The whistler, p.32
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       The Whistler, p.32

           John Grisham
 

  JoHelen knew he was next door at the West Bay Inn, watching and waiting. He wasn’t as clever as he thought. He had no idea she had seen him in her little home video, easing from one room to the next, getting his image stolen and recorded by her cameras as he admired her lingerie and picked through her files. A big man, at least six feet two inches, with a narrow waist and thick arms, and a slight limp to the left side. She had seen him just before sunrise walking across the motel parking lot with an odd-shaped bag. Even without his cute little pest control uniform she knew it was the same man.

  She had called Cooley but he did not answer. What a coward, a creep, a gutless liar, who’d fled and left her all alone. She knew it was a waste of time to fixate on her former partner, but she was bitter. She had thought of calling Lacy but she was in Tallahassee. What could she do anyway? So JoHelen waited and tried to think clearly. Her speed dial was ready at 911 in case someone knocked on the door.

  At 9:50 the burner rang and she grabbed it. “Hello, Lacy,” she said as calmly as possible.

  “I’m on the strip. Where are you?”

  “At a place called the Neptune Motel, across the street from a McDonald’s. What are you driving?”

  “A red Mazda hatchback.”

  “Okay, I’ll go to the front lobby and wait. Hurry.”

  JoHelen slipped through her door and closed it quietly. She walked with a purpose but not a panic and descended the steps to the first floor. She crossed a courtyard and walked by the pool, where an old couple was lathering on sunscreen. In the lobby she said hello to the clerk and stood near a window to watch the motel next door. Minutes passed. The clerk asked if she needed anything. Sure, how about an assault rifle. No thanks, she said. When she saw a shiny red hatchback turn from the highway into the motel parking lot, she left through a side door of the lobby and walked to meet it. As she opened the door she glanced over at the West Bay Inn. He was jogging along the third-level walkway, looking at her, but there was no way he could catch them.

  “I assume you’re JoHelen Hooper,” Lacy said as she closed the door.

  “Yes. Nice to meet you. He’s coming. Get the hell out of here.”

  They turned onto Highway 98 and headed east. JoHelen turned and watched the traffic behind them. Lacy asked, “Okay, who is he?”

  “Don’t know his name. We haven’t met and I really don’t want to. Let’s lose him.”

  Lacy turned left at a busy light, then right at the next one. There was no sign of anyone giving chase. JoHelen found a street map on her iPhone and navigated as they zigzagged out of Panama City Beach and headed north, away from the coast. The congestion thinned, as did the traffic. Lacy was flying, unafraid of any cops because at that moment they would be welcome. Still using the map, they turned either right or left on every county route and state highway.

  Both watched the road behind them and said little. After an hour, they crossed under Interstate 10, and half an hour later saw a sign welcoming them to Georgia. “Any idea where we’re going?” JoHelen asked.

  “Valdosta.”

  “Who picked Valdosta?”

  “I figured no one would expect us to go there. You been there?”

  “Don’t think so. You?”

  “No.”

  “You look a lot different than your photo on that website, the one for BJC.”

  “I had hair back then,” Lacy said. She had slowed to a reasonable speed. In the town of Bainbridge, they stopped at a fast-food restaurant, used the restrooms, and decided to eat inside and watch the traffic. Both were convinced no one could have followed them, but they could not relax. They sat side by side near the front window, hunched over burgers and fries, and watched every car that passed on the highway.

  Lacy said, “I have a thousand questions.”

  “I’m not sure I have that many answers, but give it a shot.”

  “Name, rank, and serial number. The basics.”

  “Forty-three years old, born in 1968 in Pensacola to a sixteen-year-old mother who was part Indian. Small part, not quite enough, it seems. Father was a tomcat who loved on the run, never met him. I’ve been married twice and don’t think much of that arrangement now. You, Lacy?”

  “Single, never married.”

  Both were starving and ate quickly. Lacy asked, “The Indian thing, is that a factor in this story?”

