The whistler, p.15
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       The Whistler, p.15
 

           John Grisham

  —

  The scream. The sound of terror from a voice that never screamed, never showed emotion. Something was wrong with a seat belt. He was complaining. She glanced over, then the scream as his wide shoulders instinctively threw back. The lights, so bright, so close, so shockingly unavoidable. The impact, the sense of her body hurling forward for a split second before being caught and slammed backward. The noise, the explosion of a bomb in her lap as five tons of steel, metal, glass, aluminum, and rubber collided and tangled. The vicious blow to her face as the air bag a foot away detonated and shot forward at two hundred miles per hour, saving her life but doing its share of damage. The spinning, her car airborne for a second as it turned 180 degrees, slinging debris. Then nothing. How many times had she heard victims say, “I must’ve been out of it for a few seconds”? No one ever knows how long. But there was movement. Hugo, stuck in the windshield, was moving his legs, trying to either get out or get back in. Hugo moaning. And to her left, a shadow, a figure, a man with a light crouching and looking at her. Did she see his face? No. And if she did she could not remember it. And then he was on the passenger’s side, near Hugo, or was it another one? Were there two shadows moving around her car? Hugo was moaning. Her head was bleeding, pounding. Footsteps crunched on broken glass. The lights of a vehicle swept the wreckage and disappeared. Darkness. Blackness.

  —

  “ There were two of them, Gunther. Two of them.”

  “Okay, Sis. You’re dreaming now, and you’re sweating. You’ve been mumbling and shaking for half an hour. Let’s wake up and talk, okay?”

  “There were two of them.”

  “I hear you. Wake up now, and look at me. It’s okay, Sis, just another bad dream.” He turned on a small lamp on the table.

  “What time is it?” she asked.

  “What difference does it make? You’re not catching a plane. It’s two thirty in the morning and you’ve had quite a dream.”

  “What did I say?”

  “Nothing intelligible, lots of mumbling and groaning. You want some water?”

  She took a sip from a straw and pushed a button to raise her bed. “It’s coming back,” she said. “I’m seeing things now. I can remember some of it.”

  “Attagirl. Now, these two figures you saw. Let’s talk about them. One was obviously the driver of the truck. The other was probably driving the getaway vehicle. What did you see?”

  “I don’t know, not much. Both were men, I think. I’m pretty sure of that.”

  “Okay. Can you see their faces?”

  “No. Nothing. I’d just been hit, you know. Nothing is clear now.”

  “Sure. Where did you keep your cell phone?”

  “On the console, usually. I can’t say for sure where it was at that moment, but probably on the console.”

  “And where did Hugo keep his?”

  “Always in his right rear pocket, unless he was wearing a jacket.”

  “And he wasn’t wearing one, right?”

  “Right. As I said, it was hot and we were casual.”

  “So someone had to reach inside the car to get the cell phones. Can you see that as it happened? Anyone touch you or Hugo?”

  She closed her eyes and shook her head. “No, I don’t remember that.”

  The door opened slowly and a nurse entered the room. She said, “Everything okay? Your pulse spiked.”

  Gunther said, “She’s dreaming. Everything’s fine.”

  The nurse ignored him and touched Lacy’s arm. “How do you feel, Lacy?”

  “I’m good,” she said, her eyes still closed.

  “You need to sleep, okay?”

  To which Gunther responded, “Well, it’s kinda hard to sleep with you guys in here every other hour.”

  “There’s a motel across the street if you’d like it better over there,” the nurse responded coolly.

  Gunther let it pass, and the nurse left.

  18

  When Lyman Gritt arrived at the police station at five on Sunday afternoon, he had a suspicion that something unpleasant was under way. The Chief had never requested a meeting at such a time and he’d been vague about its purpose. He was waiting outside the station, along with his son, Billy Cappel, when Lyman parked his truck. Billy was one of the ten-member Tribal Council and had become a dominant force in the government. As they were exchanging greetings, the chairman of the council, Adam Horn, arrived on his motorcycle. There weren’t many smiles, and as they entered the building Lyman was even more suspicious. The Chief had been calling daily since the accident, and he was obviously not pleased with Gritt’s work. As an appointee, the constable served at the pleasure of the Chief, and the two had never been close. In fact, Lyman distrusted the Chief, as well as his son and Mr. Horn, who was generally held in low regard by most Tappacola.

  Elias Cappel had been the Chief for six years and was firmly in control of the tribe. If Billy was his right-hand man, then Horn was the left. The three had effectively outmaneuvered their political enemies and seemed intractable. They smothered dissension and ruled with a tight grip, and no one really objected as long as the casino was full and the dividend checks were flowing.

  They gathered in Gritt’s office and he took his spot behind his desk. As he faced the three of them, his chair suddenly felt like a hot seat. The Chief, a man of few words and limited social skills, began with “We want to talk about the investigation into what happened Monday night.”

