glass and metal and wreckage sprayed the scene. The right front tire of the truck was spinning. Its driver slowly got out, removed his black motorcycle helmet and pads, and checked behind him. Another pickup was slowing down. He stretched his legs, rubbed his left knee, and walked with a limp to the front of the smashed Prius for a quick look. He saw the lady, her face covered with blood, her air bag draped before her, and he saw the black guy bleeding from his many injuries. He loitered for a moment, then stumbled away and climbed into the second pickup, where he waited and rubbed his leg. He noticed his nose was bleeding. Its driver got behind the wheel and they drove away, slowly, all lights off. The pickup turned into a field, and disappeared. No 911 call was made.

  The nearest house was half a mile down the road. It
was owned by the Beale family, and Iris Beale, the wife and mother, heard the collision, though initially she had no idea what had happened. But she was convinced it was unusual and needed looking into. She woke up her husband, Sam, and forced him to throw on some clothes and check things out. By the time Sam arrived on the scene, another car had stopped. Within minutes, sirens were heard and flashing lights came into view as two cars from the Tappacola Police Department arrived. They were followed by two units from the Tappacola Fire and Rescue. Almost immediately, a medevac helicopter was called from the nearest regional hospital in Panama City.

  Hugo was extracted by removing what was left of the windshield and easing him through the opening. He was still alive but unconscious and with hardly a pulse. Hydraulic jacks were used to rip off the driver’s door and remove Lacy, who was trying to speak but uttering only unintelligible grunts. She was placed in an ambulance and sent off to the tribe’s clinic near the casino. There, she would wait on the helicopter. She lost consciousness en route to the center, so did not hear the news that Hugo had died. She would make the short flight to the hospital without her colleague.

  At the scene, the police went about their business of taking photographs, videos, and measurements, and looking for witnesses. Evidently, there were none. Nor was there a driver for the pickup truck. The driver’s side air bag had been fully deployed. There was no sign of blood or injuries, but a broken bottle of whiskey was found on the passenger’s side floorboard. The driver had simply vanished. Even before the truck was towed away, the police knew it had been stolen six hours earlier from a shopping center in Foley, Alabama. Lacy’s Prius was loaded onto a flatbed tow truck and taken to a holding yard near the tribe’s administration complex.

  Hugo’s body was taken to the tribe’s medical facility and placed in a frigid room in the basement where an occasional body was held. Across the street, the constable, Lyman Gritt, sat at his desk and stared at a small collection of Hugo’s things—keys on a ring, folded dollar bills, some change, and a wallet. A sergeant sat on the other side of the desk, equally as mum. Neither volunteered to make the phone call.

  The constable finally opened the wallet and removed one of Hugo’s business cards. He went online and found BJC’s website and tracked down Michael Geismar. “He should make the phone call, right?” asked the constable. “After all, he knows Mr. Hatch, and probably knows his family.”

  “Good idea,” said the sergeant.

  At 2:20, Michael answered the phone and was met with “I’m so sorry to call, but I believe you work with Mr. Hugo Hatch. I’m the constable for the Tappacola tribe, over in Brunswick County.”

  Michael stumbled to his feet as his wife turned on a light. “Yes! What’s happened?”

  “There’s been an accident, a bad car wreck, and Mr. Hatch has been killed. Someone needs to notify his family.”

  “What? Are you serious? No, you can’t be serious. Who is this?”

  “My name is Constable Lyman Gritt, sir, the chief law enforcement officer for the tribe. I assure you I’m serious. The accident happened on our reservation about two hours ago. The young lady, Lacy Stoltz, has been taken to the hospital in Panama City.”

  “I don’t believe this.”

  “I’m sorry, sir. Does he have a family?”

  “Does he have a family? Yes, Mr. Gritt, he has a family, a pretty young wife and four small children. Yes, a family. This is unreal.”

  “I’m sorry, sir. Can you notify them?”

  “Me? Why me? This can’t be happening. How do I know this is not some prank or something?”

