The whistler, p.14
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       The Whistler, p.14
 

           John Grisham

  “Lyman Gritt is the constable for the reservation, and he wants to stop by and ask some questions. Probably a good idea if we cover things first.”

  “Okay.”

  Michael looked at Gunther, who showed no signs of even thinking about leaving the room. Michael said to him, “This is quite confidential. It deals with one of our investigations.”

  With no hesitation, Gunther said, “I’m not budging. She’s my sister and she needs my advice. I need to know everything and I get the concept of confidentiality. Right, Lacy?”

  Lacy had no choice but to say “He can stay.”

  Michael was in no mood for a fight; plus, Gunther had a glow in his eyes that was clear evidence of a short fuse. What the hell. Michael said, “No word from Myers. I called the three numbers in your file several times and got nothing but ringing on the other end. Guess he doesn’t do voice mail.”

  “I doubt if they could track him, Michael.”

  “Who’s Myers?” Gunther asked.

  “I’ll tell you later,” Lacy said.

  “Or not,” Michael said. “Back to Monday night, what can you tell me about the meeting with the informant?”

  Lacy closed her eyes and took a deep breath, one that made her grimace. Slowly, she said, “Not much, Michael, not much. We went to the casino. We waited in the parking lot. Then we drove down a dark road and stopped at a small building.” She paused for a long time and seemed to be napping.

  Michael asked, “Did you meet with the informant?”

  She shook her head. “Nothing, Michael. I don’t remember.”

  “Did Hugo talk to the guy on his cell phone?”

  “I think so. Yes, he had to. The guy told us where to drive and meet him. Yes, I remember that.”

  “What about the collision itself ? Anything leading up to it? The other vehicle?”

  She closed her eyes again as if her memory might work better in the dark. After a gap, Gunther said, “Early this morning, she was having a nightmare. She woke up and said she could see the headlights, said she remembers Hugo screaming, and before she could react the truck was right there. She remembers it was a truck. She does not remember the impact or the noise or anything else. Nothing about the rescue, the ambulance, the medevac, the emergency room. Nothing.”

  One of Gunther’s muted cell phones erupted in vibration, a call so urgent that the device tried to bounce across the purloined feeding table in his half of the room. He glared at it and fought the temptation the way a drunk in recovery stares at a cold beer.

  He let it pass.

  Michael nodded toward the door, and the two stepped into the hallway. He asked, “How much have you talked to her doctors?”

  “Not much. I don’t think they like me.”

  What a surprise. “Well, they tell me her memory will slowly come back. The best way to help is to stimulate her brain, primarily by talking. Make her talk, make her laugh, make her listen, as soon as possible get her some magazines and see if she’ll read. She loves old movies so watch them with her. Less sleep and more noise is what she needs.”

  Gunther hung on every word, thrilled to be taking charge of things. “Got it.”

  “Let’s chat with her doctors and try to keep the constable away from her for as long as possible. He wants to know what she and Hugo were doing on his land, and, frankly, we don’t want him to know. It’s strictly confidential.”

  “Got that, Michael, but I want to know the details of the wreck. Everything. Tell me what you know so far. I smell a rat.”

  “With good reason. Find your shoes and let’s get some coffee.”

  —

  After lunch on Friday, as Gunther stalked the halls with his phone and fought desperately to salvage one crumbling deal after another, Lacy typed an e-mail:

  Dear Verna: Lacy here, on my brother’s iPad. I’m still in the hospital and finally have enough strength and clarity to check in. I don’t know where to start or what to say. I cannot believe this has happened. It is so surreal. I close my eyes and tell myself I’m not here, Hugo is fine, and when I wake up all will be well. But then I wake up and realize that this tragedy is real, that he has been taken, that you and the kids are suffering a loss that cannot be described. I am so sorry, not only for the loss, but also for my role in it. I don’t remember what happened, except that I was driving and Hugo was my passenger. That’s not important now, though I’ll carry it to my grave. I so wish I could see you right now, and hug you and the kids. I love you all and can’t wait to see you. I’m so sorry I’ll miss the service tomorrow. I’m crying just thinking about it. I’m crying a lot, but not nearly as much as you. My heart breaks for you and the kids, Verna. You are in my thoughts and prayers. Love, Lacy

  Twenty-four hours later, the e-mail had not been answered.

