The whistler, p.28
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       The Whistler, p.28

           John Grisham
 

  hair, obviously Photoshopped for advertising and ego purposes. In the flesh, he wore a wrinkled suit that stretched around a belly, and wild hair that was both graying and thinning. After awkward introductions, he took his client into the bedroom, slammed the door, and kept him there for another hour.

  Meanwhile, Pacheco ordered a platter of sandwiches from room service and gave a passing thought to charging the food to the hotel’s owner. He did not; nothing to be gained by causing Westbay more embarrassment than what was coming.

  When Westbay and Bullington returned to the front room, they looked as though they’d just finished a heated argument. Pacheco offered sandwiches and bananas. Bullington grabbed one of each but his client had no appetite.

  Pacheco asked, “May we now proceed?”

  Bullington, mouth full, said, “I’ve advised my client to answer no questions.”

  “Great. But we’re not here for an interrogation.”

  “Then what the hell?”

  Rebecca Webb was sitting on a small sofa, scribbling on a legal pad. She said, “We’re prepared to offer a plea agreement. Guilty to one count of first-degree murder. The capital charge will be dropped later, as things progress. First degree carries life, but we’ll recommend a lot less.”

  “How much less?” Bullington asked.

  “We’ll start at twenty years and see how he does. It will be possible for your client to work off his prison time.”

  “What kind of work?”

  “Inside work. Informing. We doubt if infiltration will be necessary because your client is already a part of the gang. He’ll have to wear a wire, create a few conversations, that sort of thing.”

  Westbay shot her a look of pure terror.

  Pacheco said, “The short version, Mr. Bullington, is that we want your client to deliver the Coast Mafia.”

  “And what does he get in return?”

  Webb said, “Maybe as few as five years. That could be our recommendation, though, as you know, the final decision will be up to the judge.”

  Pacheco said, “Five years, then a soft life in witness protection. That, or the next ten years on death row before a date with the executioner.”

  “Don’t threaten my client,” Bullington said angrily.

  “I’m not threatening. I’m promising. He’s dead guilty right now of capital murder, and the U.S. Attorney will have an easy time proving it. We’re offering a sweetheart deal that includes the possibility of Mr. Westbay walking in five years.”

  “All right, all right,” Bullington said, finishing the sandwich in one huge bite. “Let me see these damned videos.”

  —

  It was almost 4:30 when lawyer and client reemerged from the bedroom after another tense meeting. Two agents were playing gin rummy at the table. Rebecca Webb was on the phone. Hahn was catnapping on the sofa. Pacheco was telling the housekeeper to go away. They had promised Mr. Bullington that the meeting would last all night, if necessary. They had nowhere to go, at the moment, and if no deal could be reached, they would leave with Mr. Westbay in chains and take him to Tallahassee, where he would be tossed into a jail cell, the first of many that would confine him for the rest of his life. If they left with no deal, there would not be another chance.

  Bullington’s jacket was hanging on a doorknob. He wore red suspenders that strained to keep his slacks in place. He stood in the center of the room and addressed the government. “I think I’ve convinced my client that the case against him is rather strong and that the likelihood of a not-guilty verdict appears rather small. Not surprisingly, he wishes to avoid as much time in prison as possible, not to mention that business with the needle.”

  Westbay was aging by the hour. He was pale, and, not a large man to begin with, he seemed to have shrunk into a near-lifeless state. He avoided eye contact with everyone in the room, his mind clearly elsewhere. The agents were observing him closely, and during the last lawyer-client meeting in the bedroom they agreed that they were worried about him. Wearing a wire into a room with Vonn Dubose would take guts and nerves and require a convincing performance. Westbay, now in his diminished state, was not inspiring confidence. The agents at first had enjoyed his tough-guy routine, which they expected, but were astonished at how quickly it melted.

  Oh well, you don’t always get to pick your snitches, and they had coached far shakier.

  Bullington said, “So what’s the drill?”

  Ms. Webb replied, “He’ll be indicted for capital murder along with the rest of the gang. That indictment will be set aside while we see how hard he’s willing to work. If he delivers, he’ll eventually plead to first degree and we’ll lobby hard for a light sentence. If he does something stupid like run away or blow his cover, we lower the boom and he goes away for life.”

  “That’s what I thought. Mr. Westbay?”

