WITH JUDGE KARL HUSKEY whispering into the ear of his colleague Judge Henry Trussel, it was established that the Lanigan matter should take precedence until it was put to rest. Rumors of a deal were floating throughout the legal community in Biloxi, rumors chased and being chased by even more gossip about the poor Bogan firm. In fact, nothing else was being discussed in the courthouse.
Trussel began the day by calling in T.L. Parrish and Sandy McDermott for a quick update, which eventually lasted for hours. Patrick was brought into the discussion on three occasions by use of Dr. Hayani's cell phone. The two, patient and doctor, were playing chess in the hospital cafeteria.
"I don't think he's cut out for jail," Trussel mumbled after the second call to Patrick. He was visibly and verbally reluctant to let Patrick off the hook with such ease, but a conviction was a longshot. With a docket filled with drug dealers and child molesters, he wasn't about to waste time with a high-profile corpse mutilator. All the evidence was circumstantial, and given Patrick's current reputation for meticulous planning, Trussel doubted a conviction.
The terms of the plea agreement were hammered out. The paperwork began with a joint motion to reduce the charges against Patrick. Then an agreed order to substitute new charges was prepared, followed by an agreed order accepting the guilty plea. In the course of the first meeting, Trussel spoke by phone to Sheriff Sweeney, Maurice Mast, Joshua Cutter, and Hamilton Jaynes in Washington. He also chatted twice with Karl Huskey, who was next door, just in case.
The two judges, along with Parrish, were subject to voter recall every four years in the general election. Trussel had never had an opponent and considered himself politically immune. Huskey was quitting. Parrish was sensitive, though being a good politician he presented the traditional facade of making the tough decisions without regard for public reaction. The three had been involved in politics for a long time, and each had learned a basic lesson: when contemplating an action which might be unpopular, do it quickly. Get it over with. Hesitation allows the issue to fester. The press grabs it, creates a controversy before the action, and certainly throws gasoline on the fire afterward.
The Clovis issue was simple, once Patrick explained it to everybody. He would submit the name of the victim, along with authorization from the family to dig up the grave, open the casket, look inside. If it was in fact empty, then the plea agreement would be complete. Since there would always be doubt until they opened the grave, if by some chance the casket was occupied, then the plea agreement would be ripped up and Patrick would still face capital murder charges. Patrick was supremely confident when he talked of the victim, and everyone believed without a doubt that the grave would be empty.
Sandy drove to the hospital, where he found his client in bed, surrounded by nurses as Dr. Hayani cleaned and dressed his burns. It was urgent, Sandy said, and Patrick apologized and asked them to leave. Alone, they walked through each motion and order, read every word aloud, then Patrick signed his approval.
Sandy noticed a cardboard box on the floor next to Patrick's temporary desk. In it were some of the books he'd loaned his client. The client was already packing.
For Sandy, lunch was a quick sandwich at the hotel suite, eaten while standing and watching over the shoulder as a secretary retyped a document. Both paralegals and a second secretary were back in the office in New Orleans.
The phone rang, and Sandy grabbed it. The caller identified himself as Jack Stephano, from D.C.; maybe Sandy had heard of him. Yes, in fact, he had. Stephano was in the lobby downstairs and would like to talk for a few minutes. Certainly. Trussel had asked the lawyers to return around two.
They sat in the small den and looked at each other across a cluttered coffee table. "I'm here out of curiosity," Stephano said, and Sandy didn't believe him.
"Shouldn't you start with an apology?" Sandy said.
"Yes, you're right. My men got a little carried away down there, and, well, they shouldn't have been so rough with your boy."
"Is that your idea of an apology?"
"I'm sorry. We were wrong." It lacked sincerity.
"I'll pass it along to my client. I'm sure it'll mean a lot to him."
"Yes, well, moving along here, I, of course, no longer have a dog in this fight. My wife and I are on our way to Florida for a vacation, and I wanted to take this little detour. I'll just be a minute."
"Have they caught Aricia?" Sandy asked.
"Yes. Just hours ago. In London."
