The whistler, p.13
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       The Whistler, p.13

           John Grisham
 

  “Can’t wait,” Justin said.

  —

  The police in Foley, Alabama, were informed that the stolen Dodge Ram truck they were looking for had come to rest in a salvage yard on Indian land over in Florida. They notified the owner, who notified his insurance company. On Wednesday afternoon, a man appeared at the police station and said he knew something about the theft. He was a private investigator, known to some of the cops, and he was being paid to follow a young housewife because her husband suspected she was seeing someone else. The investigator had been hiding in his car in a shopping center lot when he saw a Honda pickup with Florida tags park near the Dodge Ram in question. Two men were in the Honda but they did not get out. They watched passing cars and pedestrians for about fifteen minutes and seemed out of place. The passenger eased out and approached the Dodge. At that point, the investigator, because he was bored and really had nothing else to do, pulled out his cell phone and started a video recording.

  The thief deftly opened the driver’s door with a flat blade—it was obvious he had experience—and within seconds cranked the engine and drove off, followed by his pal in the Honda. The video clearly showed the Honda’s Florida license plates. Few auto thefts are so easily solved, and the Foley police kept the video and thanked the concerned citizen. They tracked the license plates to a man in DeFuniak Springs, Florida, in Walton County, about fifteen miles from the casino. The man, one Berl Munger, had a long and colorful record as a small-time felon and was currently on parole. Because it was only the theft of a truck and not a more serious crime, and because it would involve reaching into another state, the Foley police put the file in a basket for items to be done soon, but not tomorrow.

  —

  Greg Myers and his beloved boat were docked in Naples, Florida. He was having a late-afternoon drink on the Conspirator when he went through his daily routine of scanning the newspapers from Pensacola, Tallahassee, and Jacksonville. Living on a boat gave him a sense of rootlessness, of never being sure where he would be tomorrow. Keeping up with the news from his old haunts tied him to the past, the good days anyway, and had become important. Besides, he had a lot of enemies back there and they occasionally got their names in the papers.

  He was shocked to read about Hugo, killed in an auto accident late at night on the Tappacola reservation, and his partner, Lacy Stoltz, badly injured. Terrible news, and for more than one reason. Investigations would follow, leads would be chased, fingers eventually pointed. As always, he suspected the worst—that Dubose was behind the accident, which wasn’t at all what it seemed.

  The more he read the worse he felt. Though he had met with Lacy and Hugo on only three occasions, he liked and admired them. They were smart and unpretentious, didn’t make a lot of money, but were dedicated to their work. Because of him, they were on the trail of a crooked judge and her confederates. Because of him, Hugo was now dead.

  Greg left the boat and walked along the pier. He found a bench overlooking the bay and sat there for a long time, cursing himself for what had happened. A dark little conspiracy had suddenly become far more dangerous.

  15

  Geismar was at the hospital by 8:00 Thursday morning. He stopped by the waiting room to check on Ann Stoltz, who was alone. Lacy’s vitals remained strong. The doctors had cut off the barbiturates the night before and she was slowly waking up. Thirty minutes later, a nurse came for Ann and said her daughter was alert. “I’ll break the news about Hugo,” Geismar said. “You go ahead for a few minutes and I’ll be right behind you.”

  Because she was still in the ICU, Michael had not asked to see her. When he entered the room, he was stunned at the condition of her face. It was bruised, red and purple, with abrasions and small cuts, and swollen to the point of being unrecognizable. Through narrow, puffy slits he could barely see her pupils. The endotracheal tube was wedged into the corner of her mouth and taped into place. He gently touched her hand and said hello.

  She nodded and tried to mumble something, but the tube was in the way. Ann Stoltz sat in a chair and wiped her eyes.

  “How ya doing, Lacy?” Michael asked, himself on the verge of emotion. Such a beautiful face reduced to such a mess.

  She nodded slightly.

  Ann whispered, “I told her nothing.” A nurse slipped into the room and stood next to Ann.

  Michael eased closer and said, “You guys were hit head-on. A terrible crash, Lacy.” He swallowed hard, glanced at Ann, and said, “Lacy, Hugo didn’t make it, okay? Hugo was killed.”

  She groaned pitifully and closed the narrow slits. She squeezed his hand.

  Michael’s eyes watered and he pressed on. “It wasn’t your fault, Lacy, you gotta understand it. It wasn’t your fault.”

  She groaned again, and moved her head slightly from side to side.

  A doctor eased to the side of the bed opposite Michael and stared at the patient. He said, “Lacy, I’m Dr. Hunt. You were unconscious for over forty-eight hours. Do you hear me?”

  She nodded again, and took a deep breath. A small tear managed to find its way through the swelling and dropped onto her left cheek.

  He proceeded with a quick exam of asking short questions, holding up fingers, and having her look at objects across the room. She responded well, though with some hesitation. “Does your head hurt?” he asked.

  She nodded. Yes.

  Dr. Hunt looked at the nurse and ordered a painkiller. He looked at Michael and said, “You can chat a few more minutes, but nothing about the accident. I understand the police want to talk to her, but that’s not going to happen anytime soon. We’ll see how she feels in a couple of days.” He backed away from the bed and left the room without another word.

