Read The Boys from Biloxi: A Legal Thriller Online
Authors: John Grisham
“You need to be thinking about the fight tomorrow night. They only get tougher.”
“I’ll be ready.”
“Then toss away that cigarette.”
At first glance, it wasn’t clear where the nickname “Fuzz” originated. No bushy head of hair, certainly no whiskers to speak of. He was only sixteen, and had casually mentioned to one of the Biloxi boxers that he had won five of his six fights. No one had yet asked about the nickname, not that it mattered at all. What mattered was his stocky frame and oversized biceps. Impressive for a teenager. If Jimmy Patterson had been as skinny as a rail, Fuzz Foster was as thick as a fireplug. Nor did Fuzz have any patience with dancing and jabbing. What Fuzz wanted was a first-round knockout, preferably in the first thirty seconds, and he almost got it.
At the bell, while Hugh was still smiling at his friends from school, Fuzz shot across the ring like an angry bull and began unloading roundhouse rights and lefts that could’ve wounded a heavyweight if they had landed anywhere near Hugh’s head. Mercifully, none did, and, startled, he covered up and tried to stay away from the ropes. His survival instincts kicked in immediately and he ducked and dodged the onslaught as best he could. Fuzz was a madman, slinging leather from all directions while hissing and grunting like a wounded animal. Buster shouted, “Cover up, cover up. He’s crazy!”
Hugh, along with every other person in the building, knew that
Fuzz was unloading everything and wouldn’t last for three rounds. The question was whether Hugh could survive the onslaught. Regardless, the crowd loved the unbridled action and was roaring.
An uppercut got through and rocked Hugh. A right cross landed and it was lights out. He fell to the canvas as Fuzz stood over him, yelling something no one could understand. The referee shoved him to a corner as Hugh managed to get on all fours. Looking through the ropes, he made eye contact with Nevin Noll, who was yelling and shaking his fist.
Get up! Get up! Get up!
Hugh took a deep breath, looked up at the referee, and on the five-count jumped to his feet. He steadied himself with the top rope, wiped his nose with a forearm, and saw blood. He had a choice. Stay under cover on the ropes like a proper boxer and get eaten alive, or go after the bastard.
Fuzz charged like an idiot, growling, hands low, ready to throw everything at his target. Instead of backing up, Hugh took a quick step forward and threw the same left hook he’d nailed Patterson with. It landed perfectly on the mouth and dropped Fuzz onto his butt, as if pulling up a chair. He looked around in disbelief and tried to stand. He stumbled, fell into the ropes, and struggled to steady himself. As the referee counted to ten, the crowd screamed even louder. At ten, Fuzz nodded and began his growling again.
The two met in the center of the ring and brawled like street fighters until the bell saved their lives. The ref rushed to break them up. Both noses were oozing blood. On his stool, Hugh guzzled water and tried to catch his breath while a second crammed swabs up his nostrils. Buster was saying something like, “You gotta cover up! He can’t keep going like this.” But his words were just part of the noise. Hugh’s head was throbbing and it was impossible to think of anything but survival. When the bell rang, he jumped to his feet and noticed how heavy they were.
If Fuzz’s corner wanted a slower pace, the advice was ignored by the fighter. He charged again, the instinct to brawl undeterred.
Hugh covered up for a moment on the ropes and tried to slide punches, but there was no fun in getting hit. Because Fuzz fought with his hands at his sides, his head was always exposed. Hugh saw an opening, shot a quick left-right combo, made perfect contact, and watched proudly as Fuzz hit the deck hard and rolled into a corner. The noise from the crowd was deafening. “Stay down, dammit!” Hugh said, but Fuzz could take a punch. He jumped to his feet, flailed his arms in a sign of invincibility, waited for the ten-count, then attacked. Thirty seconds later, Hugh was on the deck, flattened by a wild right that he never saw. He was stunned and groggy and for an instant thought about just staying down. It was safer on his back. A loss in his second real fight was no big deal. Then he thought of his father and Nevin Noll, and Keith and all of his friends, and he got up at five and started bouncing on his toes.
Halfway through the second round, it became obvious that the winner would be the guy still standing at the end of the third. Neither backed away, and for the last ninety seconds they went toe-to-toe and slugged it out. Between rounds, the referee went to both corners to observe the damage. “He’s all right,” Buster assured him as he wiped Hugh’s face with cold water. “Just a bloody nose, nothing broken.”
