Authors: John Grisham
On a warm weekend in late September, the entire Rudy family, along with the law firm and at least a hundred other friends and family members, descended on the city of Meridian, two and a half hours north of the Coast. The occasion was the wedding of Keith Rudy and Ainsley Hart. The couple met at Ole Miss when he was a third-year law student and she was a junior majoring in music. She had recently graduated and was working in Jackson. They had grown weary of the strain of a long-distance romance and finally set a date. Keith confided in his father that he wasn’t quite ready to get married because he wasn’t sure he could afford a wife. Jesse explained that no one could. If he waited until he deemed himself ready, then he would never marry. Time to man up and take the plunge.
Keith’s college friends had lobbied hard for a wedding in Biloxi so they could hit the nightclubs and enjoy the strippers. At first, he thought it was a well-organized prank, but when he realized some were serious he nixed the idea. So did Ainsley. She preferred a proper church wedding at First Presbyterian, where she had been baptized. The Harts were fiercely Protestant. The Rudys were staunch Roman Catholic. During the courtship, the couple had occasionally brought up the issue of church affiliation, but since it was a touchy subject they made no progress and hoped things worked out down the road. They agreed to go their separate ways on Sundays and had no idea what would happen when children entered the picture.
Jesse and Agnes hosted a splendid rehearsal dinner at the country club on Friday night. Eighty guests, in cocktail attire, dined on raw oysters, grilled shrimp, and stuffed flounder, a gift from a wholesaler on Point Cadet, one of Jesse’s closest friends. His warehouse stood next door to the cannery where Jesse’s father had worked ten-hour days shucking oysters as a kid.
Many of the Presbyterians were teetotalers, though drinking was not as deadly a sin as the Baptists believed it to be, and most of them enjoyed wine with dinner. They were surprised, though, by the amount of alcohol consumed by the folks from the Coast. They’d heard about those people from Biloxi and their laid-back lifestyle. Now they were witnessing it firsthand.
The toasts began and more wine was served. Tim Rudy, with hair to his shoulders and a thick beard, flew in from Montana and arrived just in time. He told humorous stories about his big brother, the perfect kid who never got in trouble. Tim stayed in trouble and often ran to Keith for support when Jesse was ready to kill him. A college roommate told a story that brought down the house, especially in light of Jesse’s growing reputation. Seemed that one weekend, when Jesse and Agnes were out of town, a carload of rowdies arrived from Southern Miss and descended upon their home. They collected Keith and hit the Strip. At a joint called Foxy’s, they drank and drank but nothing happened. Keith explained that the beer was watered down and the drinks were little more than sugary Kool-Aid. They demanded a bottle of whiskey but the bartender refused. They threatened to go somewhere else but Keith said most of the bars served the same crap. When they made too much noise, a bouncer told them to leave. Imagine—Keith Rudy getting kicked out of a Biloxi strip club! The roommate insinuated that a couple of the boys may have made it upstairs, but Keith certainly did not. Joey Grasich reminisced about their childhood days on the Point and their adventures fishing and sailing in the Sound. He was thankful for lifetime friends like Keith and Denny Smith, Hugh, of course, was not mentioned.
Jesse ended the dinner with a tribute to his son. For a man who’d given a thousand speeches, he barely got through it. When he finished, there were only a few dry eyes.
A soul group livened things up and the party moved to the dance floor. At midnight, Jesse and Agnes left the youngsters and headed to their hotel.
Early the following morning, Ainsley’s parents awoke in a panic. They had woefully underestimated the amount of beer, liquor, and wine that would be needed that evening for the wedding dinner. Over three hundred guests would attend, almost half of them from Biloxi, and those Catholics could really drink. Mr. Hart spent the morning raiding liquor stores and buying kegs of beer.
ceremony went as planned, with some of the eight groomsmen showing obvious distress from the long night. Jesse proudly stood next to his son as his best man. Ainsley had never been more beautiful.
Haley Stofer was arrested in St. Louis for drunk driving. He put up a cash bail and was almost out of the police station when his name appeared on a wanted list. Apparently, the defendant had had some problems down in Mississippi. There was an outstanding warrant based on an old indictment for drug trafficking. It took a month to extradite him to Harrison County, and when Jesse saw his name on the weekly jail log, he dropped everything and paid him a visit.
A bailiff shoved Stofer into the room where the DA was waiting. Jesse stared at him, took in his unshaven, gaunt face, his faded orange jumpsuit, the handcuffs. He even had chains around his ankles, because he was, after all, a drug smuggler.
“Where you been, Stofer?” Jesse asked.
“Good to see you again, Mr. Rudy.”
“I’m not sure about that. Look, I’m not here to rehash the past.
I brought you a copy of the indictment, thought you might want to refresh your memory. What did I tell you back then?”
“You told me to get out of town. The bad guys were after me. I was about to be killed.”
