John Grisham, the undisputed master of the legal thriller, will release his 29th novel, The Whistler, on Oct. 25. Because we’re such huge fans — and we know you are, too — EW will release one chapter from The Whistler every day this week in advance of its publication.
Get ready to meet investigator Lacy Stoltz, who’s trying to crack the case of a corrupt Florida judge brought to her by a disbarred lawyer operating under a new identity — and be sure to check back later this week for more. Once you catch up with Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, enjoy your first taste of Chapter 3, below.
Excerpt from The Whistler by John Grisham
The Board on Judicial Conduct’s home was one-half of the third floor in a four-story state office building in downtown Tallahassee, two blocks from the Capitol. Every aspect of its “suite”—from the worn, fraying carpet, to the narrow, prison-like windows that somehow managed to deflect most sunlight, to the paneled ceiling squares still stained by decades of cigarette smoke, to the walls covered by cheap shelving that swayed and bent under the weight of thick briefs and forgotten memorandums—all of it reeked of straining and declining budgets, not to mention the obvious fact that the agency’s work was not exactly a pressing priority with the Governor and the legislature. Each January, Michael Geismar, BJC’s longtime director, was forced to walk over to the Capitol, hat in hand, and watch as the house and senate committees split the revenue pie. Groveling was required. He always asked for a few more bucks, and he always received a few less. Such was the life of the director of an agency that most lawmakers did not even know existed.
The Board was comprised of five political appointees, usually retired judges and lawyers who found favor with the Governor. They met six times a year to review complaints, conduct hearings that resembled trials, and get updates from Geismar and his staff. He needed more staff but there was no money. His six investigators—four in Tallahassee and two in Fort Lauderdale—were working an average of fifty hours a week, and almost all were secretly looking for other jobs.
From Geismar’s corner office, he had the view, if he chose to take it, which he rarely did, of another bunker-type edifice even taller than his, and beyond that a hodgepodge of government office buildings. His office was large because he’d knocked out walls and added a long table, the only one in the maze of cubbyholes and cubicles BJC called home. When the Board met for official business, it borrowed a conference room in the Florida Supreme Court building.
Today, four people gathered around the table: Geismar, Lacy, Hugo, and BJC’s secret weapon, an ancient paralegal named Sadelle, who, even pushing the age of seventy, was still able not only to research vast amounts of material but to remember it all as well. Thirty years earlier, Sadelle had finished law school but failed the bar exam, on three occasions, and was thus relegated to the role of permanent paralegal. Once a heavy smoker—a good portion of the smoke-stained windows and ceilings could be blamed on her—she had been battling lung cancer for the past three years but had yet to miss a full week of work.
The table was covered with paperwork, with many of the sheets unstapled and highlighted in yellow or edited in red. Hugo was saying, “The guy checks out. We’ve talked to contacts in Pensacola, people who knew him when he was a lawyer. Nice reputation and all, at least until he got indicted. He is who he says he is, albeit with a new name.”
Lacy added, “His prison record is spotless. Served sixteen months and four days in a federal prison in Texas and for most of that time he ran the prison law library. Quite the jailhouse lawyer, he helped several of his buddies with their appeals, even sprang two on early release because their lawyers had screwed up the sen-tencing.”
“And his conviction?” Geismar asked.
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.”
“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.”
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?”
“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 bev-erages.
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.