Each day for the past week, we’ve brought you another excerpt from legal thriller master John Grisham’s 29th novel, The Whistler, before it hits shelves on Oct. 25 — and you’ve been introduced to 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.
If you’re just tuning in, check out the first four chapters of The Whistler below, before scrolling down to devour Chapter 5. And for the rest of Lacy’s saga, be sure to pre-order your copy.
Excerpt from The Whistler by John Grisham
They spent the next day in the office, brainstorming with Geismar and putting together a plan. With the complaint on file, the clock was ticking. If things stayed on schedule, Lacy and Hugo would soon drive to the small town of Sterling and serve a copy of it upon the Honorable Claudia McDover. By then it would be imperative to know as much as possible.
First, though, they needed to visit death row. Hugo had been there once, on a field trip in law school. Lacy had heard about Starke her entire career, but had never found the excuse to see it. They left early enough to beat the morning rush around Tallahassee, and by the time the traffic thinned on I-10 Hugo was nodding off. The prison was two and a half hours away. Lacy had not been forced to walk the floors with a crying baby all night, but she had not slept much either. She and Hugo, as well as Geismar, felt as though they were probably sticking their noses into a mess that someone else should clean up. If Greg Myers could be believed, serious criminal activity had been rampant in Brunswick County for a long time. Investigators with far more resources and experience should get the nod on this one. They were lawyers, after all, not cops. They didn’t want to carry guns. They were trained to go after corrupt judges, not organized crime syndicates.
These thoughts had kept her from sleeping most of the night. When she caught herself yawning, she whipped into a fast-food drive-thru and ordered coffee. “Wake up,” she scolded her partner. “We have an hour and a half to go and I can’t stay awake either.”
“Sorry,” Hugo said, rubbing his eyes.
They slugged coffee, and as she drove Hugo summarized one of Sadelle’s memos. “According to our colleague, from 2000 through 2009, there were ten lawsuits in Brunswick County involving a company called Nylan Title, a Bahamian outfit whose registered agent is a lawyer over in Biloxi. In each case, the opposing party tried to compel the identities of the real owners of Nylan Title, and each time the judge, our friend Claudia McDover, said no. Off-limits. A company domiciled in the Bahamas is governed by its laws, and they have a way of protecting their companies. It’s all a shell game but it’s legal. Anyway, Nylan Title must have some great lawyers because it is undefeated, at least in Judge McDover’s courtroom. Ten to zero.”
“What kinds of cases?” Lacy asked.
“Zoning, breach of contract, diminution of property value, even an aborted class action by a bunch of condo owners claiming defective workmanship. The county sued Nylan in a dispute over property valuations and taxes.”
“Who shows up on behalf of Nylan?”
“The same lawyer out of Biloxi. He’s the corporate mouthpiece and seems to know what’s going on. If Nylan is indeed Vonn Dubose, then he’s well hidden, just like Myers says. Layers of lawyers, as he put it. Nice phrase.”
Hugo took a sip of coffee and put down the memo. He said, “Look, Lacy, I don’t trust Greg Myers.”
“He doesn’t really inspire trust.”
“But you have to admit that, so far, everything he has said has checked out. If he’s using us, what’s his endgame?”
“I was asking the same question at three thirty this morning. We have to catch Judge McDover with a pile of cash. Period. If it’s recovered, the mole gets his or her share as a reward, and Myers takes a cut. If Vonn Dubose and his boys get busted, fine, but how does that help Myers?”
“It doesn’t, unless of course McDover goes up in flames with Dubose.”
“He is using us, Hugo. He’s filed a complaint alleging corrupt judicial practices, or outright thievery. It’s our job to investigate. Anyone who files a complaint against a judge is using us to find the truth. That’s the nature of our jobs.”
“Sure it is, but something is not right with this guy.”
“I have the same gut feeling. I like Geismar’s strategy. We’ll poke around a bit, nibble at the edges, develop some history, try to find out who owns those four condos, do our job but do it cautiously, and if we find real evidence of wrongdoing we’ll go to the FBI. Myers can’t stop us from doing that.”
“Agreed, but he can disappear and never talk to us again. If he has proof of corruption at the casino, we’ll never get it if the FBI comes storming in.”
“What else did Sadelle pack for our pleasant drive to Starke?”