  “Yes, indeed. I was raised by my grandmother, a fine woman, and she was one-half Indian. Her husband was a man with no blood, Indian or otherwise, so my mother was one-fourth. She claimed my father was one-half, but this couldn’t be verified because he was long gone. I spent years trying to find him, not for any emotional or sentimental reason, but purely for money. If he is, or was, one-half, then I’m one-eighth.”

  “Tappacola, right?”

  “Of course, and one-eighth gets you ‘registered.’ A dreadful term, don’t you think? We’re supposed to register felons and sex offenders, but not real people with mixed blood. I fought with the tribe over my heritage but simply didn’t have enough proof. And, because of someone back there in my gene pool I have these hazel eyes and lighter hair, so I don’t look the part. Anyway, those in charge of racial classification eventually ruled against me, and I was denied entry to the tribe. Not that I was ever a real member.”

  “No dividends.”

  “No dividends. There are those with thinner bloodlines who’ve made the cut and live off the casino, but I got screwed.”

  “I haven’t met many Tappacola, but you certainly don’t look the part.” JoHelen was an inch or two taller than Lacy, thin and fit in tight jeans and tight blouse. Her large hazel eyes twinkled even when she was worried. Her face was free from wrinkles or any hint of aging. She wore no makeup and didn’t need it.

  “Thanks, I guess. My looks have caused me nothing but trouble.”

  Lacy stuffed the last bite of her cheeseburger in the bag and said, “Let’s get out of here.”

  She drove east on Highway 84. With one eye on the road behind her, and with little traffic to worry about, she stayed within the speed limits. And she listened.

  —

  Not surprisingly, Cooley was not his real name, and JoHelen never revealed it. She had met him almost twenty years earlier when her first marriage broke up. He had a small office in Destin and a decent reputation as a divorce lawyer. Her first husband was a heavy drinker and physically abusive, and she became a big fan of Cooley’s when he protected her during an altercation at his office. She was meeting him there to discuss matters when her husband barged in, drunk and looking for trouble. Cooley pulled out a gun and got rid of him. The divorce went off smoothly and her ex disappeared. Before long, Cooley, who was himself divorced, called to check on her. They dated off and on for several years, with neither willing to commit. He married someone else, another bad choice, and she made the same mistake. Cooley handled her second divorce and they resumed their dating games.

  He was a good lawyer who could have been much better if he had stayed away from the dark side. He loved to handle sleazy divorces and criminal cases that involved drug dealers and bikers. He hung out with shadier men who ran strip clubs and bars along the Panhandle. It was inevitable that his path would cross with that of Vonn Dubose. They never did business and Cooley told her more than once that he’d never met Dubose, but he was envious of his organization. Fifteen years ago, Cooley heard the rumor that the Coast Mafia was involved with the Indians and their proposed casino. He wanted some of the action, but was sidetracked when the Feds nailed him for tax evasion. He lost his license and went to prison, and there he met one Ramsey Mix, another fallen lawyer and his future partner in crime.

  She was unaware of the name of Greg Myers until she saw it on the complaint filed against Claudia McDover. Cooley and JoHelen were much too frightened to sign a complaint and accuse her boss of wrongdoing. It was his idea to find a third person to do so, someone who would run the risk for a nice piece of the action.

  She was curious about Myers, so Lacy told he
r stories: their first meeting on his boat in the marina in St. Augustine; his little Mexican friend Carlita; their second meeting in the same place; their third meeting for lunch at Mexico Beach; his surprise visit to her apartment after she was injured; his disappearance in Key Largo; and their rescue of Carlita. According to her source at the FBI, the investigation into this disappearance was going nowhere.

  Lacy wanted to know whom they were running from, who was back there at the motel watching her. JoHelen didn’t know his name, but she had him on video. Lacy stopped at a country store near the town of Cairo, and on JoHelen’s iPhone watched part of the video of a man combing through her apartment. JoHelen explained that Cooley was a whiz with electronics and gadgets and had installed the cameras. He was also the guy who stuck a GPS monitor on the inside of the rear bumper of Claudia’s Lexus, and he also rented a condo across the street and took photos and videos of her and Vonn coming and going on the first Wednesday of each month.

