Read The Boys from Biloxi: A Legal Thriller Online
Authors: John Grisham
“No problem. I got lots of friends. Can you get me outta here?”
“We’re working on it, but your bond is a million bucks. The judge takes a dim view of murder, even when it involves a lowlife like Fortier. We have a bail hearing next week and I’ll try to get it lowered. Mr. Malco is willing to put up some real estate. We’ll see.”
Two weeks after Fortier’s burial, Marcus Dean Poppy assumed his daily breakfast table in the main dining room of the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs, Arkansas. He had not attended the rather low-end graveside service; in fact, it did not cross his mind to go anywhere near Biloxi. The murder was a clear warning to Mr. Poppy, who understood the full meaning of it and was making plans to go to South America for a few months. He would already be there but for an incredible run of good luck at Oaklawn, the nearby horse track. He couldn’t leave now. His angel was telling him to take his winnings and get out now. His devil had convinced him his lucky streak would never end. For the moment, the devil was in control.
Wilfred, his waiter, in a faded black tux, sat a tall Bloody Mary in front of him and said, “Good morning, Mr. Poppy. The usual?”
“Good morning, Wilfred. Yes, please.” He picked up his drink, looked around to see if anyone was watching, then sucked hard on the straw. He smacked his lips, smiled, and waited for the vodka to hurry to his brain and deaden a few cobwebs from the night before. He was drinking too much, but he was also winning. Why tinker with a beautiful combination? He picked up a newspaper, opened to the sports section, and began checking the day’s races. He smiled again. It was amazing how quickly the vodka could travel from the straw to the cobwebs.
Wilfred delivered two scrambled with buttered toast and asked if there was anything else. Mr. Poppy waved him away rudely. As he took a bite of eggs, a young gentleman in a handsome suit suddenly appeared and, without a word, sat down across from him. “I beg your pardon,” Mr. Poppy said.
Nevin said, “Look, Marcus Dean, I work for Lance and he sends his regards. We’ve taken care of Fortier. You’re next. Where’s the money?”
Poppy choked on his eggs and coughed them up. He wiped his
shirt with a linen napkin and tried not to panic. He gulped some ice water and cleared his throat. “The paper said you’re in jail.”
“You believe everything you read in the papers?”
“Got out on bond. No trial date yet. Where’s the money, Marcus Dean? Ten grand, cash.”
“Well, I, uh, you see, it’s not that easy.”
Nevin looked around the room and said, “You’re living pretty high these days. Nice place here, easy to see why Al Capone was a frequent guest, back in the day. Rooms are not cheap. Ponies are running every day. You got twenty-four hours, Marcus Dean.”
Wilfred walked over with a concerned look and asked, “Everything okay, Mr. Poppy?”
He managed a hesitant nod. Nevin pointed to his drink and said, “I’ll have one of those.”
Marcus Dean watched Wilfred walk away and asked, “How’d you find me?”
“That’s not important, Poppy. Nothing is important but the ten grand. We’ll meet here for breakfast tomorrow morning, same time, and you’ll give me the money. And don’t do something stupid like try and run. I’m not alone and we’re watching.”
Marcus Dean picked up his fork, then dropped it. His hands were shaking and beads of sweat lined his forehead. On the other side of the table, young Nevin Noll was perfectly calm, even smiling. The second Bloody Mary arrived and Nevin hit the straw. He looked at the plate and asked, “You gonna eat all that toast?”
He reached over, lifted half a slice of bread, and ate most of it.
Marcus Dean finished his drink and seemed to breathe easier. In a low voice he said, “Let’s be clear here. When I give you the cash, what happens then?”
“I leave, deliver it to Mr. Malco, the rightful owner.”
“You’re not worth killing, Poppy. Why bother? Unless of
course you decide to return to the Coast. That would be a huge mistake.”
“Don’t worry. I’m not going back.”
Nevin hit the straw again and continued smiling. Marcus Dean took a deep breath and said, almost in a whisper, “You know, there’s an easier way to do this.”
“Let’s hear it.”
Poppy looked around again as if spies were watching. At the nearest table a couple in their nineties stirred their oatmeal and tried to ignore one another. He said, “Okay, the money is upstairs in my room. Sit tight and I’ll get it.”
“I like it. Sooner rather than later.”