Hugo picked up another memo. “Just some background on Judge McDover. Her elections, campaigns, opponents, stuff like that. Since elections are nonpartisan, we’re not sure about her politics. No record of contributions to other candidates in other races. No previous complaints filed with BJC. No complaints filed with the State Bar. No felonies or misdemeanors. Since 1998, she has received the highest rating by the State Bar Association. She writes a lot and there’s a long list of papers she’s published in legal magazines and such. She also likes to speak at seminars and law schools. She even taught a course in trial practice at FSU three years ago. Quite the résumé, really. More so than our average circuit court judge. Not much in the way of assets. A home in downtown Sterling assessed at $230,000, built seventy years ago, with a mortgage of $110,000. Title issued in her name, McDover, which happens to be her maiden name. She reacquired it right after the divorce and has used it since. Single since 1988, no children, no other marriages. No record of memberships in churches, civic clubs, alumni associations, political parties, nothing. Law school was at Stetson, where she was a top student. Undergraduate degree from North Florida in Jacksonville. Some stuff about her divorce from her doctor husband but not worth the time.”
Lacy listened intently and sipped more coffee. “If Myers is correct, she’s skimming cash from an Indian casino. That’s rather hard to believe, don’t you think? I mean, one of our circuit judges elected by the people and so highly regarded.”
“It is indeed. We’ve seen judges do some bizarre things, but nothing as bold as this.”
“How do you explain it? What’s her motive?”
“You’re a single woman with a career. You answer the question.”
“I can’t. What’s the other memo?”
Hugo fished through his briefcase and pulled out some papers.
As they entered rural Bradford County, they began to see signs indicating there were prisons and correctional facilities just ahead. Near the small town of Starke, population five thousand, they turned and followed signs to the Florida State Prison, home to fifteen hundred inmates, including four hundred condemned men.
Only California had more men on death row than Florida. Texas was a close third, but since it was more focused on keeping its numbers down its population was around 330, give or take. California, with little interest in executing people, had 650. Florida longed to be another Texas, but its appellate courts kept getting in the way. Last year, 2010, only one man was lethally injected at Starke.
They parked in a crowded lot and hiked to an administration building. As lawyers working for the state, their visit had been facilitated. They were cleared through the checkpoints and escorted by a guard with enough clout to get all doors opened quickly. At Q Wing, Florida’s notorious death row, they were cleared past another checkpoint and led to a long room. A sign on the door read “Attorney Conferences.” The guard opened another door to a small enclosed area with a sheet of Plexiglas dividing it.
“First trip to death row?” the guard asked.
Lacy said, “Yes.” Hugo said, “I came here once when I was in law school.”
“That’s nice. You got the consent form?”
“I do,” Hugo replied as he put his briefcase on the table and unzipped it. Junior Mace was represented pro bono by a large Washington firm. Before Lacy and Hugo could talk to him, they had to assure the law firm they would not discuss any of the issues pending in his current habeas corpus filing. Hugo pulled out a sheet of paper and the guard took his time reading it. When it met his approval, he handed it back and said, “Mace is a strange one, I’ll tell you that.”
Lacy looked away and didn’t want to respond. While she wasn’t sleeping the night before, worrying about all the crap that was cluttering her brain, she read a few online articles about Florida’s death row. Each prisoner was kept in solitary confinement for twenty-three hours a day. The other hour was for “recreation,” a chance to walk around a small, grassy area and look at the sun. Each cell was six feet by nine, with a nine-foot ceiling. Each bed was smaller than a twin-size and just inches away from a stainless steel toilet. There was no air-conditioning, no cellmate, almost no human contact except for the usual chatter from the guards at feeding time.
If Junior Mace had not been a “strange one” before arriving fifteen years earlier, he could certainly be excused for being a bit odd now. Total isolation leads to sensory deprivation and all sorts of mental problems. Corrections experts were beginning to realize this, and a movement to reform the practice of solitary confinement was struggling to gain momentum. Said movement had not made it to Florida.
A door on the other side opened and a guard walked through it. He was followed by Junior Mace, handcuffed and wearing the standard blue prison pants and orange T-shirt reserved for death row inmates. Another guard followed him. They removed the handcuffs and left the room.
Junior Mace took two steps and sat down at the table on his side. The Plexiglas separated them. Hugo and Lacy took their seats and for a few seconds things were awkward.
He was fifty-two years old. His hair was long, thick, and gray, swept back into a ponytail. His skin was dark and had not been bleached by the isolation. His eyes were dark too, large and brown and sad. He was tall and lean with well-formed biceps. Probably does a lot of push-ups, Hugo thought. According to the file, his wife, Eileen, was thirty-two when she died. They had three children, all raised by relatives after Junior was arrested and sent away.
