The whistler, p.29
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       The Whistler, p.29

           John Grisham
 

  Vonn’s dirtiest work was handled by a longtime gun thug known as Delgado. Whether this was an actual name or just another fiction in Vonn’s world was not clear.

  For his day job, Delgado ran a bar, one of the company’s many cash cows and laundry sites, but his real value to the organization was his moonlighting. He possessed astonishing technical skills with weapons, mechanics, and electronics. Delgado had taken Son Razko to the Mace home and calmly shot him and Eileen in the bedroom, then disappeared without a trace. An hour later, he bumped into Junior in a bar and bought him a drink.

  After Junior’s trial, Delgado took the first snitch, Digger Robles, for a midnight boat ride and dropped him in the Gulf with chains around his ankles. The second snitch, Todd Short, came within five seconds of getting his head blown off by a deer rifle Delgado was aiming. The bullet would have hit his left ear before either ear could have heard the shot, but another head moved into view and Todd lived another day. He wisely fled the area. Delgado almost caught him in Oklahoma.

  The ultimate mistake of Vonn’s career was choosing Clyde Westbay to take out Hugo, rather than Delgado. He picked an amateur and not a pro. His rationale had been solid: no one would ever suspect Clyde; guns were not involved; it was a simple operation, in relative terms; and Vonn wanted Clyde to advance in the organization. He saw talent there, and he needed deeper loyalty. Involve Clyde in a more sinister crime, and Vonn would own him for life. The deciding factor, though, which surfaced only at the last minute, had been Delgado’s sudden flare-up of kidney stones, a bout so severe he was hospitalized for three days. The debilitating pain hit just hours after he had broken into Lacy’s car and tampered with the passenger’s side air bag and seat belt. With Delgado temporarily disabled, and with the situation urgent, Vonn instructed Hank to visit Clyde and lay out the plan.

  Delgado lived in a world of surveillance cameras and would never have gotten himself filmed at Frog’s.

  At any rate, his kidneys were now free and clear and he was back in business. He parked his little red “Blann’s Pest Control” truck in the driveway of a small home on a golf course five miles north of the Gulf. The entire development was a gated community, but then Delgado knew the gate code. A company from the Bahamas built the place. A company from Nevis owned the company from the Bahamas. Somewhere far up the chain of title sat Vonn Dubose. The owner of this particular home was in court, where she spent her working hours. She recorded important matters for Judge McDover, who’d made the original suggestion to buy the place.

  Delgado wore a cute uniform, red shirt and matching cap, and he carried a bulky spray can as if he just might annihilate every insect along the Florida Panhandle. He rang the doorbell but knew no one was home. He deftly slipped a thin screwdriver between bolt and latch and turned the knob. With the proper key, he could not have opened the door any faster. He closed it behind him and listened for a warning from the alarm. After a few seconds it began beeping. In thirty seconds all hell would break loose. He stepped to the panel behind the door and calmly punched in the five-number pass code, which he had hacked from the security company. Delgado took a deep breath and appreciated the complete silence. If the code had not worked, he would have simply left and driven away.

  He put on a pair of tight rubber gloves and checked to make sure both front and rear doors were locked. He could now take his time. There were two bedrooms. The large one was obviously used by the owner; the smaller had a set of cheap bunk beds. Delgado knew the woman lived alone. She was forty-three years old and divorced, no children. He went through two chests of drawers and found nothing but clothing. Same in the closets and in the two bathrooms. In her small, cluttered home office he found a desktop computer and a printer sitting on a set of low-slung file cabinets. Slowly, methodically, he went through every drawer, every file, every sheet of paper.

  —

  There was a man in her house! JoHelen Hooper tapped her iPhone. The home security app alerted her that her system had been disarmed at 9:44, two minutes earlier. She tapped again and found the footage. The camera hidden in the ceiling fan of the den caught him as he shuffled by, headed for the rear. White, male, age about forty, with a goofy red shirt and cap, pretending to be someone else. The camera hidden in the air vent above her bed caught him as he entered her room and began carefully going through her drawers. He touched everything.

