The whistler, p.24
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       The Whistler, p.24

           John Grisham
 

  —

  Salzman and an associate named Fuller arrived just after 1:00 p.m. They were dressed casually in khakis and loafers, a far cry from the dark, pin-striped world of D.C. law. Their firm had a thousand lawyers on all major continents. Its pro bono efforts on behalf of condemned killers were laudatory, even staggering. Lacy had read about the firm online and was astonished at the manpower it threw into the fight against the death penalty.

  Their meeting with Todd Short had gone beautifully. The snitch had given a two-hour video deposition in which he admitted being recruited by the police and prosecutor to exchange bogus testimony for leniency and cash. They had found him to be believable and truly remorseful. Junior would always hate the guy who sent him to death row, but he was nonetheless thrilled at his change of heart.

  Salzman explained that they would immediately file a petition for post-conviction relief in state court and seek a stay of execution. Once that was in hand, they would slug it out with the Florida Attorney General’s Office, and go to federal court if necessary. The flurry of potential litigation was bewildering, to Lacy at least, but Salzman had been through it many times. He was a seasoned expert in the world of habeas corpus, and exuded a confidence that was contagious. His goal was a new trial, one to be held far away from the meddlesome self-interest of Claudia McDover.

  29

  The burner Lacy kept in her pocket vibrated early Tuesday morning. Cooley was checking in, if only to inform her that he had not heard from Greg Myers. No surprise there. He also said he had mailed her another prepaid phone and it should arrive later in the morning. When she had it, she was to destroy the one she was holding.

  For lunch, she met Allie Pacheco at a sandwich shop near the Capitol. Over a bowl of soup, he relayed the information that the police in Key Largo had sequestered the Conspirator and it was now safely under lock and key. He would meet with them in a day or so and hand over the laptop, courier bag, and backpack. It was their investigation, not his, but the FBI was promising full cooperation. The police were interviewing regulars at the marina, but so far had found no one who had seen anything unusual. With no photo and only a general description of the missing person, and not to mention a cold trail to begin with, finding him seemed virtually impossible.

  After a few minutes of business, Pacheco said, “This soup is okay, but what about dinner?”

  “Where are we professionally?” she asked.

  “Oh, I think we’re on solid ground,” he said with a smile. “We’re certainly on the same team. Ethically, I’m not supposed to hit on chicks who work for the bureau, so we’re good to go.”

  “Chicks?”

  “Just a figure of speech. No harm intended. I’m thirty-four years old. I’m guessing you’re somewhere in that range. We’re both single, and, frankly, it’s refreshing to meet a nice woman in real life and not on some dating site. You do the online stuff ?”

  “Twice, both disasters.”

  “Oh, I could tell some stories, but I won’t bore you. So how about dinner?”

  If she said yes, she would do so only because he was nice looking and personable, though a bit cocky, but then she had never met a young FBI agent who wasn’t brimming with confidence. She would not say yes because BJC was desperate for help.

  “When?” she asked.

  “I don’t know. Tonight?”

  “And what if at some point the bureau gets involved with my little conspiracy? Would that make your boss uncomfortable?”

  “You met Luna. He’s always uncomfortable; he prefers it. But, no, I see no conflict. Again, we would be working on the same side of the street. Besides, you’ve already told us everything. There are no secrets, right?”

  “There are a lot of secrets. I just don’t know them yet.”

  “And I won’t ask. What about your boss?”

  “He’s a pushover.”

  “Thought so. I got the impression that when you’re in the room you’re pretty much in charge. Dinner, nice bottle of wine, hell, maybe even some candles? I’ll pick you up at seven, assuming of course your brother is not around.”

  “He’s not.”

  “Good. What a piece of work.”

  “Gunther is very protective of his little sister.”

  “Can’t say I blame him. Seven?”

  “Seven thirty. And pick a nice place but not something too fancy. Forget the candles. We work for the government and we’ll split the check.”

  “Deal.”

  —

  He picked her up in a late-model SUV, one just washed and shined and vacuumed for the occasion. For the first five minutes they talked about cars. Lacy was tired of the rental she’d been driving and ready for a new set of wheels. She loved her old hybrid, but the crash had her thinking of something a bit sturdier. They were heading south, away from downtown.

  “You like Cajun food?” he asked.

  “Love it.”

  “Ever been to Johnny Ray’s?”

  “No, but I’ve heard it’s great.”

  “Let’s try it.”

  She liked the SUV but found it a bit on the masculine side. She was curious about its cost. Through some quick research she had learned that the current starting salary for a special agent was $52,000. Allie had been with the bureau for five years, so she figured they were earning about the same. He had commented on how nice her apartment was, and said he was sharing one with another agent. Reassignment was a way of life in the bureau, and he was hesitant to buy a place.