  —

  The funeral service for Hugo Hatch began at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, at a suburban megachurch with a soaring, modern sanctuary that seated almost two thousand. Hugo and Verna had joined Gateway Tabernacle years earlier and were semi-active members. The congregation was virtually all African-American, and many of their family members and most of their friends also attended. As 2:00 p.m. approached, the crowd settled in somberly as everyone braced for the waves of emotion to come. There were a few empty seats but not many.

  First up was a slide show on a massive screen above the pulpit. As a mournful spiritual was piped in from the sound system, one photo after another of Hugo came across, each a painful reminder that he had indeed been taken much too soon. Cute little Hugo as a toddler; Hugo gap-toothed in grade school; Hugo in all manner of football shots; Hugo on his wedding day; Hugo playing with his kids. There were dozens of photos, and they provoked a lot of tears, and as the service continued there would be a lot of everything. Finally, after a gut-wrenching half hour, the screen disappeared as the choir loft filled with a hundred singers in beautiful burgundy robes. Their mini-concert swung haphazardly from low, mournful dirges to rowdy, foot-stomping old-time gospel favorites to which the entire congregation sang along.

  There were a few white faces in the crowd. Michael and his wife had a front-row seat in the long, sweeping balcony. As he glanced around, he saw others from BJC. He noted that most white folks were in the balcony, as if trying to keep some distance from the rowdiness below. Michael, a child of the 1960s and Jim Crow, saw the irony of the blacks in the best seats while the whites seemed banished to the balcony.

  After an hour of warm-ups, the reverend took charge and spoke for fifteen minutes, his opening. A gifted and seasoned orator with a powerful baritone, he offered comfort to the loved ones while making the crowd cry even harder. The first eulogy was from Hugo’s older brother, who told funny stories from their childhood but broke down halfway through. The second eulogy was from his high school football coach, a tough, crusty old white guy who barely uttered three sentences before choking up and crying like a baby. The third eulogy was from a teammate at Florida State. The fourth was from a law school professor. Then a soprano gave a magnificent rendition of “How Great Thou Art,” and when she finished there was not a dry eye to be found, including her own.

  Verna, in the center of the front row, somehow managed to hold things together. She was surrounded by family and had the two older kids next to her. An aunt was keeping Pippin and the toddler. Even as others wailed and collapsed, Verna just stared at the casket, ten feet away, and wiped her eyes without making a sound.

  Upon the advice of a doctor friend, and against tradition, she had decided to close the casket. A large handsome photo of her husband stood next to it on a tripod.

  As the service ground on, Michael couldn’t help but glance at his watch. He was a devout Presbyterian, and in his church sermons were strictly limited to twenty minutes, weddings to thirty, and if a funeral inched past forty-five minutes somebody would catch an earful.

  But the clock did not matter on this day at the Gateway Tabernacle. This was the last song and dance for Hugo Hatch, and it would be a glorious sen
d-off. The fifth eulogy was given by a cousin who’d served time for drugs and was now clean and working, thanks to Hugo.

  It was all quite moving, but two hours in Michael was itching to leave. He was also relieved to be sitting comfortably in a padded chair and not worrying about standing down there behind the pulpit. The Hatch family had initially asked if he “would consider” saying a few words at the funeral, but the offer was quickly withdrawn by Verna. Michael was aware of some initial grumblings on her part. Hugo’s death, whether accident or something else, could probably have been prevented if his boss hadn’t sent him into such a dangerous situation. Hugo’s older brother had called twice, curious about the trip to the reservation that late at night. The family was getting over the shock and asking questions, and Michael smelled trouble.