  What happened to Cooley? JoHelen wasn’t sure, but she was angry. This entire operation was his idea. He knew enough about Vonn Dubose and the casino. He and JoHelen had been intimate, on and off, for many years, and he preyed on her resentment toward the tribe. He convinced her to apply for a job as McDover’s court reporter when she fired her old one eight years earlier. Once she was in place, as a state employee, they had a clear path to recovery under the whistle-blower statute. He knew the law and dug through the cases and filings and rulings and became convinced McDover was in Vonn’s pocket. He studied the development in Brunswick County and tried to track the maze of offshore companies at work. He recruited Greg Myers to front the attack. He was smart enough to keep her identity away from Myers. He’d been scheming for years, methodically putting his grand plan in place, and there were times when it indeed looked brilliant.

  Now Hugo Hatch was dead and Myers was missing, if not dead too. Cooley had jumped ship and left her all alone. As much as she hated Claudia McDover, she had wished a thousand times already that she had never agreed to help bring her down.

  JoHelen speculated that if Dubose got his hands on Myers he could make him talk, and quickly. At that point, Cooley became a marked man. Sooner or later they would suspect her as the informant, and there was no one to protect her.

  Before prison, Cooley had been a tough guy who carried guns and liked to hang out with small-time mobsters. But his three years behind bars changed him. He lost his cockiness, his nerve, and when he got out he desperately needed money. With no law license and a criminal record, his options were limited. A legal shakedown with a whistle-blower seemed the perfect operation for him.

  40

  They had no trouble finding the general aviation terminal at the Valdosta Regional Airport. As Lacy locked her car, she glanced around one more time and saw nothing suspicious. Gunther was inside, chatting up the girl behind the desk, and he hugged his sister as if he hadn’t seen her in years. She did not introduce him to JoHelen because she did not want to use names.

  “No luggage,” he said.

  “We’re lucky to have our handbags,” Lacy said. “Let’s go.”

  They hurried out of the terminal, passed several small planes on the tarmac, and stopped at the same Beech Baron Gunther had used to rescue Carlita. Again, he said it belonged to a friend. As the day wore on, they would learn that Gunther had some good friends. Just before she climbed through the small door, Lacy called Allie Pacheco for the latest. He answered immediately, said the grand jury was still in session and working hard, and where in the hell was she? She said they were safe and about to go flying. She’d call later.

  Gunther strapped them in and climbed into the cockpit. The cabin felt like a sauna and they were instantly sweating. He started both engines and the airplane shook from its props to its tail. As he began to taxi, he cracked a window and a slight breeze broke the stifling heat. There was no other traffic and he was cleared for takeoff. As he released the brakes and they lurched forward, JoHelen closed her eyes and grabbed Lacy’s arm. Thankfully, the weather was clear—still hot and sticky, though it was October. October 15 to be exact, almost two months since Hugo’s death.

  JoHelen managed to relax as they passed through five thousand feet. The air conditioner was on now, and the cabin was comfortable. The constant roar of the two engines made it difficult to talk, but JoHelen tried. “Just curious. Where are we going?”

  Lacy replied, “Don’t know. He wouldn’t tell me.”

  “Great.”

  The Baron leveled off at a cruise altitude of eight thousand feet, and the engine noise quieted from a roar to a hum. JoHelen had spent the past two nights in cheap motels, on the run and expecting the worst, and fatigue hit her hard. Her chin dropped to her chest as she fell into a deep sleep. Lacy, with nothing to do, also took a nap.

  When she awoke an hour later, Gunther passed back a set of headphones. She adjusted her mike and said, “Hello.” He nodded and kept his eyes forward, on his instruments. He said, “So, how you doing, Sis?”

  “Fine, Gunther, and thanks.”

  “She okay?”

  “She appears to be in a coma. Been a rough two days. I’ll fill you in on the ground.”

  “Whenever. Just happy to help.”

  “Where are we going?”

  “Up in the mountains. I’ve got a friend with a cabin no one can find. You’ll love it.”