  They waded through the background pleasantries, though each knew the other had dug through the Internet. He grew up in Omaha; college and law school at Nebraska. Off duty, he had the relaxed easiness of a midwesterner, with a complete lack of pretension. Her undergraduate degree was from William & Mary; law school at Tulane. They found common ground in New Orleans, where he’d spent his first two years with the bureau. Neither really missed the place, too much humidity and crime, though the way they talked about it now they seemed downright homesick. By the time they parked and walked into the restaurant, Lacy was giving the guy high marks on every front. Be cool, she told herself, they always disappoint.

  At a quiet corner table, they opened the menus. When the waiter stepped away, she said, “Just a reminder. We’re splitting the check.”

  “Okay, but I would like to pay. After all, I invited you.”

  “Thanks, but we’ll split it.” And that was the end of that conversation.

  They decided to start with a dozen raw oysters each and agreed on a bottle of Sancerre. When the menus were gone, he said, “So what would you like to talk about?”

  She chuckled at his bluntness. “Anything but the case.”

  “Fair enough. You pick a topic, then I’ll pick one. And anything is fair game, anything but the casino and all that.”

  “That’s pretty broad. You go first and let’s see how things unwind.”

  “Okay, I have a great question. And if you don’t want to talk about it, I understand. What’s it like getting hit with an air bag?”

  “I take it you’ve missed that experience so far.”

  “Yes, so far.”

  She took a sip of water and a deep breath. “It’s loud, sudden, jolting. One second it’s just sitting there, invisible inside the steering wheel, never to be thought about, and a millisecond later it’s exploding in your face at two hundred miles an hour. That, along with the impact, knocked me out. Not for very long, because I remember someone moving around the car. After that, I blacked out. The air bag saved my life, but it’s a rough way to go. Once is enough.”

  “I’m sure it is. Have you completely recovered?”

  “For the most part. There’s still some soreness here and there, but every day is better. I wish my hair would grow faster.”

  “You’re beautiful with short hair.”

  The wine arrived. Lacy tasted it and approved. They touched glasses and had a drink. “Your turn,” he said.

  “What? You’ve had enough of air bags?”
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  “Just curious. I had a friend who was behind the wheel when he swerved to miss a pedestrian. Instead he hit a utility pole, going about twenty miles an hour. He would’ve been fine but the air bag banged him around pretty bad. He kept ice packs on his face for a week.”

  “I prefer to have them. Why’d you go to law school?”

  “My father is a lawyer in Omaha and it just seemed like the thing to do. I never thought about changing the world, like most first-year law students; I was just thinking of a nice job. My father has done pretty well, and I actually practiced with him for a year. Got bored real fast and decided it was time to leave Nebraska.”

  “Why the FBI?”

  “Excitement. No eight to five, behind-the-desk routine. When you’re chasing crooks—big ones, small ones, smart ones, dumb ones—there aren’t too many dull moments. And you? What made you want to investigate judges?”

  “Well, it wasn’t something I was dreaming about when I started law school. The job market was pretty soft when I graduated, plus I had no desire to do the big-firm routine. They’re finally hiring a lot of women, half my class was female, but I didn’t want to work a hundred hours a week. I have friends who went that route and they’re all miserable. My parents had retired to Florida. I was here and I saw an ad for a job with the Board on Judicial Conduct.”

  “You interviewed and got the job. What a surprise.”

  The oysters arrived on platters of ice, and the conversation stopped as they went about the ritual, New Orleans style, of squeezing lemons and adding horseradish to the cocktail sauce. Pacheco gulped his from the shells while Lacy used saltines, both acceptable methods.

  He said, “So you visited Junior Mace yesterday.”

  “I did, for the second time. Ever been to death row?”

  “No, but I’m sure I will one day. Anything interesting?”

  “Are you fishing for information?”

  “Always. I can’t help it. It’s in my DNA.”

  “Maybe a tip, a lead, or something. Junior may have information. Mainly, though, I think he just enjoys visitors.”

  “So you’re not going to tell me anything new?”

  “No, well, maybe. You’ve no doubt studied our exhibit detailing his trial and conviction.”

  “I’ve read every word.”

  “So you remember the part of the story where the two jailhouse snitches disappeared shortly after the trial.”

  “Todd Short and Digger Robles.”

  She smiled. Impressive. “Right. For years, the legend was that they were taken out before they could recant, which is often what snitches do. It appears as if one is really gone. The other, though, has made a miraculous comeback. Back from the dead, sort of, and he’s talking. He’s dying of cancer and wants to set the record straight.”