  The sixth and last eulogy was from Roderick, Hugo and Verna’s oldest child. He wrote a three-page tribute to his father, and it was read by the reverend. Even Michael Geismar, a cold-blooded Presbyterian, finally succumbed to his emotions.

  The reverend wrapped things up with a lengthy benediction, and as the choir hummed and swayed the pallbearers rolled Hugo down the aisle. Verna was close behind, holding a child with each hand, her jaw tight with determination, her head held high, her cheeks dripping with tears. She was followed by a pack of family members, few of whom were making any effort at restraint.

  The mourners left the building and scattered into the parking lots. Most would reassemble in half an hour at the cemetery for another memorial that would be too long and too gut-wrenching. Through it all, not one harsh word was thrown at the person responsible for Hugo’s death. Of course, no one knew his name. “A drunk driver in a stolen truck who got away on foot” was the accepted version and so, with no one to blame, the reverend and the speakers took the high ground.

  When Hugo Hatch was lowered into his grave, only Michael and a few others suspected his death had not been accidental. Not far away, on a slight incline at the rear of the cemetery, two men sat in a car and watched the crowd with binoculars.

  17

  By noon Saturday, the nurses and doctors had concocted a perfect plan to get rid of Gunther. It was brilliant—just transfer his sister and he would have no reason to stay. On Friday, Lacy had asked a doctor when she might be stable enough to make the trip back to Tallahassee. There were plenty of hospitals there, and fine ones, and since she was simply recuperating and not awaiting surgery, why couldn’t she return to her hometown? Not long after that conversation, a nurse made a noisy entrance into Lacy’s room, waking from a nap not only the patient but her brother as well, and the situation unraveled quickly. Gunther, using strong language, demanded that the nurses and orderlies show some respect for privacy and “simple human decency” and stop barging in at all hours of the day. A second nurse came to the rescue of the first, but succeeded only in doubling the level of abuse. The plot was hatched to get Gunther out of the hospital.

  At about the time Hugo was being buried, Lacy left the hospital in Panama City in an ambulance for the two-hour drive to Tallahassee. Gunther left too, but not before leveling a few parting shots at the staff. He followed his sister in his Mercedes-Benz S600 sedan, pitch-black in color and gobbling up $3,100 a month on a four-year lease. Evidently, the folks in Panama City had called ahead and warned the folks in Tallahassee. As Lacy’s gurney was being wheeled onto the elevator for the ride to a private room on the fourth floor, two large security guards joined her and glared at Gunther, who glared right back.

  “Let it go,” Lacy hissed at her brother.

  The new room was larger than the last one, and Gunther had a fine time rearranging the furniture into another cozy work space. After the doctors and nurses checked in, Gunther looked at his sister and announced, “We’re going for a walk. I can tell already these doctors are far better than the other ones, and they say it’s important to move around. You’re probably getting bedsores. Your legs are fine, so let’s go.”

  He gently wrestled her out of bed, put her feet into a pair of cheap cotton hospital slippers, and said, “Grab my elbow.” They eased out of the room and into a wide hallway. He nodded to a large window at the far end and said, “We’re walking all the way down there and back. Okay?”

  “Okay, but I’m very sore. Everything aches.”

  “I know. Take your time, and if you feel faint, just say so.”

  “Got it.”

  They shuffled along, ignoring the casual glances from the nurses, clutching each other as Lacy’s feet and legs began to work. Her left knee was severely bruised and cut and painful to move. She gritted her teeth, determined to impress her brother. His grip was strong and comforting. He was not taking no for an answer. They touched the window and turned around. Her room seemed a mile away, and by the time they approached it her left knee was screaming. He helped her into bed and said, “Okay, we’re doing that once an hour until bedtime. Got it?”

  “If you can do it, I can do it.”

  “Attagirl.” He tucked in the sheets around her and sat on the edge of her bed. He patted her arm and said, “Your face is looking better by the hour.”

