The whistler, p.3
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       The Whistler, p.3

           John Grisham
 

  Hugo replied, “I dug deep enough to verify what Myers said. The Feds were after a real estate swinger named Kubiak, a transplant from California who spent twenty years spreading sprawl around Destin and Panama City. They got him. He’s serving thirty years for a long list of crimes, mainly bank fraud, tax fraud, and money laundering. As he flamed out, he hurt a lot of folks, including one Ramsey Mix, who was quick to roll over and cut a deal. He squealed on everybody else in the indictment, especially Kubiak, and did some major damage. Probably a good thing that he’s hiding on the high seas with a different name. He got only sixteen months. Everybody else got at least five years, with Kubiak taking the grand prize.”

  “Personal?” Geismar asked.

  Lacy replied, “Two divorces, single now. Wife number two left him when he went to prison. One son from the first marriage, guy lives in California and owns a restaurant. When Myers pled guilty he paid a fine of a hundred thousand. At his sentencing, he testified that his legal fees were about the same. That plus the fine wiped him out. He filed for bankruptcy the week before he went to prison.”

  Hugo tossed around some enlarged photos and said, “Which makes this somewhat intriguing. I snapped a picture of his boat when we met him. It’s a fifty-two-foot Sea Breeze powerboat, a very nice little rig, range of two hundred miles and sleeps four comfortably. It’s registered to a Bahamian shell company so I couldn’t get its number, but a good guess on the value is at least half a mil. He was released from prison six years ago, and, according to the Florida Bar, his license was reinstated three months ago. He doesn’t have an office and says he lives on his boat, which I guess he could be renting. Regardless, it appears to be an expensive lifestyle. So the obvious question is, how does he afford it?”

  Lacy took the handoff. “There’s a good chance he buried some of the loot offshore when the FBI came in. It was a big RICO case with a lot of casualties. I chatted with a source, a former prosecutor, and he says that there were always suspicions that Mix-now-Myers hid some money. He says a lot of the defendants were trying to hide cash. But, we’ll probably never know. If the FBI couldn’t find it seven years ago, it’s safe to assume we won’t find it now.”

  Geismar mumbled, “As if we have the time to look.”

  “Exactly.”

  “So this guy’s a crook?” Geismar asked.

  Hugo said, “He’s certainly a convicted felon, but he’s served his time, paid his dues, and is now an upstanding member of our bar, same as the three of us.” He glanced at Sadelle and offered a quick smile, one that was not returned.

  Geismar said, “Maybe saying he’s a crook is a bit too strong, so let’s just say he’s shady. I’m not sure I buy the theory of hidden money. If he stashed it offshore and lied to a bankruptcy judge, then he’s still on the hook for fraud. Would the guy run that risk?”

  Hugo replied, “I don’t know. He seems pretty careful. And, keep in mind, he’s been out of prison for six years. You gotta wait five years in Florida before you can reapply for admission to the bar. While he was waiting, perhaps he was making a buck here and there. He seems pretty resourceful.”

  Lacy asked, “Why does it really matter? Are we investigating him or a corrupt judge?”

  “Good point,” Geismar said. “And he implied the judge is a woman?”

  “Sort of,” Lacy replied. “He wasn’t real clear.”

  Geismar looked at Sadelle and said, “And I’m assuming we have our politically correct number of female judges in Florida.”

  She inhaled with effort and spoke with the usual raspy voice, one ravaged by nicotine. “Depends. There are dozens of girls handling traffic court and such, but this sounds like a bad actor at the circuit court level. There, out of six hundred judges, about a third are female. With nine casinos scattered over the state, it’s a waste of time to start guessing.”

  “And this so-called mafia?”

  She sucked in as much as her lungs could hold and said, “Who knows? There was once a Dixie Mafia, a Redneck Mafia, a Texas Mafia, all similar gangs of thugs. It looks like most of them were long on legend and short on criminal efficiency. Just a bunch of Bubbas who liked to sell whiskey and break legs. Not one word anywhere of a so-called Catfish Mafia, or a Coast Mafia. Not to say it doesn’t exist, but I found nothing.” Her voice collapsed as she gasped for breath.

