The whistler, p.27
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       The Whistler, p.27
 

           John Grisham

  “We’ve had this conversation.”

  “We’re having it again. What about Phyllis? She knows everything. How secure is her office?”

  “Phyllis is my partner in crime, Vonn. She’s just as guilty as me.”

  “I’m not suggesting she might talk. But who’s around her these days? I know she has no partners, only flunkies, but who are they?”

  “She’s a fanatic about security. Nothing sensitive is kept in her office, nor in her home. For the important stuff, she works out of a small office no one knows about. It’s all very secure.”

  “What about your office?”

  “I’ve told you, Vonn. I use one full-time secretary that I run off every eighteen months or so. Not a single one has ever lasted two years because I don’t want them getting comfortable and nosing around. Occasionally, I’ll have an intern for a year, but those poor kids can’t take the pressure. And I have a court reporter who’s been with me for years and I’d trust with my life.”

  “JoHelen.”

  “JoHelen Hooper. A very sweet girl who does her job beautifully but keeps her distance from anything else related to the courthouse.”

  “And how long has she been your court reporter?”

  “Seven or eight years. We get along because she says little, kisses my ass when it needs kissing, and otherwise stays out of my way.”

  “And why do you trust her so completely?”

  “Because I know her. Why do you trust your boys so much?”

  He ignored her question and asked, “Does she have access to your office?”

  “Never. No one has access.”

  “There’s no such thing as complete trust, Judge. And it’s often the one you trust the most who’ll cut your throat for the right price.”

  “You should know about these things.”

  “Damned right I do. Keep an eye on her, okay? Trust no one.”

  “I don’t trust anyone, Vonn, especially you.”

  “Attagirl. I wouldn’t trust me either.”

  They managed a forced chuckle at their own crookedness. Vonn went for more vodka and she sipped cold tea. As he was sitting down he said, “Let’s do this. Let’s take it one week at a time, meet here each Wednesday at five, and monitor things. And give me some time to think about your retirement.”

  “Oh, I’m sure you’ll warm up to the retirement plan. You’re already counting the extra cash each month.”

  “True, but, as I’ve learned, it’s so handy to have a judge in my pocket. You’ve spoiled me, Claudia, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to find another judge so easily corruptible.”

  “Let’s hope not.”

  “Getting religion in later years?”

  “No. I’m just tired of working. I had to take a child away from its mother today. She’s a meth head and a complete wreck, and the child was in danger, but it’s still not easy. It’s the third time I’ve snatched a kid away from this woman, and after a six-hour hearing, with all manner of emotion and name-calling, I had to order social services to take the child. So, as she’s leaving, the mother announces in open court, ‘Hey, no big deal, I’m already pregnant again.’ ”

  “What an awful way to make a buck.”

  “I’m tired of it. Stealing from the Indians is much more enjoyable.”

  —

  Lacy was on a yoga mat, trying painfully to complete a seated forward fold, a basic yoga move that she had done for years but not since the crash. With both legs straight and together on the floor, she was almost touching her toes when Cooley’s burner rattled on the coffee table. Since she couldn’t live without it these days, she had learned to despise it. Nonetheless, she immediately forgot about yoga and grabbed the phone.

  “Just checking in, Lacy,” he said. “No sign of Myers. Not that I expected any, but troubling nonetheless. The cops in Key Largo are looking for him but it’s a pretty cold trail. Some bank repossessed his boat a couple of days ago. Just talked to the mole. Nothing new there either, except that our gal met with Dubose today for their monthly cash party.”

  “How does he know this?” Lacy asked, but by now it was an old question.

  “Maybe you can ask him one day. I don’t know. Look, Lacy, if the bad guys can find Myers then they can find me as well. I’m pretty spooked. I’m moving around these days, one cheap motel after another, and I’m worn out, to be honest. I’m sending you a package tomorrow with another burner, along with a phone number. It belongs to a phone in the possession of the mole. We change every month. If something happens to me, you call the number.”

  “Nothing will happen to you.”

  “Thanks, but you have no idea what you’re talking about. Myers thought he was clever.”

  “True, but he also signed his name on the complaint. The bad guys have no idea who you are.”

  “I’m not sure I believe that anymore. At any rate, gotta run. Be careful, Lacy.” The call ended and Lacy stared at the cheap phone, expecting more.

  33

  With the autumn season approaching, the Surfbreaker readied itself for the annual invasion of Canadians. The lobby was quiet, the pool and parking lot practically empty. Clyde Westbay stepped onto an elevator for a quick ride to the third floor, to check on some room renovations. A guest in shorts and sandals entered the elevator just as the door was closing and punched the button for the sixth floor. When the elevator began to move, the guest said, “Got a few minutes, Mr. Westbay?”

  Clyde looked him over and asked, “Are you a guest here?”

  “I am. The Dolphin Suite. Name is Allie Pacheco, FBI.”

  Clyde’s gaze dropped to the sandals as Allie pulled out his badge.

