Authors: John Grisham
Hugh Malco’s once promising athletic career came to an abrupt halt one hot day in August. As a sophomore at Biloxi High, he and a bunch of other fifteen-year-olds were suffering through preseason two-a-day practices and dreaming of making the varsity. Things were not going well. There were at least one hundred players on the field, most of them older, bigger, and faster. The Biloxi Indians competed in the Big Eight, the state’s elite conference, and talent was never a problem. The team was stacked with seniors, many of whom would play in college. Sophomores rarely made the varsity and were usually relegated to the JV.
Long gone were the glory days of Little League baseball, when Hugh and Keith Rudy dominated every game. Some all-stars at that age continued to grow and develop, others were left behind. Some athletes peaked at twelve or thirteen. The luckier ones kept maturing and got better. Hugh wasn’t growing as fast as the others, and his speed, or lack thereof, was a known liability.
On that day he twisted a knee and limped into the shade. A trainer put ice on it and informed the coach, who had little time to worry about a lowly sophomore. Hugh saw a doctor the next day and the diagnosis was strained ligaments. No football for at least a month. He hung around practice for a few days on crutches but soon tired of watching his pals sweat in the heat and dirt. The more he watched, the more he realized that he really didn’t love football.
Baseball was his game, though he feared it too was slipping away. The summer season had not gone well. The right arm that had so terrified batters from forty-five feet was not nearly as
intimidating from sixty feet. He had struggled on the mound and at the plate and failed to make the all-star team. Keith was now four inches taller and even faster around the bases. Hugh was proud of his pal for making all-stars, but he was also sick with envy. Their friendship grew even more complicated when Keith made the cut in August and became the varsity’s third-string quarterback, one of only five sophomores on the roster. In a football-crazed town, his status was elevated and he gravitated to a different crowd. The students admired him. The cheerleaders and pep squad girls deemed him even cuter.
With his afternoons free, Hugh loafed for a few weeks until his father cracked the whip. Lance had never been idle and couldn’t tolerate the notion of lazy kids. There were plenty of odd jobs around his clubs and properties and he put his oldest son on the payroll. Cash, of course. Lance controlled more hard cash than anyone in the state and was generous with it. He gave Hugh a used pickup truck and made him an errand boy. He hauled nothing illegal, mainly food and supplies for the restaurants and building materials for construction projects.
Carmen loathed the idea of her son hanging around the clubs and mixing with the shady crowd, but Hugh liked the work and the money. She complained to Lance and he promised to keep an eye on the kid and avoid trouble.
The underworld, though, proved irresistible to a curious teenager, especially the owner’s son, and before long Hugh met Nevin Noll at a pool table in the rear of the Truck Stop. Nevin gave him a pack of cigarettes, then a cold beer, and they quickly became friends. He taught him how to shoot pool, play poker and blackjack, and the basics of betting on horses and football games. Before long, Hugh was booking games for his friends at school. While Keith slogged through daily practices on the field and sat the bench on Friday nights, Hugh was making money handicapping college and pro football games. Lance knew the dangers the kid faced, but he was too busy to care. He was building an empire, one that
Hugh would likely inherit one day. Sooner or later, his son would be exposed to all manner of criminal activity. Nevin told the boss that he was watching his son and there was nothing to worry about. Lance doubted this but went about his business, hoping for the best.
Hugh’s life changed dramatically when he saw Cindy Murdock, a perky little blonde with comely brown eyes and a gorgeous figure. She bounced through Red Velvet one afternoon when he was unloading crates of soft drinks, and said hello in passing. Hugh was smitten and asked a bartender who she was. Just another girl who claimed to be eighteen, same as the rest, though no one ever checked.
Hugh mentioned her to Nevin, who immediately saw some harmless trouble and found it too good to leave alone. He arranged a tryst, and Hugh, at the age of fifteen, entered a new world. He was immediately consumed with Miss Murdock and thought of nothing else. While his classmates told dirty jokes, swapped girlie magazines, and fantasized, Hugh was enjoying the real thing at every opportunity. She was more than willing and thought it hilarious that she had Mr. Malco’s son on a leash. Nevin became worried that the little romance would be talked about by other employees and found the lovebirds a safer place in one of the cheap motels owned by the company.
