Authors: John Grisham
Sergeant Faldo was re-indexing rape kits when the phone in his pocket rattled. It was his boss,
boss, the chief of all Pensacola police, and he was as blunt as usual. He said that Judge Ross Bannick needed to check an old file that afternoon. He would be in court until at least four but would meet with Faldo at precisely four thirty. Faldo was ordered to do whatever His Honor wanted. “Just kiss his ass, okay?”
“Yes sir,” Faldo shot back. He did not need to be told how to handle his job.
He vaguely recalled that Bannick had been there before, years earlier. It was unusual for a circuit court judge, or any other judge for that matter, to stop by the evidence warehouse. Faldo’s visitors were almost exclusively cops working on cases, bringing in evidence to be stored until trial, or digging through old files. But then Faldo had learned decades earlier that the treasure trove of old clues he guarded might attract just about anyone. He had logged in private investigators, reporters, novelists, desperate families looking for shreds of evidence, even a medium and at least one witch.
At four thirty, Judge Bannick appeared with a pleasant smile and said hello. He seemed genuinely pleased to meet the sergeant and asked about his distinguished career on the force. Always the politician, he thanked Faldo for his service and asked him to call if he ever needed anything.
At issue was an old file from way back, the year was 2001. A case in city court, a dismissal, a trivial matter that was of no consequence to anyone but a retired friend down in Tampa who needed a favor. And so the fiction went.
As they withdrew into the bowels of the warehouse, chatting about football, Faldo seemed to remember something about the file. He found April, May, then June, and pulled out an entire drawer. “Defendant’s name is Verno,” Bannick said as he watched Faldo thumb through the row of files.
“Here it is,” Faldo said proudly as he removed it and handed it over.
Bannick adjusted his reading glasses and asked, “Anybody looked at this lately?”
Now he remembered. “Yes, sir. Guy came in a few weeks back, oddly enough. I copied his driver’s license. Should be right there.”
Bannick pulled out a sheet of paper and looked at the face of one Jeff Dunlap of Conyers, Georgia. “What did he want?”
“Don’t know, other than the file. I copied it for him, a dollar a pop. Four bucks as I recall.” And he further recalled that Dunlap dropped a $5 bill on the counter because Faldo used only credit cards, but decided not to mention this. It was a small theft, just a bit of graft by a veteran police officer who had always been grossly underpaid.
Bannick studied the pages, his reading glasses balanced intelligently at the very tip of his nose. “Who redacted the name of the complaining party?” he asked, not really expecting Faldo to have an answer.
Well, it was probably you, sir. According to my logbook up front, only two people have had any interest in that file in the past thirteen years. You, twenty-three months ago, and now this Dunlap fellow. But Faldo read the situation correctly and wanted no trouble. “I have no idea, sir.”
“Okay. Can you run me a copy of this guy’s driver’s license?”
Judge Bannick drove away in his Ford SUV, nothing flashy, nothing to attract attention. Never.
A private detective from Georgia traveled to Pensacola to dig through a useless old police file, some thirteen years after the case was closed. In doing so he found the scant records of the arrest and trial of Lanny Verno, may he rest in peace. Odd and hard to explain, other than the obvious explanation that someone was digging through his past.
Bannick’s mind had been spinning for twenty-four hours, and he was eating ibuprofen to fight the headaches. It was crucial to think clearly, smartly, slowly, and to see around corners, but many images were blurred. He drove to the north side of Pensacola and stopped at a shopping center, one of two he owned. There was a Kroger on one end and a cinema fourplex at the other, and in between there were eight smaller businesses, all current with their rents. He parked near a popular gym, one that he used almost every day, and walked along a covered sidewalk like any other shopper. Between the gym and a yoga studio he turned in to a wide covered alley and stopped at an unmarked door where he scanned a key card and stared into the facial scanner. The door clicked and he quickly went inside. He turned off the alarms as the door closed behind him.
It was his other chamber, his sanctum, his refuge, his cave. No windows, only one entrance, heavily alarmed, and watched around the clock by hidden cameras. There was no record of its existence, no business permits, no utility bills, no access by anyone other than him. Electricity, water, sewer, Internet, and cable were siphoned from the gym, on the other side of a thick wall, and the rent was adjusted accordingly by a handshake deal with the lessee. It was technically in violation of a few petty ordinances and regulations, and as a judge he didn’t like the fact that he was cheating a little. But no one would ever know. The privacy afforded by his other chamber far outweighed any nagging feelings of guilt.
