The whistler, p.20
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       The Whistler, p.20

           John Grisham
 

  Obviously intrigued, the three agents were already zipping through D. The room was silent again as they flipped the pages.

  Lacy’s coffee cup was empty. They had been at the table for an hour, and she was delighted at the reception so far. She and Michael did not know what to expect coming in. They assumed the story they were about to tell would be captivating, but they had no idea how it would be received. Now they had the FBI’s attention. Though the agents were conscious of time, they seemed to be in no hurry.

  Luna was looking at her. “Next.”

  “Next is Exhibit E, the thinnest one so far, and it’s a timeline of our involvement in the case,” she said as Geismar spread more paperwork. They read it thoroughly.

  Pacheco asked, “How did McDover react when she was served with the complaint?”

  “She was pretty cool,” Lacy said. “Denied everything, of course.”

  Michael said, “I thought she looked scared, but my two colleagues disagreed. Not sure that it matters that much.”

  Pacheco said, “Well, she must be guilty of something if she hired Edgar Killebrew.”

  Hahn surprised them with “That’s my first reaction. What a shyster.”

  Luna raised a hand slightly to cut him off, and asked, “One more exhibit?”

  Lacy replied, “Yes, the last one. I’m sure you saw that our colleague Hugo Hatch died in a car wreck on the reservation.”

  They nodded sadly.

  “Well, I was driving the car when it happened. I’m wearing a scarf because my head was shaved in the hospital. I had cuts and abrasions, a bunch of stitches, a concussion, but I was lucky. I don’t remember much about it but things are coming back. Anyway, my friend and colleague died at the scene and his death was not an accident. We believe he was murdered.” Geismar slid over copies of F, which they grabbed with a bit more eagerness.

  Photos of the Prius and the Dodge Ram; photos of the scene; summaries of conversations with the constable; a description of the air bag and seat belt that didn’t work; the missing phones and iPad; and the conclusion that someone was behind the accident, thus the murder, and that someone was Vonn Dubose and his gang. She and Hugo allowed themselves to be lured to the back side of the reservation with the promise of information, and got ambushed. The motive was to frighten them, to intimidate them, to show them that they were in way over their heads, and that Dubose would resort to any measure to protect his empire. According to Myers, and they had no reason to doubt him, no one with authority had ever snooped around the casino and asked questions. BJC was the first, and Dubose moved decisively to send a message. He knew the limits of BJC’s investigative authority, and assumed, correctly, that the agency had almost no crime-fighting capability. He assumed a good scare would scatter them.

  “Wow,” Pacheco said as he put down the exhibit. “You’re not pulling any punches.”

  “We have a dead friend,” she said. “And we’re not going away.”

  Michael said, “But at the same time, we do not have the resources or the authority to fully investigate this corruption. That’s where you come in.”

  For the first time, Luna showed a hint of either fatigue or frustration. He said, “I don’t know. This could be an awfully big case.”

  If Luna showed reluctance, Pacheco seemed ready to sign on. “It’s a massive case,” he said with another smile in Lacy’s direction.

  “It is,” she said. “And far too big for us. We simply cannot investigate organized crime. Our world revolves around judges who’ve cracked up and done stupid things. They violate ethics, but rarely break laws. We’ve never seen a case like this.”

  Luna shoved his pile of paperwork away and locked his hands behind his head. “Okay, you’re not a cop, but you are an investigator. You’ve lived through this for the past several weeks. If you were us, Ms. Stoltz, how would you proceed?”

  “I’d start with the murder of Hugo Hatch. Sure, I’m emotionally involved with it, but solving it might be easier than trying to penetrate a hundred offshore entities and chasing the money. Someone stole the truck. Perhaps another person was driving it. They were working for an organization, for a boss who ordered the hit. Oddly enough, I think the murder was a gift. Dubose overplayed his hand, overreacted, and did something that could come back to bite him. He’s lived his entire life in a world of violence and intimidation. Sometimes those guys go too far. He felt threatened and his instinct was to hit hard.”