  Horn added, “There seem to be some unanswered questions.”

  Lyman nodded along. “Sure,” he said. “What would you like to know?”

  “Everything,” the Chief said.

  Lyman opened a file, fiddled with some papers, and pulled out a report. He went through the basics of the accident, the vehicles involved, the injuries, the rescue, the death of Mr. Hatch. The file was already two inches thick with reports and photos. The video from the police in Foley, however, was not in the file and not referenced. Gritt smelled trouble with the Chief and was maintaining two files; the official one on his desk, and a secret one outside his office. Because Frog’s video had been handed over to the sheriff, there was an even chance that the Chief might be aware of it. Wisely, Gritt placed it in the official file but kept a copy at home.

  “What were they doing here, on our land?” the Chief asked, and his tone left no doubt this was his most important question.

  “That, I don’t know yet. I’m supposed to meet with Mr. Michael Geismar tomorrow and learn more. He’s their boss. I’ve asked that question, but so far the answers have been vague.”

  “These people investigate judges, right?” Horn asked.

  “That’s correct. They are not law enforcement, just investigators, with law degrees.”

  “Then what the hell were they doing here?” the Chief demanded. “They have no jurisdiction on our land. They were here, on business I presume, at midnight on a Monday night.”

  “I’m digging, Chief, I’m digging, okay? There are a lot of questions and we’re chasing leads.”

  “Have you talked to the girl who was driving the car?”

  “No. I tried to but her doctors said no. They moved her to Tallahassee yesterday, and I’ll go there in a day or two and see what she has to say.”

  Billy said, “You should’ve already talked to her.”

  Lyman bristled but kept his cool. “As I said, her doctors would not allow it.” Tension was rising by the minute and it was becoming clearer, at least to Lyman, that the meeting would probably not end well.

  “Have you talked to outsiders?” Horn asked.

  “Of course. It’s part of the investigation.”

  “Who?”

  “Well, let’s see. I’ve had several conversations with a Mr. Geismar. I’ve asked him twice what they were doing here and he was vague. I’ve spoken with her doctors, got nowhere. Both insurance companies have sent adjusters here to check on the vehicles, and I talked to them. And so on. I can’t remember everyone I’ve talked to. Part of
my job is dealing with outsiders.”

  “Do you know any more about the stolen truck?” the Chief asked.

  “Nothing new,” Gritt said, then repeated the basics without mentioning the video from Foley.

  “And no idea who was driving it?” the Chief asked.

  “Not until this morning.”

  The three seemed to stiffen. “Go on,” the Chief grunted.

  “Sheriff Pickett stopped by late Friday for a coffee. You know Frog Freeman’s store north of Sterling? Well, Frog was open late on Monday, not really open, but then not closed either, and a customer came in looking for ice. Frog’s been robbed, so he’s got cameras. Wanna see?”

  The three nodded grimly. Lyman tapped some keys on his desktop and turned it around. The video appeared. The truck was parked in front of the store; the driver got out; the passenger held a bloody cloth to his nose; the driver disappeared into the store and returned a short time later; they drove off.

  “And what does this prove?” the Chief asked.

  “Nothing, but it’s somewhat suspicious, given the time and location and the fact that there’s virtually no one on the road at that hour.”

  Horn asked, “So, if you stretch things, we’re supposed to believe that the guy with the busted nose was driving the stolen truck that caused the accident?”

  Lyman shrugged and said, “I’m not stretching anything. I didn’t make the video; I’m just showing it to you.”

  “Have you traced the license plates?” the Chief asked.

  “Yes. Fake Florida tags. No such number in the records. Why would anyone bother with fake tags if they were not up to something bad? If you ask me, the fake tags point the finger directly at these two. The passenger got his face smacked with the air bag and it drew blood. They weren’t smart enough to have some ice in the follow-up vehicle, the one with the fake tags and driven, of course, by the other guy in the video. So they make their escape and just happen to see Frog’s store open late. They’re trying to get away, not thinking too clearly, and probably not that smart to begin with, so they don’t think about security cameras. Big mistake. They get their pictures taken and it’s just a matter of time before we find ’em.”

  The Chief said, “Well, Lyman, that’s not going to happen, at least not now, and not by you. I’m terminating you as of right now.”

  Lyman absorbed this shot to the gut with more composure than he knew he had. He stared at the three of them, all sitting over there with their arms folded across their thick bellies, and finally asked, “On what grounds?”

  The Chief offered a phony smile and said, “I don’t have to give a reason. It’s called termination at will and it’s clearly set out in our bylaws. As the Chief, I have the power to hire and fire all department heads. You know that.”

  “Indeed I do.” Lyman stared at the three of them, realized it was over, and decided to have some fun. He said, “So the big boys want the investigation quashed, right? This video will never see the light of day. And all the mysteries surrounding this car wreck will never be solved. A man gets killed, and the killers walk away. That sound about right, Chief ?”

