The Racketeer(12)


by John Grisham

"Okay, I'm listening," he barked, snapping his fingers.

Hanski quickly said, "Guy's name is Malcolm Bannister, black male, aged forty-three, in for ten for RICO violations, federal court in D.C., former lawyer from Winchester, Virginia. Says he can deliver the name of the killer, along with his motive, but of course he wants out of prison."

Erardi added, "Out immediately, but also protection."

"What a surprise. A con wants out. Is he believable?"

Hanski shrugged. "For a con, I suppose. The warden says the guy is not a bullshitter, record is squeaky-clean, says we should listen to the guy."

"What'd he give you?"

"Absolutely nothing. The guy is pretty smart. He might actually know something, and if he does, then this may be his only chance to walk."

Westlake began to pace behind his desk, across the slick concrete floor, to one wall with fresh sawdust scattered in front of it. He paced back to his desk. "What kind of lawyer was he? Criminal? Drug dealers?"

Hanski replied, "Small town, general practice, some criminal experience, not much trial work, though. A former Marine."

As a former Marine himself, Westlake liked this. "His military record?"

"Four years, honorable discharge, fought in the first Gulf War. His father was a Marine and a Virginia state trooper."

"What took him down?"

"You're not going to believe it. Barry the Backhander."

Westlake frowned and smiled at the same time. "Come on."

"Seriously. He handled some real estate transactions for Barry and got caught up in the storm. As you'll recall, the jury nailed them on RICO and conspiracy charges. I think there were eight of them tried at the same time. Bannister was a small fish who got caught in a wide net."

"Any connection to Fawcett?"

"Not yet. We just got his name three hours ago."

"You got a plan?"

"Sort of," Hanski said. "If we assume Bannister knows the killer, then it's safe to assume they met in prison. Doubtful that he would have met the guy on the quiet streets of Winchester; much more likely that their paths crossed in prison. Bannister has been in for five years, with the first twenty-two months in Louisville, Kentucky, a medium-security prison with a population of two thousand. Since then he's been at Frostburg, a camp with six hundred inmates."

"That's a lot of people; plus, they come and go," Westlake said.

"Right, so let's start at the logical place. Let's get his prison records, the names of his cell mates, maybe dorm mates. We'll go to the two prisons, talk to the wardens, the unit managers, the COs, talk to anyone who might know something about Bannister and his friends. We'll begin collecting names and we'll see how many crossed paths with Fawcett."

Erardi added, "He says the killer has nasty friends, thus the desire for protection. Sounds like a gang of some variety. Once we start adding names, we'll concentrate on those with gang connections."

A pause, then a doubtful Westlake said, "And that's it?"

"It's the best we can do for now."

Westlake clicked his heels together, arched his back, gripped his hands behind his head, and breathed deeply. He stretched, and breathed, and stretched, then said, "Okay. Collect the prison records and get started. How many hands do you need?"

"Can you spare two men?"

"No, but you can have them. Go. Get started."

Barry the Backhander. The client I never met until they dragged us into federal court one gray morning and read the entire indictment aloud.

In a ham-and-egg storefront law office, you learn the basics of many mundane legal tasks, but it's difficult to specialize. I tried to avoid divorce and bankruptcy and I never liked real estate, but to survive I often had to take who and what walked in the door. Oddly, it would be real estate that brought about The Fall.

The referral came from a law school pal who was working for a midsized firm in central D.C. The firm had a client who wished to purchase a hunting lodge in Shenandoah County, in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains, about an hour southwest of Winchester. The client desired great secrecy and demanded anonymity, which should have been the first warning sign. The purchase price was $4 million, and after some haggling, I negotiated a flat fee of $100,000 for Copeland, Reed & Bannister to handle the transaction. Such a fee had never been seen by me or my partners, and we were excited, initially. I set my other files aside and went to research the land records in Shenandoah County.

The lodge was about twenty years old and had been built by some doctors who enjoyed grouse hunting, but as happens with many such ventures, the partners had reached a disagreement. A serious one, involving lawyers and lawsuits, even a bankruptcy or two. After a couple of weeks, though, I had things sorted out and delivering a clean title opinion to my still anonymous client would be no problem. A closing date was set and I prepared all the necessary contracts and deeds. There was a lot of paperwork, but then again we were going to earn a rather fat fee.

The closing was delayed a month, and I asked my law school pal for $50,000, or half of the attorneys' fees. This was not uncommon, and since I had invested a hundred hours at this point, I wanted to get paid. He called back to say the client would not agree. No big deal, I thought. In a typical real estate transaction, the attorneys are not paid until the closing takes place. I was informed that my client, a corporation, had changed its name. I redrafted the documents and waited. The closing was again delayed, and the sellers began threatening to walk away.

During this time, I was vaguely aware of the name and reputation of a Beltway operative by the name of Barry Rafko or, more famously, Barry the Backhander. He was about fifty years old and for most of his adult life had been rummaging around D.C. looking for a lazy way to make a buck. He had been a consultant, a strategist, an analyst, a fund-raiser, and a spokesman, and he had worked at the lower levels of a few election campaigns of congressmen and senators, both Democratic and Republican. Didn't matter to Barry. If he was getting paid he could strategize and analyze from either side of the street. He hit his stride, though, when he and a partner opened a lounge near the Capitol. Barry hired some young hookers to tend bar in miniskirts, and almost overnight the place became a favorite meat market for the legions of staffers who swarm the Hill. Low-ranking congressmen and mid-ranking bureaucrats discovered the place, and Barry was on the map. With his pockets full of cash, his next venture was an upscale steak house two blocks from his lounge. He catered to lobbyists and offered great steaks and wines at reasonable prices, and before long senators were getting their preferred tables. Barry loved sports and bought lots of tickets - Redskins, Capitals, Wizards, Georgetown Hoyas - which he gave away to his friends. By this time he had founded his own "governmental relations" firm and it was growing rapidly. He and his partner had a fight, and Barry bought his interest in their holdings. Alone, wealthy, and fueled by ambition, Barry set his sights on the top of his profession. Unrestrained by ethical considerations, he became one of the most aggressive purveyors of influence in Washington. If a rich client wanted a new loophole in the tax code, Barry could hire someone to write it, insert it, convince his friends to support it, and then do a masterful job of covering it up. If a rich client needed to expand a factory back home, Barry could arrange a deal whereby the congressman would secure the earmark, send the money home to the factory, and pocket a sizable check for his reelection efforts. Everyone would be thrilled.