  Pacheco asked, “And there’s no doubt the two cell phones and your iPad were taken?”

  “No doubt at all. They obviously wanted the devices for information, but the theft was also a warning. Perhaps Dubose wanted to drop a not-so-subtle hint that they were there, at the scene.”

  “And you know they were at the scene?” Pacheco asked gently.

  “Yes. I don’t recall much, but I remember someone moving around, someone with a light of some sort attached to his head. The light hit my face for an instant. I can remember the sound of footsteps on broken glass. I think there were two men moving around, but again I was barely conscious.”

  “Of course you were,” Pacheco said.

  Lacy continued, “The wreck will not be thoroughly investigated by the Tappacola. The constable has already been replaced, and the new guy happens to be the son of the Chief. We can assume they are compromised and eager to close the book on just another tragic car accident.”

  “You’re assuming the Chief is in bed with Dubose?” Luna asked.

  “Definitely. The Chief rules like a king and knows everything. It’s impossible to believe they’re skimming cash without his involvement.”

  “Back to these phones,” Pacheco said. “You’re certain they got no intel from them?”

  Michael replied, “Yes. The phones are issued by the state. They have, or had, the usual five-digit pass code, but after that there was an encryption barrier. Our tech guys are sure they are secure.”

  “But anything can be hacked,” Luna said. “And if they were somehow able to do so, what would they find?”

  “It would be extremely damaging,” Michael said. “They would have the phone records, a trail of all the phone calls. And they would probably be able to find Greg Myers.”

  “And Mr. Myers is still alive and well, I presume?” asked Luna.

  “Oh yes,” Lacy said. “They’re not going to find him. He was here in Tallahassee two weeks ago, stopped by my apartment to see how I was doing. All of his old phones are at the bottom of the ocean and he has a supply of new burners.”

  “And your iPad?” Pacheco asked.

  “There’s nothing on it that would help them. All personal stuff.”

  Luna pushed his chair back and stood. He stretched his legs and said, “Hahn.”

  At the far end, Hahn was shaking his head and eager to contribute. Perhaps he’s the secret weapon, Lacy thought. He said, “I don’t know. So we swoop in with half a dozen agents. What happens then? The cash vanishes into their network of foreign accounts. The skimming stops. The Indians are terrified of Dubose and everyone clams up.”

  Pacheco mumbled, “I love it.”

  Lacy said, “I wouldn’t do that. I would quietly go about the task of finding the driver of the truck. Say you get lucky and grab the guy. He’s looking at spending the rest of his life in prison so he might want to talk, to deal.”

  “Witness protection?” Pacheco asked.

  “That’s your game and I’m sure you guys know how to play it.”

  Luna returned to his seat, shoved the paperwork even farther away, rubbed his eyes as if suddenly fatigued, and said, “Look, here’s our problem. Our boss is in the Jacksonville office. We make a recommendation to him and he makes the decision. Part of our job is to estimate the manpower and number of hours this case might ultimately consume. Frankly, it’s always a waste of time because the target is steadily moving and it’s impossible to know where an investigation might go. But rules are rules, and this is, after all, the federal government. So our boss looks at
our recommendation. Right now he’s not thinking about a little graft at an Indian casino. He’s probably not going to be too impressed with a car wreck that could’ve been something else. No, these days we’re fighting terror. We spend our time tracking sleeper cells and American teenagers who are chatting with jihadists and homegrown idiots who are trying to assemble the ingredients to make bombs. And, I gotta tell you, there’s a lot of bad stuff going on. We’re understaffed and often feel as though we’re getting further behind. We never forget that we were twenty-four hours late at 9/11. This is our world. This is the pressure we’re under. Sorry for the speech.”

  For a moment no one said a word. Michael broke the silence with “I think we understand, but organized crime does go on.”

