The Guardians: The explosive new thriller from international bestseller John Grisham (30 page)

BOOK: The Guardians: The explosive new thriller from international bestseller John Grisham

“Chip and Dip.”

He pauses and flashes a smile with his yellow teeth. “You’re pretty good, Post.”

“We are thorough.”

“Anyway, Chip and Dip ran things for Pfitzner and held everybody in line. The inner circle kept the money and thought they were keeping the secrets too, but, of course, it’s a small town.”

The waiter returns with two jugs of hooch and looks at my first, virtually untouched, as if to say, “Let’s go, pal, this is a real bar.” I give him a smirk and take a long pull on the straw. Glenn does the same, and after a noisy swallow says, “The deputy tells me Kenny Taft was not killed by some random gang of drug thugs, not at all. He says some of the deputies back then strongly suspected Pfitzner set up the ambush, says he needed to put the clamps on Taft, who knew something. He says it worked just swell but with one minor hitch. A man got shot. Evidently, either Kenny Taft or Brace Gilmer managed to get off a lucky round and one of the gun thugs went down. The story goes that he bled out on the way to the hospital and they dumped his body behind a queer joint in Tampa. Just another unsolved murder. Luckily for Pfitzner, the guy was not a deputy and not from Seabrook so no red flags were raised. Any of this sound familiar, Post?”

I shake my head no. I will not repeat anything Bruce Gilmer told me in Idaho.

Another long pull and he’s energized for more narrative. “So the obvious question is why did Pfitzner want to get rid of Kenny Taft.”

“That’s the puzzle,” I say helpfully.

“Well, the rumor is that Kenny Taft got wind of the plan to burn the shed where the cops stored crime scene stuff, and that Taft removed several boxes of evidence before the fire. No one knew this, of course, and once he had the goods he was afraid to do anything with them. He must’ve said too much and word filtered back to Pfitzner, who set up the ambush.”

“Several boxes?” I ask as my mouth immediately goes dry and my heart starts pounding. I drink sangria to calm myself.

“That’s the rumor, Post. Don’t know what was destroyed in the fire and don’t know what was removed by Kenny Taft. Just rumors. There was a missing flashlight, as I recall. I’ve read your post-conviction petition, saw where you lost last week, and anyway the flashlight was presumed to have been destroyed. Right, Post?”

“That’s right.”

“Maybe it wasn’t destroyed.”

“That’s interesting,” I manage to say with calmness. “Does the rumor cover the part that reveals what Kenny did with the boxes of evidence?”

“No, it doesn’t. But interestingly enough, the rumor says that during his funeral service, which was fit for a five-star general, Pfitzner had two of his men go through Kenny’s house inch by inch looking for the boxes. They have never been found, according to the rumor.”

“But you have a hunch, right?”

“No, but I’m working on it, Post. I have lots of sources, old and new, and I’m on the prowl. Just thought you’d like to know.”

“And you’re not worried?” I ask.

“Worried about what?”

“Worried that you might discover something that has been well hidden. Quincy Miller didn’t kill Keith Russo. The murder was ordered by a drug gang with Pfitzner’s blessing and cover-up. The gang is still around and ten days ago they tried to kill Quincy in prison. They don’t like our way of digging up the past, and they won’t like yours either.”

He laughs and says, “I’m too old to worry, Post. Plus, I’m having too much fun.”

“Then why are we hiding in a bar in Gainesville?”

“Because there aren’t any decent bars in Seabrook, which is probably a good thing for a guy like me. Besides, this is my college town. Love the place. Are you worried, Post?”

“Let’s just say that I’m being careful.”

Chapter 36

The file on Mickey Mercado gets thicker. With warrants, his income tax returns are obtained and scoured. He lists his occupation as a security consultant, a sole proprietor as opposed to a partnership or corporation. His business address is in the same building as Varick & Valencia, Nash Cooley’s law firm. Last year’s reported gross income was slightly more than $200,000, with deductions for a mortgage and a couple of nice cars. He’s single, divorced, with no dependents. No charitable activities at all.