  Michael looked at Ann and said, “We need to discuss something confidential. If you don’t mind. Just take a second.” Ann nodded and slipped out of the room.

  He said, “Lacy, did you have your BJC phone with you Monday night?”

  She nodded yes.

  “It’s missing; so is Hugo’s. The police searched your car and the accident scene. They’ve looked everywhere, no cell phones. Don’t ask me to explain, because I can’t. But if the wrong people hacked into your phone, we have to assume they can find Myers.”

  Her swollen eyes widened slightly and she kept nodding go on.

  He said, “Our tech guy says it’s virtually impossible to hack the phones, but there’s the chance. Do you have Myers’s number?”

  She nodded. Yes.

  “In the file?”

  She nodded. Yes.

  “Great. I’ll get to work on it.”

  Another doctor popped in and wanted to poke around. Michael had had enough for one visit. His dreaded mission was accomplished, and evidently he would not be asking any more questions about what happened Monday night. He leaned a bit closer and said, “Lacy, I need to go. I’ll tell Verna that you’re okay and thinking about the family.”

  She was crying again.

  —

  An hour later, the nurses took her off the ventilator and began pulling tubes. Her vitals were normal. She napped off and on throughout Thursday morning, but by noon was getting bored with so much sleep. Her voice was scratchy and weak but also getting stronger by the hour. She talked to Ann, Aunt Trudy, and Uncle Ronald, a man she had never been fond of but now appreciated.

  ICU space was limited, and with Lacy stabilized and out of danger, the doctors decided that she could be moved to a private room. That move coincided with the arrival of Gunther, Lacy’s older brother and only sibling. As usual, Gunther was heard before he was seen. He was in the hallway arguing with a nurse about the number of visitors the hospital allowed in each room at any given time. The rule was three. Gunther thought that was ludicrous, and besides he’d just driven nonstop from Atlanta to see his kid sister and if the nurse didn’t like it, she could call security. And if she called security, Gunther might have to call his lawyers.

  The sound of his voice was usually a sign of trouble, but to Lacy at that m
oment it was beautiful. She actually chuckled, and in doing so ached from her head to her knees. Ann Stoltz said, “I guess he’s here.” Trudy and Ronald snapped to attention as if bracing for something unpleasant.

  The door swung open without being knocked on and Gunther rolled in, a nurse in pursuit. He pecked his mother on the forehead, ignored his aunt and uncle, and almost lunged at Lacy. “Good God, girl, what have they done to you?” he asked as he kissed her on the forehead. She tried to smile.

  He glanced over and said, “Hello, Trudy. Hello, Ronald. Say good-bye, Ronald, because you need to wait in the hall. Nurse Ratched here is threatening to call security because of some arbitrary and unreasonable rule they have around this Podunk place.”

  Trudy was reaching for her purse as Ronald said, “We’ll be going. Back in a few hours.” They hustled out of the room, obviously quite happy to get away from Gunther. He glared at Nurse Ratched, held up two fingers, and said, “One visitor, two visitor. Me and Momma. Can you not count? Now that we’re legal would you please leave us alone so I can talk to my sister in private?”

  Nurse Ratched happily left too. Ann was shaking her head. Lacy wanted to laugh but knew it would be too painful.

  Depending on the year, or even the month, Gunther Stoltz was either one of the top ten commercial property developers in Atlanta or one of the five real estate swingers most likely headed for bankruptcy. At forty-one, he’d filed at least twice already, and seemed destined to live on that tightrope that some developers seem to thrive on. When times were good and money was cheap, he borrowed heavily, built like a maniac, and burned through cash like it would never end. When the market turned against him, he hid from the banks and unloaded assets at fire-sale prices. There was no middle ground, no thought of prudent planning, or, heaven forbid, the actual saving of some of the money. When he was down he never stopped betting on a brighter future, and when he was up he choked on the money and forgot about the bad times. Atlanta would never stop growing, and it was his calling in life to clutter it with even more strip malls, apartments, and office complexes.

  During this brief invasion, Lacy had already picked up on an important clue. The fact that he’d driven from Atlanta, as opposed to using a private jet, was a clear sign that his developments were not going well.

  Almost nose to nose, he said, “I’m so sorry, Lacy, for not coming sooner. I was in Rome with Melanie and got back as fast as I could. How are you feeling, dear?”

  “I’ve felt better,” she said with a scratchy voice. There was an excellent chance he hadn’t been to Rome in years. Part of his act was to drop names of fancy places. Melanie was wife number two, a woman Lacy loathed and, fortunately, rarely saw.

  “She just woke up this morning,” Ann said from her chair. “It would have been a waste to come earlier.”

  “And how are you, Mother?” he asked without looking at Ann.

  “Fine, thanks for asking. Did you have to be so rude to Trudy and Ronald?”

  And just like that, family tension filled the air. Uncharacteristically, Gunther took a breath and let it pass. Still staring at his sister, he said, “I’ve read the news stories. Just awful. And your friend was killed, Lacy? I can’t believe this. What happened?”

