The whistler, p.30
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       The Whistler, p.30

           John Grisham
 

  “It’s another story. Let’s save it for later. Right now I need advice, and I have no one else to turn to. I’m hiding in a motel because I could not stay at home tonight. I’m not sure about tomorrow. If I don’t show up for work, warning bells go off. I haven’t missed many days in eight years, and Claudia is already suspicious. If I go to work, I run the risk of walking back to her turf and that makes me nervous. What if they, whoever the hell they are, have made the decision that I need to go? I’m a sitting duck at work, or going or coming. You know how dangerous the roads can be.”

  “Call in sick, a stomach virus that’s highly contagious. Happens to everyone.”

  JoHelen smiled. So simple, why hadn’t she thought of it? Perhaps because her mind was spinning and nothing was clear. “Maybe, but what do I do tomorrow?”

  “Keep moving around.”

  “Did you know that Cooley hid a tracking device on the inside of Claudia’s car? He paid $300 for it and it took him about a minute to install. Said it was a piece of cake. Did you know about that?”

  “We knew that she was being tracked, yes. Didn’t know who or how.”

  “My point is that it’s easy to follow people, so moving around is not the answer. They can bug my car, hack my cell phone, who knows what else. Dubose has the money to buy what it takes. I’m feeling pretty vulnerable right now, Ms. Stoltz.”

  “Call me Lacy. Is there a bar in the motel?”

  “I think so.”

  “Go hang out in the bar until it closes. If an incredibly handsome young man with a flat stomach hits on you, take him back to your room for the night. If you don’t get lucky, get in your car and find an all-night diner, maybe a truck stop. Kill a few hours. If the motel has a night clerk, hang out in the lobby until sunrise. Call me then.”

  “I can do that.”

  “Just stay around other people.”

  “Thanks, Lacy.”

  37

  As instructed, Clyde met Hank Skoley at a sprawling construction site two miles west of Panama City and a mile north of the Gulf. Huge signs announced the arrival of Honey Grove, a planned community with lovely homes, fantastic shopping, golf galore, all just minutes from the Emerald Coast. In the distance bulldozers leveled a forest. Closer, crews were putting in curbs and gutters. And near the main road homes were going up.

  Clyde parked his car and took a seat in Hank’s black Mercedes SUV. They rode along one of the few paved streets, weaving around dozens of contractors’ trucks and vans parked haphazardly on dirt lots. Hundreds of workers hustled about. Toward the end of the street the homes were almost finished, and at the very end were three spanking-new model homes being used to entice buyers. Hank parked in one of the driveways and they went inside. The carport door was unlocked. The house was empty of people and furniture. “Follow me,” Hank said, and they climbed the stairs.

  Vonn Dubose was waiting in the empty master bedroom. He was looking out a front window, as if admiring the frenzy of yet another scorched-earth development. They spoke, shook hands, and Vonn actually smiled and seemed in good spirits. Clyde had not seen him in over a year and he had not changed at all. Slim, nice tan, golf shirt, and khakis, just another affluent retiree.

  Vonn said, “So, what’s on your mind?”

  —

  The bug was built into the Timex watch on Clyde’s left wrist, a watch identical to the one he’d been wearing for the past three years. Clyde had not noticed the watches worn by Hank or Vonn, and he was almost certain they had paid no attention to his. Men tend not to notice such things, but Pacheco and his technicians were taking no chances. The leather band was tight because of a tiny vibrator on the back facing of the watch. When the van was within range, the facing would vibrate and Clyde would know they were in business.

  It was an exact replica of a FedEx delivery van, and it rolled to a stop in front of the house next door. The driver, dressed in official FedEx garb, got out and popped the hood; some mechanical failure. In the rear was the FBI—Allie Pacheco and three technicians with their gear. When they were within two hundred feet of the Timex, they pushed a button and it vibrated. Inside the bedroom, the mike in the watch would pick up a whisper from thirty feet away.

  The day before, Clyde had spent four hours with Allie Pacheco and two other agents rehearsing his role. Now it was time for his big moment. Deliver Vonn Dubose, and he, Clyde Westbay, would serve a few years and grow old a free man.

  —

  Clyde began, “Two things, Vonn. I can’t find Zeke Foreman. I told him to disappear two weeks ago and call me every other day. We spoke a few times, then his phone went silent. I think the kid probably just freaked out and ran away.”

  Vonn looked at Hank, shrugged, looked at Clyde, and said, “I know this already.”

  Clyde, his stomach flipping fast enough to make sounds for the Timex, shuffled his feet and continued, “Look, Vonn, this is all my fault and I’m taking responsibility. It was a stupid mistake on my part, and, well, who knows what might happen.”

  Vonn looked at Hank again and said, “I thought I told you to pass along my displeasure with what happened.” He looked at Clyde and said, “Sure, it was stupid, but it’s done and I’m over it. It looks like the damage is contained. You just do your job running the hotels and I’ll get other folks for the dirty work.”

