The whistler, p.8
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       The Whistler, p.8

           John Grisham
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  Lacy said, “Junior says he and Son were wrong to fight the casino because it’s been good for the tribe. You agree?”

  Another long pause as he arranged his thoughts. His granddaughter began crying and was taken inside. He took a sip of tea and finally said, “It’s always hard to admit you’re wrong, but I suppose we were. The casino has lifted us out of poverty and given us nice things, so that’s a positive, a big one. We are healthier, happier, secure. There’s a certain satisfaction in watching outsiders flock in here and hand us their cash. We feel like we’re finally getting something back, perhaps a bit of revenge. Some of us worry, though, about living a life that’s so grounded on handouts. Idleness leads to trouble. We’re seeing more alcohol. Our kids are using more drugs.”

  Hugo asked, “If life is more prosperous, why aren’t there more children?”

  “Stupidity. The council is dominated by idiots and they make bad rules. When a woman turns eighteen, she is entitled to the monthly check, which has been $5,000 for many years now. But if she marries, then it’s cut in half. I get $5,000; my wife gets $2,500. So, more and more of our young women frown on marriage. The men are drinking and causing trouble, so why bother with a husband when you get more money without one? There’s also the theory that a reduction in our population means larger checks for those who survive. Another bad plan. You have to invest in children for a healthy society.”

  Lacy glanced at Hugo and said, “We should talk about McDover.”

  “I know little about the judge,” Wilton said. “I sat through the trial and thought she was too young and too inexperienced. She did nothing to protect the rights of my brother. She has been attacked on appeal, but her rulings have been upheld, often by the thinnest of margins.”

  “You’ve read the appeals?” Hugo asked.

  “I’ve read everything, Mr. Hatch. Many times. My brother is facing death for crimes he did not commit. The least I can do is sweat the details and support him. And, obviously, I do have plenty of time.”

  “Was Son Razko having an affair with Junior’s wife?” Hugo asked.

  “Highly unlikely, though, as you know, when it comes to that type of behavior anything can happen. Son was a man of principle and morals and he was happily married. I have never believed he was carrying on with my sister-in-law.”

  “So who killed them?”

  “I do not know. Not long after the casino opened, we began receiving our slice of the pie, though in smaller amounts. At the time I was a truck driver, non-union of course, and with my salary, my wife’s wages as a cook, plus our dividend checks, we were able to save $25,000. I gave the money to a private investigator in Pensacola. He was supposed to be one of the best. He dug for the better part of a year and found nothing. My brother had a terrible lawyer at trial, a clueless kid who didn’t know his way around the courtroom, but he’s had some fine lawyers on appeal. They’ve been digging too, for many years, and they’ve found nothing. I cannot give you the name of a likely suspect, Mr. Hatch. I wish I could. My brother was framed in a perfect setup, and it looks like the State of Florida will eventually kill him.”

  “Do you know a man named Vonn Dubose?” Lacy asked.

  “I’ve heard the name but never met the man.”

  “What’s the reputation?”

  Wilton rattled the ice cubes in his glass and suddenly looked tired. Lacy felt sorry for him, and tried to imagine the weight of having a sibling on death row, especially one believed to be innocent. He finally said, “There was once a legend around here that a big-time crook named Dubose masterminded all of this—the casino, the developments around it, the rapid sprawl from here to the coast. The legend extended to the murders of Son and Eileen. But it’s all faded now, washed away in a tide of fun and games and cash and jackpots and waterslides and happy hours, not to mention the welfare state. It doesn’t matter now, because life is good. If the man really exists and has his finger in the pie, no one cares, no one wants to cause him any trouble. If he walked through the front door of the casino and told the truth, he would be worshipped like a hero. He made it happen.”

  “What do you believe?”

  “What I believe doesn’t matter, Mr. Hatch.”

  “Okay, it doesn’t matter, but I’m still curious.”

