Authors: John Grisham
From his well-stocked closet, Judge Bannick selected a designer suit from Zegna, light gray in color, worsted wool, a white shirt with French cuffs, and a solid navy tie. He admired himself in the mirror and thought the look was rather European. Late Saturday afternoon, he left his home in Cullman and drove into central Pensacola, into an historic district known as North Hills. The streets were shaded with the canopies of old oaks and their thick limbs were draped with Spanish moss. Many of the homes were two hundred years old and had weathered hurricanes and recessions. As a kid in Pensacola, Ross and his pals rode their bikes through North Hills and admired the fine homes. It never occurred to him that he would one day be welcome in the neighborhood.
He turned in to the cobblestone driveway of a beautifully preserved Victorian and parked his SUV next to a shiny Mercedes sedan, then walked across the rear patio and tapped on a door. Melba, the ancient maid who kept Helen’s life together, greeted him with her usual warm smile and said that the lady was getting dressed. Did he want a drink? He asked for a ginger ale and found his favorite seat in the billiard room.
Helen was a widow and a girlfriend of sorts, though he had no interest in romance. Nor did she. Her third or fourth husband had died of old age and left her rich, and she preferred to hang on to the money. All prospective men of an age were after her assets, she assumed. Thus, their relationship was nothing more than a convenience. She loved being escorted around town with a handsome younger man, and a judge at that. He liked her because she was witty and outrageous and never a threat.
She said she was sixty-four years old but this was doubted. Years of aggressive surgery had smoothed out some wrinkles, curved her chin, and brightened her eyes, but he suspected she was at least seventy. His harem, as he called it but only to himself, consisted of several women ranging in age from forty-one all the way up to Helen. To qualify, they had to be either rich or affluent, and happily single. He was not in the market for a wife, and over the years had discarded several who got complicated.
Melba brought his drink and left him in silence. Dinner was at seven thirty and there was no possible way they would arrive on time. For a judge who demanded punctuality in most matters, waiting for Helen demanded patience. So he waited, soaking up the fine worn-leather furniture, the Persian rugs, the paneled walls, the oak shelves laden with ancient books, the magnificent chandelier from another century. The house covered 10,000 square feet on four levels, and very little of it was used by Helen and Melba.
He closed his eyes and recited the latest poem. Its author had now linked him to Danny Cleveland, the former reporter for the
Disposed of in 2009, only five years ago. And before that, Eileen Nickleberry in 1998. And after, Perry Kronke in 2012, then Verno and Dunwoody less than a year ago. He felt like his victims were now crawling out of their graves and lining up, zombie-like, to come after him. He was living in a state of stunned disbelief, his thoughts a mush of rampant flashes, his debates raging over strategies that changed by the hour.
He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, then reached into a pocket, retrieved a loose capsule of Xanax, and chased it down with the ginger ale. He was taking too many of the pills. They were supposed to flatten his anxieties and relax him, but they weren’t working anymore.
Could it be possible that he was about to lose such a lofty and privileged place in life? Was he about to be exposed in some unimaginable way? The past that he had so brilliantly worked to conceal was now catching up with him. The present and all its status was at risk. The future was too horrible to dwell on.
“Hello dahling,” she said as she entered the room. Bannick jumped to his feet, threw out his hands for a polite hug, and offered sexless air kisses while saying, “You look marvelous, Helen.”
“Thank you, dear,” she said, looking down at her red sleeveless dress. “You like it? Chanel.”
“Thank you, dahling.” She was from a small town in Georgia and fancied herself a real Southern belle. The “darling” came out
She leaned in closer, frowned, and said, “You do look tired, Judge. Dark circles around the eyes. Are you battling insomnia again?”
He had never been bothered with insomnia, but said, “I guess. A busy trial calendar.” He was too polite to say, “Well, Helen, in that case, I notice an extra roll around the old waistline. Not looking as svelte as you think.”
The good thing about Helen, and something he admired greatly, was that she never stopped trying. Always dieting, sweating, shopping for the latest fashions, studying the next surgical alternatives, buying the most expensive makeup and applying it with gusto. She claimed to be waiting for the perfect female Viagra so she could hop in the sack like a teenager. Both had laughed at this because sex was a topic they avoided.