  “Not so fast,” Lacy said. “I ran across an article in the Little Rock newspaper from almost forty years ago. It tells the rather colorful story of a man named Larry Wayne Farrell who owned several catfish restaurants in the Arkansas delta. Seems he sold catfish out the front and bootleg liquor out the back. At some point, he and his cousins got ambitious and expanded into gambling, prostitution, and stolen cars. Just like Myers said, they moved through the Deep South, always looking for a sheriff to bribe so they could reorganize. They eventually settled around Biloxi. It’s a long article and not worth the details, but these guys left behind an astonishing number of dead bodies.”

  Sadelle announced, “Well, I stand corrected. Thanks for the enlightenment.”

  “No problem.”

  Hugo asked, “May I ask the obvious question? If he files the complaint, and we serve it on the judge, and we begin our investigation, and things do indeed become dangerous, why can’t we simply go to the FBI? Myers can’t stop us at that point, right?”

  “Of course not,” Geismar said. “And that’s exactly what will happen. He does not control the investigation, we do. And if we need help, we’ll certainly get it.”

  “So we’re going to do it?” Hugo asked.

  “Damned right we’re doing it, Hugo. We really have no choice. If he files his complaint and accuses a judge of misconduct or corruption, under our statutes we have no choice but to do the assessment. It’s quite simple. Are you nervous?”

  “No.”

  “Lacy, any hesitation?”

  “Of course not.”

  “Very well. Notify Mr. Myers. If he wants to hear my voice, then get him on the phone.”

  —

  It took two days to get him on the phone, and when Lacy finally made contact Myers showed little interest in talking to her or Geismar. He said he was “tied up” with business matters and would call back later. The connection was weak and scratchy, as if he was somewhere far from land. The next day, he called Lacy on a different phone and asked to speak to Geismar, who assured him the complaint would be given priority and investigated immediately. An hour later, Myers called Lacy again and asked for a meeting. He said he wanted to see her and Hugo again and discuss the case. There was a lot of background material he could never put in writing, crucial information that would be essential to their investigation. He would refuse to sign and file the complaint unless they met with him.

  Geismar said go, and they waited for Myers to pick his spot. He waited for a week, said he and Carlita were “puttering around Abaco” in the Bahamas, and would head back to Florida in a few days.

  —

  Late on a Saturday afternoon, with the temperature hovering around a hundred degrees, Lacy drove into a subdivision, one with gates that never seemed to close, and weaved through a series of man-made ponds, all with cheap fountains spewing hot water into the air. She passed a crowded golf course, passed rows and rows of identical houses, all designed to showcase their two-car garages, and finally parked near a large open park with a series of connecting swimming pools. Hundreds of kids splashed and played in the water as their mothers sat under large umbrellas and sipped beverages.

  The Meadows had survived the Great Recession and been remarketed as a multiracial community for young families. Hugo and Verna Hatch had bought there five years earlier, after child number two. Now that they had four, their 2,200-square-foot bungalow was crowded. Moving up, though, was not an option. Hugo’s salary was $60,000 a year, same as Lacy’s, and while she was single and able to save a little, the Hatches lived from paycheck to paycheck.

  They liked to party, though, and on almost every Saturday afternoon in
the summer Hugo was at the grill by a pool, cold beer in hand, cooking burgers and talking football with his pals as the kids splashed in the pool and the women hid in the shade. Lacy joined the ladies, and after the usual greetings made her way to a pool house where Verna was holding the baby and keeping her cool. Pippin was a month old and so far had been an extremely cranky child. Lacy occasionally babysat the Hatch kids so their parents could have a break. Babysitters were usually not hard to find. Both grandmothers lived within thirty miles. Both Hugo and Verna came from large, sprawling families with countless aunts, uncles, cousins, and no shortage of drama and conflict. Lacy often envied the security that came with such a clan, but she also felt thankful she didn’t have to bother with so many people and their problems. Occasionally, Verna and Hugo needed a hand with the kids but wanted to avoid the relatives.