Lacy took one of two phones on her side of the partition and said, “Thanks for meeting with us.”
He was holding his phone. He shrugged, said nothing.
“I’m not sure you got our letter, but we work for the State Board on Judicial Conduct and we’re investigating Judge Claudia McDover.”
“I got it,” he said. “I’m here. I agreed to the meeting.” He spoke slowly, as if every word had to be considered first.
Hugo said, “So, uh, we’re not here to talk about your case. We can’t help you there, and besides you have some good lawyers in Washington.”
“I’m still alive. I guess they’re doing their job. What do you want from me?”
Lacy said, “Information. We need the names of people we can talk to. Tappacola, the ones on the good side, your side. That is another world for us, and we can’t just show up one day and start asking questions.”
His eyes narrowed and his mouth turned down, like an inverted smile. He nodded as he glared at them, and finally said, “Look, my wife and Son Razko were murdered in 1995. I was convicted in 1996 and taken away, shackled in the back of a van. That was before the casino was built, so I’m not sure I can really help you. They had to get me out of the way, me and Son, before they could build it. They murdered Son, along with my wife, and they got me convicted for it.”
“Do you know who did it?” Hugo asked.
He actually smiled, though the humor did not make it to his eyes. Slowly, he said, “Mr. Hatch, for sixteen years I have said over and over that I do not know who killed my wife and Son Razko. There were some people in the background, some outsiders who eased their way into the picture. Our Chief at the time was a good man who got corrupted. These outside folks got to him, I’m not sure how but I’m sure it involved money, and he became convinced the casino was the answer. Son and I fought back and we won the first vote in 1993. They thought they were going to win and they were laying the groundwork to make a lot of money with the casino and the land around it. When our people turned it down the first time, these folks decided to get rid of Son. And me too, I guess. They figured out a way to do it. Son’s gone. I’m here. The casino has been printing cash for a decade now.”
Lacy asked, “Ever heard the name of Vonn Dubose?”
He paused and seemed to flinch slightly. It was obvious his answer would be yes, so when he said no, they both made a note. That would be an interesting conversation on the ride home. “Remember,” he said, “I’ve been gone for a long time. Fifteen years here in solitary eats away at your soul, your spirit, and your brain. I’ve lost a lot, and I can’t always remember what I should.”
“But you wouldn’t forget Vonn Dubose if you knew him,” Lacy said, pushing.
Junior clenched his jaws and shook his head. No. “Don’t know him.”
Hugo said, “I’m assuming you have a low opinion of Judge McDover.”
“That’s an understatement. She presided over a joke of a trial and made sure an innocent man was convicted. She’s covering up, too. I’ve always suspected she knew more than she should have. It was all a nightmare, Mr. Hatch. From the moment they told me my wife was dead, along with Son, and then the shock of being accused, and getting arrested and slammed into jail. By then the system was clicking right along and everybody I looked at was a bad guy. From the cops, the prosecutors, the judge, the witnesses, the jurors—I got chewed up by a system that was hitting on all cylinders. In no time flat I got framed, convicted, sentenced, and here I am.”
“What’s the judge covering up?” Lacy asked.
“The truth. I suspect she knows I didn’t kill Son and Eileen.”
“How many people know the truth?” Hugo asked.
Junior placed the phone on the table and rubbed his eyes as if he hadn’t slept in days. With his right hand he raked his fingers through his thick hair, all the way to the ponytail. Slowly, he picked up the phone and said, “Not many. Most people consider me a killer. They believe the story, and why not? I was convicted in a court of law and here I am, rotting away and waiting for the needle. I’ll get it one day, and they’ll haul me back to Brunswick County and bury me somewhere. The story will live on and on. Junior Mace caught his wife with another man and killed them both in an act of rage. That’s a pretty good story, right?”
Nothing was said for a moment. Lacy and Hugo scribbled away as they tried to think of their next question. Junior broke the silence with “Just so you’ll know, this is an attorney visit so there’s no time limit. If you’re not in a hurry, believe me I’m not either. It’s about a hundred degrees in my cell right now. There’s no ventilation, so my little fan just pushes the hot air around. This is a nice break for me, and I welcome you back anytime you’re in the neighborhood.”
“Thanks,” Hugo replied. “Do you get many visitors?”