She worked so hard at looking good that he could never say anything that might deflate her considerable ego. He looked at her feet, never a dull place, and smiled at her leopard skins. “Love your hooker’s heels,” he said with a laugh. “Jimmy Choo?”
They said goodbye to Melba and left the house. As usual, they would take her Mercedes because, being a complete snob, Helen would be humiliated to be seen arriving at the country club in a Ford. Bannick opened the passenger door for her and got behind the wheel. It was already seven forty and the club was fifteen minutes away. They chatted about his busy week, her grandkids in Orlando—a rotten lot with problems that only serious money could create—and after about ten minutes in traffic she said, “You seem preoccupied, Judge. What’s the matter?”
“Nothing at all. Just looking forward to a fabulous dinner of rubber chicken and cold peas.”
“It’s not that bad, really. But we can’t seem to keep a chef.”
Both were members and knew the truth. Each new head chef cooked for about six months before being fired. Each found it impossible to meet the exacting wishes of a high-end crowd that had convinced themselves they knew great food and wine.
The Escambia Country Club was a hundred years old and had five hundred members, with another one hundred prospects on the waiting list. It was “the” country club in the Pensacola area and the place where every affluent family wanted to belong. The climbers too. It sat on a bay with water on three sides of the grand hall. Manicured fairways snaked away in several directions. The whole place, from the winding shaded drive to the two hundred acres of perfect greenery, reeked of old money and exclusivity.
The entrance was under a sweeping portico where the members arrived in German cars and were greeted by doormen in black tie. Only a red carpet was missing for the lucky ones. Helen loved saying, “Well good evening, Herbert,” as he opened the door, took her hand, and got her out of the car, just as he had been doing for years. Once shed of old Herbert, she took the elbow of Judge Bannick and swept into the magnificent foyer where waiters circulated with trays of champagne. Helen practically assaulted one to get a drink, and not her first of the day. The judge took a glass of sparkling water. He was in for a long night and an even longer Sunday.
They were soon lost in a throng of well-heeled socialites, the men in the required suits and ties, the ladies in all manner of designer getup. The older ones favored clinging fabrics, dangerously plunging necklines, and no sleeves, as if determined to exhibit as much aging flesh as possible to prove they still could turn it on. The younger ladies, a small minority, seemed content with their figures and felt no need to flaunt things. Everyone talked and laughed at once as the crowd slowly inched along a wide hallway with thick carpets and large portraits on the walls. Inside the main banquet room, they weaved their way through large, round tables and eventually found their seating assignments. There was no speaker for the evening, no dais, no prime tables for sponsors. At the far end a band tuned up behind a dance floor.
The judge and Helen settled in with eight people they knew well, four other couples all properly married, but no one really cared about the arrangements. A doctor, an architect, a gravel entrepreneur, and their wives. And one man, the oldest at the table, who had dinner at the club every night with his wife and was reported to have inherited more money than all the others combined. The wine flowed and the conversations roared.
Judge Bannick flipped his switch, and flipped it again, and made himself laugh and smile and talk loudly about little that mattered. At times, though, he felt the weight of the future, the uncertainty of Monday’s mail, the fear of being stripped naked and exposed, and he lapsed into moments of pensiveness. It was impossible not to look around the room at the friends and leaders and people he had always known and admired without asking: What will they say?
He, decked in Zegna and rubbing elbows with the rich, was a most respected judge, admired by important people, and he was also, at least in his opinion, the most brilliant killer in American history. He had studied the others. Thugs, all. Some downright ignorant.
He told himself to shake it off, and took a question about an oil spill in the Gulf. Some of the crude was inching toward Pensacola and the alarms were up. Yes, he surmised that there would be a great deal of litigation in the near future. You know the plaintiffs bar, he said, they’ll sue the moment the oil slick is in sight, and probably before. The spill was front page and for a while the entire table quizzed His Honor on who might be able to sue whom. It passed; the women lost interest and pursued their own little chats as dinner was served.