  Clyde gently threw up his hands in defeat and offered a goofy laugh. “Do I really have a choice?”

  34

  It had never been clear, at least not to Clyde, whether Vonn Dubose was a real name or an alias. Clyde was not one of the five “Cousins,” the nickname of the gang’s ruling membership. None of the other four used the surname Dubose. Vonn’s younger brother had been shot and killed in a bad drug deal in Coral Gables in 1990, and his name was Nash Kinney. According to the FBI’s research, Nash Kinney had been born in Louisiana in 1951 and had no brothers.

  Clyde admitted that most of what he had learned about the gang’s history had come along in snippets and was unreliable. The boys didn’t sit around the poker table and talk about the glory days. He’d actually spent very little time with the Cousins. He wasn’t even sure they were related by blood. Clyde had been on the payroll for two years before he met all five.

  Vonn Dubose had no address, driver’s license, Social Security number, taxpayer ID number, passport, bank accounts, or credit cards. This had been verified by the FBI, which had developed the theory the name was an alias that had been created and carefully protected over the years. There was no record of an income tax return ever being filed by such a person. According to Greg Myers, Dubose had been married and divorced more than once. However, the FBI had found no evidence of marriage licenses or divorce decrees.

  Henry Skoley was the first Cousin they needed to figure out. He went by Hank and was supposed to be Vonn’s nephew, the son of the brother who was shot and killed. But if there was no brother, then who the hell was Hank? The story was already breaking down.

  Hank was about forty years old and worked as Vonn’s driver, bodyguard, golfing companion, drinking buddy, you name it. Everything Vonn wanted or needed was in Hank’s name. If Vonn wanted a new car, Hank was sent to buy one in his name. If Vonn wanted to go to Vegas for a weekend of fun, Hank arranged the airplane, the limo, the hotel rooms, the hookers, and of course went along to sweat the details. Most important, Hank passed along Vonn’s commands to the others. Vonn did not use phones or e-mails, not for his dirty work anyway.

  Clyde handed over both of his cell phones, gave the pass codes, and watched as two agents began downloading his data. There were two numbers for Hank Skoley, but the FBI already knew this.

  Clyde did not know where Vonn lived at the present time. He moved around a lot, spending a few months here and there in new condos he’d built along the Florida Panhandle. Nor did he know if Dubose lived alone.

  Two Cousins, Vance and Floyd Maton, were thought to be relatives of Dubose’s. Counting Hank, that made four. The fifth was Ron Skinner, an alleged nephew of Vonn’s. Skinner lived on the coast near Panama City and ran the gang’s bars, liquor stores, convenience stores, and strip clubs, establishments that were essential in money laundering. The Maton brothers ran the gang’s sprawling real estate developments. Hank oversaw the hotels, restaurants, and amusement parks. It was a tight and disciplined management team, with all big decisions made by Vonn and everything anchored by the cash skimmed from Treasure Key.

  The next layer consisted of the managers, men like Clyde who ran
many of the seemingly legitimate businesses. There were about a dozen in this group, though Clyde had not met all of them. Again, this was not one big happy corporate family with annual picnics and bring-the-kids-to-work days. It was as if Vonn did not want one division to know much about the others. Ten years earlier, Clyde had been working at a hotel in Orlando when he heard of a job opening in Fort Walton Beach. He made the move because he enjoyed living near the ocean. A year later he got an assistant manager’s job at the Blue Chateau, and unwittingly entered the criminal world of the Coast Mafia, though he had never heard that term. He met Hank, liked him a lot, and was soon promoted to manager and given a huge pay increase. He was being paid well, far above the industry average, and he believed this was common throughout the Dubose empire. Buying loyalty. Once Clyde was in charge and doing a good job, Hank informed him that the company had just purchased the Surfbreaker half a mile down the beach. The company, an odd outfit headquartered in Belize, was being restructured, and Clyde would be running the two hotels in the Fort Walton Beach area. His salary was doubled again and he was given a 5 percent share of Starr S, the new company. He was led to believe that Hank and some associates owned the other 95 percent, but did not know for certain. Later, he would learn that it was all part of the same conspiracy.

