Authors: John Grisham
“I cannot go to your room. It’s against our procedures. If a complaint is filed and it becomes necessary to meet in private, then I can do so. Someone has to know where I am, at least initially.”
“Fair enough. What time?”
“How about six?”
“I’ll be in the back corner, right-hand side, and I’ll be alone, same as you. No wires, recorders, secret cameras, no colleagues pretending to drink as they film away. And say hello to Darren. Maybe one day I’ll have the pleasure. Deal?”
“Okay. You can go now.”
As Lacy walked around the block and drifted back to her office, she had to admit that she could not remember ever getting her butt so thoroughly kicked at the first interview.
She slid the color photo across Darren’s desk and said, “Nice work. Busted big-time. She knows our names, ranks, and serial numbers. She gave me this photo and said it was far better than the ones you were taking with your laptop.”
Darren held the photo and said, “Well, she’s right.”
“Any idea who she is?”
“Nope. I’ve run her face through our laundry and got nothing. Which, as you know, means little.”
“Means she has not been arrested in Florida in the past six years. Can you punch it through the FBI?”
“Probably not. They require a reason, and since I know nothing I can’t give them one. Can I ask an obvious question?”
“BJC is an investigative agency, right?”
“Supposed to be.”
“Then why do we post our photos and bios on a rather stupid website?”
“Ask the boss.”
“We don’t have a boss. We have a career paper-pusher who’ll be gone before we miss her.”
“Probably. Look, Darren, we’ve had this conversation a dozen times. We don’t want our lovely faces on any BJC page. That’s why I haven’t updated mine in five years. I still look thirty-four.”
“I’d say thirty-one, but then I’m biased.”
“I guess there’s no real harm. It’s not like we’re going after murderers and drug dealers.”
“So what’s her complaint, whoever she is?”
“Don’t know yet. Thanks for the backup.”
“A lot of good it did.”
The Ramada lounge covered one large corner of the hotel’s soaring glass atrium. By six, its chrome bar was crowded with well-dressed lobbyists trolling for attractive secretaries from the agencies, and most of the tables were taken. The Florida legislature was in session five blocks away at the Capitol, and all the downtown lounges were busy with important people talking politics and angling for money and sex.
Lacy entered, got her share of looks from the male crowd, and walked toward the right rear where she found Margie alone at a small table in a corner with a glass of water in front of her. “Thanks for coming,” she said as Lacy took a seat.
“Sure. You know this place?”
“No. First time. Pretty popular, huh?”
“This time of the year, yes. Things settle down when the carnival is over.”
“The legislative session. January through March. Lock the liquor cabinet. Hide the women and children. You know the routine.”
“I take it you don’t live here.”
“No, I don’t.”
A harried waitress rushed to a stop and asked if they wanted something to drink as she frowned at the glass of water. Her message was pretty clear: Hey gals, we’re busy and I can give your table to somebody who’ll pay for booze.
“A glass of pinot grigio,” Lacy said.
“Same,” Margie quickly agreed, and the waitress was gone.
Lacy glanced right and left to make sure whatever they said could not be overheard. It could not. The tables were spaced far enough apart, and a steady roar emanated from the bar and drowned out everything else.
Lacy said, “Okay. So you don’t live here and I don’t know your real name. I’d say we’re off to a slow start, which I’m accustomed to. However, as I think I told you, I waste a lot of time with people who contact me then clam up when it’s time to tell their stories.”
“What would you like to know first?”
“How about your name?”
“I can do that.”
“But I’d like to know what you’ll do with my name. Do you open a file? Is it a digital file or an old-fashioned pen-on-paper file? If it’s digital where is it stored? Who else will know my name?”
Lacy swallowed hard and studied her eyes. Margie could not hold the stare and glanced away.
Lacy asked, “You’re nervous and act as though you’re being followed.”
“I’m not being followed, Lacy, but everything leaves a trail.”
“A trail for someone else to follow. Is this someone the judge you suspect of murder? Help me here, Margie. Give me something.”
“Everything leaves a trail.”
“You’ve said that.”
The waitress hustled by, pausing just long enough to set down two glasses of wine and a bowl of nuts.
Margie appeared not to notice the wine but Lacy took a sip. She said, “So, we’re still stuck on the name thing. I’ll write it down somewhere and keep it off our network, initially.”
Margie nodded and became someone else. “Jeri Crosby, age forty-six, professor of political science at the University of South Alabama in Mobile. One marriage, one divorce, one child, a daughter.”
“Thank you. And you believe your father was murdered by a judge who’s now on the bench. Correct?”
“Yes, a Florida judge.”
“That narrows it down to about a thousand.”
“A circuit judge in the Twenty-Second District.”
