The whistler, p.6
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       The Whistler, p.6
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           John Grisham

  steps to the door, then back to the table. He stretched some more, cracked his knuckles, sat down, and picked up the phone. “I don’t see it. My trial was over a long time ago. All of her rulings have been picked apart on appeal, and by some very good lawyers. We think she was wrong on several of them. We think a new trial should have been granted a decade ago, and so on, but the appellate courts have all agreed with her. Not unanimously; indeed, all of the decisions in my case have been split, with very strong dissents in my favor. But the majority rules and here I am. The two jailhouse snitches who effectively nailed my conviction and sent me away disappeared years ago. Did you know that?”

  Lacy said, “I saw it in a memo.”

  “Both vanished at about the same time.”

  “Any ideas?”

  “Two theories. One, and the best, is that both were rubbed out not long after my conviction was affirmed. Both were career criminals, real lizards who cleaned up nicely at trial and convinced the jury that I had bragged about the killings in jail. Well, the problem with snitches is that they often recant, so the first theory is that the real killers took out the snitches before they had the chance to change their stories. This I believe.”

  “And the second theory?” Hugo asked.

  “That they were taken out by my people in revenge. I doubt this, but it’s not completely far-fetched. Emotions were high and I guess anything was possible. Regardless, the two snitches vanished and have not been seen in years. I hope they’re dead. They put me here.”

  Lacy said, “We’re not supposed to be talking about your case.”

  “It’s all I have to talk about, and who really cares? This is all a matter of public record now.”

  “So that’s at least four dead bodies,” Hugo said.

  “At least.”

  “Are there more?” Lacy asked.

  He was nodding steadily, but they couldn’t tell if it was just a nervous tic or an answer in the affirmative. Finally, he said, “Depends on how hard you dig.”

  6

  The first courthouse built by the taxpayers of Brunswick County burned to the ground. The second one was blown away. After the hurricane in 1970, the county leaders approved a design that included a lot of brick, concrete, and steel. The result was a hideous, Soviet-style hangar with three levels, few windows, and sweeping metal roofs that leaked from day one. At the time, the county, halfway between Pensacola and Tallahassee, was sparsely populated, its beaches free of sprawl and clutter. According to the 1970 census, there were 8,100 whites, 1,570 blacks, and 411 Native Americans. A few years after the “new courthouse,” as it was known, opened for business, the coast along the Florida Panhandle sprang to life as developers rushed to build condos and hotels. With miles of wide and untouched beaches, the “Emerald Coast” became an even more popular destination. The population increased, and in 1984 Brunswick County was forced to expand its courthouse. Holding true to the postmodern motif, it built a perplexing phallic-shaped annex that reminded many of a cancerous growth. Indeed, the locals referred to it as the Tumor, as opposed to its official designation of the Annex. Twelve years later, as the population continued to grow, the county added a matching tumor at the opposite end of the “new courthouse” and declared itself ready for any and all business.

  The county seat was the town of Sterling. Brunswick and two adjoining counties comprised Florida’s Twenty-Fourth Judicial District. Of the two circuit court judges, Claudia McDover was the only one headquartered in Sterling; thus, she pretty much ruled the courthouse. She had seniority and clout and all county employees walked softly around her. Her spacious office was on the third floor, where she enjoyed a pleasant view and some sunlight from one of the few windows. She despised the building and often dreamed of ways to acquire enough power to tear it down and start over. But that was just a dream.

  After a quiet day at her desk, she informed her secretary that she would be leaving at four, an early exit for her. Her timid and well-trained secretary absorbed this information but asked no questions. No one asked Claudia McDover why she did anything.

  She left Sterling in her late-model Lexus and took a county road south. Twenty minutes later she turned in to the grand entryway of Treasure Key, a place she privately considered “her casino.” She was convinced that it would not exist but for her efforts. She had the power to shut it down tomorrow if she wanted. That, though, would not be happening.

