Authors: John Grisham
Sadelle was ten minutes late for the Monday morning recap, and when she arrived on her little scooter she looked even closer to death. She apologized and said she was fine. Lacy had suggested several times that she take off a few days and get some rest. Sadelle was afraid of that. Work kept her alive.
Darren began with “We’ve done all we can do with the travel records. We finally heard from Delta, after another subpoena threat, and so all carriers are accounted for. Delta, Southwest, American, and Silver Air. We checked all flights originating from Pensacola, Mobile, Tallahassee, even Jacksonville, and going to Miami and Fort Lauderdale. The result is that for the month before the murder of Perry Kronke, no one by the name of Ross Bannick took a flight south.”
Lacy said, “You’re assuming he used his real name.”
“Of course we are. We don’t happen to know any of his aliases, now do we?”
She ignored him and returned to her coffee. He continued, “It’s an eleven-hour drive from Pensacola to Marathon, and, needless to say, we would have no way of tracking him in his car.”
“The state keeps them for only six months, then burns them. And, it’s easy to avoid toll roads.”
“What about hotels?”
Sadelle growled as she tried to fill her lungs, and said, “Another needle in another haystack. Do you know how many hotels there are in south Florida? Thousands. We picked a hundred of the likeliest mid-priced ones and found nothing. There are eleven in and around Marathon. Nothing.”
Darren said, “We’re wasting our time digging like this.”
Lacy said, “It’s called investigating. Some of the most infamous crimes were solved by tiny clues that at first seemed insignificant.”
“What do you know about solving infamous crimes?”
“Not much, but I’m reading books about serial killers. Fascinating stuff.”
Sadelle inhaled painfully and, somewhat oxygenized, asked, “Are we assuming he drove to Biloxi and back for the Verno murder?”
“And Dunwoody. Yes, that’s our assumption. It’s only, what, two hours?”
“Two’s about right,” Darren said. “That’s what’s fascinating. If you look at all eight murders, and I know we’re not looking at all eight, but only three, they are all within driving distance from Pensacola. Danny Cleveland in Little Rock, eight hours away. Thad Leawood near Chattanooga, six hours. Bryan Burke in Gaffney, South Carolina, eight hours. Ashley Barasso in Columbus, Georgia, four hours. Perry Kronke in Marathon and Eileen Nickleberry near Wilmington are both twelve hours away. He didn’t have to fly and rent cars and pay for hotel rooms. He could just drive.”
“Those are just the ones we know about,” Lacy said. “I’ll bet there are more. And each crime scene was in a different state.”
Sadelle said, “He knows more about killing than we do.”
“I guess he’s had more experience,” Darren added. “And he’s smarter.”
Lacy said, “True, but we’ve got Betty and she’s tracked him down. Think about it. If she’s right, then she’s identified the killer, something an army of homicide detectives couldn’t do.”
“And something we’re not equipped to do, right?” Sadelle asked.
“No, but we’ve known that from the beginning. Let’s keep plugging away.”
Darren asked, “So, when do we go to the police?”
The two detectives from the state police pushed the doorbell at exactly 8:00 a.m., as requested. They wore dark suits, drove a dark car, had matching dark aviator sunglasses, and anyone watching from a hundred yards away would know immediately that they were cops of some variety.
They had been summoned to the home of a circuit court judge, an unusual occasion. They had met many judges, but always in their courtrooms, never in their homes.
Judge Bannick was all smiles as he led them into his spacious kitchen and poured two cups of coffee. On the table was a single white, legal-size envelope, addressed to the judge at the home where they were now standing. He pointed at it and said, “It arrived in the mail on Saturday, here at the house, the box by the front door. The third one in a week. Each contained a letter typewritten by an obviously deranged person. I’ll keep the letters to myself for the time being. This third one is by far the most threatening. When I saw this one, after touching and opening the first two, I was more careful. I put on gloves and touched it and the letter as little as possible. I’m sure the postman touched all three of them.”
Lieutenant Ohler said, “Probably so.”
“Who knows what you’ll find, but there will likely be prints from my mailman, none from me, and, if we’re lucky, something left behind by this crazy person.”
Lieutenant Dobbs pulled out a plastic bag and carefully shoved the envelope inside. He said, “We’ll get right on this. Mind if we ask how urgent it is?”
“How serious is the threat?” Ohler asked.
“Well, I’m not going to pack a gun when I leave the house, but it would certainly be nice to know who’s behind this.”
“Anybody come to mind?” Dobbs asked.
“Not really. I mean, there are always a few crazies writing letters to every judge, but no one specific.”
“Good. We’ll drive it to the crime lab today. We’ll know by tomorrow if there are any good prints. If so, then we’ll try to match them.”