He lived ten miles away in the town of Cullman, in a fine home with the usual busy man’s office, one that could be easily raided by men with warrants. And his professional office was his rather somber chambers on the second floor of the Chavez County Courthouse, a space owned by the taxpayers and, though not exactly open to the public, clearly susceptible to being searched.
Let them come. Let them seize all the files and computers in his home and his official chambers, and they would not find one shred of evidence against him. They could stalk him online, dig through his computers and judicial data server files, trace every email he’d ever sent from those computers, and they would find nothing.
He had lived most of his adult life in fear of arrest, of warrants, of detectives, of getting caught. The fear had so thoroughly consumed him for so long that his daily routines included all manner of cautionary moves. And he remained, so far, ahead of the bloodhounds.
The fear of getting caught was not driven by the fear of paying the price. Rather, it was the fear of having to stop.
His passion for technology, security, surveillance, off-the-wall science, even espionage, was rooted in a movie he had long since forgotten the name of. He had watched it as a frightened and damaged thirteen-year-old boy, alone in the basement one night after his parents had gone to bed. The protagonist was a scrawny misfit of a kid who was the favorite target of neighborhood bullies. Instead of lifting weights and learning karate, he delved into the world of weird science, spycraft, weaponry, ballistics, even chemical warfare. He bought the first computer in town and taught himself how to program it. In due course, he exacted revenge on the bullies and rode off into the sunset. It wasn’t much of a movie, but it inspired young Ross Bannick to embrace science and technology. He begged his parents for an Apple II computer for Christmas, and birthday too. Plus, he tossed in $450 of his own savings. Throughout high school and college, every paycheck and every spare dollar went for the latest upgrade, the latest gadget. In his younger days, he had secretly tapped phones, filmed frat brothers having sex with their girlfriends, recorded lectures that were off-limits, disabled surveillance cameras, picked locks, entered secured offices, and taken a hundred other stupid chances that he never regretted. He had never been caught, not even close.
The arrival of the Internet presented him with endless possibilities.
He took off his tie and jacket and tossed them on a leather sofa, a place he often slept. He had clothes in a closet in the rear, a small fridge with sodas and fruit drinks. There was a café a hundred yards away near the cinema and he often ate there, alone, when working late. He walked to a thick metal door, punched a code, waited for the lead bolts to release, then opened it and walked deeper inside his secret world. The Vault, as he proudly called it but only when talking to himself, was a fifteen-foot-square office that was soundproof, fireproof, waterproof, everything-proof. No one had ever seen it and no one ever would. There was a desk in the center with two thirty-inch computer screens. One wall was covered with IP cameras showing his home, office, courthouse, and the building he was in. On one wall there was a sixty-inch plasma screen television. The other two walls were bare—no ego puffery, no awards, commendations, diplomas. All that junk was preserved on walls that could be seen. Indeed, there was nothing anywhere in his other chamber that would indicate who owned the place. The name of Ross Bannick was nowhere to be found.
If he dropped dead tomorrow, his computers and phones would wait patiently for forty-eight hours, then wipe themselves clean.
He sat at his desk, flipped on his computer, and waited for the screen to come to life. He pulled the two letters out of his briefcase and placed them in front of him. The one in an envelope was postmarked
and informed him of the BJC investigation. The other, a silly poem, was in the envelope postmarked
. Both sent by the same person at about the same time.
He went online, activated his VPN to blow past security walls, and passworded his way into the dark web, where Rafe was always waiting. As an employee of the state, Bannick had long ago hacked his way into the data networks of Florida’s government. Using his customized spyware, called Maggotz, he had created his own data sleuth, a troll he christened Rafe, who roamed the systems and cloud with total anonymity. Because Rafe was not a criminal, was not stealing or holding data for ransom, but rather was only nosing around for esoteric information, his chances of being discovered were almost zero.
Rafe could, for example, observe internal memos between the seven members of the Florida Supreme Court and their clerks, and Bannick would know precisely how one of his cases on appeal would be decided. Since he couldn’t do anything about the case, the information was basically useless, but it was certainly interesting to know which way the wind was blowing.
Rafe could also see sensitive correspondence between the Attorney General and the Governor. He could read comments made by prosecutors about sitting judges. He could dig deep into the files of the state police and report their progress, or lack of it.
And, most importantly at that moment, Rafe could watch the goings-on at the Board on Judicial Conduct. Bannick checked it for the second day in a row and found nothing with his name on it. This was confusing, and troublesome.
Hell, at that moment everything was troublesome.
He swallowed more ibuprofen and thought about a shot of vodka. But he was not much of a drinker and planned to go to the gym. He needed two hours of pounding weights to break the stress.