“I don’t want to see a cut,” the ref said.
“Has he had enough?”
Speak for yourself,
Hugh almost said. He was tired of fighting and hoped he never laid eyes on Fuzz Foster again. Then a loud chant of “Let’s go Hugh! Let’s go Hugh!” started again and shook the walls of the gymnasium. The fans were loving the old-fashioned alley fight and wanted more. To hell with gentlemanly boxing. They were after blood.
Hugh got to his feet, heavy as brickbats now, and bounced around waiting on the bell. There was a commotion in the other corner. The referee was yelling at Fuzz’s coach.
Buster said, “Boy’s got a cut above his right eye. Go for it. Attack it! You hear?”
Hugh nodded and tapped his gloves together. He could feel his own right eye closing and his left one was blurred.
The bell sounded and Fuzz got to his feet. The ref was still talking to his coach, who slid under the ropes. With the threat of disqualification for a lousy cut, Fuzz needed a quick knockout. He came in fast and landed a low shot to Hugh’s right kidney. It hurt like hell and he bent over in pain. Fuzz rocked him with uppercuts, and within seconds of the last round Hugh was back on the mat, scrambling to get on all fours and remember his name.
The crowd reminded him with “Let’s go Hugh!”
He got to his feet for the last time, shook his head at the ref as if everything was just wonderful, and braced for the onslaught. He and Fuzz swapped punches and commenced beating the crap out of each other while the fans yelled for more. Much to Hugh’s surprise, Fuzz went down after a flurry and looked like he was finally out of gas. Hugh certainly was, but there was at least a minute to go. Fuzz lumbered to his feet. The ref made them touch gloves, then signaled for more fighting. They tied up in the center, both too fatigued to throw more punches. The ref suddenly stopped the fight and led Hugh to his corner. He wiped his face and said to Buster, “He’s cut. The other boy is cut. Both have busted noses. Both have been knocked down three times. I’m calling the fight. It’s a draw. Enough is enough.”
The crowd booed loudly when the PA announcer said it was a draw, but the fighters didn’t care. Hugh and Fuzz congratulated each other on such thorough beatings and left the ring.
Two hours later, Hugh was lying on the sofa in the den with ice packs on his face. Carmen was locked in her bedroom, in tears. Lance was outside smoking a cigarette. They had argued and
fought and said too much in front of the children. Carmen could not believe her son would ever come home so bruised, cut, and beaten. Lance was proud of the boy and said the ref was wrong to stop the fight. In his opinion, Hugh was on his way to a unanimous decision.
There had always been rumors that Carousel Lounge was for sale. Its owner, Marcus Dean Poppy, was an erratic and unstable businessman who drank too much and had gambling debts. It was not a well-managed business because Poppy was usually too hungover to tend to the details. It made money, though, because of its location in the center of the Strip. Booze, strippers, hookers, gambling; it offered it all and stayed afloat, but barely. What few people knew was that Poppy was in too deep with some Vegas boys and needed cash. He sent Earl Fortier, his trusted lieutenant, to meet with Lance Malco at his office at Red Velvet. Lance, Tip, and Nevin Noll welcomed Fortier, though they were wary of his shifty reputation.
Most of the men they encountered on a typical day had, to some extent, shifty reputations.
They enjoyed a cold beer with Fortier, talked about the fishing, and finally got around to business. It was a simple deal. Poppy wanted $25,000 for Carousel, cash on the table. The club had no debts, all accounts were current.
Lance frowned and shook his head and said, “Twenty-five’s too much. I value the club at twenty.”
“Are you offering twenty?” Fortier asked.
“Yep, plus Marcus Dean agrees to a non-compete for three years.”
“No problem there. He ain’t staying around here. Says he’s going back to Hot Springs, likes to be near the track.”
“Will he take twenty?”
“All I can do is ask. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Fortier left and drove to O’Malley’s where he met Ginger Redfield alone in her office. She offered a drink but he declined. He said Marcus Dean Poppy was going to sell Carousel and had a deal with Lance Malco for $20,000. Could she top that?
Yes she could. She was delighted at the opportunity and offered what they wanted: $25,000 up front, payable by certified check.