“True, but I also told you to call me once a week. The deal was that you would be available to testify against Lance Malco. Instead, you disappeared and left me hanging.”
“You told me to run.”
“I’m not going to argue. I’ll knock off ten years for jumping bail.”
“I testified before the grand jury and got the indictments.”
“Okay, I’ll knock off another fifteen. That leaves fifteen for trafficking.”
“I can’t serve fifteen years, Mr. Rudy. Please.”
“You won’t have to. With good behavior you might get out in ten.” Jesse abruptly stood, left the indictment on the table, and walked to the door.
Stofer said, pleading, “They’ll get me, you know? I couldn’t come back.”
“That wasn’t the deal, Stofer.”
“It’s all your fault. You forced me to go undercover.”
“No, Stofer, you chose to run drugs. Now you pay the price.” Jesse left the room.
Following orders Lance left behind, Hugh moved into the big office and took charge of the family business. It included the strip clubs—Red Velvet, Foxy’s, O’Malley’s, the Truck Stop, and Desperado, formerly known as Carousel—as well as two bars where the bookies gathered, a string of convenience stores used to launder cash, three motels once used to house the hookers but now virtually vacant, two restaurants that, oddly enough, had never been used for illegal activities, apartment buildings, raw land near the
beach, and some condos in Florida. Lance retained sole ownership of it all, with the exception of the family home which he deeded to Carmen. She had not filed for divorce and was relieved that her husband was gone. They had agreed that Hugh would support her to the tune of $1,000 a month. Hugh’s brother and sister had left the Coast and had little contact with the family.
Lance considered his little sojourn to Parchman nothing more than a temporary setback, a survivable price to pay for his riches. He planned to run his empire from behind bars and return soon enough, far sooner than the ten years Mr. Rudy had in mind. With Hugh in place and managing things, and with Nevin Noll as his right-hand man, he was confident his assets were secure. His troubles would soon be over.
After six months, though, the numbers were soft. With gambling and prostitution severely curtailed, the Biloxi underworld was suffering through another downturn. There were too many clubs and bars and not enough customers. The conviction and removal of Lance Malco sent chills through the Strip. Jesse Rudy was after the crime bosses and no one knew who would be next. To make matters far worse, he had the state police on board and the FBI lurking about.
Limited by state law to only four years in office, Governor Bill Waller was packing his bags as 1975 came to a close. His term had been successful. Though the state still lagged in education, health care, and especially civil rights, he was the first governor to push a progressive agenda. He wasn’t finished with politics and dreamed of serving in the U.S. Senate, but at that time both seats were firmly controlled by John Stennis and James Eastland. He planned to start a private law practice in Jackson and looked forward to a return to the courtroom.
In early December, he invited Jesse and Keith to stop by the
governor’s mansion for lunch. Waller had followed the Malco case closely and wanted to catch up with the gossip from the Coast. He loved seafood, and as a going-away gift Jesse brought a cooler filled with fresh oysters, shrimp, and crabs. The chef prepared them for lunch and the governor, a big man with an impressive appetite, enjoyed the feast.
They chatted about Malco and he informed the Rudys that his “corrections people” had reported that the inmate was doing well and working in the prison library. He had managed to procure his own cell, though like all the others, it lacked air-conditioning. Jesse quipped that he was hoping Malco would be sent to the fields to pick cotton like the common criminals.
Jesse said, “Tell your people to keep an eye on him. He has plenty of cash and bribery always works in prison.”
They had several laughs at Malco’s expense. Keith knew his place at the table and said little. He was overwhelmed to be having lunch in the mansion with the governor himself.
Waller grew serious and asked Jesse, “So, do you have any plans after district attorney?”
Jesse was caught off guard and said, “Not really. I have plenty of unfinished work down there.”
“Can you get that sheriff? Bowman’s been on the take for years.”
“I think about him every day, Governor, but he’s a slick one.”
“You can get him. I’ll help any way I can.”
“You’ve done enough. Without the state police we wouldn’t be where we are. The people on the Coast owe you a huge debt.”
“They voted for me, that’s all I could ask.” He attacked a raw oyster. After it slid down, he said, “You know, Jesse, the Democratic Party in this state is a mess, not a lot of progressive talent, a pretty thin bench, if you ask me. I’m talking to a lot of people about our future, and your name keeps coming up. I think you should consider running statewide. Attorney general, then maybe this job.”
Jesse tried to deflect it with a fake laugh. “Look, Governor, I’m Roman Catholic. We’re a distinct minority in Mississippi.”
“Hogwash. This state went for JFK in 1960, don’t ever forget that.”
“Barely, and it’s gone Republican ever since, except for George Wallace.”
“Naw, we still have the votes statewide. I can’t imagine Mississippi ever electing a Republican governor. Your religion won’t matter. We just need some new talent.”
“I’m flattered, Governor, but I’m fifty-one years old. After this next term as DA, I’ll be fifty-six, not exactly a youthful age.”