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Authors: John Grisham

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BOOK: Judge's List
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32

On Tuesday, the
Pensacola Ledger
ran a brief story on page 5 of its news section. Mal Schnetzer, a local lawyer from years past, had been murdered the previous Saturday in a trailer in Sugar Land, Texas, west of Houston, where he had been living. The police gave the barest of details, saying only that he had been strangled in a trailer rented by a person who had yet to be found. The story recalled his days as a well-known plaintiff’s lawyer in the Panhandle, before he was disbarred and sent to prison for robbing his clients. There was a small photo of Mal in his better days.

Jeri saw the story online and read it with her morning coffee. She immediately pulled together the other stories: Danny Cleveland, the former
Ledger
reporter, who had been strangled in his apartment in Little Rock in 2009; Thad Leawood, strangled in 1991 near Signal Mountain, Tennessee; and Lanny Verno, murdered in Biloxi the previous year. Schnetzer, Cleveland, and Leawood had been known in Pensacola and the
Ledger
reported their deaths. Verno had been passing through and was not known; thus, there was no local coverage. She found the stories of the murders from the local newspapers in Little Rock, Chattanooga, Houston, and Biloxi, and arranged them all neatly in a file that she sent through a new email account to a reporter named Kemper, the woman who had written about the Schnetzer murder. She attached a cryptic note:
Four unsolved strangulations of people with close ties to Pensacola. Verno lived here in 2001. Do your homework!!

She had not heard of the Schnetzer murder and wasn’t about to start digging. She was exhausted, and virtually broke, and simply couldn’t muster the energy for another investigation. As always, she suspected Bannick, but someone else would have to worry about the case.

The following morning, on the front page beneath the fold, was a sensational story about the four Pensacola men who had been murdered in other states. The local police wouldn’t comment and deflected all questions because they knew nothing. The killings were not in their jurisdiction. Likewise, the state police wouldn’t comment.

Jeri read it gleefully and immediately sent it, encrypted as always, to Lacy Stoltz. Minutes later she texted her the encryption key.

Lacy was at her desk reading assessments of other complaints when she saw the email and opened the file. There was no message. Who else would send her a private email, and then the key? Who else would have the old stories from the
Ledger
and the other newspapers? Once again she marveled at Jeri’s research and tenaciousness, and managed a chuckle at Herman Gray’s comment about her being needed by the FBI.

She closed her door and for a long time reread the reports of the old murders, and the new ones. She tried to gauge the impact of the morning’s story and finally concluded there was no way to predict what might happen. There was little doubt, though, that it would change the landscape. Bannick would see it, probably already had. Who in the world could guess his next move?


Judge Bannick was in a hotel room in Santa Fe when he saw it. As always, he scanned the
Ledger
online for all the news from home, and when he saw it he began cursing.

The only other person who could possibly link Lanny Verno to Pensacola was Jeri Burke. Maybe the ex-cop, Norris Ozment, but he was not in the loop.

A few of the older lawyers could link him to Schnetzer and their fee dispute, back in 1993. Perhaps a reporter at the
Ledger
might remember Danny Cleveland and his muckraking article about Bannick when he first ran for office, though this was doubtful. Cleveland had gone after several shady developers. No one to his knowledge was still around to link him to Thad Leawood. There had been no criminal charges and the frightened victims hid behind their parents, who had no idea what to do.


He was thirteen years old and had achieved the rank Life, with eighteen merit badges, including all the required ones. His goal was to make Eagle by his fourteenth birthday, something his father encouraged because after that the high school years arrived and scouting would become less important. He led the Shark Patrol, the finest in the troop. He loved every part of it—the weekends in the woods, the training for the mile swim, the jamborees, the challenge of making Eagle, the search for more merit badges, the awards ceremonies, the community service.

After the assault, he missed a meeting, something that never happened. When he missed the second one, his parents were curious. He could not carry the burden alone, and so he told them. They were horrified and devastated, and had no clue about where to go for help. His father finally met with the police and was distressed to learn that there had been another complaint, from a boy unwilling to be identified.

He suspected it was Jason Wright, a friend who had abruptly quit the troop two months earlier.

The police wanted to meet with Ross, but the idea terrified him. He was sleeping at the foot of his parents’ bed and hated to leave the house. They decided that protecting their child was more important than demanding punishment. The nightmare went from bad to worse when the
Ledger
ran a story about a police investigation into “allegations of sexual misconduct” by Thad Leawood, age twenty-eight. It was obviously leaked by the police, in Dr. Bannick’s opinion, and sent the town into orbit.

Leawood slinked away and was not seen again. Fourteen years passed before he paid for his crimes.