The FBI has no interest in wasting its time pursuing prison guards who peddle dope or prison gangs at war with each other. But Special Agent Agnes Nolton can’t resist the scenario of a crime boss hiring the Aryan Deacons to kill an innocent man whose lawyers are trying to exonerate him. She makes the decision to roll the dice in a big way and put Skip DiLuca in a vice. It is a high-risk, high-reward strategy.

With the cooperation of the U.S. Attorney, she appears before a federal grand jury and presents the evidence. Jon Drummik, Robert Earl Lane, Adam Stone, and Skip DiLuca are indicted for the attempted contract killing and aggravated assault of Quincy Miller. The indictments are sealed, and the FBI waits in ambush.

I’m waiting too, hanging around Quincy’s new hospital room and helping to nurse him back to good health. Our conversations are brief because talking quickly tires him. He remembers nothing about the attack. As for his short-term memory, there’s not much there.

Adam Stone checks in. Mr. Mayhall is on the way with more contraband and cash. Because of his near-arrest last time, Mayhall decides to change meeting places. He picks a taco joint at the northern edge of Sanford, population 50,000. Adam arrives first in street clothes, gets a table with a view of the parking lot, and helps himself to some tacos. He has been told by the FBI that Mayhall, real name DiLuca, is now driving a new silver Lexus that he has just leased. Adam munches away and watches for the Lexus. It arrives fifteen minutes late and parks next to Adam’s monster truck. DiLuca gets out and walks hurriedly to the restaurant’s side door, but he never makes it. Two agents in dark suits materialize from nowhere and block his path. They flash badges and point to a black SUV waiting by a dumpster. DiLuca knows it would be foolish to resist or to say anything. He drops his head and slumps his shoulders as they lead him away. Once again he’s managed to screw up his life in the free world. Once again he feels the tight clamp of metal handcuffs.

Adam is the only person inside the restaurant to witness the drama. He is not pleased by the events. His world just got rocked again. He’s been promised by the FBI that his indictment will be tossed in return for his cooperation. He’s been promised a better job. But who carries out these promises? The plan, as far as he knows, is to grab DiLuca before he can squeal to anyone. Thus, the Deacons should not learn of his arrest, nor should they have any way of knowing that Adam, their favorite gofer and mule, is now an informant. But Adam knows that in prison loyalties change by the day and secrets are hard to keep. He fears for his life and wants another job.

He finishes a taco and watches the SUV drive away. Immediately, a tow truck arrives and takes the new Lexus. When things are back to normal, Adam finishes his last taco and walks to his truck, suspecting that he too will soon be arrested. Or, worse, shanked and left to bleed out.

For almost an hour, Skip DiLuca rides in the rear seat with cuffs firmly around his wrists, and says not a word. The agent seated next to him doesn’t speak either. Nor do the two up front. The side windows are heavily tinted so that those inside barely see out, and those outside certainly cannot see the passengers.

The SUV winds and putters through traffic and finally makes its way to the rear of the FBI building in Maitland. DiLuca is walked up two flights of stairs and marched to a windowless room where more agents are waiting. He’s shoved into a chair and his cuffs are removed. No fewer than six agents are in the room, an impressive show of force. Skip wonders if all this muscle is really necessary. If he made a break for it, where would he go? Relax, everybody.

A woman walks in and the men stiffen. She sits across from Skip, but the men stay on their feet, at the ready. She says, “Mr. DiLuca, my name is Agnes Nolton, Special Agent, FBI, and you’re under arrest for the attempted contract killing of Quincy Miller, and for aggravated assault, and a few other less significant crimes. We just searched your car and found three hundred capsules of crystal meth, so we’ll add those charges later. Here’s your indictment. Have a look.”

She slides across the indictment and DiLuca takes his time reading it. He’s not impressed and reads with a smug look, as if checking box scores. When he’s finished, he gently places it on the table and offers her a drippy smile. She hands him another sheet of paper with his Miranda rights. He reads them and signs at the bottom. He’s done this dance before.

She says, “We’ll turn you over to the jailers in a moment, but first I’d like to have a little chat. Do you want a lawyer?”

“No, I want two lawyers. Maybe three.”