  “All right. Yes, there was an organized criminal element involved with the construction of the casino, and these guys, nameless and faceless, are still taking a cut. They use guns and they have thoroughly intimidated our Chief and his cronies.”

  Lacy asked, “What are our chances of finding someone from inside the casino who’ll talk to us?”

  He actually laughed, and when the moment passed he mumbled, “You just don’t understand.” He rattled his ice again and seemed to fixate on something across the road. Lacy and Hugo glanced at each other and waited. After a long gap, he said, “As a tribe, a people, a race, we don’t trust outsiders. We don’t talk. Sure, I’m sitting here talking to you, but the subjects are general in nature. We don’t tell secrets, not to anyone, not under any circumstances. It’s just not in our blood. I despise my people who are on the other side, but I would never tell you anything about them.”

  Lacy said, “Perhaps a disgruntled employee, someone without your discretion. With all of this division and distrust, there must be a few people who are unhappy with the Chief and his cronies.”

  “There are some people who hate the Chief, but bear in mind he got 70 percent of the vote in the last election. His inner circle is tight. They all have fingers in the pie and everyone is happy. It would be virtually impossible to find a snitch from within.” He paused and went silent. They endured another long gap, one that seemed not to bother him at all. Finally, he said, “And I would advise you to stay away from it. If Judge McDover is in with the crooks, then she’s well protected by some boys who like violence and intimidation. This is Indian land, Ms. Stoltz, and all the rules that govern an orderly society, all the things you believe in, simply don’t apply here. We govern ourselves. We make the laws. Neither the State of Florida nor the federal government has much say in what we do, especially when it comes to running the casino.”


  They left him after an hour, after learning nothing that might help them, other than the warning, and returned to the Tappacola Tollway, the busy four-lane the county had built to rake off a few bucks. Near the entrance to the reservation, they stopped at a booth and paid five bucks for the privilege of proceeding. Hugo said, “I suppose this is the spot where Judge McDover decided to stop the traffic with her injunction.”

  “Have you read that case?” Lacy asked as she accelerated.

  “I read Sadelle’s summary. The judge claimed the traffic was a threat to public health and blocked the road with deputies for six days. Two thousand and one, ten years ago.”

  “Can you imagine the conversations between her and Vonn Dubose?”

  “She’s lucky she didn’t catch a bullet.”

  “No, she’s too smart for that. So is Dubose. They managed to find common ground and the injunction was lifted.”

  Immediately past the booth they were greeted with gaudy signs telling them that they were now on Tappacola land. Other signs pointed the way to Rabbit Run, and in the distance there were waves of condos and homes lining fairways. Its property line was adjacent to the reservation, and, as Greg Myers had said, a person could walk from the golf shop to the casino in five minutes. On a map, the Tappacola property had more bends and jags than a carefully gerrymandered congressional district. Dubose and company had gobbled up most of the property around it. And someone, probably Dubose himself, had picked the casino site as close to his land as possible. It was brilliant.

  They rounded a sweeping curve and the massive casino was before them, its soaring entrance in the center awash with neon and swirling spotlights. It was anchored on each end with matching high-rise hotels. They parked in a crowded lot and caught a shuttle to the front, where they split and roamed the gaming floors for an hour. They me
t at 4:00 p.m. for coffee in a bar overlooking the craps and blackjack tables and watched the action. With the piped-in music, the constant jangle of slot machines dumping coins onto the winners, the roar of voices at a hot craps table, and the boisterous sounds of people drinking too much, it was obvious that some serious cash was changing hands.


  The director of the Florida Gaming Commission was Eddie Naylor, a former state senator who had happily surrendered his seat for the fat salary the new agency offered when casino gambling arrived in the early 1990s and the state felt compelled to try and regulate it. His office was three blocks from Lacy’s, and the meeting had been easy to arrange. Far from the grungy digs of the Board on Judicial Conduct, his suite was in a modern building with fine furnishings, a bustling staff, and apparently no budget constraints. Florida was happily in the gambling business and its pliant taxing schemes were working smoothly.

