The whistler, p.19
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       The Whistler, p.19

           John Grisham
 

  This has got to be kept as quiet as possible. Do you understand, Ms. Stoltz?”

  “We had this conversation in Judge McDover’s office two days ago.”

  “Well, we’re having it again. And furthermore, I’d like to know more about your investigation. Doubtless it’s going nowhere, so I’m afraid you’ll get desperate and start cold-calling anybody who might possibly know my client. That’s how rumors get started, vicious rumors, Ms. Stoltz, and, well, I just don’t trust you or anyone else to handle this matter with discretion.”

  “You’re worrying too much, Mr. Killebrew. We do this every day and we understand confidentiality. And, I’m not at liberty to discuss our investigation.”

  “Well, I’m warning you that if this case becomes a witch hunt and my client’s reputation is damaged, I’ll sue you and Mr. Geismar and everybody else at Conduct for defamation.”

  “Go ahead. And we’ll countersue for filing a frivolous lawsuit.”

  “Beautiful, just beautiful. I would relish the opportunity of seeing you guys in court. I live there, Ms. Stoltz, and you do not.”

  “Anything else, Mr. Killebrew?”

  “Nothing. Good day.”

  As cool as she sounded on the phone, the call was nonetheless unsettling. Killebrew was a fearless litigator, infamous for his scorched-earth tactics. Such a lawsuit would ultimately be deemed frivolous, but the prospect of wrangling with him was intimidating. And he was right; he earned big money in front of juries, and Lacy had never seen one. She played the call for Michael, who managed a laugh. He had received such threats before; she had not. As long as BJC did its job and did not step out-of-bounds, the agency was basically immune from civil lawsuits. Otherwise, they would never serve a complaint.

  She returned to her desk and tried to concentrate on other matters. For the second time, she called the constable’s office and asked for Billy Cappel. He was too busy at the moment. She called back an hour later and he was still in a meeting. She called her insurance company and eventually tracked down the adjuster who had her totaled Prius. He informed her that he had sold her wrecked car to a salvage yard near Panama City for $1,000, the usual price for a full loss. He claimed to know little about what happened to such vehicles after they landed at salvage yards, but he believed they were either crushed and sent to recycling plants or sold to scrap yards for parts. Two phone calls to the salvage yard netted no information. After lunch, she informed Michael she had a doctor’s appointment and would not be back that afternoon.

  Instead, she drove to Panama City, her first road trip alone. She stuck to the speed limit and tried not to flinch at every car that passed, but it was nerve-racking nonetheless. Her breathing was labored and a thick knot stayed in her stomach, but she was determined to get there and back. At the salvage yard, she parked in a gravel lot between a tow truck and a battered pickup and asked an old man with a greasy shirt and even dirtier beard about the office. He nodded toward a metal building with dented walls and an open front door. She walked through it and entered a room with a long counter where mechanics purchased used auto parts. The walls were covered with an impressive collection of hubcaps, though one corner was reserved for calendars of seminude women. The presence of a pretty lady stopped all transactions. A man with the name Bo stenciled on his shirt smiled and said, “Well, hello, miss, what can we do for you?”

  She smiled, stepped forward, and said, “I’m looking for my car. It was wrecked three weeks ago on the Tappacola reservation and brought here. I’d like to see it and retrieve some personal items.”

  Bo stopped smiling and said, “Well, if it was brought here, then it’s not your car anymore. I’m assuming it was totaled.”

  “Yes. I’ve talked to my insurance company and was told it was here.”

  Bo stepped to a computer screen and asked, “Do you have the VIN?” She handed over a photocopy of her title. He punched some keys as his pal Fred joined him. Two mechanics watched closely from the other end of the counter. Bo and Fred frowned and mumbled and seemed confused. Bo said, “This way,” and left the counter. Lacy followed as they walked along a short hall and through a side entrance. Behind the building, and kept from view by a tall fence, was a field of mangled cars, trucks, and vans, hundreds of them. In the distance, a massive, clumsy machine was crushing a wrecked vehicle. Bo waved at another man and he eventually walked over. He wore a white shirt, one much cleaner than Bo’s or Fred’s, and without a name on it, and he seemed to be in charge. Bo handed him a sheet of paper and said, “She’s looking for that Prius that came from the Indian reservation. Says it was hers.”

  The man frowned and shook his head. “It’s not here. Some guy showed up a few days ago and bought it for cash. Took it away on a flatbed hauler.”

  Lacy, way out of her league, asked, “Who bought it?”

  “Can’t say, ma’am, and really don’t know. Don’t think he ever gave a name, just wanted the car and had the cash. Happens all the time. These guys’ll buy a wreck and sell off the parts. Never seen this dude before.”

  “And there are no records?”

  Bo laughed and his boss grinned at her ignorance. The boss said, “No, ma’am. Once a car is totaled and the title is invalidated, no one cares what happens to it. Cash sales are not unusual in this business.”

  She wasn’t sure what to ask next. She assumed they were telling the truth. She looked at the acres of wrecked vehicles and realized that a search would be fruitless.