Late Wednesday afternoon, Lacy was out of excuses and weary of procrastinating. She closed and locked her office door and called the first of several phone numbers for Betty Roe. None were answered, which was not unusual. Minutes later, her smartphone pinged with a text from an unknown number. Betty wrote: “Go to the green line.” Code for
Use your burner.
Lacy picked up her disposable phone and waited another minute for the call.

Betty began cheerfully with “How about that story in the
Ledger
?”

“Interesting to say the least. I wonder how they put all the murders together so fast.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I’m sure it was an anonymous email from someone who’s familiar with the murders, wouldn’t you say?”

“I would indeed.”

“I wonder how our boy reacted.”

“I’m sure it ruined his day.”

“I hope he had a massive stroke and gagged to death on his vomit. They say he’s in bad health anyway. Rumor of colon cancer, but I doubt it. More like a good reason to get out of town.”

“You sound feisty.”

“I’m in pretty good spirits, Lacy. I went to Michigan and spent last weekend with my daughter, had a great visit.”

“Good, because I have some news that you may not want. We’ve finished our assessment of your complaint and we believe it has merit. We are referring it to the state police and the FBI. Our decision is final.”

Silence on the other end. Lacy plowed on. “You shouldn’t be surprised, Betty. This is what you’ve always wanted. You used us to start the investigation and give it credibility while you hid in the dark. Nothing wrong with that, and I assure you your name has not been used. We will continue to protect your identity, to the extent possible.”

“What does that mean? ‘To the extent possible’?”

“It means I’m not sure how the investigation will go. I don’t know if the FBI will want your input, but if they do I’m sure they know how to protect a key witness.”

“I won’t sleep until he’s arrested and locked up. You should be worried too, Lacy. I’ve warned you about this.”

“You have and I’m being careful.”

“He’s smarter than we are, Lacy, and he’s always watching.”

“You think he knows about our involvement?”

“Assume he does, okay? Just assume the worst. He’s back there, Lacy.”

Lacy closed her eyes and was ready to end the call. Betty’s paranoia was at times irksome.

33

The computer and phone networks of the Harrison County Sheriff’s Department had been turned over to Nic Constantine, a twenty-year-old part-time student at a community college down the road. He enjoyed the work and loved hanging around the deputies and other law enforcement types, most of whom needed plenty of help with technology. He had serious talent for it and could design and fix anything. He was constantly urging them to upgrade here and there, but there were always budget problems.

Nic knew the Verno/Dunwoody case was top secret. The vultures from the press were still circling, and Sheriff Black had put a lid on all communications, most of which were kept offline. To his great delight, Nic had been at the murder scene, and, later, led the sheriff and Deputy Mancuso to the two cell phones in the tiny town of Neely, Mississippi. An easy job any twelve-year-old could handle.

Nic routinely swept the network for viruses, but had been unable to detect Rafe and his evil pals from Maggotz. They were dormant for the vast majority of the time. The mistake was made by Detective Napier, who sent a naked email to the sheriff confirming a meeting with the FBI on Friday, April 25, at the Bureau’s office in Pensacola. Napier referred to the FBI as “Hoovies,” said a team from Washington would fly in, with an expert, the cell phone, and the PTP. Napier immediately realized his mistake, deleted the email, found Nic, and asked him to wipe it clean from the network. He tracked it through the department’s internal server and was confident everything had been erased.

Napier and Nic then found the sheriff and explained what had happened. Nic dreamed of working for the FBI and was thrilled at the news of the meeting. He offered to be there, with the warning that he might be needed in case of more mistakes. Sheriff Black was not impressed.


Rafe, dormant but ever present, saw the email. Thirty minutes later, Judge Bannick saw it too and was stricken with panic. He knew how much the FBI loved acronyms. He knew the lingo as well as the agents in the field. PTP—partial thumb print.

Quickly, he checked the surveillance cameras and security systems at his home, courthouse office, and vault. There had been no entries. He booked the earliest flight out of Santa Fe, checked out of his hotel room, and headed home.

The trip was interminable but gave him plenty of time to think. He was certain he had left no prints behind, but what if he had? Any print taken from one of the cell phones would never find a match these days. After years of altering, the only match would have to be from a current print, something he had touched in the last decade.

He arrived home at three in the morning and needed rest, but the bennies were working too well. He kept the overhead lights off so the neighbors wouldn’t know he was home, and worked in the semidarkness. He put on plastic gloves and filled the dishwasher with the first load. Some of the cups and glasses went into a large garbage liner.

Wiping almost any surface at least smears the latent prints and renders them useless. Smearing, though, was not the plan. He mixed a solution of water, distilled alcohol, and lemon juice and wiped the counters and appliances with a microfiber cloth. Light switches, walls, pantry shelves. From the refrigerator he removed jars, cans, bottles, and plastic wrappers and dumped the contents into the disposal. The containers went into the garbage sack. He didn’t cook much and the fridge was never full.