Lance was impressed by his son’s deepening interest in the business, while at the same time Carmen noticed an ominous change in behavior. She found his cigarettes, confronted him, and was told not to worry because all the kids were smoking. It was even permitted at school, with a note from home. She smelled beer on his breath and he laughed it off. Hell, she drank, Lance drank, everybody they knew enjoyed alcohol. He didn’t have a problem, so relax. He was skipping school and Sunday Mass and running with a rougher crowd. Lance, when he was home, ignored her concerns and said the kid was just being a teenager. His new direction in life, and his father’s indifference, added another strain to a marriage that was slowly unraveling.
Cindy lived in a cheap apartment with four other working girls. Because their nights were long, they often slept until noon. At least once a week, Hugh skipped classes and woke them up with cheeseburgers and sodas. He became one of the gang and enjoyed listening to their bitching sessions. They were often hassled by the bartenders, bouncers, and security guards. They told hilarious stories of old men who couldn’t perform and drunks with strange requests. Hanging out with a bunch of hookers, Hugh learned more about the business than the gangsters who ran it.
He arrived at the apartment late one morning and found everyone still asleep. As he unpacked their lunch, he noticed Cindy’s purse on the kitchen counter. He tipped it over and some things fell out. One was her driver’s license. Real name of Barbara Brown, age sixteen, from a nowhere town in Arkansas.
Every girl was presumed to be younger than she claimed. The eighteen-year threshold was the going rule, but no one cared. Prostitution was illegal anyway, so it didn’t really matter. Half the cops in town were customers.
Her age bothered him for a day or two, but not for long. He was only fifteen. Everything was consensual, and they were certainly compatible. With time, though, as he became more attached to her, he began to resent the thoughts of his girl sleeping with any man with the cash. For several reasons, primarily his age, he was not welcome in the clubs at night, and he had never seen her hustle the soldiers in her skimpy costumes. When he learned that she had started stripping and lap dancing, he asked her to stop. When she refused, they had a good fight, during which she reminded him that the other guys were paying cash for the companionship he was getting for free.
Nevin warned him that Lance was asking questions about his relationship with the girl. Someone inside a club had snitched. Hugh told her they needed to cool things, and he tried to stay away. He went a week without seeing her but thought of nothing else. She welcomed him back with open arms.
She failed to show for a rendezvous one afternoon, and Hugh burned up the streets trying to find her. After dark, he checked her apartment and was shocked at what he found. Her left eye was bruised and swollen. Her lower lip had a small cut. Through tears, she described how she had been slapped around the night before by her last customer, a regular who had become increasingly physical. Given her appearance, she would miss work for several days, and she, as always, needed the money.
It was serious in more ways than the obvious. A teenage girl had been beaten by a brute who was at least forty years old. Criminal charges were in order, though Hugh knew the police would not be called. If she chose to tell her supervisor, the matter would be dealt with “in-house.” Lance protected his girls and paid them well, and he relied on a steady stream of them from places unknown. If word got out that they weren’t safe in his clubs, his business would suffer.
Cindy had left in a hurry the night before and had not told the manager. She was afraid of squealing on anyone; she was afraid of everything at the moment, and needed a friend. Hugh sat with her for hours and kept ice on her wounds.
He found Nevin Noll the following day and told him what happened. Nevin said he would handle the situation. He checked with the club’s manager and learned the identity of the customer. Three days later, with Cindy back at work and hiding the damage under even more makeup, Nevin asked Hugh to take a ride with him.
“Where to?” he asked, though it didn’t matter. He admired Noll and wanted to get even closer. In many ways he thought of him as a big brother, one who’d been around the block a few times.
“We’re going over to Pascagoula to look at new Chryslers,” Noll said with a smile.
“You buying one?”
“Nope. I think our boy sells cars over there. Let’s drop by and have a word.”
“This sounds like fun.”
“You just stay in the car, okay? I’ll do the talking.”
