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The Racketeer(7)
Author: John Grisham

But I'm not here to fix the educational system, nor the legal, judicial, or prison systems. I'm here to survive one day at a time, and in doing so maintain as much self-respect and dignity as possible. We are scum, nobodies, common criminals locked away from society, and reminders of this are never far away. A prison guard is called a correction officer, or simply a CO. Never refer to one as a guard. No sir. Being a CO is far superior; it's more of a title. Most COs are former cops or deputies or military types who didn't do too well in those jobs and now work in prison. There are a few good ones, but most are losers who are too stupid to realize they are losers. And who are we to tell them? They are vastly superior to us, regardless of their stupidity, and they enjoy reminding us of this.

They rotate COs to avoid one getting too close to an inmate. I suppose this happens, but one of the cardinal rules of inmate survival is to avoid your CO as much as possible. Treat him with respect; do exactly what he says; cause him no trouble; but, above all, try to avoid him.

My current CO is not one of the better ones. He is Darrel Marvin, a thick-chested, potbellied white boy of no more than thirty who tries to swagger but has too much tonnage on his hips. Darrel is an ignorant racist who does not like me because I am black and I have two college degrees, which is two more than he has. A fierce, internal battle rages every time I'm forced to suck up to this thug, but I have no choice. Right now, I need him.

"Good morning, Officer Marvin," I say with a fake smile as I stop him outside the chow hall.

"What is it, Bannister?" he growls.

I hand over a sheet of paper, an official request form. He takes it and makes a pretense of reading it. I'm tempted to help him with the longer words but bite my tongue. "I need to see the warden," I say politely.

"Why do you want to see the warden?" he asks, still trying to read the rather simple request.

My business with the warden is of no concern to the CO, or anyone else, but to remind Darrel of this would only cause trouble. "My grandmother is almost dead, and I would like to go to her funeral. It's only sixty miles away."

"When do you think she might die?" he asks, such a clever smart-ass.

"Soon. Please, Officer Marvin, I have not seen her in years."

"The warden does not approve crap like this, Bannister. You should know this by now."

"I know, but the warden owes me a favor. I gave him some legal advice a few months ago. Please, just pass it along."

He folds the sheet of paper and stuffs it into a pocket. "All right, but it's a waste of time."


Both of my grandmothers died years ago.

Nothing in prison is designed for the convenience of the prisoner. The granting or denying of a simple request should take a few hours, but that would be too easy. Four days pass before Darrel informs me that I am to report to the warden's office at 10:00 a.m. tomorrow, February 18. Another fake smile, and I say, "Thanks."

The warden is the king of this little empire, with the expected ego of one who rules by edict or thinks he should. These guys come and go and it's impossible to understand the purpose of all the transfers. Again, it's not my job to reform our prison system, so I don't worry about what happens in the administration building.

The current one is Mr. Robert Earl Wade, a career corrections man who's all business. He's fresh off his second divorce, and I did indeed explain to him some of the basics regarding Maryland alimony law. I enter his office; he does not stand or offer a hand or extend any courtesy that might indicate respect. He says, "Hello, Bannister," as he waves at an empty chair.

"Hello, Warden Wade. How have you been?" I ease into the chair.

"I'm a free man, Bannister. Number two is history and I'll never marry again."

"Nice to hear and glad to help."

With the warm-up quickly over, he shoves a notepad and says, "I can't let you guys go home for every funeral, Bannister, you gotta understand this."

"This is not about a funeral," I say. "I have no grandmother."

"What the hell?"

"Are you keeping up with the murder investigation of Judge Fawcett, down in Roanoke?" He frowns and jerks his head back as if he's been insulted. I'm here under false pretenses, and somewhere deep in one of the countless federal manuals there must be a violation for this. As he tries to react, he shakes his head and repeats himself. "What the hell?"

"The murder of the federal judge. It's all over the press." It's hard to believe he could have missed the story of the murder, but it's also entirely possible. Just because I read several newspapers a day doesn't mean everyone does.

"The federal judge?" he asks.

"That's him. They found him with his girlfriend in a lake cabin in southwest Virginia, both shot - "

"Sure, sure. I've seen the stories. What's this got to do with you?" He's ticked off because I've lied to him, and he's trying to think of the appropriate punishment. A supreme and mighty man like a warden cannot get himself used by an inmate. Robert Earl's eyes are darting around as he decides how to react to my trickery.

I need to sound as dramatic as possible because Wade will probably laugh when I answer his question. Inmates have far too much spare time to develop intricate claims of their innocence, or to cook up conspiracy theories involving unsolved crimes, or to gather secrets that might be swapped for a sudden parole. In short, inmates are always scheming ways to get out, and I'm sure Robert Earl has seen and heard it all.

"I know who killed the judge," I say as seriously as possible.

Much to my relief, he does not crack a smile. He rocks back in his chair, pulls at his chin, and begins to nod. "And how did you come across this information?" he asks.

"I met the killer."

"In here or on the outside?"

"I can't say, Warden. But I'm not bullshitting you. Based on what I'm reading in the press, the FBI investigation isn't going anywhere. And it won't."

My disciplinary record is without blemish. I have never uttered a wrong word to a prison official. I have never complained. There is no contraband in my cell, not even an extra packet of sugar from the chow hall. I do not gamble or borrow money. I have helped dozens of fellow inmates, as well as a few civilians, including the warden, with their legal problems. My library is kept in meticulous order. The point being - for an inmate, I have credibility.

He leans forward on his elbows and exposes his yellow teeth. He has dark circles under his eyes, which are always moist. The eyes of a drinker. "And let me guess, Bannister, you would like to share this information with the FBI, cut a deal, and get out of prison. Right?"

"Absolutely, sir. That's my plan."

Finally, the laugh. A long high-pitched cackle that in itself would be the source of much humor. When he winds down, he says, "When is your release?"

"Five years."

"Oh, so this is a helluva deal, right? Just give them a name, and trot right out of here five years ahead of schedule?"

"Nothing is that simple."

"What do you want me to do, Bannister?" he snarls, the laughter long gone. "Call the FBI and tell 'em I gotta guy who knows the killer and is ready to cut a deal? They're probably getting a hundred calls a day, most from fruitcakes sniffing around for the reward money. Why would I risk my credibility playing that game?"

"Because I know the truth, and you know I'm not a fruitcake, nor a bullshitter."

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