  His life in crime began when Hank arrived one day with $40,000 in cash, all in $100 bills. Hank explained that it’s difficult to clean dirty money through hotels because almost all transactions are by credit card. However, each of the hotels had busy bars where a lot of patrons still paid by cash. Hank proceeded to outline in detail how the dirty cash would be systematically added to each bar’s cash intakes. Hank never used the term “money laundering,” opting instead for the old standby “cooking the books.” From that day on, each bar’s daily cash receipts would be handled by Clyde and no one else. Over time he learned how to adjust the numbers depending on the flow of traffic in the hotels. He even devised a method to run dirty cash through the gross receipts at the front desks. The cooked books appeared spotless. The accountants in Pensacola congratulated him on the increase in sales but never inquired about anything suspicious.

  Clyde had kept records on a notepad, far away from the computers, and with a quick look he could tell the FBI exactly how much money he’d laundered through his hotels and bars over the past nine years. His best guess was about $300,000 a year. And this was just the small stuff. The serious laundering took place in their bars, liquor stores, and strip clubs.

  The gang slowly sucked him in. After two years as a manager, he was invited to Vegas for a boys’ trip. He flew on a private jet with Hank and the Maton brothers. A limo took them to a grand casino where Clyde had his own suite. All expenses were covered by Hank—steak dinners, fine wines, gorgeous hookers. On a Saturday night, Hank invited him to a penthouse suite for a drink with Vonn. Just Vonn Dubose and the Cousins, and Clyde Westbay, now a trusted member of the organization. The following day, he and Hank had coffee in a casino bar, and a few of the rules were laid out. They were basic and amounted to (1) do what you’re told; (2) keep your mouth shut; (3) trust no one but us; (4) keep your eyes open and don’t ever forget that you’re breaking the law; and (5) never snitch because snitching can be fatal for you and your family. Loyalty was demanded, and in return Clyde would make a lot of money. He had no problem with the rules.

  The managers were also expected to visit the casino at least twice a month. The laundering was simple. Clyde would be given between $5,000 and $10,000 in cash by Hank to gamble with—cash that had come from the casino, through Dubose, through Hank and Clyde, and now given back to the casino. In return, Clyde, the gambler, would be given a stack of $100 chips. His favorite game was blackjack and he could play it well enough to almost break even. After buying, say, $2,000 in chips, he would play for an hour and take a break. Instead of leaving with his chips, he would tell the pit boss to “cash him out” and add the balance to his house account, one he held in a fictitious name. Once a year, he transferred the balance to a bank account controlled by Hank. Last year, 2010, Clyde moved $147,000 of clean money out of the casino.

  He was almost certain that the Cousins and all managers washed money this way through casino chips.

  Looking back, he did not remember the exact moment when he decided to cross the line and begin breaking the law. He did what his boss told him to do, and there seemed to be no harm in doing it. He knew the laundering was illegal, but it was so easy. There was no way to get caught. Hell, their own accountants had no clue. Besides, he was being paid a lot of money, and spending a lot, and life was good. Sure he was working for a criminal organization, but his bit part in the racketeering certainly could not amount to much. Over time it became his life, his security. He would drive along the coast in Brunswick County, notice a new high-rise going up or see signs for a new gated golf course community, and feel a bit of pride because Vonn was kicking ass. If the Feds ever came snooping around, surely they would go after the big boys, the Cousins, and not worry about the small fish like him.

  No one was looking, though. No one seemed to care. After a few years it was simply business as usual.

  That was why it was so startling when Hank called to say they could have a problem. Judge McDover, a person he’d never met, was receiving some unwelcome attention. Clyde lived in another judicial district and hardly knew her name. He did not understand her role in the Dubose organization, but assumed it was significant, given the level of alarm. Hank, who rarely mentioned his uncle, admitted that Vonn was worried. Something had to be done.

  Hank paid a visit to Clyde’s office at the Surfbreaker, and over coffee at a poolside table informed him that Vonn needed a favor. Vonn had chosen him, Clyde Westbay, for some dirty business because no one would ever suspect Clyde. Murder was never mentioned. It was to be intimidation only, though certainly of a most violent nature. A car crash, on tribal land, late at night. Obviously, Clyde didn’t want to do it, but found it impossible to say no. Indeed, he managed to take it in stride as if it was all in a day’s work—anything for the Cousins.