  “What’s the FBI doing in my hotel?”

  “Paying a fat rate for an okay suite. We’re here to talk to you.”

  The elevator stopped on the third floor, but Clyde did not get off. No one got on. The door closed and they continued upward.

  “Maybe I’m busy right now.”

  “So are we. Just a few questions, that’s all.”

  Clyde shrugged and stepped off on the sixth floor. He followed Pacheco to the end and watched as he opened the door to the Dolphin Suite.

  “How do you like my hotel?” Clyde asked.

  “It’s okay. Room service sucks. Found a cockroach in my shower this morning. Dead.”

  Inside were three other gentlemen, all in shorts and sandals, along with a young lady who looked as though she was ready for tennis. The men were FBI. She was Rebecca Webb, Assistant U.S. Attorney.

  Westbay looked around the spacious room and said, “Well, I don’t really like the looks of this party. I suppose I could order you out of my hotel.”

  Pacheco said, “Sure, we’ll be happy to leave, but you’re going with us, in handcuffs and ankle chains, right through the main lobby, a perp walk for the benefit of your guests and employees. We might even tip off the local reporters.”

  “I’m under arrest?”

  “You are, for capital murder.”

  His face turned pale and his knees buckled. He reached for the back of a chair and fumbled his way into it. Agent Hahn handed him a bottle of water, which he gulped as it splashed down his chin. He breathed deeply and looked into the eyes of the agents, desperate for help. An innocent man might have already protested.

  Finally, he managed to mumble, “This can’t be happening.” But it was, and Westbay’s life was over. He was now entering a nightmare.

  Rebecca Webb placed some papers in his lap and said, “Here’s the indictment, sealed, handed down yesterday by a federal grand jury in Tallahassee. One count of capital murder, punishable by death. The killing of Hugo Hatch was a murder for hire; thus the aggravating circumstances make it a capital case. Plus the stolen truck you bought for cash crossed a state line. Not very smart.”

  “I didn’t do it,” he almost whimpered. “I swear.”

  “Swear all you want to, Clyde. It’s not going to help,” Pacheco said in mock sympathy.

  “I w
ant a lawyer.”

  “Great. We’ll get one for you, but first some paperwork. Let’s sit over here at the table and have a chat.” The table was small and round, with only two chairs. Westbay took one and Pacheco sat opposite. Hahn and the other two agents stood behind Pacheco, a show of force that was intimidating in spite of the golf shirts, shorts, and pale legs.

  Pacheco said, “As far as we can determine, you have no criminal record, right?”

  “Right.”

  “So, is this your first arrest?”

  “I think so, yes.” Thinking was difficult. He was bewildered, his eyes darting from face to face.

  Pacheco slowly and crisply read Clyde his Miranda rights, then handed him a sheet of paper with the language printed. He shook his head as he read, some of the color finally returning to his face. He signed his name at the bottom with a pen Pacheco helpfully handed over.

  “Do I have the right to make a phone call?” Westbay asked.

  “Sure, but you need to know that we’ve been listening to your phone calls for the past three days. You have at least two cell phones, and if you use one now we’ll hear every word.”

  “You what?” Westbay asked, incredulous.

  Ms. Webb produced another set of papers and placed them on the table. “Here’s the wiretapping warrant signed by a U.S. magistrate.”

  Pacheco said, “It appears as though you use the iPhone for most of your personal calls. Your Nokia is paid for by the hotel and seems to be used for business, and for calls to your girlfriend, Tammy James, a former waitress at Hooters. I’m assuming your wife does not know about Miss Tammy.”

  Clyde’s jaw dropped but he couldn’t speak. Could the revelations about Tammy be more troubling than the murder charge? Perhaps, but his brain was scrambled and nothing made sense.

  Pacheco, thoroughly enjoying the moment, continued, “And by the way, we got a warrant for Tammy’s phone too, and she’s also sleeping with a guy named Burke and another named Walter, and there could be others. But you need to forget about Tammy because your chances of ever touching her warm body again are quite slim.”

  From somewhere in Westbay’s throat there was a rumbling, burping noise that only one agent managed to read. He grabbed a plastic wastebasket and said, “Here” just as the defendant turned and began retching loudly. His face turned blood red as he gagged and wheezed and finally managed to vomit properly. Everyone looked away for a few seconds, though the sounds were just as sickening. When all of his breakfast was finally at the bottom of the bin, Westbay wiped his mouth with the back of a hand. He kept his head down and made a strange whimpering noise. An agent handed him a wet hand towel and he wiped his mouth again. Eventually, he sat up straight and gritted his teeth, as if now fortified and ready for the firing squad.

  A putrid odor began radiating from the wastebasket. An agent took it to the restroom.

  Hahn took a step toward the table and said proudly, “Plus, we have records of all calls on both phones for the past two years. We’re tracking down those numbers as we speak. Somewhere in there is Vonn Dubose. We’ll eventually find his number.”