  She swallowed hard and tried to maintain her composure. She was sitting less than twenty feet from Judge McDover, in the main courtroom in Sterling, waiting as a group of harried lawyers huddled by the jury box and tried to make decisions. Thankfully, there was no jury; Her Honor was only hearing motions.

  In front of JoHelen was her steno writer on its tripod stand. On her table was a notepad, some paperwork, and her iPhone, which she tried to look at casually without seeming alarmed. Alarmed! There was a man in her house slowly going through her underwear. Now he’s closing that drawer and moving to the one below it.

  A lawyer started speaking and JoHelen began recording. It was a worthless hearing in a meaningless case and if she missed a word here or there she could always check the audiotape. Her mind was spinning and she was terrified, but she stared at the lawyer, focused on his lips, and tried to concentrate. The app would record all footage from the four cameras hidden in her home, so she would miss nothing when she reviewed it during lunch.

  Be calm, be cool, look bored as you capture their legal gibberish at two hundred words a minute. After eight years of flawless court reporting she could almost do it in her sleep. Sleep, though, would now be another issue.

  Her big moment had finally arrived. For the past week, Her Honor had tipped her hand with her abrupt change of temperature. Never known to be warm and fuzzy, she had always been pleasant and professional with JoHelen, and they had enjoyed each other’s company as they often gossiped and laughed about things that happened in court. They were not close friends, because Claudia was too aloof for ordinary relationships. She saved her attentions for Phyllis Turban, a person JoHelen knew well but by reputation only.

  Since the day the officials from BJC arrived and handed over the complaint, Claudia had not been herself. She had been edgier, somewhat distant, as if distracted and worried. Normally, she kept her emotions on an even keel and was not given to moods. Lately, though, and especially in the past few days, she had been short and abrupt with JoHelen, and even tried to avoid her, while at the same time trying to gloss over her feelings with a phony smile and the occasional pandering comment. For eight years, the two women had spent almost every working day in the same room. JoHelen knew something had changed.

  What about the alarm? It was a new system with monitors on every window and door, installed by Cooley two months earlier. To bypass it meant the guy in the red shirt and cap was a professional.

  A brief pause as the lawyer looked for a piece of paper, and JoHelen glanced at her phone. Her intruder could barely be seen in her closet, rifling through her wardrobe. Should she call the police and bust the guy? Should she call Neighborhood Watch? No—calls leave trails, and these days it seemed as if most trails were leading back to JoHelen.

  Two lawyers were suddenly talking at once, something that happened every day in her world, and she deftly separated the two on the official record without missing a word. Her only real pet peeve was when three lawyers were talking simultaneously. A simple glance from her to the bench and Judge McDover would restore order. They often communicated with slight movements of the face or hands, but today JoHelen was trying not to look at her boss.

  The intruder would find nothing incriminating. She wasn’t stupid enough to hide records in a place so easy to find. Her records were elsewhere, locked and secure. But what would they do next? They had killed a man to intimidate and impede the investigation by BJC. Evidently, they had tracked down Greg Myers and silenced him. Now Cooley, her friend, confidant, handler, and co-conspirator, was either leaving or already gone, freaking out and seemingly on the verge of a nervous breakdown. H
e assured her she was safe, that her identity would never be revealed, but those were hollow words from last week.

  Her Honor called for a ten-minute recess, and JoHelen calmly walked down the hall to her small office, where she locked the door and watched, in real time, her intruder. The man was still in her house, now going through the kitchen drawers, carefully removing the pots and pans and then replacing them just as he found them. He was not a thief and would not leave a trail. He was wearing gloves. He finally made his way to her office, where he took a seat and looked around. He began removing files from her drawers as if he had all the time in the world.

  He worked for Vonn Dubose. And they now suspected her.

  —

  Allie Pacheco stopped by at noon for an update. They met in Geismar’s office, at the worktable cluttered with files of other pending cases. Allie wasn’t smug when he talked about their success with Clyde Westbay, but he was obviously proud of their work. And, the best was yet to come.