"I no longer represent him, and I had nothing to do with all that Platt & Rockland business. I was hired after the money disappeared. My job was to find it. I tried, I got paid, I've closed the file."
"So why this visit?"
"I'm extremely curious about something. We found Lanigan in Brazil only after someone squealed on him. Someone who knew him very well. Two years ago we were contacted by an Atlanta firm called the Pluto Group. They had a client from Europe who knew something about Lanigan, and this client wanted money. We happened to have some at the time, and so a relationship developed. The client would offer us a clue, we would agree to pay a reward, the money changed hands, and the client was always accurate. This person knew an awful lot about Lanigan-his movements, his habits, his aliases. It was all a setup- there was a brain at work. We knew what was coming, and, frankly, we were quite anxious. Finally, they
popped the big one. For a million bucks, the client would tell us where he lived. They produced some very nice photos of Lanigan, one washing his car, a Volkswagen Beetle. We paid the money. We got Lanigan."
"So who was the client?" Sandy asked.
"That's my question. It's gotta be the girl, right?"
Sandy's reaction was delayed a bit. He grunted as if to laugh, but there was no humor in it. It came back to him slowly, her story about using Pluto to monitor Stephano, who of course was searching for Patrick.
"Where is she now?" Stephano asked.
"I don't know," Sandy said. She was in London, but it was certainly none of his business.
"We paid a total of one million, one hundred and fifty thousand dollars to this mysterious client, and she, or he, delivered. Just like Judas."
"It's over. What do you want from me?"
"As I said, I'm just curious. One of these days, if you learn the truth, I'd appreciate a call. I have nothing to gain or lose, but I won't rest well until I know if she took our money."
Sandy made a vague promise to perhaps one day give a call if he learned the truth, and Stephano left.
SHERIFF RAYMOND SWEENEY got wind of the deal during lunch, and didn't like it at all. He called Parrish and Judge Trussel, but both were too busy to talk to him. Cutter was out of the office.
Sweeney went to the courthouse to be seen. He parked himself in the hallway between the judges' offices, so that if a deal was struck he would somehow be in the middle of it. He whispered with the bailiffs and deputies. Something was coming down.
The lawyers showed up around two with tight lips and solemn faces. They gathered in TrusseFs office behind a locked door. After ten minutes, Sweeney knocked on it. He crashed the meeting with a demand to know what was going on with his prisoner. Judge Trussel calmly explained that there would soon be a guilty plea, the result of a plea bargain, which, in his opinion, and in the collective opinions of everyone present, was in the best interests of justice.
Sweeney had his own opinion, which he readily shared. "It makes us look like fools. Folks out there are hot about this, ^bu catch a rich crook, and he buys his way outta jail. What are we, a bunch of clowns?"
"What do you suggest, Raymond?" Parrish asked.
"I'm glad you asked. First, I'd put him in the county jail and let him sit for a while, same as all prisoners. Then I'd prosecute him to the fullest extent."
"For what crime?"
"He stole the damned money, didn't he? He burned up that dead body. Let the boy serve ten years in Parchman. That's justice."
"He didn't steal the money here," Trussel explained. "We have no jurisdiction. It was a federal matter, and the federal boys have already dismissed the charges." Sandy was in a corner, his eyes fixed on a document.
"Then somebody screwed up, didn't they?"
"It wasn't us," Parrish said quickly.
"That's great. Go sell that to the people who elected you. Blame it on the feds because they don't run for office. What about burning the corpse? He gets to walk after admitting he did it?"
"You think he should be prosecuted for it?" Trussel asked.
"Damned right I do."
"Good. How do you think we should prove our case?" Parrish asked.
"You're the prosecutor. That's your job."
"Yeah, but you seem to know everything. Tell me, how would you prove the case?"
"He said he did it, didn't he?"
"Yeah, and do you think Patrick Lanigan will take the witness stand in his own criminal trial and confess to the jury that he burned a corpse? Is that your idea of trial strategy?"
"He won't," Sandy inserted helpfully.
Sweeney's neck and cheeks were red, and his arms were nailing in all directions. He glared at Parrish, then at Sandy.