  “Sorry, ma’am,” the boss said and walked away.

  —

  The text from Verna read “You wanna talk?”

  They exchanged a few more messages and agreed on a time.

  Lacy arrived at the Hatch home after dinner. Verna was alone with the kids. The older two were doing homework at the kitchen table. Pippin and the toddler were asleep. Verna said the house had not been that quiet since before Hugo died. They sipped green tea on the patio and watched fireflies in the darkness. Verna was relieved that the relatives had finally cleared out, though her mother would be back tomorrow to help with Pippin. Verna was exhausted but sleeping more. She still awoke with the dream that Hugo was with her, but managed to work her way back to reality. With four kids she did not have the luxury of proper mourning. Life was not slowing down.

  She said, “I got the life insurance check today, so the pressure is off, for now anyway.”

  “That’s great, Verna.”

  “We’ll be okay for a year or so, but I’ll have to find a job. Hugo made sixty thousand a year and we never saved a dime. I need to bury some of this money for the future, for the kids.”

  She wanted to talk, and she wanted a listener who was not in the family. Her degree from FSU was in public health, and she’d been a social worker for a year or so before her first pregnancy. After the third, she put away any thoughts of a career. She said, “I like the thought of a job. I’ve been a full-time mother for a long time now and I’m ready for a change. Hugo and I talked about this often and we had decided that as soon as Pippin was in preschool I would go back to work. Maybe with two salaries we could swing a bigger house, maybe start saving for the kids. Hugo was so supportive, Lacy. He had the big ego and all that, he couldn’t help it, but he was not threatened by a working wife.”

  Lacy listened and nodded. Verna had talked of a career a dozen times.

  Verna took a sip of tea and closed her eyes for a moment. She snapped out of it with “Can you believe I’ve already had folks asking me for money? So far two of Hugo’s cousins hung around here long enough to ask for a loan. I said hell no and got rid of them, but they’ll be back. What is it about people that makes them do horrible things like that, Lacy?”

  The question couldn’t be answered. Lacy responded with “I don’t know.”

  Verna said, “I got way too many people giving me advice these days. Even before the funeral everybody knew I was getting a hundred thousand in life insurance and some of these leeches were already trying to worm their way in. I’m sic
k of them, really. Not my mom or my sisters, but some of these cousins, some of these folks Hugo and I have barely seen in the past five years.”

  “Geismar said there were some lawyers in the house, plotting lawsuits.”

  “I got rid of them too. One big mouth said I could collect from the insurance policy that covered the stolen truck. Turns out that’s not the case. When a vehicle is stolen like that, the policy becomes void, at least as far as liability. Lots of big lawsuits got kicked around. One was against Toyota for the faulty air bag and seat belt, but I’m not sure that’s a good idea. Got a question, Lacy. When you and Hugo drove to the casino that night, was his seat belt working?”

  “Not really. He complained because it wouldn’t stay latched. This had never happened before. He fiddled around with it and several times got it to click into place, but something was wrong with it.”

  “You think someone tampered with it?”

  “I do, Verna. I believe the air bag was disarmed and the seat belt was somehow compromised.”

  “And the accident was not an accident?”

  “No, it was not. We were deliberately hit by a truck that weighed twice as much as the Prius.”

  “But why? You gotta tell me, Lacy. I deserve to know what’s going on.”

  “I’ll tell you as much as I can, but you must promise to keep it quiet.”

  “Come on, Lacy. You know me.”

  “Do you have a lawyer?”

  “Yes. One of Hugo’s friends from law school is handling everything. I trust him.”

  “Okay, but not even he needs to know the story, not now.”

  “Tell me, please.”

  —

  It was almost ten when Roderick opened the door and said, “Mom, Pippin’s crying.”

  Verna quickly wiped the tears from her cheeks and said, “Well, what a surprise. That child.”

  As the women stood and walked inside, Lacy said, “I’ll stay tonight, okay? I’ll take care of Pippin and maybe we can talk some more.”

  “Thank you, Lacy. I have some more questions.”

  “I’m sure you do.”

  24

  The meeting took place in the FBI’s Tallahassee office, a ten-minute walk from BJC. The supervisor was an unsmiling career man named Luna, and from the moment they gathered around his wide conference table he seemed to doubt the importance of the meeting. To his right was a handsome and affable special agent named Pacheco, mid-thirties, no wedding band, and eyes that seemed to swallow Lacy the moment they said hello. At the far end of the table, as if needed but not really wanted, was the third agent, Hahn. Lacy faced Luna and Pacheco, with Geismar to her right.

  She began with “First, thanks for your time. We know you’re busy and this will not be quick. Do we have time constraints here?”

  Luna shook his head and said, “No. We’re listening.”

  “Good. On the phone yesterday I asked you about a man named Vonn Dubose. We’re curious as to whether you know anything about him.”