  “That’s great news, right?”

  “Maybe. Junior’s lawyers from D.C. were at Starke yesterday, and they asked me to sit in. They’re pretty excited about his chances of, first, staying the execution and, second, getting a new trial.”

  “A new trial? It’s been, what, fifteen years?”

  “Fifteen. Seems like a long shot to me, but these guys know their stuff.”

  “But this is not your case, right? You’re not involved with Junior’s habeas appeals. So you went to see him for some other reason.”

  “Right. Like I said, he thinks he might know something.”

  Allie smiled and let it pass. It was obvious she was not sharing anything else. They finished the oysters and debated the entrées. He decided to settle for another dozen. She ordered a bowl of gumbo.

  “Whose turn is it?” he asked.

  “Yours, I think.”

  “Okay, what other interesting cases are you working on?”

  She smiled and sipped more wine. “Well, within the bounds of confidentiality, with no names being mentioned, we’re trying to remove a judge who’s hitting the bottle pretty hard. Two lawyers and two litigants have complained. Poor guy has been fighting alcoholism for a long time and now he’s losing badly. He won’t schedule hearings until after lunch. Sometimes he forgets them altogether. One of his court reporters says he keeps a flask under his robe and pours the stuff in his coffee cup. His docket has a backlog and no one’s happy. Pretty sad, really.”

  “Should be easy then.”

  “It’s never easy to remove a judge. They like their jobs and usually have no place to land when they hang up their robes. My turn. What are you working on?”

  For an hour they traded war stories. Pacheco’s world of tracking sleeper cells and narco-traffickers was far more exciting than hounding derelict judges, but he was not judgmental and seemed fascinated by her work. When the wine was gone, they ordered coffee and kept talking.

  At her apartment, he walked her to the steps like a gentleman and stopped at the door. “Can we talk business?” he asked.

  “If you mean sex, the answer is no. I’m still too sore to get in the mood.”

  “I wasn’t thinking about sex.”

  “Is that your first lie of the night?”

  “Maybe the second.” He faced her and stepped closer. “Luna is close, Lacy. The disappearance of Myers has our attention. I spent most of the day trying to convince him that this case is potentially much bigger than we can imagine. We need something else, another smoking gun, and Luna might be ready.”

  “What about your big boss in Jacksonville?”

  “He’s tough, but he’s also ambitious. If he sees the potential the way we do, he’ll reconsider. Just give us something else.”

  “I’m trying.”

  “I know you are. And I’m waiting by the phone.”

  “Enjoyed the evening.”

  “And so did I.” He pecked her on the cheek and said good night.

  30

  Wilton Mace said he was calling from a pay phone, and he did indeed sound nervous, even jumpy, as if looking over his shoulder. Tomorrow, Lyman Gritt was taking his wife to see a doctor in Panama City, a specialist of some variety. He wanted to meet Lacy at the doctor’s office, a place no one would suspect. Wilton gave her the details and asked if she could identify Gritt. She said no, she had never met him, but her boss could. And her boss would insist on being with her. Wilton wasn’t sure how this would sit with Gritt, but they could figure things out at the doctor’s office. Don’t be surprised, though, if Gritt didn’t like it.

  Lacy and Michael arrived an hour early. While he stayed in the car, she entered the building, part of a busy medical arts complex with doctors and dentists on four levels. She loitered around the ground floor, read the directory, stopped by a café, then took the elevator to the third floor. The office belonged to a group of gynecologists, and its large, modern waiting room was filled with women, only two accompanied by men. Lacy returned to the car and waited while Michael went inside and covered the same territory. When he returned, they agreed the place was harmless. A perfect spot for a clandestine meeting. Dozens of patients were entering and leaving the building. At 1:45, Michael nodded to a couple leaving their car and said, “That’s Gritt.” About six feet tall, thin but with a potbelly. His wife had long dark hair that was braided, and she was much shorter and stockier.

  “Got ’em?” Michael asked.

  “Yep.” When they entered the building, Lacy eased out of the car and followed. Michael would sit and wait and hope there was no frantic call. He watched the foot traffic carefully, hoping to see nothing suspicious. Inside, Lacy read the directory again, killed a few minutes, and took the elevator to the third floor. She entered the waiting room and saw Gritt and his wife sitting against a far wall, looking as uncomfortable as everybody else. She picked up a magazine and found a chair on the other side of the room. Amy Gritt stared at the floor as if she might be expecting some awful news. Lyman casually flipped through a People magazine. Lacy had no idea if Wilton had described her looks to Gritt, but he seemed to have no interest in her. The receptionist was too busy to notice the young lady who had not bot
hered to check in. A name was called. The
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