Authors: John Grisham
Jeri was not prepared for the next phase of her life. For over twenty years she had been driven by the dream of finding and confronting her father’s murderer. Identifying him was difficult enough, and she had done so only with a determination and perseverance that often surprised herself. Accusing him was another matter. Pointing the finger at Ross Bannick was a terrifying act, not because she was afraid of being wrong, but because she feared the man himself.
But she had done it. She had filed her complaint with an official agency, one established by law to investigate wayward judges, and now it was up to the Board on Judicial Conduct to go after Bannick. She wasn’t sure what to expect from Lacy Stoltz and her BJC, but the case was now on her desk. If all went as planned, Lacy would put in motion the apprehension and prosecution of a man Jeri could never stop thinking about.
In the days following her last meeting with Lacy, Jeri found it impossible to prepare lectures, or do research for her book, or see what few friends she had. She did see her therapist twice and complained of feeling depressed, lonely, of little value. She fought the temptation to jump back online and dig through old crimes. She often stared at her phone and waited for a call from Lacy, and she fought the urge to email her every hour.
On day ten, Lacy called and they chatted for a few minutes. Not surprisingly, she had nothing to report. She and her team were getting organized, reviewing the file, making plans, and so on. Jeri ended the call abruptly and went for a walk.
Thirty-five days to go and apparently nothing was happening, at least not around the offices of the BJC.
According to the records of the Chavez County tax office, Ross Bannick purchased a used, light gray, 2009 model Chevrolet half-ton pickup in May of 2012 and owned it for two years before selling it the previous November, one month after the murders of Verno and Dunwoody. His buyer was a used car dealer named Udell, who flipped it to a man named Robert Trager, the present owner. Darren drove to Pensacola and found Mr. Trager, who explained that he no longer had the truck. On New Year’s Eve, a drunk driver ran a stop sign and crashed into him, totaling the truck. He had settled with State Farm under his uninsured motorist coverage, sold the truck for scrap, and felt lucky to be alive. As they sipped iced tea on the front porch, Mrs. Trager found a photo of Robert and his grandson holding fishing rods and posing beside the gray pickup. With his smartphone, Darren took a picture of the photo and sent it to Detective Napier in Biloxi, who eventually made the trip to Neely and showed it to the only eyewitness.
In his email to Lacy, Napier said, curtly:
The witness says it looks “very similar” to the one he saw. This narrows it down to about five thousand gray Chevrolet pickups in this state. Good luck.
Further digging revealed that Bannick was quite the truck trader. In the previous fifteen years, he had bought and sold at least eight used pickups of various makes, models, and colors.
Why would a judge need so many trucks?
He was currently driving a 2013 Ford Explorer, leased from a local dealer.
On Monday, March 31, the thirteenth day into the assessment period commenced by the filing of the complaint, Lacy and Darren flew from Tallahassee to Miami where they rented a car and drove south through the Keys to the town of Marathon, population 9,000. Two years earlier, a retired lawyer named Perry Kronke had been found dead, beaten and strangled in his fishing boat as it drifted in shallow water near the Great White Heron preserve. His skull had been shattered, there was blood everywhere, the cause of death was asphyxiation caused by a length of nylon rope pulled around his neck so violently that the skin ripped. There were no witnesses, no suspicious characters, no suspects, no forensics. The case was still considered active and few details had been released.
Jeri’s go-to man, Kenny Lee, had been unable to obtain crime scene photos from the FBI clearinghouse.
The Marathon police department was the domain of Chief Turnbull, a snowbird from Michigan who had never gone back home. He was also the homicide detective, among other duties. He greeted Lacy and Darren warmly but with suspicion, and, like Sheriff Black in Biloxi, cleared the air immediately by establishing that the two were not cops.
“We don’t pretend to be,” Lacy said with a megawatt smile. “We investigate complaints against judges, and with a thousand of them in this state that keeps us very busy.”
Nervous laughter all around. Gotta get those crooked judges.
“So, why are you interested in the Kronke case?” Turnbull asked.
