PAUL GRONKE FINISHED HIS UNEXPECTED TRIP TO MINNEapolis as the Northwest 727 lifted off the runway and started for Atlanta. From Atlanta, he hoped to catch a direct flight to New Orleans, and once home he had no plans to leave for a long time. Maybe years. Regardless of his friendship with Muldanno, Gronke was tired of this mess. He could break a thumb or a leg when necessary, and he could huff and puff and scare almost anybody. But he did not particularly enjoy stalking little kids and waving switchblades at them. He made a nice living from his clubs and beer joints, and if the Blade needed help, he'd just have to lean on his family. ' Gronke was not family. He was not Mafia. And he was not going to kill anyone for Barry Muldanno.
He'd made two phone calls that morning as soon as his flight arrived at the Memphis airport. The first call spooked him because no one answered. He then dialed a backup number for a recorded message, and again there was no answer. He walked quickly to the Northwest ticket counter and paid cash for a one-way ticket to Minneapolis. Then he found the Delta counter and paid cash for a one-way ticket to Dallas-Fort Worth. Then he bought a ticket to Chicago, on United. He roamed the concourses for an hour, watching his back and seeing nothing, and at the last second hopped on Northwest.
Bono and Pirini had strict instructions. The two phone calls meant one of two things: either the cops had them, or they were forced to pull up stakes and haul ass. Neither thought was comforting.
The flight attendant brought two beers. It was a few minutes after one, too early to start drinking, but he was edgy, and what the hell. It was 5 P. M. somewhere.
Muldanno would flip out and start throwing things. He'd run to his uncle and borrow some more thugs. They'd descend upon Memphis and start hurting people. Finesse was not Barry's long suit.
Their friendship had started in high school, in the tenth grade, their last year of formal education before they dropped out and began hustling on the streets of New Orleans. Barry's route to crime was preordained by family. Gronke's was a bit more complicated. Their first venture had been a fencing operation that had been wildly successful. The profits, however, were siphoned off by Barry and sent to the family. They peddled some drugs, ran some numbers, managed a whorehouse, all cash-rich ventures. But Gronke saw little of the cash. After ten years of this lopsided partnership, he told Barry he wanted a place of his own. Barry helped him buy a topless bar, then a porno house. Gronke made money and was able to keep it. At about this point in their careers, Barry started his killing, and Gronke established more distance between them.
But they remained friends. A month or so after Boyette disappeared, the two of them spent a long weekend at Johnny Sulari's house in Acapulco with a couple of strippers. After the girls had passed out one night, they went for a long walk on the beach. Barry was drinking tequila and talking more than usual. His name had just surfaced as a suspect. He bragged to his friend about the killing.
The landfill in Lafourche Parish was worth millions to the Sulari family. Johnny's scheme was to eventually route most of the garbage from New Orleans to it. Senator Boyette had been an unexpected enemy. His antics had attracted lots of negative publicity for the dump, and the more ink Boyette received the crazier he'd become. He'd launched federal investigations. He'd called in dozens of EPA bureaucrats who'd prepared massive volumes of studies, most of which condemned the landfill. In Washington, he'd hounded the Justice Department until it initiated its own investigation into the allegations of mob involvement. Senator Boyette became the biggest obstacle to Johnny's gold mine.
The decision had been made to hit Boyette.
Sipping from a bottle of Cuervo Gold, Barry laughed about the killing. He stalked Boyette for six months, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that the senator, who was divorced, had an affinity for young women. Cheap young women, the kind he could find in a bordello and buy for fifty bucks. His favorite place was a seedy roadhouse halfway between New Orleans and Houma, the site of the landfill. It was in oil country, and frequented by offshore roustabouts and the cute little whores they attracted. Evidently, the senator knew the owner and had a special arrangement. He the gravel lot crowded with monster pickups and Harleys. He always used the rear entrance by the kitchen.
The senator's trips to Houma became more frequent. He was raising hell in town meetings and holding press conferences every week. And he enjoyed the drives back to New Orleans with his little quickies at the roadhouse.
The hit was easy, Barry said as they sat on the beach with foamy saltwater rushing around them. He trailed Boyette for twenty miles after a rowdy landfill meeting in Houma, and waited patiently in the darkness behind the roadhouse. When Boyette emerged after his little liaison, he hit him in the head with a nightstick and quickly threw him in the backseat. He stopped a few miles down the road and pumped four bullets in his head. The body was wrapped in garbage bags and placed in the trunk.
Imagine that, Barry had marveled, a U. S. senator snatched from the darkness of a run-down bordello. He'd served for twenty-one years, chaired powerful committees, eaten at the White House, trotted around the globe searching for ways to spend taxpayers' money, had eighteen assistants and gofers working for him, and, bam!, just like that, got caught with his pants down. Barry thought it was hilarious. One of his easiest jobs, he said, as if there'd been hundreds.
A state trooper had stopped Barry for speeding ten miles outside of New Orleans. Imagine that, he said, chatting with a cop with a warm body in the trunk. He talked football and avoided a ticket. But then he panicked, and decided to hide the body in a different place.
Gronke was tempted to ask where, but thought better of it.
