فصل 07

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فصل 07

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Chapter seven

A Fire

The first Saturday in November was unusually cool for the near- tropical climate of the Coast. The jurors, accompanied by Lou Dell and her husband, five part-time deputies, and two other court officials, went by private bus to New Orleans. They shopped at outdoor markets, bought souvenirs, and at four went on a sightseeing trip on a boat.

They were back home at ten, tired and ready for sleep.

Early that same morning, Hoppy was just making coffee when he heard the doorbell. Two young men stood on the doorstep. When Hoppy heard “FBI,” he nearly fainted.

“Mr. Dupree,” Agent Nitchman said when the introductions were completed. “We’d like to ask you some questions.”

“About what?” Hoppy asked, his voice dry.

“Questions about Stillwater Bay, Jimmy Hull Moke, things like that,” Nitchman explained.

Hoppy grabbed the door, “Oh, my God,” he said.

“May we come in?” Agent Napier said.

“No please, not here.” The children! “My office, please.”

There were no sounds from upstairs. The kids were still sleeping. He dressed fast, and thought about calling Todd Ringwald, or his lawyer. He thought of the public shame. How could he have been so stupid?

Nitchman started. “Are you familiar with Stillwater Bay?”


“Have you met a man by the name of Todd Ringwald?”


“Have you signed any kind of contract with him?”


“What was the purpose of your meeting with Jimmy Hull Moke?”

“To discuss the development of Stillwater Bay.”

Napier cleared his throat. “We’ve been investigating Mr. Moke for the last six months. We agreed to make things easier for him if he helped us. Did you offer money to Mr. Moke?”

“No,” Hoppy said. He hadn’t actually offered money. He’d made it possible for his client, Mr. Ringwald, to offer money.

Nitchman took out a pocket tape recorder and put it on the table. “Sure?” he asked. He pressed a button. Hoppy held his breath. Then, there was his voice and then Moke’s.

Hoppy stared at the tape recorder, defeated. When he finally looked at them, his eyes were red. “So what will happen to me?”

“For trying to bribe a government official? I’d say three to five years in prison.”

The microphone had been hidden in a pen, which was sitting in a jar with other pens and pencils on Hoppy’s desk. Ringwald had put it there on Friday morning, when Hoppy had left his office briefly. From the desk, the recording had been sent to a van, recorded onto tape and delivered to Fitch’s office. Moke, of course, wasn’t involved; he was simply behaving like he always did, trying to make money from bribes. Ringwald, Napier, and Nitchman all worked for a security firm that Fitch often used. The Hoppy scam would cost The Fund eighty thousand dollars, a tiny amount for them.

Hoppy mentioned legal representation. But it was important that Hoppy didn’t talk to a lawyer, who’d want names and addresses.

“We know you’re not a crook,” Nitchman said softly.

“You just made a mistake,” added Napier. “Let’s keep this quiet for twenty-four hours. We need time to think about your situation. There may be a way out for you, Mr. Dupree. We’ll meet here tomorrow at nine o’clock in the morning.”

“It’s a deal,” said Hoppy.

Since the Hoppy scam was going well, Fitch decided to act. Early Sunday morning, Pang and Dubaz, another of Fitch’s employees, dressed as workmen, broke into Nicholas’s apartment. Dubaz went straight to the camera hidden above the refrigerator, and removed it.

Pang managed to remove the back of the computer and take out what he needed, while Dubaz searched for more computer disks. It didn’t take long.

“Let’s go,” said Pang.

They threw the computer onto the sofa, and covered it with pillows and clothing. Then they poured lighter fuel on top, walked to the door, and Dubaz threw a match onto the heap.

When the flames were near the ceiling, they left quickly, locking the door behind them. Downstairs, they pulled a fire alarm. Then they began banging on the front doors of the other apartments. There were screams as people came out into the hallways.

“Make damn sure you don’t kill anyone,” Fitch had warned them.

As the crowd went out into the parking lot, Pang and Dubaz separated. When the firemen arrived, they disappeared. No one died and no one was injured. Four apartments were destroyed, eleven badly damaged.

Easter’s computer disks were almost impossible to read. They were so secure that Fitch’s computer experts were defeated. However, they did manage to read one disk. On it there were current news items about the tobacco industry, information about other legal cases, and a poem about rivers. It was impossible to decide whether Easter was sympathetic to smokers, or just interested in the law.

Finally they found a two-page letter to Easter’s mother, a Mrs. Pamela Blanchard, in Gardner, Texas. In it, he apologized for not writing sooner, and said he’d found a job in a casino. Although he still thought about being a lawyer, he doubted he’d ever return to his law studies. He signed the letter Love Jeff. Fitch immediately sent two people by private plane to Gardner.