Darren had once again been told to keep quiet. His boss would do the talking, all of it. They had rehearsed their fiction and both thought it sounded plausible. She said, “Just some routine stuff, really. We’re digging through a new complaint filed against a judge in Miami and we’ve run across some possible criminal activity by the late Mr. Kronke. Did you by chance know him before he was murdered?”
“No. He lived out at Grassy Key. Are you familiar with this area?”
“It’s a swanky retirement enclave on a bay north of here. The residents tend to stick to themselves. Out of my price range.”
“The murder was two years ago. Do you have any suspects?”
The chief actually laughed, as though the idea of a decent lead was so far-fetched it was humorous. He collected himself quickly and said, “I’m not sure I should answer that question, as bold as it is. Where are you going with this?”
“We’re just doing our jobs, Chief Turnbull.”
“How confidential is this conversation?”
“Totally. We have nothing to gain by repeating any of this. We work for the State of Florida and it’s our job to investigate allegations of wrongdoing, same as you.”
The chief pondered this for a moment, his nervous eyes darting from one to the other. He finally took a deep breath, relaxed, and said, “Yes, early on, we had a suspect, or at least we thought we were on the trail. We’ve always assumed that the killer was in a boat. He found Mr. Kronke alone, fishing for red drum, something he did all the time. There were several fish he’d caught in the cooler. His wife said he’d left home around seven that morning and was expecting a pleasant day on the water. We went to every marina within fifty miles of here and checked the records for boat rentals.” He paused long enough to pull reading glasses out of a shirt pocket and open a file. He scanned it quickly, found his number. “There were twenty-seven boats rented that morning, all, of course, to fishermen. The murder was August the fifth, red drum season, you understand?”
“Of course.” Lacy had never heard of a red drum and wasn’t sure what one was.
“We checked all twenty-seven names. Took us a while, but hey, that’s our job. One guy was a convicted felon, served some time in a federal pen for assaulting an FBI agent, pretty nasty dude. We got excited and spent some time with him. But he eventually checked out.”
Lacy doubted if Ross Bannick was careless enough to rent a boat in the vicinity at about the same time he murdered Perry Kronke, after stalking him for over twenty years, but she feigned deep interest. After spending fifteen minutes with Chief Turnbull and seeing his operation, she was not impressed.
“Did you ask the state police for help?” she asked.
“Of course. Right off the bat. They’re the pros, you know. They did the autopsy, forensics, most of the preliminary investigation. We worked side by side, a joint effort in all aspects. Great guys. I like them.”
That’s nice. “Could we take a look at the file?” she asked sweetly.
Thick wrinkles broke out across his forehead. He yanked off his readers and chewed on a stem, glaring at her as if she had asked about his wife’s sex life. “Why?” he demanded.
“There might be something about this case that’s relevant to our investigation.”
“I don’t get it. Murder here, crooked judge there. What’s the connection?”
“We don’t know, Chief Turnbull, we’re just digging, the way you often do. Just good police work.”
“I can’t release the file. Sorry. Get a court order or something and I’ll be happy to help, but without one, no go.”
“Fair enough.” She shrugged as if to give up. There was nothing else to talk about. “Thanks for your time.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“We’ll be back with a court order.”
“One last question, though, if you don’t mind.”
“The rope used by the killer—is it in the evidence file?”
“You bet. We have it.”
“And you’re familiar with it?”
“Of course. It’s the murder weapon.”
“Can you describe it?”
“Sure, but I won’t. Come back with your court order.”
“I’ll bet it’s nylon, about thirty inches in length, double twin braid, marine grade, either blue and white or green and white in color.”
The wrinkles broke out again as his jaw dropped. He rocked back in his chair and clasped his hands together behind his head. “Well, I’ll be damned.”
“Close enough?” Lacy asked.
“Yes. Close enough. You’ve seen this guy’s work before, I take it.”
“Maybe. Maybe we have a suspect. I can’t talk about him now but maybe next week or next month. We’re on the same team, Chief.”
“What do you want?”
“I want to see the file, all of it. And everything is confidential.”
Turnbull bounced to his feet and said, “Follow me.”