“Give me ten minutes.” Poppy dabbed his mouth and laid his napkin on the table.
Noll said, “I’ll wait here. No funny stuff. I have men outside. You get stupid and I’ll rub you out quicker than Fortier. You have no idea, Mr. Poppy, how close you are right now to a bad ending.”
On the contrary, Poppy had a very clear idea. He delivered the cash in an envelope and watched as Noll left the restaurant. He drank another Bloody Mary to calm his nerves, then left for the restroom, turned in to the kitchen, took the stairs to the basement, left through a service door, and hid in an alley until he was satisfied no one was watching. He got in his car, drove away, and couldn’t relax until he crossed the state line into Texas.
The prosecutor for the Nineteenth District was a solemn and inexperienced young man named Pat Graebel. He had been elected four years earlier and was on the ballot, unopposed, in 1963 when his biggest case landed in his lap. He had never prosecuted anyone for murder, and the fact that Nevin Noll was such a well-known figure in the Biloxi underworld raised the stakes enormously. The citizens of Jackson County, the same voters who had elected Graebel as their district attorney, were proud of their law-abiding reputation and looked down on the riffraff next door in Biloxi. Occasionally the crime spilled over and they had to deal with the mess, which caused even more resentment. The pressure on young Graebel to get a conviction was enormous.
His case at first looked airtight. Rita Luten, the other victim and a solid eyewitness, was mending slowly but steadily. She was paralyzed and could say little, but her doctors expected her condition to improve. Mr. Bullington, the next-door neighbor, was even more certain he had seen Nevin Noll flee the scene. The ballistics expert from the state crime lab said the .22 caliber revolver found in Noll’s apartment was the same gun that fired the six shots. Motive would be harder to prove, given the vagaries of the underworld, but the prosecution believed it could produce witnesses from the Strip who would testify, under pressure, that the shootings were the result of a business deal gone sour. Another frightening tale of gangland violence.
Pat Graebel had no idea how thoroughly the mob could sabotage a case. One week before the trial was to begin in the
Jackson County Courthouse in Pascagoula, Rita Luten disappeared. Graebel had not bothered to put her under a subpoena, a forgivable but major blunder. He assumed, as had everyone else, that she would eagerly show up and finger the defendant as the murderer who shot her in the face three times. She wanted justice all right, but what she needed even more was money. She voluntarily got in an ambulance late one night and was whisked away to a private rehab facility near Houston where she was admitted under a pseudonym. All contacts, as well as all bills, were directed to a lawyer working for Lance Malco, though this would never be proven. Three months would pass before she was located by Graebel, and by then the trial was long over.
The next witness to disappear was Mr. Bullington. He, like Rita, vanished in the middle of the night, and didn’t stop driving until he checked into the Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Not only did he have some cash in his pocket, he also had the comfort of knowing that he would not be beaten senseless by the two thugs who’d been following him.
The day before the trial began, Graebel demanded a hearing, and during it howled to the heavens about his vanishing witnesses. Joshua Burch played along and seemed genuinely concerned about what was happening, and he assured the court he knew nothing about it. He was far too smart to get his hands dirty intimidating witnesses.
Burch had laid another trap, one that Graebel walked into. He had convinced the judge to try the cases separately, beginning with the murder of Fortier. The shooting and attempted murder of Rita Luten would go to trial a month later. Rita would be an important witness in the Fortier trial, but her absence would not necessarily derail the proceedings.
Burch knew she would disappear at the last moment, though he never admitted this.
At the hearing, Graebel argued loudly that the forces of evil were at work, his case was being undermined, justice was being
thwarted, and so on. Absent proof, though, the judge could do nothing. Since the prosecution had no idea where Rita and Mr. Bullington were at the moment, it seemed unlikely they would be found and hauled back to testify. The trial must go on.
A good murder trial could break up the monotony in any small town, and the courtroom was packed when the chosen twelve took their seats and looked at the lawyers. Pat Graebel went first and fumbled badly. In his defense, it was difficult to say what the State intended to prove when the State had no idea which of its witnesses might disappear next. He relied heavily on the murder weapon and waved the pistol around as if clearing out a saloon in the Wild West. Experts from the state crime lab would testify that the gun was used to kill Earl Fortier and grievously injure Rita Luten. And the same gun was found in the apartment of the defendant, Nevin Noll, along with numerous other weapons.