As they drove away, Ohler mused, “Do you wonder why he didn’t show us the three letters?”
“That’s what I’m wondering,” Dobbs replied. “Obviously he doesn’t want anyone to see the letters.”
“And the other two envelopes?”
“He touched them and they’re likely to have his prints.”
“And we have his prints, right?”
“Sure. Every lawyer is printed before he gets a license.”
Seconds passed as they left the gated community. On the highway, Ohler asked, “What are the chances of finding any useful prints on the envelope?”
“I’d say zero. Nuts who send anonymous mail are smart enough to use gloves and take other precautions. Not rocket science.”
Ohler said, “I gotta hunch.”
“Great. Another hunch. Let’s hear it.”
“He knows who it is.”
“Based on what?”
“Based on nothing. It’s a hunch. Hunches don’t have to be based on anything.”
An hour later, Judge Bannick parked in his reserved space beside the Chavez County Courthouse and walked through the rear doors. He spoke to Rusty and Rodney, the ancient twin janitors, as always attired in matching overalls, and he took the back staircase to the second floor where he had ruled supremely for the past ten years. He said good morning to his staff and asked Diana Zhang, his longtime secretary and only true confidant, to join him in his office. He closed the door, asked her to have a seat, then said, gravely, “Diana, I have some terrible news. I’ve been diagnosed with colon cancer, stage four, and it doesn’t look good.”
She was too stunned to respond. She gasped and immediately began wiping her eyes.
“I have a fighting chance, plus there are always miracles.”
She managed to ask, “When did you find out?” She looked at him through the tears and once again realized how tired and gaunt he seemed.
“About a month ago. I’ve spent the past two weeks talking to doctors all over the country and I’ve decided to pursue an alternative treatment through a clinic in New Mexico. That’s all I can tell you right now. I have informed Chief Judge Habberstam that I am taking a sixty-day leave of absence, beginning today. He will reassign my cases for the time being. You and the others will remain on full salary, without a lot to do.” He managed a smile, but she was too shocked to return it.
“Things should be much quieter around here for the next two months. I’ll check in all the time and make sure you’re doing well.”
Diana was at a loss. He had no wife, no children, no one she could run to with food and gifts and sympathy. She mumbled, “Will you be here or out there?”
“Back and forth. As I said, I’ll be in touch and you can call me anytime. I’ll pop in here to check on you. If I die it won’t be for a few more months.”
“Okay, okay. I’m not dying anytime soon, but it might be a struggle for the next few months. I want you to contact all my lawyers and inform them that their cases will be taken up by other judges. If they ask why, just say it’s an illness. After I leave in a few minutes, please inform the others. I’d rather not face them.”
“I can’t believe this.”
“I can’t either. But life isn’t fair, is it?”
He left her sobbing and made a quick exit without another word. He drove to a GM dealership in Pensacola where he swapped vehicles and leased a new Chevrolet Tahoe. He signed the pile of paperwork, wrote a check for the balance, one from his many accounts, and waited as they screwed his old license plates onto his new SUV. He detested the silver color but, as always, wanted something that would blend in.
He settled into the soft leather seat and absorbed the rich new car smell. He fiddled with the GPS, ran through the apps, hooked up his phone, and drove away, heading west on Interstate 10. His phone pinged—a text from another judge. He read it on the large media screen:
Judge Bannick. Sorry to hear the news. I’m here if you need me. Take care. TA.
Another ping, another message. Word was spreading quickly through the district’s legal circles and by noon every lawyer, secretary, clerk, and fellow judge would know that he was ill and taking leave.
He had no patience for those who used bad health to their advantage. He hated the fiction of an illness to cover his tracks. As an elected official he would be on the ballot again in two years, but he would not allow himself to worry about politics. Being stricken with cancer might embolden a possible opponent to start making plans, but he could deal with that later. For now, it was imperative that he stay out of sight, go about the tasks at hand, get his pursuer off his back, and possibly dodge an investigation by the Board on Judicial Conduct. He chuckled at the idea of such a tiny agency trying to solve murders that veteran cops had all but abandoned years ago. Ms. Stoltz and her motley crew operated with a shrinking budget and a few toothless statutes.
From the tally of those he’d murdered, there were almost seventy victims, all related by blood or marriage. He had considered each one and eliminated all but five, with four of those considered unlikely. He was convinced he had found his tormentor. She was a woman with many secrets, an extremely private person who thought she was too smart for hackers.
Though Mobile was not far away, he had spent little time there and did not know the city. He had driven through it a hundred times but could not remember the last time he had stopped for any reason.
His new nav system worked to perfection and he found the street where Jeri lived. He would scope out her neighborhood later. Her apartment was barely sixty minutes from his home in Cullman.
