Authors: John Grisham
He tied off the rope with a double clove hitch, and for a few seconds admired his work. He glanced around and saw the nearest boat half a mile away, going for the open water. He grabbed the rope to his boat and pulled it closer, then he eased into the water and went under, washing off any blood that may have splattered.
“And here’s to your very bright future, H. Perry.”
A year later he sold both the boat and the condo at modest profits. Both transactions were done in the name of Robert West, one of thirty-four in the state.
He loved the alias game.
From her extensive reading about serial killers, Jeri knew that almost none of them stopped until they were caught or killed, either by the police or by themselves, or otherwise forced into retirement by age or perhaps prison. The demons that drove them were relentless and cruel and could never be exorcised. They could be neutralized by death or incarceration, but nothing else. The few killers who attempted to come to grips with their carnage did so from a prison cell.
According to her timeline, Bannick had once gone eleven years without killing. He murdered Eileen Nickleberry near Wilmington in 1998, then waited until 2009 to catch the reporter, Danny Cleveland, alone in his apartment in Little Rock. Since then he had killed three more times. His pace was quickening, which was not unusual.
She reminded herself that her timeline was essentially worthless, because she had no real idea how many victims were out there. Could there be bodies still unfound? Some killers hid them, then forgot years later where all of them were buried. Other killers, like Bannick, wanted the victims found, and with clues. As an amateur profiler, Jeri believed Bannick wanted someone—the police, the press, the families—to know the killings were related. But why? It was probably his warped ego, a desire for acknowledgment that he was smarter than the police. He took such great pride in his methods that it would be a shame not to be admired, even if by strangers from a distance. It was likely that he wanted his work to become legendary.
She had never believed that Bannick wanted to get caught. He had status, prestige, popularity, money, education—far more going for him than the average serial killer, if there was such a thing. But he loved the gamesmanship. He was a sociopath who killed for revenge, but he thrived on the planning and execution, and the perfection of his crimes.
Eight murders, at least in her book, in seven states, over twenty-two years. He was only forty-nine years old and probably in his prime as a killer. Each murder gave him even more confidence, more thrills. A veteran now, he probably believed that he could never be caught. Who else was on his list?
The paper was standard copy, plain white, 8.5×11, purchased a year earlier at a Staples in Dallas. The envelope was just as plain and untraceable. The word processor was an ancient Olivetti, one of the first generation with a small screen and little memory, circa 1985. She had bought it second- or third-hand in an antiques warehouse in Montgomery.
Wearing disposable plastic gloves, she carefully placed several sheets of copy paper in the tray and opened the screen and stared at it for a long time. The knot twisted in her stomach and she couldn’t keep going. Finally, she managed to type slowly, awkwardly, one key at a time:
Judge Bannick: The Florida Board on Judicial Conduct is investigating your recent activities, re Verno, Dunwoody, Kronke. Could there be others? I think so.
Typically she ate little, and was surprised when her stomach flipped, and she raced to the bathroom where she vomited and retched until her chest and back ached. Moving around gingerly, she drank some water and eventually made it back to her desk. She stared at what she had written, a note she had composed a thousand times in her mind, words she had uttered and practiced again and again.
How would he react? Receiving the anonymous letter would be catastrophic, devastating, life-altering, terrifying. Or at least she hoped so. He was too cool and cold-blooded to panic, but his world would never be the same. His world would be rocked, and he and his demons would drive themselves even crazier now that someone was on his trail. There was no one he could tell, no one to confide in, no one to run to.
She wanted to rock his world. She wanted Bannick to watch every step, look over his shoulder, jump at every noise, study every stranger. She wanted him to stay awake at night, listening to every sound and trembling in fear, the way she had lived for so long.
She thought of Lacy and again debated the strategy of exposing her. Jeri had convinced herself that Bannick was too smart to do anything stupid. Plus, Lacy was a tough girl who could take care of herself. At some point soon Jeri would warn her.
She printed the note on a sheet of the copy paper and put it in the envelope. Typing his name gave her another chill.
R. Bannick, 825 Eastman Lane, Cullman, Florida, 32533.
The stamp was generic and applied without saliva. She was sweating and lay down on the sofa for a long time.
The next note was also on white copy paper, but from a different manufacturer. She typed:
Now that I know who you are
I send greetings from my grave
So long ago and so far
From that night with you and Dave
You stalked and waited all those years
To find me in a place unseen
And act out all your anger and fears
On a girl you knew as Eileen
Unsteady as she was, she managed to laugh out loud at the image of Bannick reading her poem. She laughed at his horror, his disbelief, and his rage that a victim had caught up with him.
On Saturday, Jeri left Mobile and drove an hour to Pensacola. In a suburban shopping center, she found a blue postal box sitting between a drop-off for FedEx and one for UPS. The nearest security camera was far away, over the door of a coffee shop. Wearing gloves and staying in her car, she placed the first letter into the slot. It would be postmarked Monday at the Pensacola distribution center and delivered to the box beside the front door of Bannick’s home no later than the following Tuesday.
