Authors: John Grisham
On Friday morning Lacy and Darren arrived at a downtown office building at 9:45 for a ten o’clock meeting, a summit of sorts. The FBI office was on the sixth floor, and they were met at the elevator there by Special Agent Dagner, of Pensacola.
From a third-story hotel room two blocks away, Judge Bannick monitored the parking lot through a handheld monocular telescope. He watched Lacy and Darren disappear into the building. Ten minutes later, he saw an unmarked sedan with Mississippi tags park and two men get out. They were in street clothes, even wearing coats and ties for the big meeting. Next was a black SUV. All four doors opened at the same time and the Feds, three men and one woman, in nicer dark suits, spilled out and hustled inside. The last two arrived in a car with Florida license plates. More dark suits.
When the traffic stopped at ten after ten, Bannick sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed his temples. The FBI had arrived, the Hoovies from the big office in Washington, along with the state police and the boys from Mississippi.
He could not know what was being said over there. Rafe had failed to penetrate the network.
But the judge had a pretty good idea of what was going on, and he knew how to find out.
They gathered around a long table in the suite’s largest room while two secretaries brought in coffee and pastries. After a round of introductions, so many names that Darren tried to write them all down, the boss called the meeting to order. He was Clay Vidovich, the Special Agent in Charge (SAC), and he assumed the chair at the head of the table. To his right were Special Agents Suarez, Neff, and Murray. To his left were Sheriff Dale Black and Detective Napier from Biloxi. Next to them were two investigators from the Florida state police, Harris and Wendel. Lacy and Darren sat at the far end of the table, as if they really didn’t belong with real cops.
Noticeably absent were the Pensacola police. The suspect was a local guy with plenty of contacts. Loose lips sink ships and all that. The city boys would only get in the way.
Vidovich began with “Now, the paperwork has been completed, all protocols have been cleared, and the FBI is officially engaged in this case. This is now a joint task force with all of us cooperating fully. Sheriff, what about the Mississippi state police?”
“Well, they’ve certainly been kept up to date, but I was asked to not mention this initial meeting. I assume they’re ready if we need them.”
“Not now, maybe later. Lieutenant Harris, have you notified the police down in Marathon?”
“No sir, but I will if we need them.”
“Good. Let’s proceed without them. Now, we’ve all read the summaries and I think we’re up to speed. Ms. Stoltz, since you got all this started, why don’t you take a few minutes and go over the basics.”
“Sure,” she said, flashing a smile. The only other woman in the room was Agent Agnes Neff, a tough-looking veteran who had yet to smile.
Lacy stood and pushed back her chair. “This began with a complaint against Judge Bannick, filed by one Betty Roe, an alias.”
“When do we get her real name?”
“Well, it’s now your case, so I guess anytime you want. But I prefer to keep her out of it as long as possible.”
“Very well. And why is she involved?”
“Her father was murdered in 1992 near Gaffney, South Carolina. The case went cold, almost immediately, and she became determined to find his killer. She’s been obsessed with the case for years.”
“And we’re talking about eight murders, right?”
“Eight that she knows of. There could be more.”
“I think we can assume there are more. And all she has is motive, right?”
Vidovich looked at Suarez, who shook his head and said, “It’s the same guy. Same type of rope and the knot is his trademark. We got the crime scene photos from Schnetzer in Texas, same rope and knot. We’ve studied the autopsies, same type of blow to the head, same instrument. Something like a claw hammer that shatters the skull in one defined point of impact and radiates rupture lines in all directions.”
Vidovich looked at Lieutenant Harris and asked, “And the killer knew him in another life, right?”
Harris said, “That’s right. They were both lawyers here in town many years ago.”
“And you don’t know this judge—right, Ms. Stoltz?”
“No, I’ve not had the pleasure. He’s never had a complaint filed against him. A clean record, and a good reputation.”
“This is remarkable,” Vidovich said to the table and everyone frowned in agreement.
He continued, “Ms. Stoltz, what do you think he would do if we simply asked him to stop by for a few questions? He is a well-known judge, an officer of the court. He doesn’t know about the PTP. Why wouldn’t he want to cooperate?”