  “I’m asking you to leave right now,” the Chief growled.

  “This is my office and I have my stuff here.”

  “It is no longer your office. Find a box and get it out of here. We’ll wait.”

  “You’re kidding.”

  “Dead serious. And hurry up, okay, it is Sunday afternoon.”

  “I didn’t call this meeting.”

  “Shut up, Lyman, and start packing. Hand over your keys and your guns, don’t touch those files, pack up your crap, and let’s move. And, Lyman, it goes without saying that it’s in your best interest to keep your mouth shut.”

  “Of course. That’s what we do around here, right? Bury our heads, keep our mouths shut, and cover up for the big boys.”

  “You got it, and the part about shutting your mouth can begin right now,” the Chief said. Lyman began opening drawers.

  —

  Michael tapped on Lacy’s door with some trepidation, and as he opened it his worst fears were confirmed. Gunther was still there! He was sitting on the edge of her bed, a small backgammon board between them. He reluctantly folded it and placed it on the sofa in his office. Michael and Lacy chatted for a few minutes, then Michael delicately inquired, “Could we have a few moments in private?”

  “For what?” Gunther demanded.

  “Some sensitive matters.”

  “If it’s about her job, I think the conversation can wait until tomorrow. It is, after all, Sunday evening and she’s in no condition to deal with issues related to work. If it’s about the car wreck and the investigation and all that crap, then I’m not leaving the room. Lacy needs a second set of ears and she needs my advice.”

  Lacy did not intervene. Michael raised his hands, surrendered, and said, “Okay. I’ll not discuss the office.” He eased into a chair beside her bed and looked at the side of her face. The swelling was almost gone and the bruises were changing colors.

  Gunther asked, “Have you had dinner? The cafeteria has some frozen sandwiches that were made at least two years ago and taste like roofing shingles. They’re hard to recommend but I’ve eaten three and I’m still alive.”

  “Gee, I’ll pass.”

  “Some coffee perhaps. It’s bad but drinkable.”

  Michael said, “A great idea. Thanks.” Anything to get him out of the room. Gunther found his shoes and took off. Michael wasted no time. “I stopped by Verna’s this afternoon, and, as you can expect, it’s still a gloomy place.”

  “I’ve e-mailed twice but got nothing. I’ve called twice and talked to whoever was answering her cell. I need to see her.”

  “Well, that’s what I want to talk about, and I’ll shut up the moment he walks in the door. I’d rather keep this between us. Verna is still sleepwalking through this nightmare, as anyone would be, and she’s still in shock. But she’s coming around and I’m not sure I like what I’m hearing. There is a group of Hugo’s friends, including a couple of pals from law school, and they are full of advice. They have big ideas about lawsuits, with the big target being the Tappacola. That’s where the gold mine is located and they’re dreaming of ways to get it. Frankly, and I’m no tort lawyer, I can’t connect the liability. Just because the accident happened on the reservation doesn’t mean the Indians are at fault. The accident is also subject to tribal law, which is not your average brand of tort law. Because he was a state employee, Verna will get half his salary for the rest of her life. As we know, that’s not much. Hugo had a private life policy for $100,000 and it will be easy to collect. Next is the auto policy on the stolen truck. According to the guy who appears to be the main spokesman, and he’s a real windbag, the truck was covered by Southern Mutual and had a liability limit of $250,000. Even though it was stolen, it was still covered. It might take a lawsuit, but he seems to like their chances. I’m not so sure. Now things might get complicated. There was a lot of talk about suing Toyota for the defective seat belt and air bag. That would necessarily involve you, and your insurance company, and that’s what I didn’t like about their tone.”

  “You’re kidding, Michael. Verna is blaming me?”

  “Right now Verna is blaming everyone. She’s broken, she’s terrified, and she’s not rational. And, I’m not sure she’s getting good advice. I got the impression these guys are sitting around the table, her table, scheming ways to sue anyone who’s remotely connected to Hugo’s death. Your name got kicked around, and I heard no objection from Verna.”

  “They discussed this in front of you?”

  “Oh, they don’t care. The house is packed with people, food is still arriving. Aunts, uncles, cousins, anybody with an opinion can grab a cupcake and pull up a chair. I left with a bad feeling.”

  “I don’t believe this, Michael. Verna and I have been close for years.”

  “It will take time, Lacy. Time for you to heal, time for her to heal. Verna is a g
ood person, and when she gets over the shock she’ll come around. For now, though, I’d cool it.”

  “I don’t believe this,” she mumbled again.

  Gunther barged in with a tray and three cups of steaming coffee. “This stuff even smells bad,” he said. He passed out the coffee and excused himself while he stepped into the bathroom.

  Michael leaned over and whispered, “When is he leaving?”

  “Tomorrow. I promise.”

  “Not a moment too soon.”

 
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