  “Thanks, Vonn,” Clyde said. “The other thing is that, I just want you to know, I’m willing to leave town for a year or so. I think it might be smart if I just, you know, took a trip and vanished until this blows over. You see, Vonn, my wife and I aren’t doing so well these days, and, frankly, it’s a good time for me to get away from her. We’re not giving up, but she’s cool if I hit the road for a while.”

  “Maybe not a bad idea. I’ll think about it.”

  “I mean, that’s my face in the video, and I’m not sure what I’ll do if some cop shows up at the office asking questions. Makes me kind of nervous, Vonn. I’d rather just leave for now. I have good people under me and I’ll check in every week. The hotels will be fine.”

  “Like I said, I’ll think about it.”

  “Okay.” Clyde shrugged as if he had nothing else to say. He took a step toward the door, stopped, and turned toward Vonn. Time for the Oscar.

  “Look, Vonn, I gotta tell you, I love my job and I’m proud to be part of your organization, but, well, you mentioned the ‘dirty work,’ and…” His voice began to break, his words were scratchy. “Look, Vonn, I’m just not cut out for that stuff, you know what I mean? I didn’t know that guy was going to die. I didn’t know it was all, well, you know, planned. Somebody tampered with the seat belt and the air bag and the poor guy went flying through the windshield. You should’ve seen him, Vonn. His face was cut all to hell, blood pouring everywhere, and he was thrashing around. He looked at me, Vonn. He gave me this look that said, ‘Please! Please!’ I have nightmares about it, Vonn. I just left him there. I didn’t know what I was doing. Somebody should’ve told me what was going on, Vonn.”

  “You were told to do a job,” Vonn growled and took a step closer.

  “But I didn’t know the job involved killing someone.”

  “It’s called intimidation, Clyde. That’s the name of the game and that’s how I run things. If not for intimidation, I wouldn’t be here and you wouldn’t be making a fat salary running my hotels. Sometimes, in this business, you gotta put folks in line, and sometimes these folks understand nothing but intimidation. If you don’t want to do it, fine. I guess I misjudged you. Thought you had some balls.”

  “I thought I had some too, but I lost them when I saw that guy bleeding to death.”

  “That’s part of it.”

  “You ever watched someone bleed to death, Vonn?”

  “Yes,” Vonn said proudly.

  “Stupid question.”

  “Anything else?” Vonn glared at Hank as if to say “Get him outta here.”

  Clyde raised his hands in surrender and backed away. “Okay, okay, but I really want to leave
for a year, to get away from all this. Please, Vonn.”

  “I’ll think about it.”

  —

  In the van, Allie Pacheco removed his earphones and smiled at the technicians. He mumbled to himself, “Beautiful. ‘It’s called intimidation, Clyde. That’s the name of the game and that’s how I run things.’ ”

  The FedEx man suddenly found a way to start his van. He drove away just as Clyde and Hank were leaving the model home. Clyde noticed it but had no idea it was loaded with FBI.

  Hank said nothing as he weaved through the construction maze. Traffic was blocked by a truck loaded with brick. In front of them the FedEx van was also waiting. Hank tapped his fingers on the steering wheel and said, “Wonder what FedEx is doing here. Nobody’s moved in yet.”

  Clyde said, “I guess they’re everywhere.”

  The Timex vibrated again. Pacheco was close by and saying, “Keep talking.”

  Clyde said, “So, Hank, do you think I was wrong to say what I said to Vonn, about me not wanting to do the dirty work?”

  “It wasn’t smart. Vonn despises weak people. You would have been better off saying nothing. You wanted to meet so you could offer to disappear. That was fine. But the chickenshit stuff doesn’t sit well with Vonn.”

  “I was trying to make the point that I didn’t sign on to kill people.”

  “No, you didn’t. But Vonn thought he saw something in you. So did I. Guess we were wrong.”

  “And what was that? What did you think you saw?”

  “A guy who might enjoy getting his hands dirty.”

  “Do you?”

  “Why don’t you shut up, Clyde? You’ve said enough for one day.”

  And so have you, Allie thought as he smiled again.

  Clyde drove away from Honey Grove and, as directed, returned to the Surfbreaker Hotel in Fort Walton Beach. He checked in with his secretary, made a phone call, and left. Using a rear door near a loading ramp, he walked out of the building and jumped into the rear seat of a gray SUV. Two FBI agents had the front. As they left the Surfbreaker, the driver said over his shoulder, “Nice work. Pacheco says you were marvelous. Nailed him.”

  Clyde said nothing. He didn’t want to talk or be congratulated. He felt like a worm for ratting on his colleagues and he knew things would only get worse. He could not begin to contemplate one day walking into a crowded courtroom and narrating the story, for the benefit of a jury, of the killing of Hugo Hatch while Vonn Dubose looked on from the defense table.

  He took off the watch and handed it to the agent in front of him. He said, “I’m taking a nap. Wake me when we get to Tallahassee.”