“Impressive. Now we’re down to about forty. When do I get the name of your suspect?”
“Real soon. Can we slow down a bit? Right now it doesn’t take much to rattle me.”
“You haven’t touched your wine. It might help.”
Jeri took a sip and a deep breath and said, “I’m guessing you’re around forty years old.”
“Almost. Thirty-nine, so I’ll turn forty soon enough. Traumatic?”
“Well, sort of, I guess. But life goes on. So, twenty-two years ago you were still in high school, right?”
“I suppose. Why is this relevant?”
“Relax, Lacy, I’m talking now, okay? We’re getting somewhere. You were just a kid and you probably never read about the murder of Bryan Burke, a retired professor of law.”
“Never heard of it. Your father?”
“Thanks. For almost thirty years my father taught at Stetson Law School in Gulfport, Florida. In the Tampa area.”
“I’m familiar with the school.”
“He retired at the age of sixty, for family reasons, and returned to his hometown in South Carolina. I have a thorough file on my father which I’ll give you at some point. He was quite a man. Needless to say, his murder rocked our world and, frankly, I’m still reeling. Losing a parent too young is bad enough, but when it’s murder, and an unsolved murder, it’s even more devastating. Twenty-two years later the case is even colder and the police have all but given up. Once we realized that they were getting nowhere, I vowed to try everything to find his killer.”
“The police gave up?”
She drank some wine. “Over time, yes. The file is still open and I talk to them occasionally. I’m not knocking the cops, you understand? They did the best they could under the circumstances, but it was a perfect murder. All of them are.”
Lacy drank some wine. “A perfect murder?”
“Yes. No witnesses. No forensics, or least none that can be traced to the killer. No apparent motive.”
Lacy almost asked:
And so what am I supposed to do?
But she took another sip and said, “I’m not sure the Board on Judicial Conduct is equipped to investigate an old murder case in South Carolina.”
“I’m not asking for that. Your jurisdiction is over Florida judges who might be involved in wrongdoing, right?”
“And that includes murder?”
“I suppose, but we’ve never been involved in that. That’s heavier work for the state boys, maybe the FBI.”
“The state boys have tried. The FBI has no interest for two reasons. First, there is no federal issue. Second, there is no evidence linking the murders, thus the FBI doesn’t know, no one knows but me I guess, that we’re dealing with a potential serial killer.”
“You’ve contacted the FBI?”
“Years ago. As the family of the victim we were desperate for help. Got nowhere.”
Lacy drank some more wine. “Okay, you’re making me nervous, so let’s walk through this real slow. You believe a sitting judge murdered your father twenty-two years ago. Was that judge on the bench when the murder occurred?”
“No. He was elected in 2004.”
Lacy absorbed this and looked around. What appeared to be a lobbyist was now sitting at the next table, gawking at her with a sort of leering vulgarity that was not uncommon around the Capitol. She glared at him until he looked away, then leaned in closer. “I’d feel more comfortable if we could talk somewhere else. This place is getting crowded.”
Jeri said, “I have a small conference room on the first floor. I promise it’s safe and secure. If I try to assault you, you can scream and get away.”
“I’m sure it’s okay.”
Jeri paid for the wine and they left the bar and the atrium and rode the escalator up one flight to the business mezzanine, where Jeri unlocked a small conference room, one of many. On the table were several files.
The women settled on opposite sides of the table, the files within reaching distance and nothing in front of them. No laptops. No legal pads. Both cell phones were still in their purses. Jeri was visibly more relaxed than in the bar, and began with “So, let’s talk off the record, with no notes. None for now anyway. My father, Bryan Burke, retired from Stetson in 1990. He’d taught there for almost thirty years and was a legend, a beloved professor. He and my mother decided to return home to Gaffney, South Carolina, the small town where they grew up. They had lots of family in the area and there’s some land that had been handed down. They built this beautiful little cottage in the woods and planted a garden. My mother’s mother lived on the property and they took care of her. All in all, it was a pleasant retirement. They were set financially, in pretty good health, active in a country church. Dad read a lot, wrote articles for legal magazines, kept up with old friends, made some new ones around town. Then, he was murdered.”
She reached to retrieve a file, a blue one, letter-sized, about an inch thick, same as the others. She slid it across the table as she said, “This is a collection of articles about my father, his career, and his death. Some dug up by hand, some pulled from the Internet, but none of the file is stored online.”
Lacy didn’t open the file.
Jeri continued, “Behind the yellow tab there is a crime scene photo of my father. I’ve seen it several times and prefer not to see it again. Have a look.”
Lacy opened to the tab and frowned at the enlarged color photo. The deceased was lying in some weeds with a small rope around his neck, pulled tightly and cutting into his skin. The rope appeared to be nylon, blue in color, and stained with dried blood. At the back of the neck it was secured with a thick knot.