The following day Fortier called Lance and said they had a deal at $20,000 cash. Half up front with a simple buy-sell agreement, the other half when the lawyers finished their mischief in a week or so. Two days later, Fortier was back at Red Velvet with a two-page agreement, already signed by Marcus Dean. Lance’s lawyer was in the room and approved the contract. Since real estate was not involved, other than a long-term lease, the final paperwork would be finished without delay. Fortier left with $10,000 in cash and drove straight to O’Malley’s where he pulled out another contract, one also pre-signed by Marcus Dean Poppy. Ginger read it carefully, signed her name, and handed Fortier a certified check for $25,000. Fortier drove straight to her bank, cashed the check, and entered Carousel, rather triumphantly, with $35,000 cash in his briefcase.
Marcus Dean was thrilled and tipped his boy $2,000. He waited two days and called Lance himself with the terrible news that the IRS had just raided his place and was in the process of slapping tax liens on everything. The deal was off. Lance’s surprise quickly turned to anger and he demanded his $10,000 back. Marcus Dean said that would not be a problem, except, of course, there was a problem. The IRS was attaching all the hard cash it could find. Marcus Dean could get him $5,000 in a day or so, with the balance “real soon.”
Lance smelled a rat and made a few phone calls. Since he prospered in a world of illicit cash, he had no relationship with anyone even remotely connected to the IRS. But his lawyer had a friend who knew someone. In the meantime, word hit the street that
Ginger Redfield had purchased Carousel. It closed temporarily, allegedly because of tax problems.
Marcus Dean disappeared and refused to take calls from Lance Malco. Word eventually got around that the IRS was investigating neither Carousel nor Marcus Dean Poppy.
On the Strip in 1963, swindling a thousand bucks from the wrong person could get one permanently injured—severe head wounds, missing limbs, blindness. At ten thousand dollars, a swindler was as good as dead. Nevin Noll finally found Fortier and delivered the ultimatum: Seven days to return the cash, or else.
A week passed, then another. No one had seen Poppy. Lance was convinced he had indeed fled the area for good and kept the cash. A construction crew hired by Ginger descended upon Carousel and began sprucing it up for a grand reopening.
Fortier was lying low too and had left the Strip, but not the Coast. He was selling used cars for a friend in Pascagoula and living in a small apartment there. Late on a Saturday night, he came home from a party half-drunk, with his girlfriend Rita. They quickly got undressed, hopped in the bed, and were getting steamed up when a man stepped from the closet eight feet away and began firing a handgun. Earl took three bullets in the head, as did Rita, who managed one quick scream before the end.
A next-door neighbor, Mr. Bullington, heard the shots and described them as “muffled thuds,” certainly not the wall-splitting sounds of a gun being fired in close quarters. Ballistics would say the gunman probably used some type of silencer, which would make sense for a murder that was carefully planned.
Mr. Bullington also heard the scream and it prompted him to turn off his lights, ease to the rear window in the kitchen, and watch. Seconds later, he saw a man leave their building, hurry across a small parking lot, and disappear around a corner. White,
about six feet tall, medium build, dark hair under a dark cap, age about twenty-five. Mr. Bullington waited a moment, then left through his rear door, and, staying in the shadows, followed the man. He heard the sound of a car engine being started, and, hiding behind some bushes, watched as the killer drove away in a light brown 1961 Ford Fairlane, Mississippi tags but too far away to see the numbers.
Fortier was dead in his bed, but Rita was not. For three days her doctors waited to pull the plug, but she hung on. On the fourth day she started mumbling.
The murders were newsworthy along the Coast but not surprising. Fortier was described as a used-car salesman with a checkered past. He had worked in the Biloxi clubs and had served time for aggravated assault. Rita’s last job was waiting tables at a steak house in Pascagoula, but her trail quickly led to a long career as a waitress at Carousel. An employee who knew them both said their romance had been on and off for many years. In his opinion, she was only a waitress and had not worked the rooms upstairs. Not that it mattered when she was on life support.
Pascagoula was in Jackson County, the domain of Sheriff Heywood Hester, a relatively honest public servant who loathed Fats Bowman and his machine next door. Hester immediately called in the state police and gave the investigation his full attention. His citizens took a dimmer view of gangland shootings than those in Harrison County and he was determined to solve the crime and bring someone to justice.
A week after she was shot, Rita managed to scrawl on a notepad the name
Avoiding the Biloxi authorities, an undercover cop from the state police hung around the Strip long enough to catch wind of the bad blood between Lance Malco and Marcus Dean Poppy. It was common knowledge that Nevin was one of Malco’s underbosses. It was easy enough to find out that he owned a light brown 1961 Ford Fairlane, which Mr. Bullington identified.