The waitstaff was well trained and efficient and no one’s wineglass was ignored, especially Helen’s. As usual, she was pounding Chardonnay and getting louder. She’d be drunk by ten and he’d have to once again shovel her into the house with Melba’s help.
He was happy to be quiet and listen to the others. He looked around the large room, smiled and nodded and acknowledged some friends. The mood was festive, even rowdy, and everyone was wearing beautiful clothes. The women were coiffured to perfection. Those over forty had the same noses and chins, thanks to the handiwork of a Dr. Rangle, the most sought-after face-lifter in the Florida Panhandle. He was sitting two tables away with his second wife, a gorgeous blonde of indeterminate age, though she was rumored to be in her early thirties. When Rangle wasn’t carving on women he was sleeping with them, they found him irresistible, and his sexual escapades were the source of endless salacious gossip in town.
Bannick loathed the man, as did many husbands, but he also secretly envied his libido. And his current wife.
There were two in the room he’d like to kill. Rangle was the second. The first was a banker who had denied him a loan when he was thirty years old and trying to buy his first office building. He said Bannick’s balance sheet was too light and his chances of making good money as a lawyer were too unlikely. The town was already saturated with mediocre legal talent, and most ham-and-eggers around the courthouse were barely paying their bills. Typical banker, he thought he knew everything. Bannick bought another building, filled it with tenants, then bought another. As his law practice flourished, he joined the country club and ignored the banker. When he was elevated to the bench at the age of thirty-nine, the banker suffered a stroke and had to retire.
Now he sat at a corner table, old and shriveled and able only to mumble to his wife. He was sad and deserved sympathy, an emotion foreign to Bannick.
But killing him or Rangle would be too risky. A local crime, in a small town. And, their transgressions were too minor compared to the others. He had never seriously considered putting them on the list.
As dinner came to an end the band began playing softly, mostly old Motown hits that the crowd loved. A few eager couples hit the floor during dessert. Helen liked to dance and Bannick could hold his own. They skipped the cake, made their entrance, then jerked and gyrated through some Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson. After a few songs, though, she was parched and needed a drink. He left her at the table with her friends and went outside to the patio where the men were smoking black cigars and sipping whiskey.
He was pleased to see Mack MacGregor standing alone near the edge, a glass in one hand, a phone in the other. After ten years on the bench, Bannick knew every lawyer between Pensacola and Jacksonville, and many others too, and Mack had always been one of his favorites. They had both joined local firms about the same time, then spun off into their own shops. Mack loved the courtroom and quickly became a skilled and sought-after trial advocate. He was one of the few lawyers in the area who could take a case from the beginning, the injury or death, and push it all the way to a successful verdict. He was a pure trial lawyer, not a mass tort chaser, and he handled criminal cases as well. Bannick had seen his work firsthand, but he had never allowed himself to believe that one day he would need Mack’s services.
In the past three days, he had caught himself thinking about Mack far too much. If the sky fell, and Bannick still believed it would not, Mack would be his first call.
“Evenin’ Judge,” Mack said as he put away his phone. “Lose your girl?”
“Ran ’em upstairs for a pee. Who’s your squeeze tonight?”
“A new one, a real cutie. My secretary fixed me up.” Mack had been divorced for ten or so years and was known to prowl.
“Quite the looker.”
“That’s all, believe me.”
“That’s enough, right?”
“It’ll do. Who’s gonna get that tiki bar case in Fort Walton?”
“Don’t know yet. Judge Watson will decide. You want it?”
A month earlier, two bikers from Arizona started a row in a low-end dive outside of Fort Walton Beach, near the water. It went from fists to knives to guns, and when the glass stopped shattering, three people were dead. The bikers fled for a while but were caught near Panama City Beach.
On the principle that every person accused of a serious crime has a right to a good lawyer, Mack and his partner volunteered each year for at least one murder case. It kept them in the courtroom and sharp on the law. It also added some spice to their everyday practice. Mack enjoyed the gritty, often grisly details of a good murder case. He liked hanging around the jail. He enjoyed getting to know men who were capable of killing.