  Westbay appeared to stop breathing. He gawked wild-eyed at Pacheco across the table, and finally managed to say, “I want a lawyer.”

  “Who do you have in mind?”

  His mind was paralyzed at the moment. He closed his eyes and tried to think of the name of a lawyer, any lawyer, or anyone who could possibly rescue him. There was a real estate lawyer he played golf with; a bankruptcy lawyer he drank with; a divorce lawyer who’d banished his first wife; and so on. Finally, “Okay, Gary Bullington.”

  Pacheco shrugged and said, “Call him. Let’s hope he makes house calls.”

  “I don’t have his number.”

  “I got it,” said one of the other agents, looking at his laptop. He rattled off the number but Westbay’s hands were shaking too badly. He succeeded on the third try and stuck the phone to his ear. Mr. Bullington was in a meeting, but Westbay wouldn’t take no for an answer. As he waited, he looked at Pacheco and asked, “Can I have some privacy?”

  Pacheco said, “Why bother? We’re listening anyway. Judge gave us permission.”

  “Please.”

  “Sure. It’s your hotel. In the bedroom.” Pacheco led him into the bedroom, but remained there with him. It was amusing to hear Westbay introduce himself to Bullington when he finally got him on the other end. If the two had ever met, it was not apparent. Westbay tried to explain his predicament, but Bullington, the lawyer, kept peppering him with questions. With his back to Pacheco, Westbay struggled to complete a sentence. “No, yes, look, they’re here right now, the FBI, lots of them, in Fort Walton, at the hotel…Yes, the indictment…federal, but…Would you just listen to me? I need for you to come to the hotel immediately. Drop everything…Your fee? Sure, how much…You gotta be kidding…Yes, federal capital murder…An FBI agent is staring at me right now, hearing every word…Okay…”

  Westbay turned to Pacheco and said, “The lawyer says for you to leave the room.”

  “Tell the lawyer to kiss my ass. I’m not leaving.”

  Westbay turned around and said, “He says to kiss his ass. Look, how much for just today, you know, for hustling over here and giving me some advice before they string me up?…Wow. Why so much?…I got it, I got it. Okay, but hurry up.”

  Westbay ended the call and said, “He says it’ll take him an hour.”

  “We’re in no hurry, Clyde. In fact, we’ve got the suite for two days, at a rate that’s supposed to be off season but is still too high.”

  They returned to the front room, where Hahn and the other agents were tinkering with two cameras on tripods. Pacheco said, “Now, Clyde, this is not an interrogation. We’ll wait for your lawyer before we quiz you. But to play it safe, we’re going to record everything that happens from this point forward. We don’t want some gunslinger to later claim there was a Miranda violation, do we? While we wait on Mr. Bullington, we have some video footage you might find interesting.”

  Westbay was seated at the table, as was Pacheco. A laptop was placed between them and Hahn pressed a key. Pacheco said, “This is actual footage of the Dodge Ram being stolen in Foley, Alabama, you know the one you paid cash for at that bar just east of Pensacola on the evening of August 22, while young Zeke Foreman waited in your truck, the one with the fake Florida tags. Take a look.”

  Westbay’s eyes narrowed to tiny slits as he stared at the screen. After seeing it the second time, he asked, “Who shot the video?”

  Pacheco held up his hands. “Hold it! You don’t interrogate. We don’t interrogate. Not until your lawyer is here. This is simply for your own information. Perhaps these videos will help you make some good decisions later in the day.”

  Hahn explained the second video, the one from Frog Freeman’s store. When Clyde saw himself parking the truck and getting out, his shoulders sagged an inch or so. With the sagging, the vomiting, the near fainting, the face blanching, and the weak, unsteady voice, Westbay was turning into putty. Allie sensed a quick kill, though the lawyer could complicate things, as they so often did.

  Twisting the knife, Pacheco said, “Pretty stupid to park directly in front of the store and get your picture taken.” Westbay nodded in defeat.

  Hahn ran the second video twice and asked, “Seen enough?”

  Westbay nodded and sat back in his seat. Allie said, “Since we have some time to kill, there’s a much longer video we think you’ll find equally compelling. We had a chat with your pal Zeke Foreman a few days ago. Remember Zeke?”

  “I’m not answering any questions.”

  “Right. So we roughed him up a bit, scared the boy really, and he started singing. I mean, he really sang. Play the music, Hahn.”

  Zeke’s frightened face appeared on the laptop. He swore to tell the truth, then did so for fifty-six minutes. Clyde listened intently, as his life slipped away with each minute.

  —

  By the time Gary Bullington arrived, t
he FBI had his profile, which was not that impressive. He was forty years old, a basic ham-and-egg street hustler with two billboards to his name and a practice that yearned for lucrative car wrecks but survived on workers’ comp and mid-level drug cases. His billboard image was that of a well-dressed young lawyer with a thin waist and plenty of
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