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Authors: John Grisham

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BOOK: Judge's List
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“Sounds like your kind of case.”

“Life is pretty dull right now.”

Well, Mack, that might change soon for both of us, Bannick thought to himself. “If you’re volunteering, I can arrange things.”

“Let me kick it around the office. I’ll call you Monday. Probably not a capital case, right?”

“No. It was certainly not premeditated. Looks like a couple of idiots got drunk and started fighting. Are you signing up oil slick cases?”

“We’ll get our share,” Mack said with a laugh. “Half the bar’s out in the Gulf right now in boats, looking for crude. It’ll be a bonanza.”

“As well as another environmental disaster.”

They killed time swapping stories about lawyers they knew and the lawsuits they chased. Mack pulled out a leather cigar case and offered a Cohiba. Both men fired one up and found some whiskey. They aborted the lawyer talk and returned to the more pleasant topic of younger women. After a while, Judge Bannick knew his date would be looking for him. He said goodbye to Mack, and as he walked away he hoped he would not be seeing the lawyer anytime soon.

26

The handoff was rocky, as usual. Even in bare feet, Helen was unstable as they shuffled across the bricks of her rear patio. “Do come in for a drink, dahling,” she cooed between breaths.

“No, Helen, it’s past our bedtimes and I have a splitting headache.”

“Wasn’t it a great band? What a lovely evening.”

Melba was waiting at the door and opened it for them. Bannick handed her the high heels, then handed her Helen, then turned and backed away. “Gotta run, dear, I’ll call in the morning.”

“But I want a drink.”

Bannick shook his head, frowned at Melba, and hustled to his SUV. He drove to his shopping center and parked near other vehicles by the cinema. He walked to his other chamber, cleared himself through the scanners, and once inside stripped out of his suit and tie and put on gym clothes. Half an hour after seeing the last of Helen, he was sipping espresso and again lost in the dark web, tracking Rafe’s latest adventures.

The vigilance was time-consuming and usually not productive. Still using Maggotz and sending Rafe to troll here and there, he was watching the police files of his cases. So far, no department had managed to successfully firewall its data and network. Some were easier to hack than others, but none had been especially bothersome. He still marveled at the lax and weak security used by most county and city governments. Ninety percent of all data breaches could be prevented with modest effort. Standard passwords such as “Admin” and “Password” were routinely used.

The more tedious work was keeping up with the victims. There were ten groups of them, ten families he had destroyed. Mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, children, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles. He had no pity for them. He simply wanted them to stay away.

The person stalking him was not a cop, not a private investigator, not some thrill-seeking true crime writer. The person was a victim, one who had been slithering back there in his shadows for many years, watching, gathering, trailing.

A new reality had arrived, and he in his brilliance would deal with it. He would find the victim and stop the letters. Stop the silly poems.

He had ruled out the families of Eileen Nickleberry, Perry Kronke, Lanny Verno, and Mike Dunwoody. He went back to the beginning, to his most satisfying triumph. He opened the file on Thad Leawood and looked at the photos: some old black-and-whites from his scouting days, one of the entire troop at a jamboree, one taken by his mother at an awards ceremony—Ross standing proudly in his smart uniform, merit badge sash filled with colorful circles, Leawood with an arm around him. He studied the faces of the other scouts, his closest friends, and wondered, as always, how many others were abused by Leawood. He had been too afraid to ask, to compare notes. Walt Sneed once remarked that Leawood liked to touch and hug a bit too much for a twelve-year-old’s liking, called him “creepy,” but Ross had been too afraid to pursue the conversation.

How could a seemingly normal young man rape a child, a boy? He still hated Leawood, so many years later. He’d had no idea a man could do those things.

He moved on, past the photos, always painful, and went to the family tree, such as it was. Leawood’s brief obituary listed the names of his survivors: his parents, an older brother, no wife. His father died in 2004. His mother was ninety-eight and living without her marbles in a low-end nursing home in Niceville. He had often thought about rubbing her out just for the hell of it, just for the satisfaction of getting revenge against the woman who created Thad Leawood.

There were so many targets he had thought about over the years.

The brother, Jess Leawood, left the area not long after the abuse rumors surfaced and settled in Salem, Oregon, where he had lived for at least the last twenty-five years. He was seventy-eight, retired, a widower. Six years earlier, Bannick, using a disposable phone, called Jess and explained that he was a crime writer and was digging through some old police files in Pensacola. Did Thad’s family know that he had a history of abusing kids? The line went dead, the call was over. It served no purpose other than to punish a Leawood.

