The whistler, p.12
The Whistler, p.12John Grisham
I haven’t done that yet. I opened the wallet only to retrieve a business card. That’s how I found you. I have not looked inside the purse.”
“Where are their cell phones?” Michael asked.
Gritt was already shaking his head. “No cell phones. We checked all of his pockets and searched the car and found none.”
“That’s impossible,” Michael said, stunned. “Someone took their cell phones.”
“Are you sure they had them?”
“Of course. Who doesn’t carry a cell phone? And their phones would have their most recent calls, including the ones to the guy they were supposed to meet.”
“And who was this guy?”
“I don’t know. I swear.” Michael was rubbing his eyes. He suddenly gasped and asked, “What about their briefcases?”
Gritt shook his head again. “No sign of briefcases.”
“I need to sit down.” Michael fell into a chair at the table and stared in shock at the personal effects.
“Would you like some water?” Gritt asked.
“Please.” The briefcases would have the files, and the files would have everything. A wave of nausea rolled through Michael as he thought of Vonn Dubose and Claudia McDover sifting through the paperwork. Photos of the four condos, photos of Vonn himself and Claudia going to and from their meeting, photos of the judge catching her flight to New York, all the detailed travel records, a copy of Greg Myers’s complaint, memos from Sadelle, everything. Everything.
Michael sipped water from a bottle and wiped sweat from his forehead. When he had gathered enough strength to stand he did so, and said, “Look, I’ll be back tomorrow to retrieve this stuff and look at the vehicles. Right now I need to get to the office. Please keep everything secure.”
“That’s our job, sir.”
“And I need to take her keys, if that’s okay.”
“I see no problem.”
Michael took the keys, thanked the constable, and walked outside. He called Justin Barrow at BJC and instructed him to go immediately to Lacy’s apartment and find the manager. Explain what had happened and that Lacy’s boss had the key and was on the way. Since they did not know the code to her security system they needed the manager to disarm it. He said, “Watch the apartment until I get there. Make sure no one comes and goes.”
Racing back to Tallahassee, Michael tried to convince himself that Lacy and Hugo, in all likelihood, would not have taken their briefcases with them. They would not have needed them, right? They were making a late-night rendezvous with an unknown witness. What good would the files have been? But then he knew they, like every other investigator, indeed every other lawyer, rarely went anywhere on business without the old trusty briefcase. He kicked himself for BJC’s rather lax policy on file security. Did they really have a policy? Since all of their cases were handled with utmost confidentiality, it was a matter of practice to keep the files secure. It went with the territory, and he’d never felt the need to remind his staff to guard things.
He stopped twice for coffee and to stretch his legs. He battled fatigue by staying on the phone. He called Justin, who was at Lacy’s apartment. The manager would not allow him inside until her boss arrived with her key. As he drove and gulped coffee, Geismar talked to two reporters who had called the office. He called Verna and spoke to a sister. Not surprisingly, she had little to say. Verna was in the bedroom with her two oldest children. He wanted to ask if someone could look for Hugo’s briefcase and cell phone, but the moment didn’t seem right. They had enough to worry about. His secretary put together a conference call with his staff and he answered as many questions as possible. Understandably, they were too shocked to work.
The manager insisted on being present when they entered Lacy’s apartment. Michael found the right key to the front door and opened it, and the manager quickly disarmed the security. Frankie, her French bulldog, was yelping for food and water and had made a mess in the kitchen. The manager said, “Okay, I’ll feed the damned thing while you guys hurry up.” As he looked for dog food, Michael and Justin went from room to room. Justin found Lacy’s briefcase on a chair in her bedroom. Michael carefully opened it and removed a legal pad and two files. They were the official BJC work files, each with the case number, and between the two they contained all the valuable paperwork. They found her iPhone recharging on a bathroom counter. They thanked the manager, who was wiping the floor and mumbling just loud enough to be heard, and left with the briefcase and the iPhone.
Next to his car, Michael said, “Look, Justin, I can’t go back over there. They associate me with the horrible news. You have to ask Verna for his briefcase and cell phone, okay? Tell her it’s crucial.”
Michael Geismar was the boss and Justin had little choice.
The Hatch home was easy to find because of the crowd. Cars lined both sides of the street and several men were loitering in the front yard, as if things were too crowded inside. Justin approached reluctantly and nodded to the men. They were polite but said little. One, a white guy in a shirt and tie, looked vaguely familiar. Justin explained to him that he worked with Hugo at BJC. The guy gave his name as Thomas and said he worked for the Attorney General’s Office. He and Hugo had studied together in law school and had remained close. Almost in a whisper, Justin explained the nature of his visit. It was imperative to locate and secure Hugo’s briefcase. It contained sensitive BJC files, and so on, and Thomas understood. And the cell phone issued by the office was missing. Was there a chance he left it at home? Thomas said, “Not likely,” and eased into the house.