He had found her, practically under his nose.
The information was too important to exchange by email or phone. A face-to-face meeting would be better, Sheriff Black explained. He was four hours away in Biloxi and offered to split the difference. They agreed to meet at a fast-food restaurant beside Interstate 10 in the small town of DeFuniak Springs, Florida, at 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday, April 16.
Leaving Tallahassee, Darren asked Lacy to drive because he needed to finish editing a report. Evidently it was not well written and put him to sleep before they had traveled twenty miles. When he awoke after a solid thirty-minute nap, he apologized and admitted that he had stayed out a bit too late the night before.
“So what’s this big news?” she asked. “Too important to whisper over the phone or put in an email.”
“Don’t ask me. You’re the sleuth these days.”
“Just because I’m reading books about serial killers doesn’t mean I’m a sleuth.”
“What does it mean?”
“I don’t know. It’s pretty frightening stuff, really. Some really sick puppies.”
“Do you put Bannick in their category?”
“There is no category. Every case is so different, every killer demented in his own way. But I’ve yet to read about one as patient as Bannick or who’s motivated purely by revenge.”
“What’s the normal motive?”
“There’s no such thing, but sex is usually a factor. It’s shocking how perverted some of these guys are.”
“These books you’re reading, do they have photographs?”
“Some do. Lots of blood and mutilation. Want to borrow them?”
“I don’t think so.”
His phone pinged and he read the text. “Interesting,” he said. “It’s Sadelle. She checked Bannick’s docket today and everything has been canceled. Same yesterday, same tomorrow. She called his office and was told that His Honor is taking a leave of absence for health issues.”
Lacy allowed this to sink in and said, “I like his timing. You think he’s watching us?”
“What’s to watch? Nothing is online and he has no idea what we’re up to.”
“Unless he’s watching the police.”
“I suppose that’s possible.” Darren scratched his jaw, deep in thought. “But even then, he wouldn’t know anything because we don’t know anything, right?”
They rode in silence for a few miles.
An unmarked sedan was the only other vehicle in the parking lot. Inside, Sheriff Black and Detective Napier were sipping coffee, watching and waiting, in plain clothes. They were seated as far away from the counter as possible. There were no other customers. Lacy and Darren got coffees and said hello. The four huddled around a small table and tried to give each other room. No one had bothered to bring a briefcase.
“This shouldn’t take long,” Black said. “But then again, it might.” He nodded a go-ahead to Napier, who cleared his throat and glanced around as if some nonexistent person might be listening.
“As you know, there were two phones taken from the crime scene by the killer, who then dropped them off at a small post office an hour away.”
“Addressed to your daughter in Biloxi, right?” Lacy asked.
“Right,” Black said.
Napier continued, “Well, the FBI has had the two phones in its lab for the past month, running every possible test. They are now certain that there is a partial thumb print on Verno’s phone. Several oddities, one of which is that there are no other prints, not even from Verno, so the killer was careful enough to wipe down the phones. Mike Dunwoody’s has no prints at all. Again, the guy was being careful, which is not surprising given the crime scene. How much do you know about the fingerprint business?”
Lacy said, “Let’s assume we know next to nothing.”
Darren nodded, confirming his ignorance.
Expecting this, Napier said, “Okay. About twenty percent of the people in this country have been fingerprinted, and most prints are stored in a massive data bank kept by the FBI. As you might guess, they have the latest souped-up software with all manner of algorithms and such, stuff that’s a bit over my head, and they can check a print from anywhere in a matter of minutes. In this case, they began in Florida.”
The sheriff leaned in a bit and said, “We’re assuming your suspect is from Florida.”
Brilliant, thought Lacy, but she nodded and said, “Good assumption.”
Darren, eager to speak, said, “You have to get fingerprinted before you’re admitted to the bar. Same in every state.”
Napier indulged him and replied, “Yes, we know that. So do the FBI analysts. Anyway, they found no match in Florida, or anywhere else for that matter. They’ve run every possible test on this print, and they’ve come to the conclusion that, well, it’s been altered.”
Napier paused and allowed this to sink in. Sheriff Black took the handoff and said, “So, the first question, the first of many, is whether or not your suspect is capable of altering his fingerprints?”
Lacy struggled for words, so Darren asked, “Fingerprints can be altered?”
“The short answer is yes, though it’s almost impossible,” Napier said. “Stonemasons and bricklayers sometimes lose their fingerprints through years of hard labor.”
Lacy said, “Our guy is not a bricklayer.”
“He’s a judge, right?” asked Black.