  She took the periphery road along the edge of the property and smiled, as always, at the crowded parking lots, the busy shuttles running gamblers to and from their hotels, the gaudy neon billboards advertising shows by washed-up country crooners and cheap circus acts. All of it made her smile because it meant the Indians were prospering. People had jobs. People were having fun. Families were on vacation. Treasure Key was a wonderful place, and the fact that she was siphoning only a small piece of the action bothered her not in the least.

  Nothing bothered Claudia McDover these days. After seventeen years on the bench her reputation was sound, her job secure, her ratings high. After eleven years of “sharing” in the casino’s profits, she was an incredibly rich woman, with assets hidden around the world and more piling up by the month. And though she was in business with people she didn’t like, their swindling conspiracy was impervious to the outside world. There was no trail, no evidence. It had, after all, clicked right along for eleven years, since the day the casino opened.

  She passed through a gate and entered the swanky golf course and residential development of Rabbit Run. She owned four condos there, or at least she owned the offshore companies that owned them. One she kept for herself. The other three she leased through her attorney. Her unit on the fourth fairway was a two-story fortress with reinforced doors and windows. “Hurricane protection” had been her reasoning years earlier when she beefed up the place. Inside a small bedroom she had built a ten-by-ten vault with concrete walls and security against fire and theft. Inside the vault she kept some portable assets—cash, gold, jewelry. There were also a few items that didn’t move so easily—two Picasso lithographs, an Egyptian urn that was four thousand years old, a porcelain tea set from another dynasty, and a collection of rare first-edition novels from the nineteenth century. The bedroom door was hidden behind a swinging bookcase so that a person walking through the condo would not know the room, and the vault, existed. But no one walked through the condo. An occasional guest might be invited to sit on the patio for a drink, but the condo was not about drinking, or visiting, or living.

  She opened the curtains and looked at the golf course. It was the dog days of August, the air hot and sticky and the course was deserted. She filled a teapot with water and placed it on a burner. While it warmed, she made two phone calls, both to lawyers with cases pending in her court.

  At five, on time, her guest arrived. They met on the first Wednesday of each month at 5:00 p.m. Occasionally, when she was out of the country, they changed the meeting dates, but that was rare. Their communication was always face-to-face, in her condo, where there was no threat of hidden wires or bugs or surveillance of any type. They used phones only once or twice a year. They kept things simple and never left a trail. They were safe, and had been from the beginning, but they still took no chances.

  Claudia sipped tea and Vonn enjoyed his vodka on ice. He had arrived with a brown satchel, which he had placed on the sofa, same as always. Inside the satchel were twenty-five stacks of $100 bills, each bound tightly by rubber bands, each of $10,000. The monthly skim was half a million dollars and they split it equally, as far as she knew. For years Claudia had wondered how much he really took from the Indians, and since he did the dirty work himself, she had no idea. Over time, though, she had become quite content with her haul. And why not?

  She did not know the details. How, exactly, was the cash set aside? How was it kept off the books and away from security and surveillance? Who cooked the books to hide the skim? Who inside the depths of the casino actually took the loot and secured it for V
onn? Where did he go to get it? And who delivered it to him? How many on the inside were being bribed? She knew none of this. Nor did she know what he did with his share of the cash once it left the casino. They had never had such discussions.

  She did not know anything about his gang, nor did she want to know. She dealt only with Vonn Dubose and occasionally Hank, his faithful assistant. Vonn had found her eighteen years earlier, when she was a bored, small-town lawyer struggling to make a decent living and still plotting revenge against her ex-husband. He had a grand plan for massive development that would be fueled by a casino on Indian land, but there was an old judge in the way. Get rid of the judge, and perhaps an obstructionist or two, and Vonn would be free to start bulldozing. He offered to finance her campaign and do whatever was needed to get her elected.