  An hour and a half later, he reduced the throttles slightly and the Baron began a slow descent. The terrain below was far different from the flatland they had covered fleeing from Florida to Valdosta just a few hours earlier. As far as Lacy could see there were ridges of dark, rolling mountains already in shades of red, yellow, and orange. They drew closer as Gunther positioned the plane for final approach. She shook JoHelen’s arm and woke her. The runway was in a valley, beautiful hills all around, and Gunther touched it perfectly. They taxied to the small terminal, passing four other parked aircraft, all small Cessnas.

  When he killed the engines, he said, “Welcome to the Macon County Airport, Franklin, North Carolina.” He crawled out of the cockpit, opened the cabin door, and helped them onto the deck. As they walked to the terminal, he said, “We’ll meet a guy named Rusty, a local who’ll take us in, about a thirty-minute drive, straight up. He watches some of the cabins around here.”

  “Are you staying?” Lacy asked.

  “Sure. I’m not leaving you, Sis. How about this weather? And we’re only at two thousand feet.”

  Rusty was a bear, with a thick beard and chest and a big smile that seemed to leer a bit at the two attractive ladies. He drove a Ford Explorer that gave every appearance of having spent its entire life on mountain trails. As they left the airport, he asked, “Are we stopping in town?”

  Lacy said, “A toothbrush would be nice.”

  He pulled into the parking lot of a small grocery store. “Is the cabin stocked?” Gunther asked.

  “Whiskey, beer, popcorn. You want anything else you’d better buy it.”

  “How long might we be staying?” JoHelen asked. She had said little, as if in shock at the change of scenery.

  “Couple of days,” Lacy said. “Who knows?”

  They bought toiletries, eggs, bread, and packaged deli meats and cheese. At the edge of town, Rusty turned onto a gravel road, leaving the asphalt far behind. He climbed a hill, the first of many, and Lacy realized her ears were popping. He talked nonstop and far too casually as he sped along the edges of cliffs and across wooden bridges with rushing creeks beneath them. As it turned out, Gunther had been there only a month earlier, with his wife, for a week of cool temperatures and early foliage. The men talked; the women in the rear seat just listened. The gravel road yielded to a narrow one of dirt. The final charge uphill was straight and terrifying, and when they topped a ridge a beautiful lake was before them. The cabin sat snug to its shoreline.

  Rusty helped them unload their supplies and showed them around the cabin. By the time they arrived, Lacy was expecting some rustic lean-t
o with outdoor plumbing, but she was very wrong. The cabin was spectacular, an A-frame with three levels, decks and porches, a dock over the water with a boat moored at its end, and more modern conveniences than her apartment in Tallahassee. A shiny Jeep Wrangler was parked in a small carport. Gunther said its owner, a friend, had made a mint in hotels and built the place to escape Atlanta’s muggy summers.

  Rusty said good-bye and told them to call if they needed anything. Cell phone service was good, and all three had calls to make. Lacy called her apartment manager and asked him to ask her neighbor Simon to take care of Frankie. She called Pacheco and explained that they were hiding in the mountains and were as safe as they could possibly be. JoHelen called Mr. Armstrong and asked him to watch her house, something he and Gloria did at least fifteen hours a day anyway. Gunther, of course, had some deals pending and was frantic on the phone.

  Slowly, they relaxed. Fresh from the Florida heat, they marveled at the clear, light air. According to an old thermometer on the porch, it was sixty-four degrees. The cabin, at an altitude of forty-one hundred feet, had everything but air-conditioning.

  —

  Late in the afternoon, with the sun setting behind the mountains, and with Gunther on the phone and pacing along a porch far away, Lacy and JoHelen sat at the end of the dock, near the small fishing boat, and sipped cold beer from cans. Lacy said, “Tell me about Claudia McDover.”

  “Wow. Where to start?”

  “Day one. Why did she hire you and keep you for eight years?”

  “Well, let’s say I’m very good at what I do. After my first divorce, I decided to become a court reporter, and I worked hard at
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