It was amusing to read the complaints currently being investigated by BJC. He relished the allegations against his fellow members of the judiciary, a few of whom he knew well, a couple of whom he despised. Prolonged amusement, though, was out of the question.
Bannick reveled in his wrongdoing. The other complaints at BJC were chicken feed compared to his crimes. But now someone else knew his history. And, if a complaint had been filed against him, why was it being hidden?
This ramped up the head-spinning and he reached for the pills.
The person who sent the letter, and the poem, knew the truth. That person mentioned Kronke, Verno, and Dunwoody, and suggested others. How much did they know? If that person had filed the complaint with BJC, then he or she did so only with an agreement that there would be no record of it, at least not for the forty-five-day assessment period.
He went to a small room in the rear, undressed, took a long hot shower, and put on workout clothes. Back at his desk, he sent Rafe into the confidential files of the state police, files so sensitive and protected that Rafe had been waltzing through them for almost three years now. He found the Perry Kronke file from the town of Marathon, and was stunned to see a fresh entry by Detective Grimsley, the state’s lead investigator. It read:
call today from chief Turnbull in Marathon; he had a visit on March 31 from two lawyers with the Florida Board on Judicial Conduct—Lacy Stoltz and Darren Trope; they said they were curious about the murder of Kronke; said they might have a suspect but would not divulge anything; gave no names; they went to the approx site of where Kronke was found; revealed nothing; they left and promised to contact later; Turnbull was not too impressed, says he expects to hear nothing back, said no action needed on our part.
He had left nothing behind at the Kronke killing. He had even dipped himself into the ocean.
“Might have a suspect,” he repeated to himself. After twenty-three years of remaining invisible, was it possible that someone finally considered him to be a “suspect”? If so, then who? It wasn’t Lacy Stoltz or Darren Trope. They were simply low-level bureaucrats reacting to a complaint, one filed by the same person who was now sending him mail.
Deep breathing and meditation did nothing to break the stress.
He started for the vodka but left for the gym, locking his other chamber behind himself, always careful, always noticing everything, every person. As bewildered and frightened as he was, he told himself to relax and think clearly. He walked around the corner to the fitness center and joined a hot yoga class for twenty minutes of sweating before he hit the iron.
On Friday morning, April 11, Norris Ozment had just arrived at his desk off the main reception area at the Pelican Point resort when a call came through his landline from the hotel operator. “A Judge Bannick from over in Cullman.”
Curious that he should hear the judge’s name again so soon, Ozment took the call. They claimed to remember each other from Ozment’s old days with the Pensacola police; then, with that door wide open, Bannick said, “I’m chasing a rabbit for an old friend down in Tampa and I’m looking for some info regarding a Lanny Verno, looks like a real lowlife, got himself murdered a few months back over in Biloxi. He had a case in city court years ago and you were the arresting officer. Any of this ring a bell?”
“Well, Judge, normally it would not ring any bell, but now it does. I remember the case.”
“No kidding? It was thirteen years ago.”
“Yes, sir, it was. You swore out a warrant and I arrested Verno.”
“That’s right,” Bannick said with a loud fake laugh. “That guy pulled a gun on me in my own house and the judge let him go.”
“A long time ago, Judge. I don’t miss those days in city court and I’ve tried to forget them. I’m sure I wouldn’t have remembered the case, but a private detective showed up last month asking questions about Verno.”
“You don’t say.”
“What did he want?”
“Just said he was curious.”
“Well, if you don’t mind my asking, what was he curious about?”
Actually, Ozment was bothered by his asking, but Bannick was a circuit judge with jurisdiction over criminal matters. He could probably subpoena the resort’s records if he wanted to. He was also involved in the prosecution of Verno as the alleged victim. These thoughts rattled around as Ozment debated how much to say.
“He said Verno had been murdered and that he had been hired by his family in Georgia to chase down some gossip about a couple of stray children he might have left behind.”
“Where was this guy from?”
“Said he was from Georgia, the Atlanta area, Conyers.”
“Did you keep an ID?”
“No, sir. He never offered a business card. I never asked for one, didn’t offer him one either. But our cameras got his car in the parking lot and we tracked the tags. It was a Hertz rental out of Mobile.”
“I guess. At the time I just figured he flew from Atlanta to Mobile and rented the car. To be honest, Judge, I didn’t give it much thought. It was a petty criminal case in city court a hundred years ago and the defendant, Verno, was found not guilty. Now somebody killed him over in Mississippi. Not really much of my business.”
“I see. Did you get a look at his car?”
“Yes, sir. It’s on video.”
