Home > The Racketeer(2)

The Racketeer(2)
Author: John Grisham


Carl, Kermit, Wesley, and Mark. All white, average age of fifty-one. All admit their guilt.

Then there's me. Malcolm Bannister, black, aged forty-three, convicted of a crime I had no knowledge of committing.

At this moment, at Frostburg, I happen to be the only black guy serving time for a white-collar crime. Some distinction.

In my Black Gang, the membership is not so clearly defined. Most are kids from the streets of D.C. and Baltimore who were busted for drug-related crimes, and when they are paroled, they will return to the streets with a 20 percent chance of avoiding another conviction. With no education, no skills, and a criminal record, how are they supposed to succeed?

In reality, there are no gangs in a federal camp and no violence. If you fight or threaten someone, they'll yank you out of here and send you to a place that's far worse. There is a lot of bickering, mainly over the television, but I have yet to see someone throw a punch. Some of these guys have served time in state prisons, and the stories they tell are horrifying. No one wants to trade this place for another joint.

So we behave as we count the days. For the white-collar guys, the punishment is humiliation and the loss of status, standing, a lifestyle. For the black guys, life in a camp is safer than where they came from and where they're going. Their punishment is another notch on their criminal records, another step in becoming career felons.

Because of this, I feel more white than black.

There are two other ex-lawyers here at Frostburg. Ron Napoli was a flamboyant criminal lawyer in Philadelphia for many years, until cocaine ruined him. He specialized in drug law and represented many of the top dealers and traffickers in the mid-Atlantic region, from New Jersey to the Carolinas. He preferred to get paid in cash and coke and eventually lost everything. The IRS nailed him for tax evasion, and he's about halfway through a nine-year sentence. Ron's not doing too well these days. He seems depressed and will not, under any circumstances, exercise and try to take care of himself. He's getting heavier, slower, crankier, and sicker. He used to tell fascinating stories about his clients and their adventures in narco-trafficking, but now he just sits in the yard, eating bag after bag of Fritos and looking lost. Someone is sending him money, and he spends most of it on junk food.

The third ex-lawyer is a Washington shark named Amos Kapp, a longtime insider and shifty operator who spent a career slinking around the edges of every major political scandal. Kapp and I were tried together, convicted together, and sentenced ten years apiece by the same judge. There were eight defendants - seven from Washington and me. Kapp has always been guilty of something, and he was certainly guilty in the eyes of our jurors. Kapp, though, knew then and knows now that I had nothing to do with the conspiracy, but he was too much of a coward and a crook to say anything. Violence is strictly prohibited at Frostburg, but give me five minutes with Amos Kapp and his neck would be broken. He knows this, and I suspect he told the warden a long time ago. They keep him on the west campus, as far away from my pod as possible.

Of the three lawyers, I'm the only one willing to help other inmates with their legal problems. I enjoy the work. It's challenging and keeps me busy. It also keeps my legal skills sharp, though I doubt if I have much of a future as a lawyer. I can apply for reinstatement to the bar when I'm out, but that can be an arduous procedure. The truth is I never made any money as a lawyer. I was a small-town practitioner, black on top of that, and few clients could pay a decent fee. There were dozens of other lawyers packed along Braddock Street scrambling for the same clients; the competition was rough. I'm not sure what I'll do when this is over, but I have serious doubts about resuming a legal career.

I'll be forty-eight, single, and in good health, hopefully.

Five years is an eternity. Every day I take a long walk, alone, on a dirt jogging trail that skirts the edges of the camp and follows the boundary, or the "line," as it is known. Step over the line, and you're considered an escapee. In spite of being the site of a prison, this is beautiful country with spectacular views. As I walk and gaze at the rolling hills in the distance, I fight the urge to just keep walking, to step over the line. There is no fence to stop me, no guard to yell my name. I could disappear into the dense woods, then disappear forever.

I wish there was a wall, one ten feet tall, made of solid brick, with coils of glistening razor wire along its top, one that would keep me from gazing at the hills and dreaming of freedom. This is a prison, damn it! We can't leave. Put up a wall and stop tempting us.

The temptation is always there, and, as much as I fight it, I swear it's getting stronger by the day.

Chapter 2

Frostburg is a few miles west of the town of Cumberland, Maryland, in the middle of a sliver of land that is dwarfed by Pennsylvania to the north and West Virginia to the west and south. Looking at a map, it is obvious this exiled part of the state was the result of a bad survey and shouldn't belong to Maryland at all, though it's not clear who should have ownership. I work in the library, and on the wall above my little desk is a large map of America. I spend too much time gazing at it, daydreaming, wondering how I came to be a federal prisoner in a remote part of far-western Maryland.

Sixty miles south of here is the town of Winchester, Virginia, population twenty-five thousand, the place of my birth, childhood, education, career, and, eventually, The Fall. I am told that little has changed there since I left. The law firm of Copeland & Reed is still doing business in the same storefront shop where I once worked. It's on Braddock Street, in the Old Town, next door to a diner. The name, painted in black on the window, was once Copeland, Reed & Bannister, and it was the only all-black law firm within a hundred miles. I'm told that Mr. Copeland and Mr. Reed are doing well, certainly not prospering or getting rich, but generating enough business to pay their two secretaries and the rent. That's about all we did when I was a partner there - just manage to scrape by. At the time of The Fall, I was having serious second thoughts about surviving in such a small town.

I am told that Mr. Copeland and Mr. Reed refuse to discuss me and my problems. They came within an inch of being indicted too, and their reputations were tarnished. The U.S. Attorney who nailed me was blasting buckshot at anyone remotely connected to his grand conspiracy, and he almost wiped out the entire firm. My crime was picking the wrong client. My two former partners have never committed a crime. On so many levels I regret what has happened, but the slander of their good names still keeps me awake. They are both in their late sixties, and in their younger days as lawyers they struggled not only with the challenge of keeping a small-town general practice afloat but also fought some of the last battles of the Jim Crow era. Judges sometimes ignored them in court and ruled against them for no sound legal reason. Other lawyers were often rude and unprofessional. The county bar association did not invite them to join. Clerks sometimes lost their filings. All-white juries did not believe them. Worst of all, clients did not hire them. Black clients. No white client would hire a black lawyer in the 1970s, in the South anyway, and this still hasn't changed much. But Copeland & Reed nearly went under in its infancy because black folks thought the white lawyers were better. Hard work and a commitment to professionalism changed this, but slowly.

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