  —

  By 9:00 a.m. on Friday, Lacy had not heard from JoHelen and she was not answering the phone she’d used the night before. Lacy briefed Geismar and they were concerned. Using an office landline, Lacy called the circuit clerk’s office in Sterling and, after being passed around, was informed that Judge McDover was not in the courthouse that morning. She might possibly be presiding over in the town of Eckman. Since there was a chance JoHelen had gone to work, Lacy called the clerk’s office in Eckman, where a girl on the phone said yes, Her Honor was in the building, but not presiding. There was nothing on the docket.

  After a few more dead ends, Lacy had no choice but to sit and wait. She returned a call from Gunther and had a pleasant chat. He had nothing planned for the weekend, other than the usual “pending deals,” and said he might pop down for dinner Saturday night. She promised to call back later.

  —

  JoHelen awoke to bright sunshine and a dead phone. The burner, the last one Cooley had given her, was out of juice and she’d left its charger at home. Using her cell phone, she called Claudia, and rather convincingly went through the upset-stomach routine. Claudia seemed somewhat convinced and mildly sympathetic. Fortunately, there was nothing on the docket that day that would require a court reporter. It was not a day off. JoHelen lived with a permanent backlog of trial transcripts to prepare.

  She had to have that damned charger, which would necessitate a return home. She had closed the bar down at midnight. The only possible bedtime companion had been a forty-year-old truck driver with a scraggly beard that wiggled all the way down to his ample potbelly. She allowed him to buy her a drink but had not been remotely tempted to go further.

  She checked out of the motel at nine and drove toward the beaches, an hour south and east. Along the way she repeatedly reminded herself to keep an eye on the rearview mirror, but she was not up to the cloak-and-dagger crap. She parked in her driveway with a knot in her stomach and told herself she would never be able to live in the house again. Every inch of her private space had been touched and examined by a man with bad intentions. Even if she changed the locks and doubled down on the security, she would never again relax there. Mr. Armstrong was pulling weeds near his front porch and apparently wanted to flirt some more. She charmed him over with a big smile and said, “Let’s have something to drink.” He entered the house with her and stood in the door as she disarmed the security. She went to her bedroom, checking every room along the way and talking nonstop, curious about Mrs. Armstrong’s shingles and all. She found the charger where she’d left it, on the counter of her bathroom. She plugged it into the burner and returned to the den.

  “Where’d you stay last night?” he asked. He and his wife were infamous for their curiosity and lack of discretion. They monitored things on the street and wanted to know everyone’s business.

  “My sister’s,” JoHelen replied, knowing the question was coming.

  “Where does she live?”

  “Pensacola.”

  With the house apparently safe, she said, “On second thought, let’s go have a soda with Gloria.”

  “Oh, she’d love that.”

  They sat in the shade of the Armstrongs’ back porch and sipped beverages through straws. Fortunately, the shingles were on Gloria’s lower back and a proper viewing would reveal a bit too much skin. JoHelen was spared the examination.

  “You got a clogged drain?” Mr. Armstrong asked.

  “Don’t think so. Why?”

  “That plumber showed up around nine this morning.”

  Plumber? JoHelen quickly decided not to worry them. She said, “Got a leak, but he was supposed to come Monday.”

  “Pushy guy, I’ll tell you that. Wouldn’t trust him if I were you.”

  “Why not?”

  “Well, I watched him go to the door and ring the bell. Then he started fiddling with the door, you know, even reached into his pocket and pulled out a blade of some sort like he was breaking in. Hope you don’t mind, but I yelled at him and went over. Asked what the hell he was doing. He stuck the blade or whatever it was back in his pocket and tried to act like it was nothing. I said you were not home. He mumbled something about coming back later and couldn’t wait to get out of here. Me, I’d find me another plumber. I swear he was suspicious.”

  “You just can’t trust anybody these days,” JoHelen said, and returned to the shingles, a subject Gloria was keen to discuss at length. As she talked about them, her third episode in twenty years, JoHelen’s mind was racing.

  Abruptly, Gloria asked her husband, “Did you tell her about that pest control guy yesterday?”

  “No, I forgot. I was on the golf course, and Gloria swears a pest control guy was in your house for at least an hour yesterday.”

  Again, preferring not to alarm them and provoke a hundred other questions, JoHelen said, “Oh, that’s just the new guy, Freddie. He’s got a key.”

  “Sure takes his time,” Gloria said.

  At the next opportunity, JoHelen wiggled out of the conversation and said she was going to call the plumbing company and lodge a complaint. She said good-bye and crossed the street. She went straight to the burner, called Lacy, and reported in.

  38

  The current federal grand jury was convened at 1:00 p.m. on Friday, October 14. When organized four months earlier, it had twenty-three members,
all registered voters and otherwise duly qualified residents from the six counties that constituted Florida’s Northern District. Serving was a demanding job, especially for citizens who didn’t exactly volunteer. The pay was low, $40 a day, and their expenses were barely covered. However, the job was important and at times exciting, especially when the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office were on the trail of organized
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