  One look at Lacy and Naylor decided he should leave his large desk and chat around the coffee table. At least twice before the coffee arrived, she caught him glancing at her legs, which were on full display courtesy of a skirt that was almost too short. After some preliminaries she said, “Obviously, our office investigates complaints against nonfederal judges in the state. There are a lot of them, and they keep us busy. Our investigations are confidential, so I ask for your cooperation in that regard.”

  “Certainly,” Naylor said. Nothing about the guy inspired trust, from his shifty eyes and greasy smile to his ill-fitting suit and dress shirt straining at the buttons. Probably has a generous expense account, she thought. He could easily pass for another lobbyist working the streets of Tallahassee.

  To impress her, he went through a windy summary of duties of “his commission.” All gambling in the state had been herded into one oversight agency, and he was the man in charge. Horse racing, dog racing, lottery, slots, casinos, cruise ships, even jai alai, were now under his jurisdiction. It seemed to be a mammoth undertaking, but he was up to the task.

  “How much oversight do you have over the Indian casinos?” she asked.

  “All casinos in Florida are run by the Indians, the Seminoles being by far the largest tribe and biggest operators. Frankly, though, and to be perfectly candid, when it comes to the Indian casinos we have very little oversight and control. A tribe that has federal recognition is its own nation and makes its own laws. In Florida, we have entered into treaties with all casino operators, and this allows us to collect a small tax on their profits. Very small, but it adds up. There are now nine casinos and they are all doing quite well.”

  “Can you go into a casino and inspect its operations?”

  He shook his head gravely and admitted, “No, nor can we check the books. Each casino files a quarterly report showing its gross revenues and net profits, and we tax from there. But, frankly, we have to take their word for it.”

  “So a casino can submit whatever it wants?”

  “Yes, that’s the current state of the law, and it’s not likely to change.”

  “And a casino pays no federal tax of any kind?”

  “That’s correct. By entering into treaties, we sort of cajole them into paying a little to the state. We do this by building a road here or there, and by providing a few services like emergency medical treatment and some educational support. On occasion they’ll ask for the state’s help for this and for that. But, truthfully, it’s completely voluntary. If a tribe says no to any form of taxation, there’s nothing we can do. Fortunately, none of them have taken that position.”

  “How much do they pay?”

  “One half of 1 percent of net. Last year that was about $40 million. It funds the bulk of our commission and the rest goes into the Florida rainy-day fund. May I ask where this is going?”

  “Sure. A formal complaint has been filed alleging some bad behavior by a circuit court judge. It involves a developer who’s apparently in bed with a tribe and its casino and a judge who’s sharing in the profits.”

  Naylor set down his coffee cup and shook his head. “Quite frankly, Ms. Stoltz, I’m not that surprised. If a casino wants to fudge on its financials and skim cash off the top, or under the table, doesn’t really matter, there’s little to stop it from doing so. It’s a perfect storm for corruption. You start with people who are not that sophisticated, and suddenly they’re raking in more profits than are imaginable. They attract all manner of crooks and con men who want to help. Add the fact that most of the business is in cash that’s absolutely untraceable, and it’s just a bad mix. We here at the commission are often frustrated by our lack of oversight.”

  “So corruption does happen?”

  “I didn’t say it happens. I said the potential is there.”

  “But nobody’s watching?”

  He recrossed his thick legs and thought about this. “Well, the FBI has the authority to investigate wrongdoing on Indian land, any kind of bad behavior. That’s pretty intimidating, I suppose. And again, these folks are not that sophisticated, so the idea of the Feds poking around keeps them in line. I should add that most of our casinos contract with reputable companies who know how to run casinos.”

  “Could the FBI go in with warrants and grab the books?”

  “I’m not sure. It’s never been done, as far as I know. And over the past twenty years the FBI has shown little interest in Indian affairs.”