Two hours later she pulled off the expressway at Greenville, Alabama, and dropped off her poem at the city post office. It would be collected Monday and trucked to Montgomery where it would be postmarked and sent back south to Pensacola. Bannick should have it by the following Wednesday, Thursday at the latest.
She took the backroads home to Mobile and enjoyed the drive. She listened to jazz on Sirius and kept checking her smile in the mirror. The first two of her letters had been mailed. She had found the courage to confront the killer, or at least set in motion his endgame. The hunting phase was over, and for that she was elated. Now she moved into the next phase, still unnamed. Her work was not over, by any means, but the heavy lifting had been done, all twenty-two years of it.
Now Lacy had the case, and she would eventually bring in the state police, maybe the FBI. And Bannick would never know who stalked him.
Late that night she was reading a novel, sipping her second glass of wine, and fighting the temptation to go online and dig more. Her phone pinged with an email arriving on one of her secure accounts. It was KL, or Kenny Lee, and he asked if she was awake. She was suddenly weary of sleuthing and just wanted to be left alone, but he was an old friend, one she would never meet.
She wrote back:
Hey there. How’s life?
Living the dream. Got a new death-by-rope out of Missouri, case is four months old, looks similar.
As always, Jeri grimaced at the news of another murder, and, as always, she jumped to the conclusion that it was Bannick. But she’d had enough and didn’t want to spend more money and waste more energy.
No photos yet, no description of the rope. But no suspects and nothing from the scene.
She reminded herself that three hundred people a year were murdered by strangulation and about 60 percent of those cases were eventually solved. That left 120 cold cases, far too many to blame on one man.
Let me sleep on it.
In other words, don’t start your clock at $200 an hour. Kenny Lee had led her to four of Bannick’s victims and she had paid him enough.
Still snowing up there?
She mailed him cash payments to a post office box in Camden, Maine. She assumed he lived somewhere around there.
As we speak. What’s your body count now?
Eight. Seven by the rope and Dunwoody.
It’s time for help. Gotta stop this guy. I have contacts.
So do I. Things are moving.
The task force gathered in its workroom late Monday morning and compared notes. Twenty days into the assessment period and they had little to show for their efforts. Lacy recounted for Sadelle’s benefit their trip to Marathon, but the poor lady was either half asleep or stoned from her pain meds.
Darren, though, had some interesting news. Sipping his high-end coffee, he said, “So I had a chat with a Mr. Larry Toscano, partner in the Miami firm of Paine & Steinholtz, which has descended all these many years from Paine & Grubber, the old firm where Bannick spent the summer of 1989 as an intern. Toscano at first was reluctant to get involved, but when I explained that the BJC does possess subpoena powers in certain cases and that, if necessary, we would raid their offices and start snatching files, which of course is a joke with our limited staff, but anyway the bluff worked and Toscano fell in line. He found the records in short order and confirmed that Bannick did indeed work there the summer before his last year of law school. He said the kid’s file was clean and he did good work, got high marks from his supervisor and such, but was not offered an associate’s position. I pressed Toscano for more details and he had to go back to the file. Seems as if there were twenty-seven interns that summer, from a variety of law schools, and that everyone but Bannick received an offer of employment. Twenty-one accepted. I asked why Bannick got stiffed if his file was clean and, of course, Toscano had no clue. At the time, Perry Kronke was one of two managing partners and was in charge of their summer intern program. Toscano said there is a copy of a letter in the file from Kronke to Bannick in which no job was offered. He sent me a copy of the entire file, again after I mentioned a subpoena. There’s not much to it, but it does prove what we already knew—that their paths crossed in 1989.”
Sadelle sucked in some air and growled, “And tell me again. How did Betty Roe know about this connection?”
Lacy said, “She says in her complaint that she found a former partner of the big firm, a guy same age as Bannick, and he was in the intern class of 1989. Thus he knew Bannick well, maybe still does for all we know. Says he really wanted the job and took the rejection hard.”
Sadelle said, “Added it to his list. Take a name now, kick an ass years later.”
“Something like that. Twenty-plus years.”
“Sure hope I haven’t done anything to upset him. But I’m more than half dead anyway.”
“Enough of that.”
“You’ll outlive all of us,” Darren said.
“How do I collect if I win?”
Lacy closed the file and looked at her task force. “So, folks, where exactly are we now? We know that Bannick knew two of the victims, which was alleged by Betty in her complaint. As I’ve said, she has given me documentation, off the record so far, of five more murders involving five more victims who had the misfortune of angering Judge Bannick somewhere along the way. Thankfully, we don’t have to worry about those.”
“Why don’t we just go to the state police?” Sadelle asked.
“Because they’re already on the case, have been from the Kronke murder. We saw the file, hundreds of pages.”
“Thousands,” Darren said.