“Well, if he’s guilty, why would he cooperate? In my opinion he would either disappear or lawyer up. But he will not make himself available.”
“And he’s a flight risk?”
“Yes, in my opinion. He’s smart and he has assets. He’s done a superb job of avoiding detection for the past twenty years. I think this guy could vanish in a split second.”
Lacy sat down and looked at the faces around the table.
Vidovich said, “It’s obvious that we need his prints, his current ones. Agnes, talk to us about a search warrant.”
Still unsmiling, she cleared her throat and looked at her notepad. “I met with Legal yesterday in Washington, and they think we can do it. A prime suspect in a murder, two of them actually, the Biloxi case, and a mysterious partial print there that matches nothing. Legal says we can push hard for a warrant. The U.S. Attorney in Mississippi has been briefed and has a magistrate on standby.”
Lacy said, “May I ask what you plan to search?”
“His home and office,” Vidovich said. “They’re covered with his prints. We get a match, game over. No match, and we apologize and leave town. Betty Roe can go back to her Sherlock Holmes routine.”
“Okay, but he’s a fanatic about security and surveillance. He’ll know the instant someone kicks in a door or somehow gets inside. Then he’s gone.”
“Do we know where he is at this moment?”
A unified shaking of heads. Vidovich glared at Harris who said, “No, we haven’t been watching him. No reason to. There’s no case, no file. He’s not a suspect, yet.”
Lacy said, “He’s also on leave for medical reasons, claims he’s in treatment for cancer, according to a source we have here in Pensacola. His office told one of our contacts that he would not sit on the bench for at least the next two months. The district court’s web page confirms this.”
Vidovich frowned and rubbed his jaw as everyone else waited. He said, “Okay, let’s start with surveillance and find the guy. In the meantime let’s get a search warrant from the magistrate in Mississippi, bring it to the magistrate here, and sit on it until we find him. At that time, he can’t disappear and we’ll execute the warrant.”
They discussed surveillance for an hour: Who, where, how. Lacy and Darren grew bored, their initial excitement dissipated, and they finally asked to be excused.
Vidovich promised to keep them in the loop, but it was obvious their work was over.
Leaving town, Darren asked, “Are you going to report this to Betty?”
“No. She doesn’t need to know what’s going on.”
“Are we done with her? Can we close the case?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Well, aren’t you the boss?”
“Then why can’t you say that BJC is no longer involved?”
“Tired of it?”
“We’re lawyers, Lacy, not cops.”
The three-hour drive back to Tallahassee was a relief. It was almost noon on a Friday, on an oddly cool spring day, and they decided to forget about the office.
As they discussed his fate, Judge Bannick drove ten minutes to his shopping center and disappeared into his other chamber and his Vault. He wiped his computers clean, removed the hard drives, gathered the thumb drives from the hidden safes, and scrubbed the place again. Leaving, he reset the security cameras and sensors, and left for Mobile.
He spent the afternoon roaming a mall, drinking espressos in a Starbucks, drinking club soda in a dark bar, loitering along the harbor, and driving around until dark.
The plain, white, legal-size envelope contained copies of her three little poems. It was sealed and addressed in heavy black ink—
No postal address was given, but then none was needed. The words
were scrawled under her name. He waited until 9:00 p.m. and parked at the curb two short blocks away.
Jeri was idling away another Friday night, flipping stations on TV and resisting the temptation to go online and look for more murders. Lacy had called after lunch with the news that the FBI was in town and assuming control of the investigation. Jeri should be in a better mood now that her work was over and Bannick was being pursued by the pros. She was learning, though, that obsessions die hard and it was impossible to simply flip a switch and move on. She had lived in his life for so long, she couldn’t force him out of her being. She had no other purpose, other than her neglected work and her lovely daughter. And she was terrified, still. She asked herself how long the fear would last. Would she ever go a full hour without glancing over her shoulder?