Lacy closed the file and whispered, “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s weird. After twenty-two years, you learn to deal with the pain and place it in a box where it tends to stay if you work hard enough. But it’s always easy to drop your guard and allow the memories to come back. Right now I’m okay, Lacy. Right now I’m real good because I’m talking to you and doing something about it. You have no idea how many hours I’ve spent pushing myself to get here. This is so hard, so terrifying.”
“Perhaps if we talked about the crime.”
She took a deep breath. “Sure. Dad liked to take long walks through the woods behind his cottage. Mom often went along but she struggled with arthritis. One lovely spring morning in 1992 he kissed her goodbye, grabbed his walking stick, and headed down the trail. The autopsy revealed death by asphyxiation, but there was also a head wound. It wasn’t hard to speculate that he encountered someone who hit him in the head, knocked him out, then finished him off with the nylon rope. He was dragged off the trail and left in a ravine, where they found him late in the afternoon. The crime scene revealed nothing—no blunt instrument, no shoe or boot prints—the ground was dry. No signs of a struggle, no stray hairs or fabrics left behind. Nothing. The rope has been analyzed by crime labs and gives no clue. There’s a description of it in the file. The cottage isn’t far from town but it’s still somewhat isolated, and there were no witnesses, nothing out of the ordinary. No car or truck with out-of-state tags. No strangers lurking around. There are many different places to park and hide and sneak into the area, then leave without a trace. Nothing has come to the surface in twenty-two years, Lacy. It’s a very cold case. We have accepted the harsh reality that the crime will never be solved.”
“Yes, well, but it’s more like a one-cowboy rodeo. My mother died two years after my father. She never recovered and kinda went off the deep end. I have an older brother in California and he hung in for a few years before losing interest. He got tired of the police reporting no progress. We talk occasionally but rarely mention Dad. So, I’m on my own. It’s lonely out here.”
“Sounds awful. It also seems a long way from the crime scene in South Carolina to a courthouse in the Florida Panhandle. What’s the connection?”
“There’s not much, honestly. Just a lot of speculation.”
“You haven’t come this far with nothing but speculation. What about motive?”
“Motive is all I have.”
“Do you plan to share it with me?”
“Hang on, Lacy. You have no idea. I can’t believe I’m sitting here accusing someone of murder, without proof.”
“You’re not accusing anyone, Jeri. You have a potential suspect, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. You tell me his name and I tell no one. Not until you authorize it, okay? Understood?”
“Now, back to motive.”
“Motive has consumed me since the beginning. I’ve found no one in my father’s world who disliked him. He was an academic who drew a nice salary and saved his money. He never invested in deals or land or anything like that. In fact, he was disdainful of developers and speculators. He had a couple of colleagues, other law professors, who lost money in the stock market and condos and other schemes, and he had little sympathy for them. He had no business interests, no partners, no joint ventures, stuff that generally creates conflict and enemies. He hated debt and paid his bills on time. He was faithful to his wife and family, as far as we knew. If you knew Bryan Burke you would have found it impossible to believe that he would be unfaithful to his wife. He was treated fairly by his employers, Stetson, and admired by his students. Four times in thirty years at Stetson he was voted Outstanding Professor of Law. He routinely passed up a promotion to the dean’s office because he considered teaching the highest calling and he wanted to be in the classroom. He wasn’t perfect, Lacy, but he was pretty damned close to it.”
“I wish I had known him.”
“He was a charming, sweet man with no known enemies. It wasn’t a robbery, because his wallet was in the house and nothing was missing from his body. It certainly wasn’t an accident. So, the police have been baffled from the beginning.”
“But. There could be more. It’s a long shot but it’s all I have. I’m thirsty. You?”
Lacy shook her head. Jeri walked to a credenza, poured ice water from a pitcher, and returned to her seat. She took a deep breath and continued. “As I’ve said, my father loved the classroom. He loved to lecture. To him it was a performance, and he was the only actor onstage. He loved being in full command of his surroundings, his material, and, especially, his students. There’s a room on the second floor of the law school that was his domain for decades. There’s a plaque there now and it’s named for him. It’s a mini lecture hall with eighty seats in a half moon, and every performance was sold out. His lectures on constitutional law were captivating, challenging, often funny. He had a great sense of humor. Every student wanted Professor Burke—he hated being called Dr. Burke—for constitutional law, and those who didn’t make the cut often audited the class and sat through his lectures. It was not unusual for visiting professors, deans, alumni, and former students to squeeze in for a seat, often in folding chairs in the rear or down the aisles. The president of the university, himself a lawyer, was a frequent visitor. You get the picture?”