“Mind emailing it to me?”
“Well, I’ll have to check with our manager. We may have some security issues.”
“I’m happy to speak with your manager.” The statement had a slightly threatening tone to it. He was a judge and as such was accustomed to getting what he wanted.
A pause as Ozment glanced around his empty office. “Sure, Judge. Give me your email.”
His Honor gave him a temporary address, one of many he used and discarded, and half an hour later he was looking at two photos: one a rear shot of a white Buick sedan with Louisiana license plates; the second from the same camera with Jeff Dunlap in the frame. Bannick sent an email back to Ozment saying thanks, and attached to it a useless brochure describing the mission and duties of the judges and officers of Florida’s Twenty-Second Judicial District. When Ozment opened and downloaded it, Maggotz entered through the back door and Pelican Point’s network was immediately infected. Not that Bannick would ever need to snoop, but he suddenly had access to the resort’s guest lists, financial records, personnel files, tons of credit card and banking data. And not just Pelican Point. It was part of a small chain of twenty boutique resorts, and Rafe now had even more to explore if he ever wanted to.
But there were more pressing matters. Bannick called his office and spoke with his clerk. Other than an eleven o’clock attorney conference, there was nothing important on his schedule.
There were seven Jeff or Jeffrey Dunlaps in the Atlanta area, but only two in the town of Conyers. One was a schoolteacher whose wife sounded like a fifteen-year-old. The other was a retired city bus driver who said he had never been to Mobile. Both confirmed what Bannick suspected from the outset—Jeff Dunlap was a bogus front for the private detective. He would track down the other five later, just to be sure.
He called a Hertz office in Mobile and spoke to a young woman named Janet, who was quite helpful and zipped through the details of his weekend rental. She emailed the confirmation to one of Bannick’s addresses, and he replied with: “Thanks Janet. The quote I received differs from your confirmation by $120. Please review the attached and address this discrepancy.” As soon as Janet opened the attachment, Rafe sneaked through the back door of Hertz North America. Bannick hated hacking such large corporations because their security was much more sophisticated, but as long as Rafe just snooped and didn’t try to steal or extort, he would probably go undetected. Bannick would wait a few hours and cancel the rental. In the meantime, he sent Rafe to the registration records for Hertz vehicles titled in Louisiana.
From prior experience, he knew that Hertz rented half a million vehicles in the U.S. and allocated their registrations to all fifty states. Enterprise, the largest car rental company, did the same with over 600,000 vehicles.
It proved to be a bit of a slog for Rafe, though he never complained, never stopped. He was programmed to work around the clock every day of the week if necessary. While he labored in the shadows, Bannick worked the phone to make sure all Jeff Dunlaps in the Atlanta area checked out.
At ten thirty, he straightened his tie, examined himself in the mirror, and thought he looked quite haggard and worried, with good reason. He had slept little and now the sky was falling. For the first time in his life he felt like he was on the run. He drove fifteen minutes to the Escambia County Courthouse in Pensacola for his meeting. The lawyers were all from downtown and he had scheduled around their convenience. He managed to flip a switch and appear as warm and personable as always. He listened to each side and promised a quick mediation. Then he hustled back to his other chamber and locked himself inside.
On March 11, the Buick was rented to one Rollie Tabor, a private investigator licensed by the State of Alabama. He used it for two days and returned it on March 12, traveling only 421 miles.
Tabor’s online presence was quite meager, which was true of most private investigators. They tended to advertise only enough to attract business but not enough to reveal anything useful. His website claimed that he was a former detective, experienced, trustworthy, confidential. What was it supposed to say? He handled missing persons, divorce, child custody, background investigations, the usual. Downtown Mobile office address, office phone number, and email. There was no vanity photograph of Tabor.
Comparing the security camera shot taken at the resort to the bogus driver’s license copied by Sergeant Faldo, it was clear that the same man, one who called himself Jeff Dunlap, had been to both places snooping around for information about Lanny Verno. The man was really Rollie Tabor, so why was he lying?
Bannick plotted and schemed for an hour, discarding one ruse after the other. When inspiration finally hit, he set up another email account and sent Tabor a note:
Dear Mr. Tabor. I’m a physician in Birmingham and I need the services of a private investigator in the Mobile area. A possible domestic relations matter. You have been highly recommended. Are you available? And if so, what is your hourly rate? Dr. Albert Marbury.