“Okay, thousands. They talked to dozens of people who knew Kronke in and around Marathon. Nothing. They checked every boat rental record, every fuel purchase, every new fishing license. Nothing. They talked to his former law partners in Miami. Nothing. And former clients. Nothing. His family. Nothing. They’ve done a thorough job of digging into the victim’s past and present, and they have come up with exactly nothing. Not a decent lead anywhere. They’ve done their work, have nothing to show for it, and so it’s just sitting there, another cold case waiting on a miracle.”
Darren said, “I’m flying back down to Miami on Wednesday to meet with the state investigators. I’ve talked to them several times on the phone and they seem willing to at least indulge us. I’m sure I’ll see the same file we saw in Marathon, but you never know. Maybe they know something that Chief Turnbull doesn’t.”
Sadelle wheezed and said, “So, why not tell them about Bannick? If we know the killer’s name, or at least we have a sworn complaint alleging he did it, why not hand that information over to the investigators?”
She arched her shoulders and braced for another intake. Her machine hummed a bit louder as she strained. “I mean, look, Lacy, we’re just spinning our wheels here. There’s really not much for us to do. The real cops have billion-dollar budgets, everything from bloodhounds to helicopters and satellites, and they can’t solve the crimes. How are we supposed to? I say we punt this thing over to the state police and let them go after him.”
Darren said, “That’s where it’s headed.”
Lacy said, “Maybe so, but I promised Betty we wouldn’t involve the police until she approves.”
“That’s not how we operate, Lacy,” Sadelle said. “Once the complaint is filed it becomes our jurisdiction. The complaining party is not allowed to dictate how we proceed. You know that.”
“I do, but thanks for the lecture.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“She’s using us, Lacy,” Darren said. “Just like we discussed last week. Betty wants to hide behind us and get the police involved. So, that’s our next step.”
“We’ll see. Go to Miami, meet with the state boys, and give us a report next Monday.”
That afternoon, Lacy left early and drove across town to a complex filled with two-story office buildings. The suite owned by R. Buford Furr was quiet, plush, well appointed, and spoke of a successful lawyer. There were no other clients waiting in the reception area and a handsome young intern was answering the phone. At precisely four, he escorted Lacy back to a sprawling war room where Buford did battle with the world. He hugged her warmly as if they had been friends for years and showed her to a sofa that probably cost more than her car.
Furr was one of the top trial lawyers in Florida and had many large verdicts to brag about. Which he did, with framed newspaper headlines and photos on his walls. All lawyers knew of him, and when Lacy had decided to sue over the staged car wreck that injured her and killed Hugo Hatch, her former colleague, she really had no choice.
Verna Hatch, Hugo’s widow, hired him first and they filed a wrongful death action seeking $10 million. A week later, Furr sued on Lacy’s behalf. The lawsuits had been stymied by an unusual obstacle—an abundance of cash. The crime syndicate that had skimmed millions from an Indian casino had buried its loot around the world. The Feds were still finding it, and the fact that there was so much of it was attracting an astonishing number of aggrieved parties. And their lawyers. The state and federal court dockets were loaded with claims.
The most serious impediment to a resolution was a huge and complicated federal lawsuit involving the conflicting claims of the Native Americans who owned the casino. Until that mess was settled, no one really knew how much cash would be left for the other aggrieved parties, including Lacy and Verna Hatch.
Furr walked her through the latest developments in the asset forfeiture proceedings and other litigation. He frowned when he said, “Lacy, I’m afraid they want to take your deposition.”
“I don’t want to go through that,” she said. “We’ve talked about this.”
“I know. One problem is that the attorneys appointed by the court to hand out the money are working by the hour, at very good rates, and they’re in no hurry to wrap things up.”
“Gee. I’ve never heard that before.”
Furr laughed and said, “We’re not talking about small-town Tallahassee rates. These guys are billing eight hundred bucks an hour. We’ll be lucky if there’s anything left.”
“Can’t you complain to the judges?”
“There are lots of complaints. Everything is contentious right now.”
Lacy thought for a moment as Furr watched her. “A depo won’t be that bad,” he said.
She said, “I’m not sure I can relive that car crash, the image of Hugo covered in blood. Dying, I guess.”
“We’ll have you prepped. You’ll need the experience because you may have to take the stand if the case goes to trial.”
“I don’t want a trial, Buford. I’ve made myself clear. I’m sure you would like a big production, with plenty of bad guys sitting at the defense table, the jury in your pocket as always. Another big verdict.”
Furr laughed. “That’s what I live for, Lacy. Can you imagine hauling those crooks back from prison to sit through a trial? It’s a lawyer’s dream.”
“Well, it’s not mine. I can handle a deposition but not a trial. I really want to settle, Buford.”
“We will, I promise. But right now we have to play the discovery game.”
“I’m not sure I’m up to it.”
“You want to dismiss our case?”
“No. I want it to go away after we settle. I still have nightmares and the lawsuit doesn’t help.”
“I understand, Lacy. Just trust me, okay? I’ve been down this road many times. You deserve a generous settlement and I promise I’ll get one.”
She nodded her gratitude.