  Pacheco picked up a sheet of paper and said, “Yes, well, not much. Dubose has no criminal record, state or federal. The Catfish Mafia, or Coast Mafia as it came to be, has been known to us for a long time. I think you have its history. A small gang with a colorful past, but nothing of record here in Florida. About twenty years ago a man by the name of Duncan was caught with a truckload of marijuana near Winter Haven. DEA suspected he was working for an organized group, probably the same Coast Mafia, but they got nowhere because Duncan wouldn’t talk or negotiate. He served a long sentence and was paroled three years ago. Never said a word. That’s about it. As far as the man known as Vonn Dubose, we have yet to find anything.”

  Luna added, “So as far as we’re concerned, there’s really no outfit known as the Coast Mafia. We spend our time these days focusing on known entities—al-Qaeda, narco-traffickers, nice guys like that.”

  Lacy said, “Okay. We have an informant who we’ve grudgingly come to believe is telling the truth. He’s a former lawyer, a convicted felon, and he seems to know where the bodies are buried. Not literally, of course, but he’s convinced there is an organized gang with Dubose firmly in control. The informant contacted us about two months ago.”

  Pacheco asked, “This is Greg Myers?”

  “Yes, that’s the name in the complaint I sent over yesterday. But that’s a new name, not his real one. According to Myers, Vonn Dubose and his brother got shot up in a bad drug deal many years ago in south Florida. The brother died. Vonn did not. No record of that?”

  Pacheco was shaking his head. “Nothing. How would Myers know this?”

  “I have no idea. He is on the run and very secretive.”

  “Who’s he running from?” Luna asked.

  “Not sure, but not you or any branch of law enforcement. When he pled guilty he squealed on a bunch of people and now he feels threatened.”

  Pacheco said, “Were his charges federal?”

  “Yes, they were, and he served time in a federal facility. But please, for reasons I may be able to give you later, don’t waste your time trying to find the real Greg Myers. He is not the reason we are here. You’ve read the formal complaint that’s been filed against Judge McDover. We did our assessment and felt it had merit. The real story goes much deeper than what’s in the complaint. According to Myers, Vonn Dubose and the Tappacola tribe struck a deal almost twenty years ago to build a casino and they’ve been skimming off the top since day one. Lots of cash, some of which is now shared with Judge McDover.”

  “The judge is taking cash?” Luna asked.

  “Yes, according to Myers.”

  “And why would they give her the cash?”

  “The formal complaint is our Exhibit A. You have a copy. Here is our Exhibit B.” Geismar slid copies across the table. Lacy continued, “It’s a concise summary of the Tappacola, their land, their federal recognition, and their efforts to build a casino. It involves at least two murders and a man named Junior Mace, who is now sitting on death row at Starke. I suggest you take a few minutes and read the exhibit.”

  They were already reading, slowly. So far, the story had their attention. Methodically, they flipped pages, with Pacheco a bit quicker on the draw. At the far end, Hahn plowed through in silence. The air was heavy as they weighed every word. Lacy scribbled meaningless notes on a legal pad, while Michael read e-mails on his phone.

  When they finished, Lacy said, “Our Exhibit C is a rather detailed history of the construction of the casino, the building of a toll road, and all of the litigation that surrounded both. With a judge in his pocket, Dubose was able to fight off anyone who got in his way, and Treasure Key opened in 2000.” Geismar slid across copies of Exhibit C.

  “And you want us to read this now?” Luna asked.

  “Yes.”

  “Okay. Would you like some coffee while we read?”

  “That would be nice, thanks.” Hahn snapped to attention and hustled off to find a receptionist. The coffee arrived in real mugs—no paper—but neither Luna nor Pacheco seemed to notice. They were lost in Exhibit C.

  Pacheco finished first, and rather than interrupt his boss, he made notes in the margins and waited. Luna lowered his copy and said, “A question. This Junior Mace on death row, are we to suspect that maybe he did not commit the two murders referenced in the earlier exhibit?”

  Michael replied, “Frankly, we don’t know, but Greg Myers believes Mr. Mace was framed and is innocent.”

  Lacy added, “I’ve met with Mace on death row, and he certainly claims to be innocent.”

  Pacheco quipped, “Doubt if he’s the only one there who says he didn’t do it.”

  Smiles but no laughs. Luna glanced at his watch, stared at the paperwork in front of Geismar, and asked, “How many of these exhibits do you have?”

  “Not many.”

  Lacy said, “Well, in Exhibit D, you meet the judge.” Geismar slid them over. “First you’ll see photos of her at one of her condos at Rabbit Run.”

  Pach
eco looked at the photos and said, “She’s not exactly posing for the camera. Who took these?”

  “We don’t know,” Lacy said. “Greg Myers has an informant whose name we do not know because Myers doesn’t know. They correspond through an intermediary.”

  From the far end Hahn exhaled as if in disbelief.

  “It’s a complicated story and it only gets better,” Lacy said, glancing at Hahn. “Back to the exhibit. There’s some background on McDover, not much, though, because she keeps a low profile. Her partner in crime, or one of her partners, is an estate lawyer in Mobile named Phyllis Turban. Her photo was taken from the local bar directory. These women go way back, are very close, like to travel in style and always together. They spend far more than they earn. The exhibit summarizes their travel over the past seven years.”

 
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