Latent prints can last for years. As he cursed to himself he kept mumbling, “PTP.”

In the bathroom he scrubbed the surfaces, walls, toilet, shower knobs, and floor. He emptied the cabinet, leaving behind only a toothbrush, a disposable razor, shaving cream, and a half-empty tube of Colgate. Prints were virtually impossible to lift from cloth, but he filled the washing machine anyway, with bath and hand towels.

In the den he threw away the TV remote and wiped the LED screen. He threw away all magazines and a couple of old newspapers. He scrubbed the walls and the leather chairs.

In his office, he wiped the keyboard, an old laptop, two outdated cell phones, and a pile of stationery and envelopes. He stared at a cabinet filled with files and decided to get them later.

The cleansing would take hours if not days, and he knew this was only the first pass through. There would be a second, hopefully a third. At dawn, before the neighbors began moving about, he hauled three large black garbage liners to his SUV and sat down for a nap.

Sleep was impossible. At eight, he showered and changed, throwing away the towels and clothes. He stared into his closet and realized how much stuff had to be tossed. He filled the washing machine with underwear and clothing and doubled the detergent.

He dressed casually and left. He called Diana Zhang, said he was back in town, felt good, and wanted to run by the courthouse to say hello. When he arrived at nine, his staff greeted him like a returning hero. He chatted with them for a while, assuring them that his first round of chemo had gone well and his doctors were encouraged. He would be home for a few days before heading back to Santa Fe.

They thought he looked tired, even haggard.

He sat at his desk and dictated to his secretary a list of things to do. He needed to make some calls and asked her to leave. He locked the door and looked around his office. The desk, leather chairs, worktable, file cabinets, shelves lined with books and treatises. Thankfully, he hadn’t touched most of them in years. The task seemed impossible, but he had no choice. He opened his briefcase, put on plastic gloves, removed three packs of alcohol wipes, and went to work.

After two hours, he told his staff he was going home to rest. Please don’t call. He drove instead to his hidden office in Pensacola. He doubted anyone sniffing for fingerprints would ever find the place, but he could take no chances. He had designed it with extreme caution, careful to leave no clues in case of an emergency. Everything was digitized—no books, files, bills, nothing to leave a trail.

He stretched out on the sofa and managed to sleep for two hours.


According to Jeri’s class schedule, posted officially online, she taught a class in comparative politics at 2:00 p.m. in the Humanities Building. He drove an hour to Mobile and found the building from a campus map he had memorized.

Her car, a white 2009 Toyota Camry, was parked with a hundred others in a lot for faculty and students, authorized stickers required. He left, drove to a car wash several blocks away, ran his new Tahoe through the self-wash, then parked by the vacuums and opened all four doors. As he toiled away, he swapped license plates and was now registered in Alabama. When things were shiny and spotless, he drove back to the Humanities Building and found a spot as close to the Camry as possible. He popped the hatch on his Tahoe, removed the jack and spare, and got busy pretending to change a rear tire that wasn’t flat.

A campus security guard in an old Bronco eased between the row of parked cars and stopped behind the Tahoe. “Need a hand?” he asked helpfully, without making a move to get out.

“No thanks,” Bannick said. “I got it.”

“I don’t see a parking sticker.”

“No, sir. Had a flat out there,” he said, nodding to the street. “I’ll be gone in a minute.”

The guard drove away without a word.

Shit! A mistake that couldn’t be avoided.

With the Tahoe jacked up, and without touching a lug nut, he removed a BlueCloud TS-180 GPS tracker with a magnetic mount. It weighed fourteen ounces and was about the size of a thick paperback. He walked nonchalantly to the Camry, watching anything that moved from behind his sunglasses, noticed three students entering the building but certainly not concerned with him, then quickly ducked and stuck the device to the side of the gas tank. Its battery lasted 180 hours and was motion-activated; thus, it took a nap when the car wasn’t moving. He walked back to his Tahoe, jacked it down, put away the spare and the jack, closed the hatch, and left the parking lot. The security guard was nowhere to be seen.

Two hours later, the Camry began moving. He tracked it with his smartphone and soon had it in sight. Jeri stopped at a dry-cleaners, did her business, then drove to her condo.

The tracker worked beautifully.

He returned to Cullman, waited until five thirty when the courthouse was closed, and entered through a rear door with his own key. He had been coming and going as he pleased for ten years and rarely saw anyone after hours. He was committing no crime, just tidying up his office.

He wiped it again and left after dark with two thick briefcases filled with files and notepads. A hardworking judge.

BOOK: Judge's List
6.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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