As far as Bannick could tell, Jess had no contact with his hometown. And who could blame him?

The last poem was about Danny Cleveland, the former reporter for the
Pensacola Ledger.
He was forty-one when he died, divorced with two teenaged children. His family hauled him back to Akron for the funeral and burial. According to their social media, his daughter was now a junior at Western Kentucky and his son had joined the Army. It seemed impossible to believe that either would be old enough to put together an elaborate plan to track a brilliant serial killer. And it was safe to assume his ex-wife wouldn’t care who killed him.

He scrolled through other files. Ashley Barasso, the only girl he had ever loved. They met in law school and had a delightful fling, one that ended abruptly when she ditched him for a football player. He was crushed and carried the wounds for six years until he caught her. When she was finally still, his pain suddenly vanished, his broken heart was healed. The score was even. Her husband gave interviews and put up $50,000 in reward money, but with time it went unclaimed and he moved on. He remarried four years later, had more children, and lived near DC.

Preston Dill had been one of his first clients. He and his wife wanted a no-fault divorce but couldn’t manage to scrape together the $500 fee. The two hated each other and had future spouses already lined up, but Lawyer Bannick refused to take them to see the judge until he got paid. Preston then accused Bannick of sleeping with his wife and everything blew up. He filed a complaint with the state bar, one of many over the years. His game was to hire a lawyer, stiff him on the fee, then complain when the work didn’t get finished. All of Dill’s complaints were dismissed as frivolous. Four years later they found him in a landfill near Decatur, Alabama. His family was scattered, unremarkable, and probably not suspicious.

Professor Bryan Burke, dead at the age of sixty-two, his body found beside a narrow trail not far from his lovely little cabin near Gaffney, South Carolina. The year was 1992. Looking at his photo from the law school yearbook, Bannick could almost hear his rich baritone as it wafted over the classroom. “Tell us about this case, Mr….” and he always paused so they would squirm and pray someone else got the call. His students eventually came to admire Professor Burke, but Bannick didn’t hang around long enough. After his nervous breakdown, one he blamed squarely on Burke, he transferred to Miami and began plotting his revenge.

Burke had two adult children. His son, Alfred, worked for a tech company in San Jose and was married with three kids. Or, that was where he had been during the last update, some eighteen months ago. Bannick dug around for a while and could not verify Alfred’s current employment. Someone else now lived at his address. Obviously he had changed jobs and moved. Bannick cursed himself for not knowing this earlier. It took an hour to find Alfred living in Stockton, employment unknown.

Burke’s daughter was Jeri Crosby, age forty-six, divorced, one child. The last update had her living in Mobile and teaching political science at South Alabama. He found the university’s website and verified that she still taught there. Oddly enough, in the faculty directory there were photos of the professors in the Department of Political Science and Criminal Justice, but not of her. Evidently, she was very private.

An earlier file gave her undergraduate degree from Stetson, a master’s from Howard in DC, and a PhD in political science from Texas. She married Roland Crosby in 1990, had a child within the first year, and divorced him six years later. In 2009, she joined the faculty at South Alabama.

The Mobile link was intriguing. The investigator the person had hired, Rollie Tabor, was based in Mobile.

Bannick sent Rafe back into the Hertz records and fell asleep on the sofa.


He was awakened by his alarm at 3:00 a.m., after two hours of sleep. He splashed water on his face, brushed his teeth, changed into jeans and sneakers, and locked the Vault and the outer door. He left town on Highway 90 along the beach, and stopped for gas at an all-night convenience store where cash was still welcome and there was only one security camera. After filling his tank, he parked in the darkness beside the store and changed license plates. Most toll roads in Florida now photographed every vehicle. He took an empty county road north, picked up Interstate 10, set his cruise on seventy-five, and settled in for a long day. He had six hundred miles to cover and plenty of time to think. He sipped strong coffee from a thermos, popped a benny, and tried to enjoy the solitude.

He had logged a million miles in the dark. Nine hours was nothing. Coffee, amphetamines, good music. Properly juiced, he could drive for days.