  “Why is that?”

  “Don’t know exactly, but I suspect it’s a question of manpower. The FBI is focused on fighting terror and cybercrime. A bit of swindling in an Indian casino is of little interest. Why bother? The Indians have never had it so good, at least not in the past two hundred years.” He dropped another cube of sugar into his coffee and stirred it with a finger. “This wouldn’t be the Tappacola, would it?”

  “It is.”

  “I’m not that surprised.”

  “And why not?”

  “There have been rumors over the years.” He took a sip and waited for the follow-up.

  “Okay. What kinds of rumors?”

  “Outside influence. Some shady guys got involved from the beginning and are making a killing on developments around the casino. Just suspicions, that’s all. Our job does not include investigating crimes so we don’t go near it. If we learn of wrongdoing, we’re supposed to notify the FBI.”

  “Rumors about skimming cash?”

  He was shaking his head. “No, haven’t heard that one.”

  “Rumors about a judge?”

  Still shaking, he said, “No. I’d be surprised if that were true.”

  “It is surprising, but we have a source.”

  “Well, there is a lot of cash, and it does strange things to people. I’d be very careful, Ms. Stoltz. Very careful.”

  “You seem to know more than you’re willing to tell.”

  “Not at all.”

  “Okay. But please remember that our investigations are confidential.”

  “You have my word.”


  While Lacy was making her first and only call to the Florida Gaming Commission, her partner was making his first and only visit to a golf course. At the suggestion of Michael Geismar, and borrowing his seldom-used clubs, Hugo cajoled a BJC colleague named Justin Barrow into faking a round of golf. Justin had leaned on a friend who knew someone else, and after a fair amount of discreet manipulation and outright lying, a guest tee time at Rabbit Run had been arranged. Justin was a weekend player; thus, he knew the basic rules and enough etiquette not to arouse suspicions. Hugo had neither a clue nor a shred of interest. In the world he grew up in, golf was a white man’s game played at white country clubs.

  The first tee box at Rabbit Run East was around the corner from the driving range and clubhouse, so no one noticed when Justin teed off and Hugo did not. It was 10:30 on an August morning, the temperature was already above ninety, and the course was deserted. Though Hugo, the driver of the golf cart, knew nothing about the game, he chose not to withhold his comments about Justin’s lack o
f skill. When Justin failed on three consecutive sand shots to get the ball out of a green-side bunker, Hugo was amused to the point of laughing out loud. On the third green, Hugo grabbed his borrowed putter and a ball and figured anybody could tap it into the cup. When it repeatedly failed to drop in from only ten feet away, Justin unleashed an avalanche of trash talk.

  Using satellite photos, they had located the four condos allegedly owned, in one way or another, by Judge Claudia McDover. Geismar wanted site visits and photos. Standing at the fourth tee box, Hugo and Justin gazed at the long par 5, dogleg left, and studied a row of handsome condos 250 yards away and out-of-bounds to the right.

  Hugo said, “By now I know most of your shots go out-of-bounds, so try and place your tee shot over there by those condos. A hard slice, one of your specialties.”

  Justin replied, “Why don’t you take a shot, big guy, and see how easy it is?”

  “Game on.” Hugo stuck a tee in the grass, placed a ball on it, addressed the ball, tried to relax, and took a long easy swing. The ball went a mile in the air and slowly began to hook left. The hook gained momentum, and by the time the ball disappeared into the woods it was out of sight. Without a word, he yanked another ball out of his pocket, placed it on the tee, and with even more determination took a hack. The drive shot forward, low and hard, and slowly gained altitude. It appeared to be headed straight for the condos to the right but soon rose high enough to sail over them.

  Justin said, “Well, at least you’re using the entire course. Those two shots are a mile apart and way out-of-bounds.”

  “It’s my first time out.”

  “So I’ve heard.” Justin teed it up and looked at the fairway. “I gotta be careful here because good contact could send the ball