Half an hour later, they parked near a row of beautiful new Chrysler sedans. Nevin got out, walked over to one, looked it over, and was studying the sticker in the window when a salesman approached with a big hello and a toothy smile. He stretched out a hand as if they were old friends, but Nevin ignored it. “Looking for Roger Brewer.”
“That’s me. What can I do for you?”
“You were at Red Velvet Monday night.”
Brewer lost his smile and glanced over his shoulder. He shrugged, gave a smart-ass “So what?”
“Spent some time with one of our girls, Cindy.”
“What is this?”
“Maybe I want to buy a car.”
“Who the hell are you?”
“She weighs a hundred and ten pounds and you slapped her around.”
“So?” Brewer had the appearance of a man who’d slapped around others and was not shy about violence. He squared up to Nevin and showed him a sneer.
Nevin took a step closer, within striking distance, and said, “She’s a kid. Why don’t you slap people your own size?”
“That’s a good place to start.”
Brewer had a second thought and said, “Get outta here.”
Hugh inched even lower in the front seat, but didn’t miss anything. His window was down and he was close enough to hear the conversation.
“Don’t come back, okay?” Nevin said. “It’s off-limits for you.”
“Go to hell. I’ll do what I want.”
The first punch was so quick Hugh almost missed it. A short right cross landed square on Brewer’s jaw, snapping back his head and buckling his knees. He fell onto the front of a new sedan, caught himself, and threw a wild roundhouse right hook that
Nevin easily ducked. His next shot was a hard right to Brewer’s gut that made him squeal. A left-right-left combo ripped his eyebrows and lacerated his lips. A hard right hook knocked him onto the hood of the sedan. Nevin yanked his feet and pulled him off the hood, crashing the back of his head on the bumper as he went down. On the asphalt, Nevin kicked him square in the nose and appeared ready to beat him to death.
“Hey!” someone yelled and Hugh saw two men running toward them.
Nevin ignored them and kicked Brewer again in the face. When the first man was close enough, Nevin whirled with a left hook and dropped him cold. The second one stopped, froze, and had a quick afterthought. “Who are you?”
As if it mattered. Nevin grabbed him by the knot of his necktie and rammed his head into the left front hubcap of the sedan. With all three on the ground, Nevin returned to Brewer and kicked him twice in the groin, the second blow crunching his testicles and making him grunt like a dying animal.
Nevin jumped in the car and calmly drove away as if nothing had happened. As they left the lot, Hugh glanced back. All three were still down, though the second rescuer was on all fours and trying to collect himself.
Minutes passed before they spoke. Finally, Nevin said, “You want some ice cream?”
“There’s a Tastee-Freez just up the road here,” Nevin said nonchalantly, as if nothing had happened. “Best banana shakes on the Coast.”
“Okay.” Hugh was still in disbelief but had some questions. “Those guys back there, will they call the police?”
Nevin laughed at such foolishness. “No. They’re not stupid. If they call the police, then I’ll call Brewer’s wife. The laws of the jungle, son.”
“You’re not worried about them?”
“Why? What’s to worry about?”
“Well, that first guy, Brewer, he might be hurt.”
“I hope so. That’s the point, young Hugh. You hurt ’em but you don’t kill ’em. He just got a message he’ll never forget, and he won’t be slapping around our girls anymore.”
Hugh just shook his head. “That was pretty amazing. You took down three of them in no time flat.”
“Well, son, let’s just say that I’ve had some experience.”
“So, you do this all the time?”
“No, not all the time. Most of our customers know the rules. Occasionally, we’ll get an ass like Brewer back there and have to run him off. More often, though, it’s some flyboys who get drunk and start fighting.”
Nevin turned in to the Tastee-Freez and parked at the drive-in. He ordered two large banana shakes and turned on the radio to WVMI Biloxi, which happened to be Hugh’s favorite too.
“You ever boxed?” Nevin asked.
Hugh shook his head.
“I used my fists a lot when I was a kid. Had to. One of my uncles boxed in the army, before he got kicked out, and he taught me the basics. And we didn’t always use gloves. When I was sixteen I knocked him out. He said I had the quickest hands he’d ever seen. He encouraged me to join the army or air force, primarily to get the hell out of the mountains, but also to box on organized teams.”