  “Sir, you can go to our website and check me out. You can call the hospital in Panama City. The lady should be there by now. But I promise you this terrible news is real, and it won’t be long before some news reporter finds out and calls the family.”

  “Okay, okay. Just let me think for a second.”

  “Take your time, sir.”

  “And Lacy is okay?”

  “I don’t know, sir. She’s injured but she’s alive.”

  “Okay. Sure, I’ll drive over now. Give me your phone number just in case.”

  “Certainly, sir, and if we can help in any way, please call.”

  “Sure. And thanks. I know this can’t be easy.”

  “No, sir. It is not. A question, sir. Were they working on our reservation last night?”

  “Yes, they were. They certainly were.”

  “May I ask why? I am the constable.”

  “I’m sorry, maybe later.”

  —

  Geismar stayed with Verna Hatch and the children until her mother arrived, then fled the house as quickly as possible. He would forever live with the horror, the shock, the agony, the sheer madness of the family hearing the news that Hugo would not be coming home, and then trying to convince each other that it simply could not be true. At times he was the villain, the hated messenger unduly burdened with the task of convincing them that Hugo was in fact dead.

  He had never experienced such raw, emotional devastation, nor would he ever again endure such a nightmare. He caught himself weeping as he left Tallahassee in the predawn hours. He arrived in Panama City just after 6:00 a.m.

  13

  Lacy was stable but still unconscious. The initial diagnosis included a gash to the left side of her head that required twenty-four stitches, a concussion that was causing swelling of the brain, abrasions on her face, the result of the violent sliding contact with the air bag, and small cuts on her neck, left shoulder, left elbow, hand, and knee. Her head was shaved and her doctors decided to keep her in an induced coma for at least twenty-four hours. One of them explained to Geismar that it would be a day or two before they could assess further damage, but he saw nothing, so far, that could be considered life threatening.

  Her mother, Ann Stoltz, arrived from Clearwater at 8:00 a.m., along with Ann’s sister, Trudy, and her husband, Ronald. They huddled with Michael, who passed along all the information he had, which wasn’t much.

  Once they were settled, Michael left and drove to the reservation. He waited half an hour at the police station until Lyman Gritt arrived for work. The constable explained that they were still investigating the accident but this much was known: The collision obviously happened when the truck crossed the center line and struck the Prius. The truck was stolen and was registered to a man in Alabama. No sign of the driver, but it appeared as though he had been drinking. No one saw him leave the scene and they had found no trace of him. The passenger’s side air bag did not deploy and Mr. Hatch was not wearing a seat belt. His injuries were substantial, he had an obvious head injury, and he appeared to have bled to death. “Would you like to see the photographs?”

  “Maybe later.”

  “Would you like to see the vehicles?”

  “Yes, I would,” Michael replied.

  “Okay, we’ll do that and I’ll take you to the scene.”

  “There seem to be quite a few unanswered questions.”

  “We’re still investigating, sir,” Gritt said. “Perhaps you could shed some light on their activities here last night.”

  “Perhaps, but not yet. We’ll get to that later.”

  “An investigation will require full cooperation, sir. I need to know everything. What were they doing here?”

  “I can’t give you those details right now,” Geismar said, fully aware that he was only adding to the suspicion. At that moment, though, he couldn’t afford to trust anyone. “Look, a man has been killed in a very suspicious car wreck. I need your word that the vehicles will be impounded and preserved until someone can examine them.”

  “Someone? Who do you have in mind, sir?”

  “I’m not sure.”

  “Need I remind you that this happened on Tappacola land and we do the investigating around here? No one looks over our shoulder.”

  “Sure, I understand that. I’m just a bit rattled, okay? Give me some time to think this through.”

  Gritt stood and walked to a table i
n the corner of his office. “Take a look at this stuff,” he said. In the center of the table there was a large, stylish lady’s handbag and next to it was a set of keys. Two feet away was a wallet and keys. Michael stepped closer and stared at them. Gritt said, “When there is a fatality, we normally go through the personal effects and make an inventory.
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