  Ann chimed in, “The doctor said she is not to talk about the accident.”

  Gunther glared at his mother and said, “Well, I really don’t care what the doctor said. I’m here and if I want to have a chat with my sister no one will tell me what to talk about.” He returned to Lacy and asked, “What happened, Lacy? Who was driving the other vehicle?”

  Ann said, “She’s not processing everything, Gunther. She’s been in a coma since Monday night. Please back off, okay?”

  But backing off was not in Gunther’s playbook. He said, “I know a great lawyer and we’re going to sue that bastard for everything he has. It was all his fault, right, Lacy?”

  Ann exhaled with as much noise as possible, then stood and walked out of the room.

  Lacy shook her head slightly and said, “I don’t remember.” Then she closed her eyes and fell asleep.

  —

  By mid-afternoon, Gunther had laid claim to at least half of Lacy’s private room. He had arranged two chairs, a cart on wheels, a night table that once held a lamp, and the small fold-out sofa into a configuration that allowed him to set up shop with his laptop, iPad, not one but two cell phones, and a stack of paperwork. Nurse Ratched had objected, but she had quickly learned that any comment from her would be met with a blistering and threatening response. Trudy and Ronald popped in a couple of times to check on Lacy, but got the impression they were now trespassers. Finally, Ann threw in the towel. Late in the day, she informed her two children that she was headed back to Clearwater for a day or two; that she would be back as soon as possible; and that if Lacy needed anything to please call.

  When Lacy napped, Gunther either stayed off the phone or stepped into the hallway, and worked feverishly, but quietly, on his laptop. When she was awake, he was either in her face or growling on the phone as another deal teetered on the brink. He repeatedly badgered the nurses and orderlies to bring him more coffee, and when the coffee didn’t materialize he stomped down to the cafeteria, where the food looked “dreadful.” The doctors made their rounds, each glaring at him as he seemed ready for any confrontation. They were careful not to provoke.

  For Lacy, though, his energy was infectious, even stimulating. He amused her, though she was still afraid to laugh. Once when she awoke, he was standing next to her bed, wiping tears from his cheeks.

  At six, Nurse Ratched appeared and said her shift would be ending. She asked Gunther about his plans, and he replied, rather sternly, “I’m not leaving. This sofa is here for a reason. And for what you folks charge, you could certainly provide something more comfortable than this flimsy fold-out. I mean, hell, an army cot would be more comfortable.”

  “I’ll pass that along,” she said. “See you in the morning, Lacy.”

  “What a bitch,” Gunther mumbled, just loud enough for her to hear as she closed the door.

  For dinner, Gunther fed her ice cream and Jell-O while he ate nothing. They watched Friends reruns until she was exhausted. As she dozed off, he was back in his nest, hammering out e-mails with no sign of slowing down.

  Throughout the night, the nurses eased in and out. At first Gunther bitched about the noise they made, but soon settled down when a cute one he fancied slipped him a Xanax. By midnight he was snoring, the flimsy fold-out sofa notwithstanding.

  —

  Around five Friday morning, Lacy began to fidget and moan. She was asleep and dreaming, and the dreams were not pleasant. Gunther patted her arm, whispered that everything was going to be fine, that she would be home in no time. She awoke with a jolt and breathed heavily.

  “What is it?” he asked.

  “Some water,” she said, and he lifted a straw to her mouth. She took a long sip and he wiped her mouth. “I saw it, Gunther, I saw the truck just before we hit. Hugo screamed and I looked ahead, and there were bright lights right in front of us. Then everything went black.”

  “Attagirl. Do you remember a sound? Maybe the collision, maybe the explosion of the air bag in your face?”

  “Maybe, I’m not sure.”

  “Did you see the other driver?”

  “No, nothing but lights, really bright. It happened so fast, Gunther. I had no time to react.”

  “Of course you didn’t. It wasn’t your fault. The truck crossed the center line.”

  “It did, yes it did.” She closed her eyes again, and a few seconds passed before he realized she was crying.

  “It’s okay, Sis. It’s okay.”

  “Hugo’s not really dead, is he, Gunther?”

  “Yes, Lacy. You need to accept it and believe it and stop asking if it’s really true. Hugo is dead.”

  She cried and there was nothing he could do. He ached for her as she shivered and struggled and grieved for her friend. Finally, mercifully, she
went back to sleep.

  16

  After the early morning wave of doctors, nurses, and orderlies, things settled down somewhat and Gunther worked on his deals. Lacy was improving by the hour. The swelling in her face was easing, though her bruises were changing into various shades of blue. Around 9:00, Michael Geismar arrived and was startled to see such an elaborate makeshift office in Lacy’s room. She was awake and sipping lukewarm coffee through a straw.

  Gunther, unshaven, in his socks and with his shirttail to his knees, introduced himself as her brother and was immediately suspicious of this guy in a dark suit. Lacy said, “Relax, he’s my boss,” and Gunther stood down. He and Michael shook hands tentatively across the bed and all was peaceful.

  Michael asked, “Do you feel like talking?”

  “I guess,” she said.

 
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