  All of their requests for wiretapping and surveillance had been approved by a federal judge, and their tech team was listening to dozens of phones. The FBI had located the homes of Vance and Floyd Maton, Ron Skinner, and Hank Skoley, four of the five Cousins. Their boss, Mr. Dubose, was currently living in a cottage in Rosemary Beach. The night before, Hank had driven Vonn to a swanky restaurant near Panama City where they met a third man, a guy who just happened to be a Brunswick County supervisor. The purpose of the meeting was not clear and the FBI was not eavesdropping.

  Dubose still had them baffled. They were now in agreement that the name had to be fictitious, and that he had done a marvelous job for the past thirty or forty years living as someone else. As to bloodlines, the past was murky. Given the moral vagaries of their ancestors, it was proving to be difficult ascertaining the degree to which the Cousins were actually related. But this mattered only in their search for Vonn’s real identity.

  Clyde gave them the names of seven other managers. So far, the FBI had identified almost thirty bars, restaurants, hotels, shopping centers, strip clubs, liquor stores, convenience stores, residential developments, gated communities, and golf courses believed to be managed by the eight men, including Clyde. Every single entity was owned by an offshore company, most registered in Belize, the Bahamas, or the Cayman Islands.

  Their investigation was expanding by the hour. Their boss in Jacksonville was committing all the manpower and resources Tallahassee was asking for. Luna, Pacheco’s supervisor, had dropped everything and was running the operation. The U.S. Attorney’s Office had four lawyers tag teaming with the FBI.

  Pacheco was wired and all business. They were pulling twenty hours a day; he seemed to have little interest in Lacy, at least outside the office. When he raced off, Geismar asked her, “Are you seeing him?”

  “Just saw him.”

  “You know what I mean.”

  “We’ve had a lunch, two dinners, and two late-night bottles of wine. I think I like him but we’re going real slow.”

  “Don’t you always go slow?”

  “I do. Does it bother you?”

  “Sort of. It’s in the gray area.”

  “He and I have talked about it. We’re on the same side of the street, but not in the same office. He couldn’t date another agent in this town, but their rules do not include me. You want me to break it off ?”

  “What if I said yes?”

  “You’re the boss and I would do as instructed. He’ll be around. He’s not going anywhere.”

  “I’m not asking. I think you’re okay with him, but just be careful what you say. You can rest assured he’s not telling us everything.”

  “True, but he knows a lot more than we do.”

  36

  During the slow drive home, JoHelen mulled her options and realized that none were attractive. She couldn’t simply run away and disappear. She had to at least go inside and look around and see if anything was missing, though the footage clearly showed the intruder leaving with nothing of hers. He was inside for ninety-three minutes, far too long for the monthly service. He came and went without a key but with her alarm pass code. What would stop him from returning at two in the morning for another house call? Should she stay at home or leave? If she left, where would she go?

  She cursed Cooley with a bitterness that surprised her. They had started this little conspiracy joined at the hip, partners in a scheme to do good and make a bundle along the way, but now he had cracked up. He was gone, running away before Dubose could get him too, and leaving her behind, unguarded, vulnerable, frightened, and directionless.

  The gate was opened automatically by the magnetic sticker on her parking decal. Sandy Gables, unit 58. She parked in her driveway, stared at her home, and knew it would never be the same. This was the moment, right? Stay? Run? Hide? How was she supposed to know? At this critical point, she was supposed to have a friend to protect her.

  She grabbed her purse, got out, and walked to the front door. She unlocked it but did not open it. Across the street she saw Mr. Armstrong puttering around his carport. She went over and explained that her door was unlocked and she was spooked. Could he come over? She hated to ask and she was probably overreacting anyway, but nowadays a girl can’t be too careful, can she? Mr. Armstrong was a kindly soul, retired and bored, and he said sure. They entered together and she turned off the alarm. He stood in the den and talked about his wife’s latest flare-up of shingles as JoHelen scurried about, checking every room while asking every conceivable question about the affliction. She poked in the closets, looked under the beds, in the showers, the pantry, anywhere a person could possibly hide. She knew no one was there but it didn’t matter. If she didn’t at least search the place she couldn’t think of staying.

