The Racketeer(4)

by John Grisham

He taps the brown bag and says, "Racine sent these."

"Please tell her I said thanks," I say. If he's so worried about my waistline, why does he bring me a bag of fatty desserts every time he visits? I'll eat two or three and give the rest away.

"You talked to Marcus lately?" he asks.

"No, not in the past month. Why?"

"Big trouble. Delmon's got a girl pregnant. He's fifteen, she's fourteen." He shakes his head and frowns. Delmon was an outlaw by the age of ten, and the family has always expected him to pursue a life of crime.

"Your first great-grandchild," I say, trying to be funny.

"Ain't I proud? A fourteen-year-old white girl knocked up by a fifteen-year-old idiot who happens to be named Bannister."

We both dwell on this for some time. Our visits are often defined not by what is said but by what is kept deep inside. My father is now sixty-nine, and instead of savoring his golden years, he spends most of his time licking his wounds and feeling sorry for himself. Not that I blame him. His dear wife of forty-two years was taken away in a split second. While he was lost in his grief, we found out the FBI had an interest in me, and its investigation soon snowballed. My trial lasted for three weeks and my father was in the courtroom every day. Watching me stand before a judge and get sentenced to ten years in prison was heartbreaking. Then Bo was taken away, from both of us. Now Marcus's children are old enough to inflict serious pain on their parents and extended family.

Our family is due some good luck, but that doesn't appear likely.

"I talked to Ruby last night," he says. "She's doing well, says hello, says your last letter was quite funny."

"Please tell her the letters mean so much. She has not missed a week in five years." Ruby is such a bright spot in our crumbling family. She's a marriage counselor, and her husband is a pediatrician. They have three perfect kids who are kept away from their infamous Uncle Mal.

After a long pause, I say, "Thanks for the check, as always."

He shrugs and says, "Happy to help."

He sends $100 every month, and it is much appreciated. It goes into my account and allows me to buy such necessities as pens, writing tablets, paperbacks, and decent food. Most of those in my White Gang get checks from home and virtually no one in my Black Gang gets a penny. In prison, you always know who's getting money.

"You're almost halfway through," he says.

"I'm two weeks shy of five years," I say.

"I guess it flies by."

"Maybe on the outside. I can assure you the clocks run much slower on this side of the wall."

"Still, it's hard to believe you've been in for five years."

It is indeed. How do you survive for years in prison? You don't think about years, or months, or weeks. You think about today - how to get through it, how to survive it. When you wake up tomorrow, another day is behind you. The days add up; the weeks run together; the months become years. You realize how tough you are, how you can function and survive because you have no choice.

"Any idea what you'll do?" he asks. I get this same question every month now, as if my release were just around the corner. Patience, I remind myself. He's my father. And he's here! That counts for a lot.

"Not really. It's too far away."

"I'd start thinking about it if I were you," he says, certain that he would know exactly what to do if he were in my shoes.

"I just finished the third level of Spanish," I say with some pride. In my Brown Gang there is a good friend, Marco, who is an excellent language teacher. Drugs.

"Looks like we'll all be speaking Spanish before long. They're taking over."

Henry has little patience with immigrants, anybody with an accent, people from New York and New Jersey, anyone on welfare, anyone unemployed, and he thinks the homeless should be rounded up and placed in camps that would resemble, in his view, something worse than Guantanamo.

We had harsh words a few years ago, and he threatened to stop the visits. Bickering is a waste of time. I'm not going to change him. He's kind enough to drive over, the least I can do is behave. I am the convicted felon; he is not. He's the winner; I'm the loser. This seems important to Henry, though I don't know why. Maybe it's because I had college and law school, something he never dreamed of.

"I'll probably leave the country," I say. "Go somewhere where I can use the Spanish, somewhere like Panama or Costa Rica. Warm weather, beaches, people with darker skin. They don't care about criminal records or who's been to prison."

"The grass is always greener, huh?"

"Yes, Dad, when you're in prison, every place has greener grass. What am I supposed to do? Go back home, maybe become an unlicensed paralegal doing research for some tiny firm that can't afford me? Maybe become a bail bondsman? How about a private detective? There are not a lot of options."

He's nodding along. We've had this conversation at least a dozen times. "And you hate the government," he says.

"Oh yes. I hate the federal government, the FBI, the U.S. Attorneys, the federal judges, the fools who run the prisons. There is so much of it I hate. I'm sitting here doing ten years for a noncrime because a hotshot U.S. Attorney needed to jack up his kill quota. And if the government can nail my ass for ten years with no evidence, just think of all the possibilities now that I have the words 'Convicted Felon' tattooed on my forehead. I'm outta here, Pop, just as soon as I can make the break."

He's nodding and smiling. Sure, Mal.

Chapter 3

Given the importance of what they do, and the controversies that often surround them, and the violent people they sometimes confront, it is remarkable that in the history of this country only four active federal judges have been murdered.

The Honorable Raymond Fawcett has just become number five.

His body was found in the small basement of a lakeside cabin he had built and frequently used on weekends. When he did not show up for a trial on Monday morning, his law clerks panicked and called the FBI. In due course the agents found the crime scene. The cabin was in a heavily wooded part of southwest Virginia, on the side of a mountain, at the edge of a small, pristine body of water known locally as Lake Higgins. The lake is not found on most road maps.

There appeared to be no forced entry, no fight or struggle, nothing but two dead bodies, bullet holes in both heads, and an empty metal safe in the basement. Judge Fawcett was found near the safe, shot twice in the back of the head, definitely an execution, and there was a large pool of dried blood on the floor around him. The first expert on the scene guessed that the judge had been dead for at least two days. He had left the office around three on Friday afternoon, according to one of his law clerks, with plans to drive straight to the cabin and spend the weekend hard at work there.