  He was around seventy, but could pass for sixty. With his perpetual tan and colorful golf shirts he could have been just another wealthy retiree living the good life in the Florida sun. He’d been through two divorces and had been single for years. After Claudia became a judge, he made a move but she had no interest. He was about fifteen years older, which was not that much really, but there were simply no sparks. Then, at the age of thirty-nine, she had also been coming to grips with the reality that she preferred women over men. And she found him boring, to be truthful. He was uneducated, interested in nothing but fishing, golf, and building the next strip mall or golf course, and his dark side still frightened her.

  Over the years, as rumors circulated and details emerged and the appellate courts raised questions, Claudia had begun to doubt that Junior Mace had in fact killed his wife and Son Razko. Before and during the trial, she had been convinced of his guilt and wanted to deliver the right verdict for the voters who had just elected her. But with time and experience, she had developed serious doubts about his guilt. As the trial judge, though, her job had long been finished and there was little she could do to right a wrong. And why should she? Son and Junior were gone. The casino was built. Her life was good.

  But the reality was that if Junior didn’t do it, then someone in Vonn’s gang had pumped two bullets into the heads of Son Razko and Eileen Mace, and someone had arranged the disappearances of the two jailhouse snitches who had nailed Junior. Though Claudia maintained a facade of ball-squeezing bravado, she was deathly afraid of Dubose and his boys. In their one and only shouting match, now some ten years in the past, she had convinced him that he would be immediately exposed if anything happened to her.

  Over the years they had settled into a civilized relationship of mutual distrust, with each playing a well-defined role. She had the power to close the casino with an injunction for any half-baked reason, and had proven that she was unafraid to do so. He was in charge of the dirty work and kept the Tappacola in line. They prospered together, each getting richer by the month. It was amazing how much cordiality could be created, and how much suspicion could be overlooked, by truckloads of cash.

  They were sitting inside, in the cool air, sipping their drinks, watching the deserted fairway, smug in their schemes and incredible wealth. “How is North Dunes coming along?” she asked.

  “It’s on track,” he replied. “Zoning board meets next week and is expected to green-light it. We should be moving dirt in two months.”

  North Dunes was the latest addition to his golfing empire, with thirty-six holes, lakes and ponds, fancy condos and even fancier mansions, all wrapped around a contrived business center with a town square and amphitheater, and only a mile from the beach.

  “The supervisors are in line?” she asked. A stupid question. The cash Dubose delivered to her was not the only bribe he spread around the county.

  “Four to one,” he said. “Poley dissenting of course.”

  “Why don’t you get rid of him?”

  “No, no, he’s necessary. We can’t make it look too easy. Four to one works just fine.”

  Bribes really weren’t necessary in their part of the country. Take any form of growth, from high-end gated communities to low-end shopping centers, fix up a slick brochure filled with half-truths, label it “economic development” with the promise of tax revenue and jobs, and elected officials reached for their rubber stamps. If anyone mentioned environmental issues, or traffic or crowded schools, they were dismissed as liberals or tree huggers or, much worse, “northerners.” Vonn had mastered the game years ago.

  “And the EC?” she asked. Extra condo.

  “Of course, Your Honor. Golf course or high-rise?”

  “How tall is the high-rise?”

  “How tall would you like it?”

  “I’d like to see the ocean. Is that possible?”

  “No problem. It’s a ten-story building as of now, and from halfway up the Gulf will soon be visible on a clear day.”

  “I like that. Ocean view. Not the penthouse but something close.”

  The idea of an extra unit had been perfected by a legendary Florida developer nicknamed Condo Conroy. In the rush and fury of throwing up an ocean-side tower, plans were modified on the fly, walls moved here and there, and the result was an extra condo the zoning board knew nothing about. It could be used for a dozen purposes, none of which were exactly legal. Vonn had learned the trick, and his favorite judge had accumulated an impressive portfolio of ECs over the years. Her balance sheet also included slices of legitimate businesses: a shopping mall, a water park, two restaurants, some small hotels, and a lot of raw land just waiting to be bulldozed.

  “Another drink?” she asked. “There are two things we need to discuss.”