Two women came out of the front door in tears and were comforted by their men. Judging by the number of cars lining the street, Justin knew the house was packed with stunned family and friends.
After an eternity, Thomas came through the front door, empty-handed. He and Justin walked to the edge of the street for a little privacy. Thomas said, “His briefcase is in there. I explained things to Verna and she allowed me to look through it. It appears to be in order, but she would not let me leave with it. I told her to make sure it was secure. I think she understands.”
“I’m not going to ask how she’s doing.”
“It’s awful. She’s in the bedroom with the two oldest kids, and she can barely talk. Hugo’s mother is laid out on a sofa. Aunts and uncles everywhere. There’s a doctor with them. It’s just awful.”
“No sign of a cell phone?”
“No, he had it with him. He called her last night around ten to check on things. I asked her if he had a personal cell phone and she said no. He used the BJC phone for everything.”
Justin took a deep breath and said, “Thanks. I’ll see you around.”
Driving away, Justin called Michael with the update.
Early in the afternoon, Hugo’s body was transported by hearse to a funeral home in Tallahassee, where it was prepared for burial, though Verna had not yet been able to finalize the details.
Lacy remained in intensive care throughout the day. Her vitals were strong and her doctors were pleased with her progress. Another scan revealed a slight improvement in the swelling, and if all went well, the doctors planned to ease her out of the coma in thirty-six to forty-eight hours. Lyman Gritt wanted to talk to her but was told to wait.
After a restless night in bed, Michael went to the office at dawn Wednesday and waited on Justin. Still sleepwalking through the nightmare, he read about Hugo on the front page of the morning newspaper. There were two photos—one a publicity shot of Hugo when he played for Florida State, and one in a coat and tie taken for the BJC website. Michael read the names of his four children and felt like crying again. The funeral would be Saturday, three days away. He could not imagine what a nightmare it would be.
He and Justin left at seven and drove to the reservation. Lyman Gritt had inventoried the contents of Hugo’s wallet, counted the money, and photographed everything. He asked Michael to sign an inventory sheet, then turne
“There will probably be litigation,” Michael said gravely, though he had no real knowledge of this. “So it’s imperative to preserve these vehicles just as they are. Is that a problem?”
“Of course not,” Gritt said.
“Plus the insurance companies will be involved and they’ll send out their adjusters.”
“We’ve been through this before, Mr. Geismar.”
“And you’ve searched everywhere for the cell phones?”
“As I said, we’ve looked everywhere and found nothing.”
Michael and Justin exchanged glances as if they were skeptical. They asked if they could take photographs and Gritt said he didn’t care. When they finished, they followed the constable to the county road where it happened. They looked around, tentatively at first, and were struck by the remoteness of the place. The perfect spot for an unwitnessed accident. They saw the Beale home in the distance, the old bingo shack not far away, and no other buildings.
Michael stared at the pavement and said, “No skid marks.”
“Not a one,” Gritt said. “She never had time to react. It looks to me like the truck crossed the center line and they hit right about here.” Gritt was standing in the center of the eastbound lane. “Her car was spun around and was facing that way. It did not leave this lane. The truck, which was of course much heavier, bounced over here and almost went into the ditch. Evidently, it veered quickly into her lane, before she could do anything.”
“Any estimate of the speed at impact?” Michael asked.
“No, but a reconstruction expert could get pretty close.”
Michael and Justin took in the scene and noticed the oil stains, the specks of shattered glass, the bits of aluminum and metal. At the edge of the asphalt, almost on the shoulder, they noticed what could only be dried blood. In the grass, there was a piece of cloth, also stained. One of their colleagues had been killed there and another had been grievously injured. It seemed like such an unfitting place to die.
They took some more photos and suddenly wanted to leave.
Frog Freeman ran a country store and filling station two miles north of Sterling. He lived next door in an old house his grandfather had built, and because he was always around, and because the store was his life, he kept it open until ten each night. For all the business he drummed up in rural Brunswick County after dark, he could have easily closed at six, but he had nothing else to do. On Monday night, he had not closed at ten because of a water leak somewhere in the beer cooler. Frog sold a lot of beer, most of it ice-cold. A malfunctioning cooler was not acceptable, and since he handled all repairs himself, he was hard at work wrestling with the cooler when a customer walked in looking for ice, rubbing alcohol, and two cans of beer.
An odd combination, thought Frog, as he wiped off his hands and went to the cash register. He had owned the store for over fifty years and was an expert in predicting what his customers were up to based simply on what they bought. He’d seen everything, but ice, rubbing alcohol, and beer was unusual.
Frog had been robbed three times, twice at gunpoint, and years earlier began fighting back. He had six surveillance cameras around the store. Four visible, so potential thieves might realize the perils of their planned robbery, and two hidden, including one above the front porch.