  She took Pippin as Verna went to fetch drinks. As she rocked the child she surveyed the crowd on the patio: a mix of blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asians, all young couples with small children. There were two lawyers from the Attorney General’s Office, friends of Hugo’s from law school, and another one who worked for the state senate. There were no other singles present, no prospects, though Lacy had not anticipated any. She seldom dated because there were so few eligible men, or so few who appealed to her. She had one bad breakup in her past, an awful split that, after almost eight years, was still baggage.

  Verna returned with two beers and sat across from her. She whispered, “Why does she always get quiet when you hold her?”

  Lacy smiled and shrugged. At thirty-six, she wondered every day if she would ever hold a child of her own. She didn’t have the answer, but as the clock ticked she worried that her chances were getting slimmer. Verna looked tired, as did Hugo. They wanted a large family of their own, but, seriously, weren’t four kids enough? Lacy wouldn’t dare start that conversation, but to her the answer was obvious. The two had been lucky to go to college, the first in their families to do so, and they dreamed of their children having the same opportunity. But how can you possibly expect to afford tuition for four kids?

  In a quiet voice, Verna said, “Hugo says Geismar has given the two of you a big case.”

  Lacy was surprised because Hugo was a firm believer in leaving his work at the office. That, plus the BJC stressed confidentiality for obvious reasons. Occasionally, after a few beers late at night, the three of them would laugh at the outrageous behavior of some judge they were investigating, but they never used a real name.

  Lacy said, “It could be big, or it could turn into nothing.”

  “He hasn’t told me much, he never does, but he seems to be a little worried. What’s odd is that I’ve never considered your jobs to be dangerous.”

  “Neither do we. We’re not cops with guns. We’re lawyers with subpoenas.”

  “He said he wished he could carry a gun. That really bothers me, Lacy. You gotta promise me you guys are not getting into something dangerous.”

  “Verna, I’ll make you a promise. If I ever feel the need to carry a gun, I’ll quit and find another job. I’ve never fired a gun in my life.”

  “Well, in my world, our world, there are too many guns and too many bad things happen because of them.”

  Pippin, asleep for all of fifteen minutes, suddenly erupted with a screech. Verna reached for her and said, “That child, that child.” Lacy handed her over and went to check on the burgers.

  4

  When Myers finally made contact, he told Lacy to meet him at the same marina in St. Augustine. Everything was the same—same sweltering heat and humidity, same slip at the end of the dock; Myers even wore the same floral-print shirt. As they sat at the same wooden table under the shade on his boat, he drank the same brand of beer from a bottle and began talking.

  —

  His Omar character was in real life a man named Vonn Dubose, the descendant of one of the original gangsters who did indeed begin their mischief in the rear room of a catfish restaurant near Forrest City, Arkansas. His maternal grandfather owned the restaurant, and years later died in a police ambush. His father hanged himself in prison, or at least the official report said they found him hanging. Numerous and various uncles and cousins met similar fates, and the gang had pretty much thinned out until Vonn discovered the allure of cocaine trafficking in south Florida. A few good years there provided the means to resolidify his little syndicate. He was now approaching the age of seventy, lived somewhere along the coast, and did not maintain a legitimate address, bank account, driver’s license, Social Security number, or passport. Once Vonn struck gold with the casino, he whittled his gang down to just a handful of cousins so there would be fewer hands in the till. He operated with complete anonymity and hid behind a wall of offshore companies, all of which were overseen by a certain law firm in Biloxi. By all accounts, and there were not many, he was quite wealthy but lived modestly.

  “Have you ever met him?” Lacy asked.

  Myers scoffed at the question. “Don’t be silly. No one meets this guy, okay? He lives in the shadows, sort of like me, I guess. You can’t find three people in the Pensacola area who’ll admit to knowing Vonn Dubose. I lived there for forty years and never heard of him until a few years ago. He comes and goes.”

  “But he has no passport,” Hugo said.

  “Valid passport. If they ever nail him, they’ll find half a dozen fake ones.”