  Luna actually smiled and said, “Sure it does. And I think this is a perfect case for the FBI, but I’m not so sure our boss will agree.”

  “Is it fair to ask what your recommendation will be?” Lacy asked.

  “It’s fair to ask but I can’t give you an answer right now. We’ll kick it around here for a couple of days, then send it to Jacksonville with a report.” His body language suggested he didn’t want to get involved. Pacheco’s suggested he was ready to whip out his badge and start grabbing witnesses. Hahn revealed nothing.

  Lacy collected her papers and placed them into a neat stack. The meeting was over. She said, “Well, thank you for listening. You’ve been very generous with your time. We will proceed with our investigation and wait to hear from you.”

  Pacheco walked with them out of the office and rode with them on the elevator, eager to spend as much time with them as possible. Michael watched him carefully. When he and Lacy were alone in his car, he said, “He’ll call you within twenty-four hours and it will have nothing to do with a casino.”

  “You’re right,” Lacy said.

  “Nice job in there.”

  25

  Like clockwork, the receptionist tapped on the door at 9:00 a.m. and without waiting for a reply laid the morning mail on Lacy’s desk. She smiled and said thanks. All the junk had been culled and set aside for “Florida Recycles!” That left six envelopes addressed to Lacy, five with proper return addresses. The sixth looked somewhat suspicious so she opened it first. In a handwritten scrawl it read,

  To Lacy Stoltz: This is Wilton Mace. I tried to call but your phone isn’t working. We need to talk, and soon. My number is 555-996-7702. I’m in town, waiting. Wilton

  Using her desk phone, she immediately called the number. Wilton answered and they had a brief conversation. He was in the DoubleTree hotel, three blocks from the Capitol, had been there since the day before waiting for her call, and wanted to meet face-to-face. He had important information. Lacy said she was on her way, and promptly relayed the conversation to Geismar, who was being overly protective and irritating her. He agreed, though, that a meeting in a busy downtown hotel held little danger. He was insisting that she advise him of any travel or interviews related to the McDover case. She agreed but doubted seriously if she would comply, even though her appetite for risk had been severely diminished.

  As agreed, Wilton met her near the front entrance and they found a quiet table in a coffee bar at the edge of the lobby. For his trip to the big city he was dressed exactly as he had been when they met him under his shade tree a few weeks ago. It seemed like a year. Denim from head to toe, beads around his neck and wrists, long hair pulled back into a ponytail. She was reminded of how much he favored his brother. As they waited for their coffee he passed along his sincere sorrow about Hugo, a man he had liked. He asked about her injuries and said she looked great.

  “How much do you know about the accident?” she asked. “What’s the buzz on the street?”

  His words were just as slow in town as they had been on the reservation. The man was perpetually calm. “Lots of suspicions,” he said.

  A waitress placed the cups before them—dark roast for Wilton, a latte for Lacy. After a long pause, she said, “Okay, I’m listening.”

  “The name Todd Short ring a bell?” he asked.

  “Maybe, I guess, somewhere. Help me out.”

  “He was one of the two jailhouse snitches who testified against my brother. At different times before the trial, the cops placed each snitch in Junior’s cell, then pulled them out after a day or two. Both lied to the jury and said Junior bragged about killing the sonofabitch he caught with his wife. And for good measure he killed her too. It was very effective testimony and it nailed Junior.”

  Lacy sipped her latte and nodded. She had nothing to add and she refused to drag it out of him. He had arranged this meeting.

  “Anyway, not long after the trial, Todd Short disappeared. So did the other snitch, a punk named Robles. Years passed and everybody assumed the two had been rubbed out, probably by the same people who killed Son and Eileen. Now, fifteen years later, Short has resurfaced and we have spoken.”