There was one other important piece of information: a list of people registered to vote in Harrison County. From A through K, there were 16,000 names and addresses. The list itself wasn’t secret. But two things about it were odd. First, it was on a disk, which meant that somehow Easter had managed to steal the information from a court computer. Second, why did Easter need it?

Fitch knew that Easter was quite capable of altering the list to have his own name entered as a possible juror in the Wood Vs Pynex case.

Hoppy’s eyes were red and swollen as he drank coffee at his desk early on Sunday morning. At nine, Napier and Nitchman entered with a third, older man. He was introduced as George Cristano, from Washington, Department of Justice. His handshake was cold.

“Hoppy, could we have this little chat elsewhere?”

They left town in a big black Lincoln Town Car and drove to a dock near Bay St. Louis. Hoppy followed Cristano onto a boat named Afternoon Delight.

“Sit down, Hoppy,” said Cristano. The boat rocked slightly. Cristano sat opposite Hoppy. “I’ll be brief. We have a deal for you which means that you can walk away. No arrest, no trial, and no prison. In fact, Hoppy, no one will ever know.”

“I’m listening,” interrupted Hoppy.

“This deal has nothing to do with the law. It’s political. There’ll be no record of it in Washington. Are you worried about crime and drugs, Hoppy?”

“Of course.”

“Everything’s political these days. We’re constantly fighting with the government and with the President. Do you know what we need in Washington? We need more good Republicans who’ll give us money and keep out of our way. The Democrats are always talking about budget cuts and the rights of criminals. We have to protect our friends, Hoppy, and you can help us.” Cristano paused and looked up and down the dock. He leaned closer. “Your wife can help.”


“It’s the trial, Hoppy. Guess who gives most money to Republican candidates? The tobacco companies. They give millions of dollars because they’re annoyed by government rules.

They believe people should be free to smoke if they want to. If they lose this trial, there’ll be a flood of lawsuits. The companies will lose millions of dollars, and so we’ll lose millions of dollars in Washington. Can you help us, Hoppy?”

“Sure, I guess, but how?”

“Talk to your wife and make her see that this case is dangerous. She needs to stand up against the liberals who might want a big verdict for the plaintiff. Can you do that?”

“Of course I can. I’ll see her tonight, in fact.”

They talked about the best way to persuade Millie. Hoppy asked what would happen if Millie voted with the tobacco company, but the rest of the jury disagreed. Cristano promised that if Millie voted correctly, everything would be all right.

Hoppy almost danced along the dock as he returned to the car. He was a new man.

Judge Harkin wouldn’t allow the jurors to go to their different churches on Sunday. Instead, he arranged for a service to be held at the Siesta Motel. At two, relatives started arriving with clean clothes for the jurors. As Easter had no close relatives in the area, Willis drove him to his apartment.

The fire had been out for some hours. The narrow front garden and sidewalk were full of burnt items and wet clothing. Neighbors were cleaning up. Nicholas felt weak at the knees. He walked to the first group of people.

“When did this happen?” he asked.

“This morning, about eight,” a woman answered. “Do you live here?”

“Yes, Easter, m 312.”

“It’s totally destroyed. That’s probably where the fire started.”

The security guard led Nicholas up the steps to the second floor. There was nothing left of his apartment, except the kitchen wall. No furniture and, to his horror, no computer.

Sunday evening from 6 P.M. was personal visits. Hoppy arrived first and started to talk about the trial to Millie. Nicholas managed to leave the jurors’ wing of the motel unnoticed, and went up to the second floor, where Marlee had booked a room.

Marlee and Nicholas had first met in Lawrence, Kansas, where she worked as a waitress and he was at law school. Marlee’s mother had died a few years previously and she’d inherited almost two hundred thousand dollars. They fell in love. Nicholas hated studying law, and finally left law school. In their four years together they’d traveled to half a dozen countries. They’d also followed tobacco trials, staying in places such as Allentown, and now, Biloxi. Together they knew more about nicotine, lung cancer, jury selection, and Rankin Fitch than any group of experts.

Rohr spent Sunday evening meeting with the other trial lawyers who’d each given a million dollars toward fighting this case. They were discussing how many more witnesses for the plaintiff should be called. The trial was now three weeks old. Rohr had enough experts to continue for at least two more weeks. Although Cable had his experts, defense witnesses normally took less than half the time of the plaintiff.

However, this tobacco trial was unique because of the sequestered jury, and at some point this jury would rebel. The lawyers argued for an hour. Rohr thought that the jury had heard enough and he wanted to use only two more witnesses. Other lawyers disagreed, quoting evidence from the jury consultants. Rohr felt he could understand the jury better himself.

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