  She thanked Mr. Armstrong and offered him a diet soda. He seized the opportunity for a chat and an hour later was still there. She was in no hurry to be alone. When he finally left, she sat in the den and tried to collect her thoughts. A plank popped in the attic and she jumped out of her skin. As her heart raced and her breathing intensified, she listened for another sound. Could it be a footstep? But there was nothing but silence. She made up her mind to leave and quickly changed into jeans. What to pack? If they were watching and she left with a piece of luggage, her plans would be obvious. She could wait until dark and sneak a bag to her car, maybe two, but she had no desire to be in the house after dark. She took her bulkiest purse and packed it with toiletries and underwear. She filled a paper grocery sack with an empty gym bag and two changes of clothing. There were stores in the area; she could always buy what she needed.

  As she drove away, she waved at Mr. Armstrong and wondered when she might return.

  She drove south to the beaches, turned west on Highway 98, and drifted with the traffic along the coast, through seaside communities, and along the occasional stretch of untouched shoreline. As she drove she tried to watch everything behind her, but soon gave up. If they wanted to track her across the country, how was she supposed to stop them? She filled up with gas in Destin and kept going, soon skirting around Pensacola on smaller roads. When she realized she was in Alabama she turned east and made a long loop back to Interstate 10. At dark she stopped at a motel and paid cash for a room.

  —

  JoHelen had never spoken to Greg Myers. She knew his name, but he knew nothing about her. Through Cooley, she had received a copy of the complaint filed against her boss by Myers. He was willing to run the risk of exposing the corruption for a slice of the pie, though none of the three—Myers, Cooley, JoHelen—had any conceivable idea of when the whistle-blower claim would be filed. Myers, the lawyer and accuser, was to spearhead the legal efforts to claim the money. Cooley, the ex-lawyer, would handle Myers and JoHelen and facilitate matters for a healthy cut. Same for Myers. She would get the rest. The deal was nice and tidy and looked good in theory.

  Now Myers was presumed dead. Cooley had cracked up and fled. And JoHelen Hooper was hiding in a cheap motel, staring at a dispo
sable prepaid cell phone with only one number to call. There was no one else. It was almost 10:00 p.m. when she said, “Ms. Stoltz, my name is JoHelen Hooper. Cooley gave me your number. You remember him?”

  “Yes.”

  “And this is the phone he gave you?”

  “Yes. You’re the informant?”

  “That’s me. The mole, the source, the informant. Actually, Cooley said Myers liked to refer to me as the Whistler because I’m supposed to blow the whistle on Judge McDover. What do you know about me?”

  “Nothing, didn’t even know you were a woman. Why are you calling me?”

  “Because Cooley gave me your number, said you had a burner, said to call you if things got bad and I got scared. Well, I’m scared.”

  “Where’s Cooley?”

  “Don’t know. He cracked up and ran away, said he was leaving the country before Dubose found him. He found Myers, you know. I have no one else to talk to.”

  “Okay, let’s talk. How do you know Judge McDover?”

  “I’ve been her court reporter for the past eight years, but that’s another story for another day. While we were in court today a man broke into my home and went through every inch of the place. I know this because I have hidden cameras in my home with an app that allows real-time surveillance on my phone. He took nothing because he wasn’t a thief. He found nothing because I do not keep sensitive stuff at home, for obvious reasons. Cooley and I started planning this little adventure years ago, and we’ve been very cautious. So he added home security, the burners, the off-site storage of records, and a lot of other protective measures and habits.”

  “Does anyone else live there?”

  “Oh no. I’m single, divorced, no kids.”

  “Any idea who your visitor was?”

  “None, but I would recognize him, I think, though I doubt I’ll get the chance. I’m sure he works for Dubose in some capacity, and I suspect they’re closing in on me. The information I gave Cooley and Myers about Claudia could come from only a small number of people. I’m on the list. I’m sorry about your friend.”

  “Thanks.”

  “I’m serious. He would be alive if I hadn’t decided to bring down the judge.”

  “Why are you bringing down the judge?”

 
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