  A pause as more coffee was consumed. Lacy was about to ask, “Are you going to tell me what he said?” Wilton glanced around casually, cleared his throat, and said, “I met him three days ago, off the reservation. When I saw him I remembered how much I hated him. I wanted to smash his face with a rock, but we were in a public place, some kind of fried chicken joint. He starts off by saying he’s sorry and all that crap. He was a drifter with a drug habit and a criminal record and his life was going nowhere. He didn’t know Robles very well but he got word not long after the trial that the punk had probably been killed, so he took off. Went to California, where he’s been living under a rock ever since. Actually, he cleaned up his act and has had a decent life. Now he’s dying of cancer and wants to make nice, wants to bare his soul and confess his sins.”

  “Which are?”

  “Back then he was in jail in Sterling facing another drug charge, one that would get him locked up for years. He’d seen prison, didn’t want to go back, so he was easy bait for the cops. They offered the deal. The prosecutor agreed to let him plead to something ridiculous, and after a few weeks in the county jail he’d be a free man. All he had to do was spend a couple of days in the cell with Junior, then testify at trial. I was in the courtroom and saw it all. Short was a great witness, very believable, and the jury ate up every word of his testimony. It was irresistible. Who doesn’t like a good story about illicit sex? According to him, Junior enjoyed telling how he came home early, heard noises from the bedroom, realized what was happening, got his handgun, kicked open the bedroom door, and there was his wife and Son Razko going at it on the bed. In a rage, he shot Son twice in the head, and when Eileen wouldn’t stop screaming he shot her too. Then, and this has never made sense, he took Son’s wallet and fled the scene. All bullshit, of course, but Short sold the story to the jury. To claim it was an act of passion, an irresistible impulse, would have been to admit to the killings. Since Junior had nothing to do with it, he couldn’t use the obvious defense. As I’ve said, he had a bad lawyer.”

  “Did Short get cash?”

  “Two thousand dollars, handed to him by a cop after he testified. He hung around the area for a few weeks, until he heard the rumors about Robles. Then he fled.”

  Lacy’s phone was on the table, muted. It vibrated and she glanced at it.

  “Why did you change phone numbers?” Wilton asked.

  “These are state-issued phones. My old one was stolen from my car just after the accident. My new one has a different number.”

  “Who took it?”

  “Probably the same people who caused the wreck. So what does Short want to do now?”

  “He wants to tell his story to someone who’ll listen. He lied, and the cops and prosecutor knew he was lying, and he feels terrible about it.”

  “A real hero,” Lacy said as she took another sip of her latte and looked across the busy lobby. No one was watching or listening, but these days she couldn’t help but notice people. “Look, Wilton, this could be a big break, but this is not my case, okay? Junior’s appeals have been handled by those gu
ys in D.C. and he’s lucky to have such fine lawyers. You need to sit down with them and let them decide what to do with Todd Short.”

  “I’ve called them a couple of times but they’re too busy. Not a word. Junior’s last habeas appeal was turned down eight days ago. We expect he’ll get an execution date pretty soon. His lawyers have put up a good fight, but we’re at the end of the road.”

  “Have you told Junior?”

  “I’ll see him tomorrow. He’ll want to know what will happen now that one of the snitches is recanting. He trusts you, Lacy, and I do too.”

  “Thanks, but I’m not a criminal defense lawyer and I have no idea if any of this is relevant after fifteen years. There are limitations on bringing up new evidence, but I don’t know the law. If you’re looking for advice, I’m the wrong person, the wrong lawyer. I would help if I could, but this is way out of my league.”

  “Could you talk to his lawyers in D.C.? I can’t get through.”

  “Why can’t Junior talk to them?”

  “He says somebody is always listening in prison. He thinks the phones are tapped. And he hasn’t seen the D.C. lawyers in a long time. He thinks they might be forgetting about him now that the end is in sight.”

  “I disagree. If a snitch appears with a different story and swears under oath that the cops and prosecutor knew he was lying, and he got paid cash, believe me the D.C. lawyers will be excited.”

 
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