Two hours later, they parked at a marina and followed Turnbull, their new buddy, down a dock to a thirty-foot patrol boat with the word
painted boldly on both sides. The captain was an old cop in official shorts, and he welcomed them aboard as if they were headed for a luxury cruise. Lacy and Darren sat knee-to-knee on a bench starboard side and enjoyed the ride over the smooth water. Turnbull stood next to the captain and they chatted in indecipherable cop-speak. Fifteen minutes into the trip the boat decelerated and floated almost to a stop.
Turnbull walked to the front and pointed at the water. “Somewhere right around here is where they found him. As you can see, it’s pretty remote.”
Lacy and Darren stood and took in the surroundings, endless water in all directions. The nearest shore was a mile away and dotted with homes that were barely visible. There was no other watercraft to be seen.
“Who found him?” Lacy asked.
“Coast Guard. His wife got worried when he didn’t show and she made some calls. We found his truck and trailer at the marina and figured he was still on the water. We called the Coast Guard and began searching.”
“Not a bad place for a murder,” mused Darren, practically his first words of the day.
Turnbull grunted and said, “Damned near perfect, if you ask me.”
He owned the boat, had bought it a year earlier as the master plan came together. It wasn’t a particularly nice one, not nearly as fancy as the one owned by the target, but he wasn’t trying to impress. To avoid a trailer and parking and all that hassle, he rented a slip at a marina south of Marathon. Ownership would negate the need to rent. He would sell it later, as well as the small condo near the harbor, both, hopefully, at a profit. Established in the area, and knowing no one, he fished the waters, something he came to enjoy, and he stalked his target, something he lived for. The paperwork—the bill of sale for the boat, the local bank account, the land records, the fishing license, property taxes, the fuel receipts—was all easily forged. State and local paperwork were child’s play for a man with a hundred bank accounts, a man who bought and sold things with fake names just for the fun of it.
He bumped into Kronke on the dock one day and got close enough to say hello. The ass did not reply. Back in the day he was known to be a prick. Things hadn’t changed. Staying away from that law firm had been a blessing.
On the day, he watched Kronke unload his boat, buy some fuel, arrange his rods and lures, and eventually speed away from the dock, too fast and leaving a wake. What an ass. He followed him at a distance, one that grew because Kronke’s engines were bigger. When Kronke found his spot, stopped and began casting, he backed away even more and watched him with binoculars. Two months earlier he had drifted in close and used the artifice of engine trouble to seek help. Kronke, ever the prick, left him stranded a mile from shore.
On the day, with Kronke busy with his red drum, he navigated straight to the bigger boat. Realizing he was getting too close, Kronke froze and glared at him as if he were an idiot.
“Hey, I’m taking on water,” he yelled, idling closer.
Kronke shrugged as if to say,
That’s your problem.
He laid down his rod.
When the boats touched hard, Kronke growled, “What the hell!”
His final words. He was eighty-one years old, fit for his age, but still a step or two slower.
Quickly, the killer looped his rope over a cleat, jumped onto Kronke’s boat, whipped out Leddie, flicked it twice, and smacked the lead ball into the side of Kronke’s head, crunching his skull. He loved the sound. He hit him again, though it was unnecessary. He pulled out the nylon rope, wrapped it twice around his neck, put his knee at the top of his spinal cord, and yanked hard enough to tear skin.
Dear Mr. Bannick:
We enjoyed your term as a clerk this past summer. We were impressed with your work and had every intention of offering you an associate’s position beginning next fall. However, as you may have heard, our firm has just merged with Reed & Gabbanoff, a global giant based in London. This is causing a major shift in personnel. Unfortunately, we are not in the position of hiring all of last summer’s interns.
We wish you a very bright future.
H. Perry Kronke,
As he pulled tighter and tighter he kept saying, “And here’s to your very bright future, H. Perry.”
Twenty-three years had passed and the rejection still hurt. The sting was still there. Every other summer intern was offered a job. The merger never happened. Someone, no doubt another cutthroat intern, had started the rumor that Bannick didn’t like girls, didn’t date them.