Bannick sent the email, tracked it, and waited. Thirty-one minutes later, Tabor opened it and replied:
Dr. Marbury. Thank you. I am available. My rate is $200 an hour. RT
Bannick scoffed at the $200 an hour. Obviously the Doctor’s Rate. He sent back an email agreeing to the rate, and attached a link to a hotel website in Gulf Shores where he suspected his wife might be staying. When Tabor opened the email and looked at the attachment, Rafe slid through the back door and was on the prowl. He began by looking for current clients. Tabor’s record-keeping was rudimentary at best, at least for the data he entered into his computer. Bannick knew full well that a lot of PIs kept two sets of books—one for the IRS, the other for themselves. Cash was still a popular lubricant. After an hour, he had found nothing. No mention of Lanny Verno, or Jeff Dunlap, or the trip to Pensacola and Seagrove Beach a month earlier. And certainly no clue as to the identity of the client behind the investigation.
He ate ibuprofen and took some Valium to settle his nerves. He realized he was weak with hunger but his systems were raging and he was afraid to tempt his stomach with more food. He was tired of the Vault, and at the moment he wanted to get behind the wheel and just drive, just go, hit the open road and get the hell out of town for the weekend. Maybe from a distant pier or beach or mountain he could look back with an unclouded eye and make sense of it.
Someone knew. And that someone knew a lot.
He walked out of the Vault and went to the small room in the rear where he stripped to his boxers and pulled on gym shorts and a T-shirt. He needed fresh air, a hike in the woods, but he couldn’t leave. Not at this crucial moment. He found an orange in the fridge and ate it with black coffee.
Maggotz had been hiding in the shadows of the Harrison County Sheriff’s Department since the killings of Lanny Verno and Mike Dunwoody. After they were found, Rafe came to life and began nosing around.
When the orange was finished, Bannick said hello to Rafe and sent him to the files of Detective Napier, the chief investigator in Biloxi. In a daily log, Napier had entered a note on March 25:
Meeting today with Lacy Stoltz and Darren Trope of the Florida Board on Judicial Conduct, re the Verno/Dunwoody murders. Allowed them access to the file but nothing was taken or copied. They made a vague reference to a suspect but would provide no details. They know more than they are willing to say. Will follow up. ENapier.
Bannick cursed and walked away from his desk. He felt like a bleeding animal stumbling through the woods as the bloodhounds drew closer and louder.
Eileen was number four. Eileen Nickleberry. Age thirty-two at the time of her death. Divorced, according to her obituary.
He loved collecting his obits. They were all in the files.
He found her thirteen years later, thirteen years after she mocked him in his frat house bedroom, thirteen years after she had stumbled downstairs, drunk like all the rest, and broadcast to the rest of the party that Ross “couldn’t get it up.” Couldn’t perform. She laughed and ran her big mouth, though by the next morning most of the hell-raisers had forgotten the incident. But she kept talking and word spread through their circles. Bannick has a problem. Bannick can’t perform.
Six years later he found his first victim, the scoutmaster. His killing had gone as perfectly as planned. There was not one shred of remorse, not even a twinge of pity as he stepped back and looked at the body of Thad Leawood. It was euphoric, actually, and filled him with an indescribable sense of power, control, and—the best—revenge. From that moment on, he knew he would never stop.
Seven years after Leawood, and with three under his belt, he finally found Eileen. She was selling real estate north of Myrtle Beach, her pretty, smiling face splashed on every yard sign possible, as if she were running for city council. She had listings in a beachside development of forty condos. He rented one of the others for the summer of 1998, before he became a judge. On a Sunday morning, he lured her to an empty unit, one she was trying to sell,
, and the very second when she froze as if she remembered him, he splintered her skull with Leddie. As the rope cut deep and she breathed her last, he hissed into her ear and reminded her of her mockery.
Five hours passed before there was a commotion. As things became frantic and people yelled, he sat with a beer on the balcony of his rental and watched across the courtyard as first responders scurried about. The sounds of sirens made him smile. He waited a week for the cops to come around knocking on doors and looking for witnesses, but they never showed. He paid his lease in full and never returned to the condo.
The crime occurred in the seaside town of Sunset Beach, in Brunswick County, North Carolina. Nine years passed before the county digitized its records, and when it happened Bannick was waiting with his first generation of spyware. As with all the other police departments, he updated his data often, always on the prowl for any movement, always watching with the latest hacker’s toys.
The Eileen story had gone cold after a couple of years. There was never a serious suspect. The file reflected some occasional interest from crime writers, reporters, family members, and other police departments.
Late Friday afternoon, Bannick sent in Rafe to snoop around for the first time in months. Based on the latest digital time and date stamp, the file had not been touched in three years, not since a reporter, or someone claiming to be, wanted to have a look.