Sputtering and stammering at the end of his opening, Graebel tried to link decades of corruption and organized crime along their “beloved Coast” to the forces of evil still at work “over there,” but couldn’t tie things together. It was not a good performance in his biggest trial.
Joshua Burch, though, was on center stage in a courtroom where he’d defended many. He wore a light gray seersucker suit, with a matching vest, complete with a pink pocket square, a pocket watch, and a gold chain. Rising from the defense table, he lit a cigar and blew clouds of smoke above the jurors as he paced back and forth.
The State had no proof, no evidence. The State had hauled his client, Nevin Noll, a young man with no criminal record whatsoever, into the courtroom on bogus charges. The law did not require his client to take the stand, but just wait. Mr. Noll was eager to sit right there, take the oath to tell the truth, and tell the jury exactly what he did not do. The charges against him were outrageous. The cops had the wrong guy. The trial was a waste of time because, at that very moment, the man who killed Earl
Fortier was out there on the street, probably laughing at the spectacle inside the courthouse.
The State went first and Graebel couldn’t wait to score points with the bloody crime scene photos. The startled jurors passed them around quickly and tried not to gawk. The investigators laid out the apartment and the positions of the bodies. The pathologist spent two hours explaining in excruciating detail what killed Earl Fortier, though it was painfully obvious to the jurors and everyone else that the three bullets to the head did the trick.
Joshua Burch knew better than to argue with an expert and he asked only a few minor questions. Nevin Noll sat next to him and managed to appear confident. The cold, hard stare was gone, replaced by a permanent grin, one kept in place by muscle relaxers. Juror number seven was an attractive young woman of twenty-six and their eyes met a few times.
The serious proof came early on the second day when the State’s ballistics expert pinned the murder weapon squarely on the defendant. There was no way around it. The .22 caliber revolver taken from Noll’s apartment was, without a doubt, the pistol used to kill Earl Fortier and wound Rita Luten.
When the State rested at lunch, its case looked strong.
After lunch, though, it didn’t take long for Joshua Burch to begin punching holes in it. He started with a poker game in a back room at Foxy’s and called to the stand three young men who testified under oath they had been playing cards with Nevin at the time of the murder, twenty miles away. On cross-examination, Graebel pounced on them and established that all three were friends of Noll’s and worked in one of the various enterprises owned by Lance Malco. The three had been carefully coached by Joshua Burch and managed to deflect the insinuations with protests that, yes, they were friends and all but nothing could deter them from telling the truth. They played cards all the time, and, yes, they partied and enjoyed young ladies and consumed beer and good whiskeys. Hell, they were all single and in their twenties, so why not?
Bridgette was next and she stole the show. She told the jury that she and Nevin had been dating for a few months and were beginning to see a future together. On the night in question, she was working as a waitress at Foxy’s and planned to meet Nevin when his poker game was over. She did, in fact, and around midnight they were together in a room upstairs. She was quite attractive, full-figured, with lots of long blond hair, and when she talked she sort of cooed into the microphone like Marilyn Monroe.
There were ten male jurors, two female. Most of the men seemed to absorb Bridgette and her testimony, no doubt thinking that the defendant had himself quite an evening. The notion that he would somehow leave her in the bed and race off to shoot two people in the head was preposterous.
Graebel went into her background but got little. She had also been well rehearsed. He was curious about the rooms upstairs and stepped into another trap. Bridgette bristled and snapped, “I am not a whore, Mr. Graebel! I’m a waitress who’s working three jobs so I can go back to college.” Graebel froze like a deer in headlights and dropped his notes. He suddenly had no more questions for the witness and hurried to his chair.
Now that college had been mentioned, Joshua Burch felt the need on redirect to quiz the young lady about her studies. Her dream was to become a nurse and then, maybe, a doctor. The male jurors could only fantasize about her taking their blood pressure.
The truth was that Doris (real name) was a nineteen-year-old high school dropout who’d been tending to the needs of well-heeled customers in the upstairs rooms for at least two years. With her looks and body she was too good to work as a common prostitute and was quickly elevated to the A-list where the club charged seventy-five dollars an hour for her company. Her men were older and had more cash.
When Joshua Burch was finished with her, she was instructed to step down. Most of the male jurors watched every move as she left the courtroom. They had no trouble buying the defense’s alibi.
