Home > The Racketeer(9)

The Racketeer(9)
Author: John Grisham

The government lied, and not for the first or last time.

Inside the jail, a place I visited at least twice a week, there was yet another squad of agents. They wore navy parkas with "FBI" stamped in bold yellow lettering across the backs, and they buzzed around with great purpose, though I could not tell exactly what they were doing. The local cops, many of whom I knew well, backed away and looked at me with confusion and pity.

Was it really necessary to send two dozen federal agents to arrest me and confiscate my files? I had just walked from my office to the George Washington Hotel. Any half-assed cop on his lunch break could have stopped me and made the arrest. But that would take the joy out of what these vastly important people did for a living.

They led me to a small room, sat me at a table, removed the handcuffs, and told me to wait. A few minutes later, a man in a dark suit entered the room and said, "I'm Special Agent Don Connor, FBI."

"A real pleasure," I said.

He dropped some papers on the table in front of me and said, "This is the warrant for your arrest." Then he dropped a thick bunch of stapled papers. "And this is the indictment. I'll give you a few minutes to read it."

With that, he turned and left the room, slamming the door behind him as hard as possible. It was a thick metal door, and it crashed and vibrated and the sound rattled around the room for a few seconds.

A sound I will never forget.

Chapter 6

Three days after my first meeting with Warden Wade, I am summoned back to his office. When I walk in, he is alone, on the phone, engaged in an important conversation. I stand awkwardly by the door, waiting. When he finishes his end of the chat, with a rude "That'll do," he gets to his feet and says, "Follow me." We walk through a side door into an adjacent conference room painted in the typical government pale green and equipped with far more metal chairs than could ever be used.

An audit last year revealed that the Bureau of Prisons had purchased, for "administrative use," four thousand chairs at $800 per chair. The same manufacturer sold the same chair at wholesale for $79. I shouldn't care anymore, but working for thirty cents an hour gives one a different perspective when it comes to handling money.

"Have a seat," he says, and I sit in one of the ugly and overpriced chairs. He selects one across the table because there must always be a barrier between us. I glance around and count twenty-two chairs. Let it go.

"I called Washington after you left the other day," he says gravely, as if he checks in with the White House on a regular basis. "The bureau advised me to use my own discretion. I kicked it around for a few hours, then got in touch with the FBI down in Roanoke. They've sent two guys up; they're waiting down the hall."

I maintain a poker face, though I am thrilled to hear this.

He points a finger at me and says, "I'm warning you, Bannister. If this turns out to be a scam, and I get embarrassed, then I'll do whatever I can to make your life miserable."

"It's not a scam, Warden, I swear."

"I don't know why I believe you."

"You won't be sorry."

From his pocket he removes his reading glasses, perches them halfway down his nose, and looks at a slip of paper. "I spoke with Assistant Director Victor Westlake, the guy in charge of the investigation. He's sent two of his men to have a chat with you, Agent Hanski and Agent Erardi. I did not reveal your name, so they know nothing."

"Thank you, Warden."

"Stay here." He gently slaps the table, gets to his feet, and leaves the room. As I wait and listen for approaching footsteps, there is a sharp pain in my stomach. If this doesn't work, I'm here for five more years, plus anything more they can possibly tack on.

Special Agent Chris Hanski is the senior guy, about my age with a lot of gray hair. Agent Alan Erardi is his younger sidekick. A newspaper article said there are now forty FBI agents working on the Fawcett case, and I assume these guys are pretty far down the chain of command. This first meeting will be important, as will all of them, but they've clearly sent a couple of foot soldiers to check me out.

The warden is not in the room. I figure he's back in his office, not far away, with an ear stuck to the door.

They begin without using pens and notepads, a clear sign they are here for a little amusement. Nothing serious. I guess they're not smart enough to realize I've spent hours across the table from FBI agents.

"So you want to make a deal," Hanski says.

"I know who killed Judge Fawcett, and I know why. If this information is of any value to the FBI, then, yes, we might be able to make a deal."

"You're assuming we don't already know," Hanski says.

"I'm sure you don't. If you did, why would you be here?"

"We were told to be here because we're checking every possible lead, and we doubt seriously if this will lead anywhere."

"Try me."

They exchange cocky looks. Fun and games. "So you give us the name, and what do you get in return?"

"I get out of prison, and I get protection."

"That simple?"

"No, it's actually very complicated. This guy is a nasty character and he has friends who are even nastier. Plus, I'm not willing to wait two years until he's convicted. If I give you the name, I get out now. Immediately."

"What if he's not convicted?"

"That's your problem. If you screw up the prosecution, you can't blame me."

At this point, Erardi takes out his notepad, uncaps a cheap pen, and writes something down. I have their attention. They are still working much too hard to appear nonchalant, but these guys are under pressure. Their little task force is scrambling because they have no credible leads, according to the newspapers. Hanski continues, "What if you give us the wrong name? Let's say we go chasing after the wrong suspect; meanwhile, you're a free man."

"I'll never be a free man."

"You'll be out of prison."

"And looking over my shoulder for the rest of my life."

"We've never lost an informant in witness protection. Over eight thousand and counting."

"That's what you advertise. Frankly, I'm not too concerned with your track record or what didn't happen to the others. I'm worried about my own skin."

There is a pause as Erardi stops writing and decides to speak. "This guy sounds like he's in a gang of some sort, maybe a drug dealer. What else can you tell us?"

"Nothing, and I've told you nothing. You can make all the wild guesses you want."

Hanski smiles at nothing that is humorous. "I doubt if our boss will be too impressed with your scheme to get out of prison. As of today, we've had at least two other inmates contact us and claim to have valuable information. Of course, they want out of prison too. This is not unusual."

I have no way of knowing if this is true, but it sounds believable. The knot in my stomach has not gone away. I shrug, offer a smile, tell myself to stay cool. "You guys can play it any way you want. Obviously, you're in charge. You can keep beating your heads against a wall. You can waste time with these other inmates. It's up to you. But when you want to know the name of the person who killed Judge Fawcett, I can give it to you."

"Someone you met in prison?" Erardi asks.

"Or maybe out of prison. You'll never know until we have a deal."

There is a long pause as they stare at me and I stare right back. Finally, Erardi closes his notepad and sticks his pen back in his pocket. Hanski says, "Okay. We'll go tell our boss."

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