  “I’ll get it.” He stood and walked to the kitchen counter where she kept the hard booze, stuff she never touched. He poured a shot, added two cubes of ice, and returned to his seat. “I’m listening.”

  She took a deep breath because this would not be easy. “Wilson Vango.”

  “What about him?” Dubose snapped.

  “Just listen. He’s served fourteen years and his health is very poor. He has emphysema, hepatitis, and some mental problems. He’s survived a number of beatings and other assaults and there appears to be some brain damage.”

  “Good.”

  “He’ll be eligible for parole in three years. Now his wife is dying of ovarian cancer, the family is destitute, and so on. A horrible situation. Anyway, someone got to the Governor and he wants to commute the rest of Vango’s sentence, but only if I agree.”

  Vonn’s eyes flashed hot and he set his drink down. He pointed an angry finger at her and said, “That sonofabitch stole $40,000 from one of my companies. I want him to die in prison, preferably after another assault. You understand, Claudia?”

  “Come on, Vonn. I gave him the max because of you. He’s served long enough. Poor guy is dying, so is his wife. Ease up.”

  “Never, Claudia. I never ease up. He’s lucky he got prison and not a hole in the head. Hell no, Claudia, Vango does not get out.”

  “Okay, okay. Fix another drink. Settle down. Relax.”

  “I’m fine. What else is on your mind?”

  She took a sip of tea and let a minute pass. When the air was somewhat lighter, she said, “Look, Vonn, I’m fifty-six years old. I’ve been wearing the robe for seventeen years, and I’m getting tired of the job. This is my third term, and with no opposition next year I’m guaranteed twenty-four years on the bench. That’s enough. Phyllis is planning to retire too, and we want to travel the world. I’m tired of Sterling, Florida, and she’s tired of Mobile. We have no kids to keep us grounded, so why not take off somewhere? Spend some of our Indian money.”

  She paused and watched him. “Your reaction?”

  “I like things the way they are, obviously. The great thing about you, Claudia, is that you were so easy to corrupt, and, once corrupted, you fell hopelessly in love with the money. Same as me. The difference is that I was born into corruption, it’s in my DNA. I’d rather steal money than earn it. You, on the other hand, were pure, but the ease of your conversion to the dark side was astonishing.”


  “I wasn’t pure. I was driven by hatred and a burning desire to humiliate my ex-husband. I wanted revenge and there’s nothing pure about that.”

  “My point is that I’m not sure I can find another judge so eager to be purchased.”

  “Do you really need one at this point? If I leave, the casino loot is all yours, not a bad little safety net. You own the politicians. You’ve bulldozed half the county and there’s plenty of sprawl in your pipeline. It’s pretty obvious, at least to me, that you’ll do just fine without a judge on the payroll. I’m just tired of work, and, to be honest—which is not the right word to use in a conversation between us—I want to go straight for a while.”

  “With money or sex?”

  “Money, you ass,” she said with a chuckle.

  Vonn smiled and sipped his vodka as the wheels turned. He was quietly thrilled at the idea. One less mouth to feed, and a big one. “We’ll survive,” he said.

  “Of course you will. My decision has not been made, but I wanted you to know what I’m thinking. I’m really tired of refereeing divorces and sending kids to prison for life. And I haven’t told anyone but Phyllis.”

  “You can trust me with your darkest secrets, Your Honor.”

  “Thick as thieves.”

  Vonn stood and said, “I need to go. Same time next month?”

  “Yes.”

  On the way out, he picked up an empty leather satchel, an identical match to the one he’d brought in, though somewhat lighter.

  7

  The intermediary’s name was Cooley, a former lawyer himself, though his exit from the profession was far less spectacular than that of his pal Greg Myers. Cooley had managed to avoid headlines by quickly pleading to an indictment in Georgia and surrendering his license. He had no plans to try and get it back.

  They met in a quiet courtyard at the Pelican Hotel in South Beach, and over drinks on the small patio looked at the latest
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