Napier continued, “Over time it’s possible to wear down the skin on your fingertips, they’re called friction ridges, but that’s extremely rare. It would take years of constant scrubbing with sandpaper. Whatever. That’s not what we have here. With this print, the ridges are well defined, but they do indicate the possibility of being surgically altered.”
Lacy asked, “Could the print be from Verno’s girlfriend or someone else he knew?”
“They checked. Not surprisingly, she has a few arrests and her prints are in the data bank. No match. We’ve spent hours with her and she knows of no one else who would have touched Verno’s phone. She couldn’t even remember the last time she touched it.”
All four took a drink from their paper cups and avoided eye contact. After a moment, Darren said, “Surgically altered? How does one do that?”
Napier smiled and said, “Well, some experts say it’s impossible, but there have been a few cases. A few years ago, the Dutch police got a tip and raided a small apartment in Amsterdam. The suspect was a real pro, a slick criminal who’d had quite a career stealing contemporary art, some of which was found hidden in his walls. Worth millions. His old fingerprints did not fully match his new ones. Since they caught him red-handed with the loot, he decided to cut a deal and talk. Said there was an unlicensed cosmetic surgeon in Argentina who was known in the underworld as the guy to go to if you needed a new face or a fresh set of scars. He also specialized in altering the friction ridges of fingertips. Just for fun, go online and type in ‘Fingerprint alteration.’ Keep typing and you’ll find some ads for the work. Actually, it’s not illegal to alter your fingerprints.”
Lacy said, “I was just thinking of a face-lift.”
“Why?” asked the sheriff with a smile.
Napier said, “At any rate, it’s something that can be done, over time. How patient is your suspect?”
“Quite patient,” Darren said.
Lacy added, “We suspect he’s been active for over twenty years.”
“Yes. Verno and Dunwoody are probably not the only two.”
The two cops absorbed this with more coffee. Napier asked, “Would he have the money for surgery like this?”
Both nodded. Yes.
Lacy said, “I suppose that over a long period of time he could chip away at the project and eventually do all ten fingers.”
“That’s quite a commitment,” Black said.
“Well, he’s committed, determined, and very intelligent.”
More coffee, more thoughts rattling around. Could this be their big break after so many dead ends?
The sheriff said, “It makes no sense, really. I mean, if this guy is so smart, why not pitch the phones in a lake or a river? Why get cute and drop them off in a postal box to be sent to my daughter’s apartment? He had to know that we’d track them and find them within hours. This was a Friday. There was no way the two smartphones would sit undiscovered until Monday.”
“I’m not sure we’ll ever understand what makes him tick or what he thinks about,” Lacy said.
“Pretty stupid if you ask me.”
“He’s making mistakes. He almost got caught by Mike Dunwoody. Later, his truck was spotted at the post office when he dropped off the phones. And, it looks like one of his gloves slipped or maybe tore a bit and now we have a thumb print.”
“Yes we do,” the sheriff said. “So now the question is what do we do with it. The next step is obvious—get some prints from your suspect. If there’s a match, then we’re in business.”
Napier asked, “What are the chances of getting his prints?”
Lacy shot a blank look at Darren, who shook his head as if he had no idea.
“A search warrant?” asked the sheriff.
“Based on what?” Lacy asked. “There is no probable cause, as of right now. Our suspect is a judge who knows forensics as well as he knows criminal procedure. It would be impossible to convince another judge to issue a warrant.”
“So they’ll protect him?”
“No. But they’ll want to see a lot more proof than we currently have.”
“Are you going to give us his name?”
“Not yet. I will, and soon, but I can’t say any more.”
Sheriff Black folded his arms across his chest and glared at her. Napier looked away in frustration. She continued, “We’re on the same team, I promise.”
The cops barely kept their cool as they stewed for a moment. Napier finally said, “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
Lacy smiled and said, “Look, we have an informant, a source, the person who brought us the case. This person knows far more than we do and is living in fear, has been for years. We made promises about how we will proceed. That’s all I can say for now. We have to be extremely cautious.”
Sheriff Black asked, “So, what are we supposed to do for now?”
“Wait. We’ll wrap up our investigation and meet again.”
“I want to get this straight. You have a solid suspect in a double murder, though you admit that you don’t investigate murders, right? And this guy is a sitting judge in Florida who has committed other crimes, correct?”
“That’s right, though I did not refer to him as a solid suspect. Before today, we had no physical proof of his involvement in any crime. There’s still a chance, gentlemen, that our suspect is not the man. What if the partial thumb print doesn’t match?”
“Let’s find out.”
“We will, but not right now.”
The meeting ended with forced handshakes and smiles.
Lieutenant Ohler with the Florida state police called with the expected news that the envelope had produced nothing interesting. Two prints were lifted and traced to the man who delivered the mail each day around noon.