“Not as many as I would like. My kids stop by occasionally but those are hard visits. For years I wouldn’t allow them to see me here and they really grew up fast. Now they’re married. I’m even a grandfather, but I’ve never seen my grandkids. Got pictures, though, all over my wall. How would you like that? Four grandchildren and I’ve never been able to touch them.”
“Who raised your kids?” Lacy asked.
“My mother helped until she died. My brother Wilton and his wife did most of it, and they did the best they could. Just a bad situation. Imagine being a kid and your mother gets murdered. Everybody says your father did it and they send him to death row.”
“Do your kids think you’re guilty?”
“No. They got the truth from Wilton and my mother.”
“Would Wilton talk to us?” Hugo asked.
“I don’t know. You can try. I’m not sure he’ll want to get involved. You gotta understand that life is pretty good these days for our people, much better than before. Looking back, I’m not sure Son and I were on the right side when we fought the casino. It’s brought jobs, schools, roads, a hospital, a level of prosperity our people had never dreamed of. When a Tappacola turns eighteen, he or she qualifies for a lifetime pension of $5,000 a month, and that might go up. It’s called the dividend. Even me, sitting here on death row, I’m collecting the dividends. I would save it for my kids but they don’t need it. So, I send it to my lawyers in Washington, figure that’s the least I could do. When they took my case, there was no dividend system and they certainly didn’t expect any money. Every Tappacola gets free health care, free education, and college expenses if he or she wants it. We have our own bank and make low interest loans for houses and cars. As I said, life there is pretty good, much better than before. That’s the good part. On the downside, there are pretty serious motivational problems, especially among the young. Why go to college and pursue a career when your income is guaranteed for life? Why try and find a job? The casino employs about half of the adults in the tribe, and that’s a constant source of friction. Who gets an easy job and who doesn’t? There’s a lot of infighting and politics involved. But on the whole, the tribe realizes that it has a good thing going. Why rock the boat? Why should anyone worry about me? Why should Wilton help you bring down a crooked judge when everyone might get hurt in the process?”
“Are you aware of corruption at the casino?” Lacy asked.
Mace put the phone down and rummaged through his hair again, as if painfully pondering the question. His hesitancy suggested he was struggling not with the truth but with which version of it. He picked up the phone and said, “Again, the casino opened a few years after I came here. I’ve never laid eyes on it.”
Hugo said, “Come on, Mr. Mace. You said yourself it’s a tiny tribe. A big casino for a small group of people. It must be impossible to keep secrets. Surely you’ve heard the rumors.”
“Tell me about them.”
“Rumors of cash being skimmed and taken out the back door. According to estimates, Treasure Key is now a half-billion-dollar casino, and 90 percent of the gross is in cash. Our source tells us there is a gang of organized criminals in bed with the Indian leaders and they’re skimming like crazy. You’ve never heard this?”
“I may have heard that rumor but that doesn’t mean I know anything.”
“Then who does? Who can we talk to?” Lacy asked.
“You must have a good source or you wouldn’t be here. Go back to your source.”
Lacy and Hugo glanced at each other, both with the same image of Greg Myers puttering around the Bahamas on his boat, cold beer in hand, Jimmy Buffett on the stereo. “Maybe later,” Hugo said. “But for now, we need someone on the ground, someone who knows the casino.”
Mace was shaking his head. “Wilton is my only source and he doesn’t say much. I’m not sure how much he knows, but very little of it trickles all the way down here to Starke.”
Lacy asked, “Would you call Wilton and say it’s okay to talk to us?”
“And what do I gain from that? I don’t know you. I don’t know if you can be trusted. I’m sure your intentions are good, but you might be walking into a situation where things could get out of control. I don’t know. I need to think about it.”
“Where does Wilton live?” Hugo asked.
“On the reservation, not far from the casino. He tried to get a job there but they turned him down. No one in my family works at the casino. They won’t hire them. It’s very political.”
“So there’s resentment?”
“Oh yes. Lots of it. Those who fought the casino are basically blacklisted and can’t work there. They still get their checks, but they don’t get the jobs.”
“And how do they feel about you?” Lacy asked.
“As I said, most of them believe I killed Son, their leader, so there’s not much sympathy. Those who supported the casino hated me from the beginning. Needless to say, I don’t have a lot of fans among my people. And my family pays the price.”
Hugo asked, “If Judge McDover is exposed and the corruption is proven, is there a chance it could help your case?”
Mace stood slowly and stretched as if in pain, then took a few 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.”
“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.
“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.”