In a surprise attack, Nevin Noll was awakened at three in the morning by a knock on his door. He treated every suspicious knock the same, and grabbed a small handgun from under his mattress. At the door, he was informed that the police had a warrant for his arrest and another one to search his apartment. They had the place surrounded.
Come out with your hands up.
He complied and no one was hurt.
He was driven to Pascagoula and thrown in jail with no bond. The police searched his apartment and found a small arsenal of handguns, rifles, shotguns, brass knuckles, switchblades, billy clubs, and every other weapon a self-respecting hoodlum might need. The state police and Sheriff Hester attempted to interrogate him, but he demanded a lawyer.
Lance Malco was furious with Nevin for getting into such serious trouble. Lance had authorized the hit on Fortier by ordering Nevin to take care of the matter, but he assumed a contract killer would be called in. Nevin had been pestering him for years to kill someone, said he was tired of the beatings and wanted to step up, but Lance had scolded him away from such talk. He wanted Nevin to stay where he was, at his side. Contract killings were as cheap as $5,000 a pop. Nevin was worth far more than that.
Lance went to the jail two days after the arrest and met privately with Nevin. After a serious tongue-lashing, in which the boss pointed out the stupidity of killing Fortier in Jackson County instead of Harrison County, where Fats was in charge, and after pointing out other obvious mistakes the boy made, Lance asked about the woman, Rita. She was not supposed to have been there. Fortier lived alone and Nevin had assumed he would return late that Saturday night by himself. Nevin was already in the house hiding when the couple staggered in and started undressing. He had no choice but to kill her, or at least try to.
“Yeah, well you missed, didn’t you? She survived and now she’s talking to the cops.”
“I hit her three times. It’s a miracle.”
“Miracles happen, don’t they? A basic rule is never leave behind a witness.”
“I know, I know. Can’t we take care of her?”
“Shut up. You’re in enough trouble.”
“Can you get me outta here?”
“I’m working on it. Burch’ll be over tomorrow. Just do what he says.”
Joshua Burch was a well-known criminal defense lawyer along the Coast. His reputation spread from Mobile to New Orleans, and he was the go-to guy when a man with some cash found himself in trouble. He had long been a favorite of the gangsters and was a regular at the nicer bars along the Strip. He worked hard, played hard, but maintained a respectable facade in the community. He was a fierce advocate in the courtroom, cool under pressure and always prepared. Juries trusted him, regardless of the awful things his clients were accused of, and he seldom lost a verdict. When Burch was performing, the courtroom was always packed.
He was thrilled to hear the news of Fortier’s murder, suspected it was gang-related, and anticipated the phone call for almost a week. He wanted the cops to arrest someone and solve the crime. Burch wanted to be called upon for the defense.
The first thing he didn’t like about Nevin Noll was his stare: cold, hard, uninterrupted by normal blinking, the look of a psychopath who knew no mercy. Look at a juror like that and he or she will vote to convict in a heartbeat. They had to work on the stare, probably beginning with a pair of odd eyeglasses.
The second thing was his cockiness. Locked away in a county jail, the boy was arrogant, unperturbed, and nonchalant about the serious charges facing him. Nothing was wrong, or whatever was
wrong could certainly be swept away. Burch would have to teach him humility.
“Where were you at the time of the murder?” Burch asked his client.
“Not sure. Where do you want me to be?”
So far there had been no straight answers. “Well, it looks like the state is putting together a rather compelling case. The cops think they have the murder weapon, though ballistics has yet to report. There are a couple of eyewitnesses, one of whom took three slugs in the face and evidently is claiming you pulled the trigger. We’re off to a bad start here, Nevin. And when the proof is stacked against the defendant, it’s usually helpful if the defendant has an alibi. Is it possible you were playing poker with some buddies in Biloxi while Mr. Fortier was getting shot in Pascagoula? Or could you have been with a girlfriend? It was, after all, Saturday night.”
“What time do they think Fortier got shot?”
“The preliminary estimate is eleven thirty.”
“It was closer to midnight. So, yeah, look, I was playing cards with some friends and then around midnight I went to bed with my girl. How about that?”
“Sounds great. Who were your friends?”
“Uh, well, I’ll have to think about that.”
“Okay, who’s your girl?”
“Think about that too. There’s more than one, you know?”
“Of course. Get the names straight, Nevin. And these are people who’ll be asked to take the witness stand and verify your story, so they have to be rock solid.”