And when he realized that these lawyers had all the answers, he brought himself under control. "When will this happen?" he asked.
"Late this afternoon," Trussel said.
Sweeney didn't like this either. He stuck his hands deep in his pockets and headed for the door. "You lawyers take care of your own," he said, just loud enough for everyone to hear.
"One big happy family," Parrish said, the sarcasm heavy.
Sweeney slammed the door and huffed down the hallway. He left the courthouse in his unmarked cruiser. Using his car phone, he called his own personal informant, a reporter with the Coast daily.
SINCE THE FAMILY, such as it was, had given blanket approval, as had Patrick, the executor of the estate, the digging up of the grave was a simple matter. Judge Trussel and Parrish and Sandy didn't miss the irony of having Patrick, Clovis' only friend, sign an affidavit granting permission to open the casket so that Patrick could be cleared. Every decision seemed to be layered with irony.
It was far different from an exhumation, a procedure that required a court order, after a proper motion and sometimes even a hearing. It was simply a look-see, a procedure unknown to the Mississippi Code, and therefore Judge Trussel took great latitude with it. Who could be harmed? Certainly not the family. Certainly not the casket; evidently it was serving little purpose anyway.
Rolland still owned the funeral home up in Wig-gins. How well he remembered Mr. Clovis Goodman and his lawyer, and the odd little wake out there in the county, at the home of Mr. Goodman, where no one showed up but the lawyer. Yes, he recalled it well, he told the Judge on the phone. Yes, he'd read something about Mr. Lanigan, and no, he hadn't made the connection.
Judge Trussel gave him a quick summary, which led immediately to Clovis' involvement in the plot. No, he had not opened the casket after the wake, had had no need to, never did in those situations. While the Judge talked, Parrish faxed to Rolland copies of the consents signed by Deena Postell and by Patrick Lanigan, the executor.
Rolland was suddenly eager to help. He'd never had a corpse stolen before, folks just didn't do those things in Wiggins, and, well, yes, he could certainly have the grave opened in no time flat. He owned the cemetery too.
Judge Trussel sent his law clerk and two deputies to the cemetery. Under the handsome headstone:
CLOVIS F. GOODMAN
JANUARY 23, 1907, TO FEBRUARY 6, 1992 GONE ON TO GLORY
A backhoe carefully picked through the loamy soil as Rolland gave directions and waited with a shovel. It took less than fifteen minutes to reach the casket. Rolland and a helper stepped into the grave and shoveled away more dirt. The poplar had started to rot around the edges of the coffin. Rolland straddled the lower half of the casket and with dirty hands inserted the church key. He jerked and pried until the lid made a cracking sound, then he slowly opened it.
To no one's surprise, the casket was empty.
Except, of course, for the four cinder blocks.
THE PLAN was to do it in open court, as required by law, but to wait until almost five, when the courthouse was closing and many of the county employees were leaving. Five o'clock sounded fine to everyone, especially to the Judge and the District Attorney, who were convinced they were doing the right and proper thing, but were nervous about it nonetheless. Throughout the day, Sandy had pushed hard for a quick disposal once the plea agreement had been reached and the casket opened. There was no reason to wait. His client was incarcerated, though this received little sympathy. The court was in the middle of a scheduled term. The timing was perfect. What could be gained by waiting?
Nothing, His Honor finally decided. Parrish did not object. He had eight trials scheduled over the next three weeks, and unloading Lanigan was a relief.
Five was most satisfactory for the defense. With a bit of luck, they could be in and out of the courtroom in less than ten minutes. Another bit of luck, and no one would see them. Five was perfect for Patrick. What else did he have to do?
He changed into a pair of loose-fitting khakis and a large white cotton shirt. He wore new Bass loafers, no socks because of the rope-burned ankle. He hugged Hayani and thanked him for his friendship. He hugged the nurses and thanked the orderlies, and promised them all he'd be back soon to visit again. He wouldn't, and everyone knew it.
After more than two weeks as a patient and prisoner, Patrick left the hospital, his lawyer at his side, his armed escorts following dutifully behind.