  Hank agreed that Zeke Foreman would make a suitable stooge. Hank arranged the delivery of the stolen truck; Clyde had no knowledge of those arrangements. This was typical of the gang: keep information limited so leaks can be controlled. Hank provided the fake Florida tags for the truck driven by Clyde. The operation went smoothly, with Hank on the ground and on the phones directing traffic. Clyde did not know the identity of the man who pretended to be an informant and lured Lacy and Hugo to the reservation. Seconds after the collision, Clyde parked behind the Dodge Ram and told Zeke to get away from the Prius, to get in his truck. By then Zeke’s nose was bleeding. Clyde checked the air bag in the Dodge and found no blood. Hugo was a mess, stuck in the shattered windshield, groaning and kicking about and bleeding like hell. His cell phone was in the right rear pocket of his jeans. Clyde noticed his seat belt had not been fastened but could not tell if the passenger’s air bag deployed.

  No, he had no knowledge of anyone tampering with the seat belt and air bag. No, he did not touch Hugo in any manner except to remove his cell phone. He wore rubber gloves and was horrified to be so close to a man who was struggling and bleeding profusely. Westbay admitted to feeling terrible about being there. But he had orders. Lacy’s cell phone and iPad were on the left rear floorboard, but the rear door had been crimped shut by the collision. He managed to open the door behind Hugo and remove both of them. She was bleeding and mumbling and trying to move about.

  Clyde got through this part of his narrative with no emotion. If he felt remorse, he refused to show it. He did, though, need a break for the bathroom. It was almost 6:00 p.m.

  —

  He and Zeke left on a dirt trail, one he and Hank had found the day before. No he did not remember Zeke tossing anything out of the window. Pacheco showed him a sample of the bloody paper towel. He could not explain why he parked in front of Frog’s store. His only excuse was that he wasn’t sure it was even op
en. Plus the place was such a dump—could it really have surveillance cameras? Pretty stupid, in retrospect. He and Zeke drank a beer as they left Brunswick County. They stopped at a rest area on Interstate 10 and waited for Hank. Clyde gave him a shopping bag containing the two cell phones and iPad. From there they returned to Fort Walton Beach and to the Blue Chateau, where the kid went to a room and spent the night. The next day Clyde took him to the doctor and an X-ray revealed no broken bones. He gave Zeke $5,000 in cash and thought the matter was behind them. Clyde watched the news all morning and was stunned when he heard that Hugo Hatch had died. A week or so later, Hank stopped by the office, furious and fuming about the video. He said Vonn was furious and scrambling to contain the damage. They ran Zeke out of town with instructions to stay far away until further notice.

  No, he, Clyde, had not spoken to Vonn since long before the accident, and now he really didn’t want to. Though Clyde had been looking over his shoulder and sleeping fitfully, things seemed to have settled down, until today anyway. Now the world was upside down.

  Hahn ordered more sandwiches and fruit, and when they were delivered Westbay, and Bullington, stepped into the bedroom. It was almost 8:00 p.m., and Westbay said his wife might be getting worried. He called her and said he was taking care of some unexpected business.

  As they ate, Allie Pacheco and Rebecca Webb tag teamed through another round of interrogation. When they finally finished, at almost 10:00 p.m., Clyde Westbay had been on video for over six hours and had given more than enough information to launch the assault against Dubose and his Cousins. Back in Tallahassee, another team of agents had watched and listened to it all, and were already weaving their web.

  Clyde left the Surfbreaker a free man, free in the sense that he wore no handcuffs nor ankle chains. But he had left his soul up there in the Dolphin Suite, all duly recorded on film and filed away to torment him later. He would have a few days, maybe weeks of freedom before being snatched in a high-profile raid. Panic from his wife and kids; photos on the front page; frantic calls from family and friends. Clyde, as a member of a criminal syndicate, indicted for capital murder.

  As he drove aimlessly around Destin, he gave a passing thought to his ex-girlfriend Tammy. What a slut! Sleeping with half the town, including that worm Walter. Perhaps his wife would never know. And how much should he tell her now? Should he get it all over with or wait for the raid, for the horror of being led away in chains?

  How the hell was he supposed to know what to do? His life was over.

  The more he drove the more he liked the idea of a bullet to the brain, of checking out on his terms, as opposed to some nasty hit ordered by Dubose. Or perhaps a long dive off a tall bridge, or a bottle of pills. The FBI had him on tape.

  35

 
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