The case against him was shaky. The trooper's records placed Barry in the vicinity at the time of the disappearance. But with no body, there was no proof of the time of death. One of the prostitutes saw a man who resembled Barry in the shadows of the parking lot while the senator was being entertained. She was now under government protection, but not expected to make a good witness. Barry's car had been cleaned and sanitized. No blood samples, no fibers or hair. The star of the government's case was a Mafia informant, a man who'd spent twenty of his forty-two years in jail, and who was not expected to live to testify. A. 22 caliber Ruger had been seized from the apartment of one of Barry's girlfriends, but, again, with no corpse it was impossible to determine the cause of death. Barry's fingerprints were on the gun. It was a gift, said the girlfriend.
Juries are hesitant to convict without first knowing for certain that the victim is indeed dead. And Boy-ette was such an eccentric character that rumors and gossip had produced all sorts of wild speculation about his disappearance. One published report detailed his recent history of psychiatric problems, and thus had given rise to a popular theory that he'd gone nuts and run off with a teenage hooker. He had gambling debts. He drank too much. His ex-wife had sued him for fraud in the divorce. And on and on.
Boyette had plenty of reasons to disappear.
And now, an eleven-year-old kid in Memphis knew where he was buried. Gronke opened the second beer.
DOREEN HELD MARK S ARM AND WALKED HIM TO HIS ROOM.
His steps were measured and he stared at the floor in front of them as if he'd just witnessed a car bomb in a crowded marketplace.
"Are you okay, baby?" she asked, the wrinkles around her eyes bunched together with terrible concern.
He nodded and plodded along. She quickly unlocked the door, and placed him on the bottom bunk.
"Lie right here, sweetheart," she said, pulling back the covers and swinging his legs onto the bed. She knelt beside him and searched his eyes for answers. "Are you sure you're okay?" He nodded but could say nothing.
"Do you want me to call a doctor?" "No," he managed to say in a hollow voice. "I'm fine." "I think I'll get a doctor," she said. He grabbed her arm and squeezed tightly.
"I just need some rest," he mumbled. "That's all." She unlocked the door with the key and slowly eased out, her eyes never leaving Mark. When the door closed and clicked, he swung his feet to the floor.
AT THREE FRIDAY AFTERNOON, HARRY ROOSEVELT S legendary patience was gone. His weekend would be spent in the Ozarks, fishing with his two sons, and as he sat on the bench and looked at the courtroom still crowded with deadbeat dads awaiting sentencing for nonpayment, his mind kept wandering to thoughts of long sleepy mornings and cool mountain streams. At least two dozen men filled the pews of the main courtroom, and most had either current wives or current girlfriends sitting anxiously at their elbows. A few had brought their lawyers, though there was no legal relief available at this moment. All of them would soon be serving weekend sentences at the Shelby County Penal Farm for failing to pay child support.
Harry wanted to adjourn by four, but it looked doubtful. His two sons waited in the back row. Outside, the Jeep was packed, and when the gavel finally rapped for the last time, they would rush his honor from the building and whisk him away to the Buffalo River. That was the plan anyway. They were bored, but they had been there before many times.
In spite of the chaos in the front of the courtroom -clerks hauling bundles of files in and out, lawyers whispering as they waited, deputies standing by, defendants being shuffled to the bench then out the doorHarry's assembly line moved with determined efficiency. He glared at each deadbeat, scolded a bit, sometimes a quick lecture, then he signed an order and moved on to the next one.
Reggie eased into the courtroom and made her way to the clerk seated next to the bench. They whispered for a minute with Reggie pointing to a document she'd brought with her. She laughed at something that was probably not that funny, but Harry heard her and motioned her to the bench.
"Something wrong?" he asked with his hand over the microphone.
"No. Mark's fine, I guess. I need a quick favor. It's another case." Harry smiled and turned off the mike. Typical Reggie. Her cases were always the most important and needed immediate attention. "What is it?" he asked.
The clerk handed Harry the file while Reggie handed him an order. "It's another snatch-and-run by the Welfare Department," she said in a low voice. No one was listening. No one cared.
"Who's the kid?" he asked, flipping through the file.
"Ronald Allan Thomas the Third. Also known as Trip Thomas. He was taken into custody last night by Welfare and placed in a foster home. His mother hired me an hour ago." "Says here he's been abandoned and neglected." "Not true, Harry. It's a long story, but I assure you this kid has good parents and a clean home." "And you want the kid released?" "Immediately. I'll pick him up myself, and take him home to Momma Love if I have to." "And feed him lasagna." "Of course." Harry scanned the order and signed his name at the bottom. "I'll have to trust you, Reggie." "You always do. I saw Damon and Al back there. They look rather bored." Harry handed the order to the clerk, who stamped it. "So am I. When I get this riffraff cleared from my courtroom, we're going fishing." "Good luck. I'll see you Monday." "Have a nice weekend, Reggie. You'll check on Mark, won't you?" "Of course." "Try and talk some sense into his mother. The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced these people must cooperate with the feds and enter the witness program. Hell, they have nothing to lose by starting over. Convince her they'll be protected." "I'll try. I'll spend some time with her this weekend. Maybe we can wrap it up Monday." "I'll see you then." Reggie winked at him, and backed away from the bench. The clerk handed her a copy of the order, and she left the courtroom.