Dave Attison had been a fraternity brother at the University of Florida, a hard-partying frat boy who also finished near the top of his class. He and Ross had roomed together in the fraternity house for two years and shared many hangovers. They went their own ways after college, one to law school, the other to dental school. Dave studied endodontics and became a prominent dentist in the Boston area. Five years earlier, he had tired of the snow and long winters and returned to his home state, where he purchased a practice in Fort Lauderdale and was prospering doing nothing but root canals at a thousand bucks a pop.

He had not seen Ross since their twentieth reunion seven years earlier at a resort in Palm Beach. Most of the old Pikes were diligent with their emails and texts, others were not. Ross had never shown much interest in keeping up with the gang. Now, out of the blue, he was passing through and wanted a quick drink. On a Sunday afternoon. He was staying at the Ritz-Carlton and they agreed to meet at the bar by the pool.

Ross was waiting when Dave walked up. They embraced like the old roommates they were and immediately examined each other’s graying hair and waistlines. Each agreed that the other one looked just fine. After a few insults, a waiter appeared and they ordered drinks.

“What brings you down here?” Dave asked.

“Looking at some apartment units out in East Sawgrass.”

“You’re buying apartments?”

“We. A group of investors. We buy stuff everywhere.”

“I thought you were a judge.”

“Duly elected from the Twenty-Second Judicial District. On the bench for ten years now. But in Florida a judge makes one hundred and forty-six thousand bucks a year, not exactly the road to riches. Twenty years ago I started buying rental properties. Our company has grown slowly and we’re doing well. What about you?”

“Very well, thanks. There is a never-ending supply of sore teeth out there.”

“Wife and kids?” Ross wanted to broach the family subject before Dave had the chance, in part to show that he was not afraid of it. Since their student days, he had suspected that his brothers had doubts about him. The incident with Eileen was legendary. Though he later lied and claimed he was active with other girls, he had always felt their suspicions. The fact that he had never married didn’t help.

“All is well. My daughter is at Florida and my son is in high school. Roxie plays tennis five days a week and stays out of my hair.”

According to another Pike, the marriage to Roxie had been anything but stable. They had taken turns moving out. When their son left home they would probably throw in the towel.

The cold beers arrived and they tapped glasses. A serious bikini sauntered by and they took the full measure of it.

“Those were the days,” Ross said with admiration.

“We’re almost fifty, you realize that?”

“Afraid so.”

“You think we’ll ever stop looking?”

“If I’m breathing I’m looking,” Ross said, repeating the mantra. He sipped his beer slowly as it warmed. He wanted only one. The drive home was the same nine hours.

They batted some names back and forth, their old pals from the glory days. They laughed at the stupid things they had done, the pranks they had pulled, the near misses. It was the same aging frat boy talk every time.

Ross began his fiction with “I had a strange encounter last year. Remember Cora Laker, Phi Mu?”

“Sure, cute girl. Became a lawyer, right?”

“Right. I was at the state bar convention in Orlando and bumped into her. She’s a partner in a big firm in Tampa, doing very well. Still lookin’ good. We had a drink, then another. Somehow she brought up Eileen, I think they were close, and she got all choked up. She said the case will never be solved. Said an investigator of some sort tracked her down and wanted to talk about Eileen as a sorority girl. She hung up and that was it, but she was ticked off that somebody found her.”

Dave snorted and looked away. “I got a call too.”

Bannick swallowed hard. The quick trip, brutal as it was, might just pay off. He asked, “About Eileen?”

“Yep, probably three or four years ago. We were living here, could’ve been five years back. The lady said she was a crime writer and was asking about Eileen’s college days. Said she was working on a book about cold cases. Women who were stalked, or something like that.”

“A woman?”

“Yep. Said she had written several books, offered to send me one.”

“Did she?”

“No, I got off the phone. That was another lifetime, Ross. It’s really sad what happened to Eileen, but I can’t do anything about it.”

A woman. Digging through his cold cases. The long drive and its return leg were now worth the trouble.

“That’s weird,” Ross said. “Just the one conversation?”

“Yep. I got rid of her. And, really, I had nothing to offer. We raised so much hell back then I can’t remember it all. Too much booze and pot.”

“Those were the days.”

“Why don’t you come over for dinner? Roxie’s still a lousy cook but we can do takeout.”

“Thanks, Dave, but I’m meeting some investors for dinner later.”

An hour later, Bannick was back on the road, fighting the traffic on Interstate 95, with six hundred miles to go.

BOOK: Judge's List
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