“You need them. We can stop now and provide you with counsel tomorrow. But, if that happens, then we cannot have my little chat, and that will be very bad for you.”

“I’m listening,” he says calmly.

“You have an extensive criminal record and you’re now facing another thirty years on all counts. You’re fifty-one, so you’ll die behind bars.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it. Frankly, you’re not much of a target and we have better things to do than fret over the games played by prison gangs. But a contract killing is another matter. Somebody paid for it. You tell us who, how much, all the details, and we can guarantee a light sentence for you and years of freedom thereafter. That is, if you stay out of trouble, which seems doubtful.”


“Don’t mention it. We’re offering a sweet deal, Mr. DiLuca, and the offer expires in exactly forty-three minutes.” She glances at her watch as she says this. “You can’t leave this room and you certainly cannot call anyone.”

“I’ll pass. I’m not a snitch, not a rat.”

“Of course not, didn’t mean to imply. But let’s not kid ourselves. You’re not exactly the president of the Rotary Club either. Look in the mirror, Skip. Face the truth. You’re nothing but a con, a crook, a criminal with a rap sheet, a member of a violent gang, a racist, a long-time loser with a history of doing stupid things. Now you’ve been caught bribing a guard and hauling dope for your fellow Deacons. Pretty stupid, Skip. Why in hell can’t you do something smart in your life? Do you really want to spend the next thirty years locked up with those animals? And it’s federal, Skip, and not a camp. We’ll make sure you get a U.S. Pen.”

“Come on.”

“A U.S. Pen, Skip, the worst of the worst. For the next thirty years. Garvin was a picnic compared to where you’re headed.”

Skip takes a deep breath and studies the ceiling. He’s not afraid of prison, not even a U.S. Pen. He’s spent most of his life behind the fence and he survived, at times even prospered. His brothers are there, all sworn together in a vicious but protective gang. No work, no bills to pay. Three meals a day. Plenty of drugs, especially for a gang member. Lots of sex if one is so inclined.

However, he’s just met a lady he’s quite fond of, his first romance in many years. She’s a bit older, not rich but with some means, and they’ve talked of living together and taking a trip. Skip can’t go far because he’s on parole; a passport is only a dream. But she’s given him a glimpse of another life, and he really doesn’t want to go back to prison.

Because he’s such an experienced con, he knows how to play the game. This tough gal can find some room to negotiate. He asks, “So how much time are we talking about?”

“As I said, thirty years.”

“With a deal?”

“Three to five.”

“I can’t survive three to five. The answer is no.”

“If you can’t survive three to five, how can you expect to survive thirty?”

“I’ve been there, okay? I know the turf.”

“Indeed you do.”

Nolton stands and glares at him. “I’ll be back in thirty minutes, Skip. Right now you’re wasting my time.”

He asks, “Can I have some coffee?”

Nolton spreads her arms and says, “Coffee? I don’t have any coffee. Anybody here got coffee?” The other six agents look around as if searching for coffee. Finding none, they shake their heads. She marches out of the room and someone closes the door. Three agents remain. The largest one parks himself by the door in a heavy chair and begins deleting voice mails. The other two sit at the table with Skip and immediately find urgent work with their cell phones. The room is silent and Skip pretends to nod off.

Fifteen minutes later the door opens and Nolton walks in. She doesn’t sit but looks down at Skip and says, “We just picked up Mickey Mercado in Coral Gables and we’re getting ready to offer him the deal of a lifetime. If he takes it first, you’re screwed and our offer is off the table. Think fast, Skip, if that’s possible.”

She turns around and marches out again. Skip manages to keep a poker face as his bowels grind and he feels nauseous. His vision blurs as his head spins. They not only know about Mercado, but now they have him! This is overwhelming. Skip glances around and notices the two agents at the table watching his every move. He is breathing heavier and he cannot stop it. His forehead turns wet. They make notes on their phones and send messages.

A moment passes and he does not retch. He keeps swallowing hard and another moment passes.

Ten minutes later she’s back. She sits this time, a clear indication that she plans to really squeeze his balls. She begins pleasantly with “You’re a fool, Skip. Any con in your shoes who can’t take this deal is a fool.”

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