  In 1936, the Bureau of Indian Affairs granted a charter to the Tappacola Nation, a small tribe of about four hundred scattered along the Panhandle, with most living in small homes in the swampy outback of Brunswick County. The tribe maintained a headquarters of sorts there, on a three-hundred-acre reservation ceded by the federal government eighty years earlier. By 1990, the mighty Seminole Nation of south Florida was discovering the bright lights of the casino trade, as were tribes across the country. Coincidentally, Vonn and his gang began buying cheap land adjacent to the Tappacola reservation. At some point in the early 1990s—no one would ever know for sure because the conversations had long since been buried—Dubose approached the Tappacola with a deal too good to be true.

  “Treasure Key,” Hugo mumbled.

  “You got it. The only casino in north Florida, conveniently located just ten miles south of Interstate 10 and ten miles north of the beaches. Full-service casino, open twenty-four/seven, Disney-style amusement fun for the entire family, largest water park in the state, condos for sale, lease, or time-share, take your pick. A veritable mecca for those who want to gamble and those who want to play in the sun, and it’s perfectly situated within two hundred miles of five million people. Don’t know the numbers, because the Indians who run the casinos report to no one, but it’s believed Treasure Key is easily in the half-billion-dollar-a-year range.”

  “We were there last summer,” Hugo admitted, as if he’d done something wrong. “One of those last-minute weekend junkets for a buck-fifty. It wasn’t bad.”

  “Bad? It’s fabulous. That’s why the place is packed and the Tappacola are printing money.”

  “And sharing it with Vonn and his boys?” Hugo asked.

  “Among others, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

  Lacy said, “That’s in Brunswick County, which is in the Twenty-Fourth Judicial District. There are two circuit judges in the Twenty-Fourth, one male, one female. Am I getting warm?”

  Myers smiled and tapped a closed file in the center of the table. “This is the complaint. I’ll give it to you later. The judge is the Honorable Claudia McDover, on the bench now for seventeen years. We’ll talk about her later. For now, please allow me to give you the backstory. It’s crucial.”

  Back to the Tappacola. The tribe was violently split over the issue of casino gambling. The opponents were led by an agitator named Son Razko, who was a Christian and opposed gambling on moral grounds. He organized his followers and they seemed to be in the majority. The proponents of the casino promised riches for all—new homes, lifetime pensions, better schools, free college tui
tion, health care, the list went on and on. Vonn Dubose was secretly funding the drive to approve the casino, but, as usual, his fingerprints could never be found. In 1993, the issue was put to a vote. Excluding those under eighteen, there were about three hundred eligible voters. All but fourteen made it to the polls, which were being watched by federal marshals, just in case things turned violent. Son Razko and his traditionalists won with 54 percent of the vote. A nasty lawsuit alleged voter fraud and intimidation, but the circuit court judge threw it out. The casino was dead.

  Soon thereafter, so was Son.

  They found his body in another man’s bedroom, along with the other man’s wife, both shot twice in the head. They were naked and appeared to have been caught in the act. Her husband, a man named Junior Mace, was arrested and charged with both murders. He had been a close ally of Razko’s during the gambling debate. Mace steadfastly maintained his innocence, but nonetheless found himself staring at the death penalty. Because of the notoriety, the newly elected Claudia McDover moved the trial to another county but insisted on maintaining jurisdiction. She presided over the trial and favored the prosecution at every turn.

  The casino faced two significant obstacles. One was Son Razko. The second obstacle was its location. Much of the Tappacola land was low-lying swamps and bayous and almost uninhabitable, but there was enough high ground to build a large casino with the necessary acreage around it. Getting there was the problem. The road into the reservation was old, was badly maintained, and would never handle the traffic. With the prospect of tax revenue, good-paying jobs, and bright lights, the leaders of Brunswick County agreed to build a new four-lane road from State Route 288 to the reservation’s border, which was a stone’s throw from the spot where the casino was to be built. But building the road would require the taking of private land by eminent domain, or condemnation, and the majority of the landowners of the proposed right-of-way were opposed to the casino.

  The county filed eleven lawsuits at the same time, all seeking condemnation of eleven parcels of land along the proposed route. Judge McDover took charge of the litigation, ran roughshod over the lawyers, placed the cases on what amounted to her “rocket docket,” and within months had the first one teed up for a trial. By then there was little doubt, at least among the lawyers, that she was squarely in the county’s corner and wanted the road built as soon as possible. As the first trial approached, she organized a
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