  “My face looks like hamburger meat.”

  “Okay, but sirloin, maybe, grade A, organic, and pasture fed. Look, Lacy, we’re going to talk and talk until you cannot talk anymore. Yesterday I spent some time with Michael, good guy, and he filled me in. I don’t know everything about the investigation, and I shouldn’t, but I know enough. I know you and Hugo went to the reservation Monday night to meet an informant. It was a trap, a setup, a situation too dangerous to walk into. Once they lured you there, they had you dead to rights, and on their property. The wreck was no accident. You were deliberately rammed head-on by a guy driving a stolen truck, and immediately after the collision he, or someone with him, went through your car and took both cell phones and your iPad. Then these assholes disappeared into the night and will probably never be found. Are you with me?”

  “I think so.”

  “So here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to start with you and Hugo driving to the reservation—time, route, what was on the radio, what did you talk about, everything. Same thing while you were sitting in your car waiting at the casino. Time, conversation, radio, e-mails, everything. And we’re going to drive your car down the road to meet the informant. I’ll do the questions, hundreds of them, and you come up with the answers. And after I grill you for thirty minutes, we’ll take a time-out and you can nap if you want, then we’re walking to the end of the hallway again. Sound like fun?”

  “No.”

  “Sorry, kid, you have no choice. We’ve got the legs working, now it’s time for the brain. Okay? First question: What time did you leave Tallahassee Monday evening?”

  She closed her eyes and licked her swollen lips. “It was early evening but not dark. I guess around seven thirty or so.”

  “Was there a reason you waited so late?”

  She thought for a second, then began nodding, with a smile. “Yes, the guy worked until nine, a later shift in the casino.”

  “Perfect. What were you wearing?”

  She opened her eyes. “Seriously?”

  “Dead serious, Lacy. Think hard and answer my questions. This is not a game.”

  “Uh, jeans, I think, and a light shirt. It was hot and we were casual.”

  “What route did you take?”

  “Interstate 10, same as always. There’s only one way to get there. Exit onto State 288, go south for ten miles, turn left onto the tollway.”

  “Did you guys listen to the radio?”

  “It’s always on, but almost muted. I think Hugo was sleeping.” She groaned and immediately started crying. Her swollen lips quivered and tears ran down her cheeks. He wiped them for her with a tissue but said nothing. “His funeral was today, right?” she asked.

  “Yes.”

  “I wish I could’ve gone.”

  “Why? Hugo wouldn’t know if you showed up or not. Funerals are such a waste of time. No
thing but a show for the living. The dead don’t care. The trend now is not to have a funeral, but a ‘celebration.’ To celebrate what? The dead guy damned sure ain’t celebrating.”

  “Sorry I brought it up.”

  “Back to Monday night.”

  —

  Word spread that Lacy was back in town, and by early evening visitors were bumping into one another. Since most were acquaintances, the mood grew festive and the nurses complained more than once. Gunther, always the flirt, took center stage, did most of the talking, hogged the attention, and fought with the nurses. Lacy was exhausted and content to let him do whatever.

  At first, she was horrified at the thought of seeing anyone, or, rather, letting anyone see her. With her slick head, stitches, bruises, and puffy eyes and cheeks, she felt like an extra in a cheap monster flick. But Gunther put things in perspective with “Chill. These people love you and they know you just survived a head-on collision. And in a month you’ll be hot again and most of these poor folks will still be homely. We got the genes, baby.”

  Visitation was over at 9:00 p.m., and the nurses happily cleared out Lacy’s room. She was exhausted. Her afternoon torture session with Gunther had lasted for four hours and ended only with the arrival of friends. Four hours of constant grilling and long hikes down the hall, and he was promising more tomorrow. He closed the door, said he wished he could lock it and keep everyone out, then turned off the lights and made his nest on the sofa. With the aid of a mild sedative, Lacy soon fell into a deep sleep.

 
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