And the gun could be explained too. Joshua wisely called his client to the stand immediately after Bridgette was gone. Nevin, thoroughly coached, frowned solemnly at the jurors as he put his hand on the Bible and swore to tell the truth, then started lying. He lied about the poker game with his three buddies, lied about the tryst with Bridgette at the precise moment Fortier and Rita were taking bullets, and he lied about the pistol. Sure, it was in his possession, as were plenty of other weapons.
“Why do you own so many guns?” Burch asked dramatically.
“It’s very simple,” Noll said gravely, earnestly. “In my business, as a security manager for the club, I often have to break up fights and ask some of our louder customers to leave. They often have guns and knives on them. Sometimes I take them away. Other times, I just tell them to leave. It can be a dicey job, especially on a Friday or Saturday night when everybody is in a rowdy mood. Some of these guys come back to the club the next day or so and apologize and ask for their guns. Some of them we never see again. Over the years, I’ve accumulated quite a collection of weapons. I keep the better stuff, sell the rest.”
Joshua Burch walked to the court reporter’s table, picked up the Ruger, and handed it to the witness. “Now, Mr. Noll, do you recognize this pistol?”
“And when did you first lay eyes on it?”
Nevin seemed to rack his brain for the exact date, though one had been provided for him weeks earlier. “Well, I believe it was the Tuesday after the shooting of Mr. Fortier.”
“And tell the jury what happened.”
“Yes sir. I was at Foxy’s and things were slow, as they usually are that time of the week. These two guys came in, got a table in a corner, ordered some drinks. Two of our girls joined them and they kept drinking. After several rounds, there was an argument with some boys shooting pool, something to do with one of the
girls. Before we knew it there was a big fight—chairs, bottles, pool sticks flying. Girls screaming. We tried to break it up. I saw this one guy reach for the gun, this pistol right here, had it in a coat pocket, but before he could pull it out he got hit over the head with a pool stick. Split his head. I grabbed the gun before he could kill anyone and we soon got things under control. I hustled the first two out of the club and got ’em in their car, told ’em never to come back. They were really drunk. The one who owned the gun had blood all over his face. I had never seen ’em before, never seen ’em since.”
“And you kept the gun?”
“Yes sir. I took it home, cleaned it up. It’s a very nice piece and I waited for the owner to come back to the club and ask for it. As I said, I never saw him again.”
“Can you describe him for the jury?”
Nevin shrugged. When you’re creating a fictional character, he can be anything you want. “Yes sir. About my height and build, I’d say thirty years old, dark hair.”
“Did he drive away?”
“No sir. It was his car, but he was banged up pretty bad and his friend got behind the wheel.”
“What kind of car.”
“A Ford Fairlane, light brown.”
Pat Graebel sunk a few more inches in his chair as his entire case smoldered in ashes. The alibi was sticking. Bridgette and the poker boys nailed it. Now the smoking gun had been lost, explained away, never to be salvaged as clear proof of guilt.
Normally, prosecutors do not get the chance to cross-examine defendants who are known criminals and work for known gangsters. They have records and rap sheets that need to be kept away from juries. Nevin Noll, though, was early in his career and had yet to be convicted of anything significant, or felonious, and he seemed supremely confident he could handle anything Graebel could fire at him.
Graebel asked him, “Mr. Noll, who’s your employer?”
“I work for Foxy’s Restaurant in Biloxi.”
“And who owns Foxy’s?”
“Mr. Lance Malco.”
“And you said you were the security manager.”
“And what does that job entail?”
“I manage security.”
“I see. Why does a restaurant need security?”
“Why does any business need security?”
“I’ll ask the questions, Mr. Noll.”
“Yes sir. You go right ahead.”
“What type of security issues do you have at Foxy’s Restaurant in Biloxi?”
“Well, I just described a fight. We have those from time to time, have to break ’em up, you know, get rid of the rowdies.”
“You said the two men were drinking, right?”
“So, alcohol is served at Foxy’s?”
“Is that a question?”
“I believe it is, yes.”
Noll started laughing and looked at the jurors, most of whom were ready to join him. “Mr. Graebel, are you asking me if we serve alcoholic beverages at Foxy’s? Because if you are, then the answer is yes.”