Home > The Racketeer(9)

The Racketeer(9)
Author: John Grisham


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

"Why don't you just write them a letter, keep me out of it?"

"I will, if that's what you want. But you'll be involved at some point because I swear I'm going to convince the FBI. We'll cut our deal, and I'll say good-bye. You'll be here for the logistics."

He slumps back in his chair as if overwhelmed by the pressure of his office. He picks his nose with a thumb. "You know, Bannister, as of this morning I have 602 men here at Frostburg, and you are the last one I would expect to sneak in my office with such a screwball idea. The very last."

"Thank you."

"Don't mention it."

I lean forward and stare him in the eyes. "Look, Warden, I know what I'm talking about. I know you can't trust an inmate, but just hear me out. I have some extremely valuable information, and the FBI will be desperate to have it. Please call them."

"I don't know, Bannister. We'll both look like fools."

"Please."

"I might think about it. Now shove off, and tell Officer Marvin that I denied your request to go to the funeral."

"Yes sir, and thanks."

My hunch is that the warden will not be able to resist a little excitement. Running a no-security camp filled with well-behaved inmates is a dull job. Why not get involved in the most notorious murder investigation in the country?

I leave the administration building and head across the quad, the central area of our camp. On the west side are two dormitories that house 150 men each, and these are matched by identical buildings on the east side of the quad. East campus and west campus, as though one were strolling through a pleasant little college.

The COs have a break room near the chow hall, and here I find dear Officer Marvin. If I set foot inside the break room I would probably be shot or hanged. The metal door is open, though, and I can see inside. Marvin is sprawled in a folding chair, cup of coffee in one hand and a thick pastry in the other. He's laughing along with two other COs. If hooked by the necks and weighed together on meat scales, the three would push a thousand pounds.

"What do you want, Bannister?" Darrel growls when he sees me.

"Just wanted to say thanks, Officer. The warden said no, but thanks anyway."

"You got it, Bannister. Sorry about your grandmother."

And with that, one of the guards kicks the door closed. It slams hard in my face, the metal crashes and vibrates, and for a split second it shakes me to the core. I have heard that sound before.

My arrest. The Downtown Civic Club met for lunch each Wednesday at the historic George Washington Hotel, a five-minute walk from my office. There were about seventy-five members, and all but three were white. On that day, I happened to be the only black guy in attendance, not that this was of any significance. I was sitting at a long table, choking down the usual rubber chicken and cold peas and shooting the bull with the mayor and a State Farm agent. We had covered the usual topics - the weather and football - and we had touched lightly on politics, but this was always done with great care. It was a typical Civic Club lunch - thirty minutes for the food, followed by thirty minutes from a speaker who was usually not too exciting. However, on this memorable day I would not be allowed to hear the speech.

There was a commotion at the door of the banquet hall, then, suddenly, a squad of heavily armed federal agents swarmed the room as if they were about to kill all of us. A SWAT team, in complete ninja attire - black uniforms, thick vests, serious firearms, and those German combat helmets made famous by Hitler's troops. One of them yelled, "Malcolm Bannister!" I instinctively stood and mumbled, "What the hell?" At least five automatic rifles were instantly aimed at me. "Hands up," the fearless leader yelled, and I raised my hands. In a matter of seconds my hands were yanked down, slapped together behind me, and for the first time in my life I felt the indescribable pinch of thick cuffs on my wrists. It is a horrible feeling, and unforgettable. I was shoved down the narrow aisle between the dining tables and hustled out of the room. The last thing I heard was the mayor shouting, "This is an outrage!"

Needless to say, the dramatic invasion put a damper on the rest of the Civic Club meeting.

With these paramilitary goons swarming around me, I was taken through the lobby of the hotel and out the front door. Someone had graciously tipped off the local television station, and a camera crew filmed away as I was shoved into the rear seat of a black Chevrolet Tahoe, a goon on each side. As we headed for the city jail, I said, "Is all of this really necessary?"

The leader, riding front-seat shotgun, said, "Just shut up," without turning around.

"Well, I really don't have to shut up," I said. "You can arrest me, but you can't make me shut up. Do you realize this?"

"Just shut up."

The goon on my right placed the barrel of his rifle on my knee.

"Please move that gun, would you?" I said, but the gun did not move.

We drove on. I said, "Are you guys getting your rocks off on this? Must be terribly exciting to dash about like real tough guys, roughing up innocent people, sort of like the Gestapo."

"I said shut up."

"And I said I'm not shutting up. You got a warrant for my arrest?"

"I do."

"Let me see it."

"I'll show it to you at the jail. For now, just shut up."

"Why don't you shut up, okay?"

I could see a portion of his neck just under his German combat helmet, and it was turning red as he fumed. I took a deep breath and told myself to be cool.

The helmet. I had worn the same type during my four years in the Marines, four years of active duty that included live combat in the first Gulf War. Second Regiment, Eighth Battalion, Second Division, U.S. Marine Corps. We had been the first U.S. troops to engage the Iraqis in Kuwait. It wasn't much of a fight, but I saw enough dead and wounded on both sides.

Now I was surrounded by a bunch of toy soldiers who'd never heard a shot fired in anger and couldn't run a mile without collapsing. And they were the good guys.

When we arrived at the jail, there was a photographer from the local newspaper. My goons walked me slowly inside, making sure I would be well photographed. Their version of the perp walk.

I would soon learn that another team of government thugs had raided the offices of Copeland, Reed & Bannister at about the same time I was sitting down for lunch with my fellow Civic Club members. With brilliant forethought and meticulous planning, the joint strike force waited until the noon hour when the only person in the office was poor Mrs. Henderson. She reported that they stormed through the front door with guns drawn, yelling, cursing, threatening. They tossed a search warrant on her desk, made her sit in a chair by the window, promised to arrest her if she did little more than breathe, then proceeded to ransack our modest suite of offices. They hauled away all of the computers, printers, and several dozen boxes of files. At some point, Mr. Copeland returned from lunch. When he protested, a gun was aimed at him, and he took a seat beside a weeping Mrs. Henderson.

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