Frog stepped inside his tiny office behind the cash register and checked the monitor. White pickup truck, Florida license plates. A young man sitting in the passenger’s seat. Something was wrong with his nose. He was holding a cloth against it, and the cloth appeared to be stained. The driver stepped into view with the bag of ice and a small brown sack with the rubbing alcohol and beer. He crawled behind the wheel, said something to his passenger, then backed away.
“Boy’s been in a fight,” Frog said, and went back to his repairs.
Auto fatalities were rare in Brunswick County. The following morning, Frog’s coffee group was wild with rumors. Some black guy and a white girl from Tallahassee got lost on the reservation and a drunk hit ’em head-on. Stolen truck, and the drunk ran off. Just walked away. No sign of him yet. The notion of a drunk driver staggering away from the wreck, disappearing into the depths of the reservation, and emerging safely beyond its borders was a rich source of humor, speculation, and disbelief.
“He wouldn’t last an hour out there,” one coffee drinker said.
“Probably still going around in circles,” said another.
“Don’t worry. The Indians will screw it up,” said a third.
Later in the day, as the details accumulated, Frog began tying things together. He knew the sheriff well, and knew the sheriff had trouble with the Tappacola police. Because of their wealth, the tribe had built a police force twice the size of the county’s, and with far nicer equipment. Resentment was inevitable.
He called Clive Pickett, the sheriff of Brunswick County, and said he might have something of interest. Pickett stopped by after work and they watched the video. His first words were “That’s weird.” He said the county had been quiet Monday night, same as virtually every other night, said as usual the only signs of life had been at the casino. No one had called in about a fight, assault, Peeping Tom, or suspicious characters. Indeed, nothing was stirring until the two vehicles collided.
“That’s about ten miles from here, don’t you think?” the sheriff said.
“As the crow flies.”
“So the time frame fits?”
The sheriff scratched his chin, deep in thought. “So, if the boy with the busted nose was driving the stolen truck, how would he manage to get away and catch a ride with a stranger and get here within fifteen minutes?”
“Don’t know. You’re the sheriff.”
“Maybe the stranger ain’t a stranger.”
“That’s what I was thinking.”
Frog agreed to copy the video and e-mail it to the sheriff. They agreed to sit on it for a day or so before they informed the Indians.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Michael assembled what was left of his Tallahassee staff. The two investigators in BJC’s Fort Lauderdale office were not included. Justin Barrow, with six years of experience, was now the senior investigator. He had played bad golf with Hugo a week earlier, knew the basics of the complaint filed by Greg Myers, but was unaware of the vast conspiracy lurking in the background. He had his own cases to worry about. Maddy Reese, who’d been there less than a year, knew nothing of the story of Vonn Dubose, the corruption at the casino, and Judge Claudia McDover.
Michael started at the beginning, with Myers, and told them everything. They absorbed it with a combination of disbelief and fear. Surely, their boss was not about to hand over the case to them. He stressed that virtually none of the allegations in the Myers complaint had been proven, and he was quite certain BJC was in no position to prove them. However, he was convinced Lacy and Hugo had ventured into fatal territory. “The accident reeks of suspicion,” he said. “They were lured to a remote place by a potential informant. We don’t know if they actually met him, and we won’t know until Lacy can talk. On a straight stretch of road, in clear weather, and with no other traffic, they were struck head-on by a stolen truck whose driver will likely never be found. The air bag on the passenger’s side, along with the seat belt, were apparently tampered with and didn’t work. And their BJC phones have disappeared. Presumably taken. We plan to push hard for an investigation, but we’re dealing with the Tappacola tribe, not your typical law enforcement agency.”
“You’re saying Hugo was murdered?” Maddy asked.
“Not yet. I’m only saying the circumstances surrounding his death are extremely suspicious.”
“What about the FBI? Doesn’t it have jurisdiction?”
“It does, and we may ask for their help at some point, but not now.”
Maddy cleared her throat and asked, “So what happens to this case in the meantime?”
“It’s on my desk,” Michael said. “Not sure what I’m going to do with it, but it’s mine for the moment.”
“If you don’t mind my saying so,” Justin said, “I don’t think we’re really cut out for this. If this criminal activity is really happening, what the hell are we doing poking around it? This is for guys with guns and badges and all that crap.”
“Agreed. And I suppose your question is one I’ll take to my grave. We thought there might be an element of danger, and our plan was to sort of sniff around the edges and see what we could find. Keep in mind, a formal complaint was filed, and once it was on our desk we had no choice but to investigate. I guess we should have been more careful. I should have told them not to go to the reservation Monday night.”
“True, but those two don’t scare easily,” Maddy said.
There was a long, heavy pause as they thought of their colleagues. Finally, Maddy asked, “When can we see Lacy?”
“They plan to ease her out of the coma soon. I’ll be there in the morning. If all goes well, I’ll have the chance to talk to her. Someone has to break the news about Hugo. Maybe in a couple of days you can visit. Remember, the funeral is Saturday and we’ll all be there.”
The Whistler by John Grisham / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4.1 out of 5 / Based on41 votes