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The Racketeer(13)
Author: John Grisham

Gerard and I begin each day at 6:00 a.m. when a buzzer wakes us. We dress quickly in our prison work clothes, careful to give each other as much space as our ten-by-twelve cell will allow. We make our bunks. He has the top one, and because of my seniority I have the bottom. At 6:30, we hustle over to the chow hall for breakfast.

The chow hall has invisible barriers that dictate where one sits and eats. There is a section for the blacks, one for the whites, and one for the browns. Intermingling is frowned upon and almost never happens. Even though Frostburg is a camp, it is still a prison, with a lot of stress. One of the most important rules of etiquette is to respect each other's space. Never cut in line. Never reach for anything. If you want the salt and pepper, ask someone to pass them, please. At Louisville, my prior home, fights were not unusual in the chow hall, and they were usually started when some jackass with sharp elbows infringed on someone else's space.

Here, though, we eat slowly and with manners that are surprising for a bunch of convicted criminals. Out of our cramped cells, we enjoy the wider spaces of the chow hall. There is a lot of ribbing, and crude jokes, and talk of women. I've known men who spent time in the hole, or solitary confinement, and the worst part of it is the lack of social interaction. A few handle it well, but most start cracking up after a few days. Even the worst loners, and there are plenty of them in prison, need people around them.

After breakfast, Gerard reports to work as a janitor scrubbing floors. I have an hour of downtime before I report to the library, and this is when I walk over to the coffee room and start reading newspapers.

Again, today, there appears to be little progress in the Fawcett investigation. Interestingly, though, his oldest son complained to a reporter from the Post that the FBI is doing a lousy job of keeping the family updated. No response from the FBI.

With each passing day, the pressure mounts.

Yesterday a reporter wrote that the FBI was interested in the former husband of Naomi Clary. Their divorce three years ago had been contentious, with both parties accusing the other of adultery. According to the reporter, his sources were telling him the FBI had interrogated this ex-husband at least twice.

The library is in an annex that also houses a small chapel and nurses' station. It is exactly forty feet long and thirty feet wide, with four cubicles for privacy, five desktop computers, and three long tables where inmates are allowed to read, write, and do research. There are also ten stacked tiers that hold, at any given time, about fifteen hundred books, mostly hardbacks. At Frostburg, we are allowed to keep up to ten paperbacks in our cells, though virtually everyone has more. An inmate may visit the library in his off-hours, and the rules are fairly flexible. Two books per week may be checked out, and I spend half of my time keeping up with past-due books.

I spend a fourth of my time as a jailhouse lawyer, and today I have a new client. Roman comes to me from a small town in North Carolina where he owned a pawnshop that specialized in fencing stolen goods, guns primarily. His suppliers were a couple of gangs of coke-crazed idiots who robbed fine homes in broad daylight. Possessing not the slightest hint of sophistication, the thieves were caught in the act and within minutes were squealing on each other. Roman was soon dragged in and hit with all manner of federal violations. He pleaded ignorance, but it turns out his court-appointed lawyer was without a doubt the dumbest person in the courtroom.

I do not claim to be an expert on criminal law, but any green first-year law student could catalog the mistakes made by Roman's lawyer during the trial. Roman was convicted and sentenced to seven years, and his case is now on appeal. He hauls in his "legal papers," the same pile every inmate is allowed to keep in his cell, and we go through them in my little office, a cubicle littered with my personal stuff and off-limits to every other inmate. Roman will not shut up ranting about how bad his defense lawyer was, and it doesn't take me long to agree. IAC (ineffective assistance of counsel) is a common complaint for those convicted at trial, but it's rarely grounds for an appellate reversal in non-death-penalty cases.

I'm excited by the possibility of attacking the lousy performance of a lawyer who's still out there, still making a living and pretending to be much better than he is. I spend an hour with Roman and we make an appointment for another meeting.

It was one of my early clients who told me about Judge Fawcett. The man was desperate to get out of prison, and he thought I could work miracles. He knew precisely what was in the safe in the basement of that cabin, and he was obsessed with getting his hands on it before it disappeared.

Chapter 9

I'm back in the warden's office and something is up. He's wearing a dark suit, starched white shirt, paisley tie, and his pointed-toe cowboy boots are fairly gleaming with fresh wax and polish. He's still smug as ever but somewhat twitchy.

"I don't know what you told them, Bannister," he's saying, "but they like your story. I hate to repeat myself, but if this is your idea of a prank, then you'll pay dearly for it."

"It's not a prank, sir." I suspect the warden was eavesdropping next door and knows exactly what I told them.

"They sent four agents here two days ago, snooped all over the place, wanted to know who you hung out with, who you did legal work for, who you played checkers with, where you worked, who you ate with, who you showered with, who you celled with, and on and on."

"I shower alone."

"I guess they're trying to figure out who your buddies are, is that right?"

"I don't know, sir, but I'm not surprised. I figured as much." I knew the FBI was snooping around Frostburg, though I did not see the agents. Secrets are extremely hard to keep in prison, especially when outsiders appear and start asking questions. In my opinion, and based on some experience, it was a clumsy way to dig into my background.

"Well, they're back," he says. "They'll be here at ten and they said it might take some time."

It is five minutes before 10:00 a.m. The same sharp pain hits my gut again, and I try to breathe deeply without appearing obvious. I shrug, as if it's no big deal. "Who's coming?" I ask.

"Hell if I know."

Seconds later, his phone buzzes, and his secretary relays a message.

We're in the same room adjacent to the warden's office. He, of course, is not present. Agents Hanski and Erardi are back, along with a fierce young man named Dunleavy, an assistant U.S. Attorney from the Southern District of Virginia, Roanoke office.

I'm gathering steam, gaining credibility and curiosity. My little group of interrogators is looking more impressive.

Though Dunleavy is the youngest of the three, he is a federal prosecutor, and the other two are simply federal cops. Therefore, Dunleavy has seniority at this moment and seems rather full of himself, not an unusual posture for a man in such a position. He can't be more than five years out of law school, and I assume he'll do most of the talking.

"Obviously, Mr. Bannister," he begins with an obnoxious condescending tone, "we wouldn't be here if we didn't have some interest in your little story."

Little story. What a prick.

"Can I call you Malcolm?" he asks.

"Let's stick with Mr. Bannister and Mr. Dunleavy, for now anyway," I respond. I'm an inmate, and I haven't been called Mr. Bannister in years. I kind of like the sound of it.

"You got it," he snaps, then quickly reaches into a pocket. He pulls out a slender recording device and places it on the table, halfway between me on one side and the three of them on the other. "I'd like to record our conversation, if that's okay."

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