The doorbell jolted her. She fumbled with the remote, got the TV muted, grabbed the nearest pistol from a table by the door, and peeked through the blinds. A streetlamp lit the front lawns of the four condos in her row, and revealed nothing. She wasn’t about to open the door, not at 9:00 p.m. on a Friday night, and could think of no one who would be stopping by without calling first. Not even the political candidates worked such hours. She waited for it to ring again, gripping her pistol and resisting the urge to look into the peephole. Long minutes passed, and the fact that whoever was out there did not ring again, and did not really want to see her, made the situation worse. Could it be some kids pulling pranks? That had never happened before, not on her quiet little street. She realized she was sweating and her stomach was in knots. She tried to breathe deeply but her heart was racing.
Slowly, she stepped to the door and said loud enough to be heard on the stoop, “Who is it?”
Of course there was no answer. She found the courage to look through the peephole, half expecting to see some bloodshot eyeball leering back at her, but there was nothing. She took a step back, breathed deep again, kept the pistol in her right hand, and unlocked the deadbolt with her left. With the chain latched, she looked out through the storm door but saw no one. Was she hearing things again? Had the doorbell really been punched by someone?
The camera, you idiot! Her doorbell was used so infrequently she forgot about the camera. She walked to the kitchen, picked up her smartphone, and with badly shaking hands managed to find the app. She gawked at the video. The doorbell camera was motion-activated, and from five feet away, as the person seemed to come out of the bushes, the video began. He bounded up the stoop, stuck an envelope in the storm door, and disappeared. She watched it again and again and felt sick to her stomach.
Male, with long sandy hair that touched his shoulders. A cap with no logo pulled low. Thick-framed glasses, and under them was a skin-colored mask with pockmarks and scars, something from a horror film.
She turned on lights and sat on the sofa with her gun and phone. She watched the video again. It ran for six seconds, though he was visible for only half of it. Three seconds were enough. She caught herself crying, something she hated, but the tears had nothing to do with sorrow. They were tears of sheer terror. Her stomach flipped and she wanted to throw up. Her body shook to her toes as her heart raced away.
And matters would soon get worse.
Eventually, she forced herself to stand and walk to the door. She unlocked and cracked it again, then unlocked the storm door. The envelope fell to the threshold. She grabbed it, relocked everything, and returned to the sofa where she stared at it for ten minutes.
When she opened it, and saw her silly poems, her hands instinctively flew up to her mouth and muffled her scream.
The police were irritated by such a frivolous call. It took them twenty minutes to arrive, thankfully without the benefit of all those blue lights, and she met them on the stoop.
“A prowler?” the first one asked.
For her benefit, the second one poked around the flower bed with a flashlight, seeing nothing.
Jeri showed them the video. “It’s just a prank, ma’am,” the first one said, shaking his head at such a nuisance. “Somebody just tryin’ to scare the hell out of you.” It was Friday night in a big city, and they had far more pressing matters with violent crimes, drug dealers, and drunk teenagers.
“Well, the prank certainly worked,” she said.
Mr. Brammer from next door walked over and the cops quizzed him. Jeri hadn’t spoken to him in weeks; same for all of her neighbors. She was known as a recluse and not that friendly.
He told her to call if it happened again. The police were ready to leave and promised to patrol the area for the next few hours. After they were gone, she refortified her condo and sat on the sofa, all lights on. Thinking the unthinkable.
Bannick knew it was her. He had been to her house, rang her doorbell, left behind her poems. And he would be back.
She thought about calling Denise, but why frighten her? She was a thousand miles away and could do nothing to help. She thought about calling Lacy, just so someone would know. But she was three hours away and probably wouldn’t take the call at such an hour.
At midnight she turned off all the lights and sat in the dark, waiting.
An hour later, she packed a small bag and, pistol in hand, left through her back door and got in the car. She drove away, eyes glued to the rearview mirror, and saw nothing suspicious. She zigzagged through quiet neighborhoods, turned east on Interstate 10, and when the downtown lights were behind her she relaxed, relieved to be out of the city. She took an exit and went south toward the Gulf on Highway 59. The road was deserted at that hour and she was certain no one was following. Through the towns of Robertsdale and Foley. She parked at an all-night convenience store and watched the road behind her. A car passed every ten minutes. The highway stopped at the beach in Gulf Shores. East or west were the choices. Bannick was probably still lurking around Mobile, so she turned left and drove through the beachside towns in Alabama, then crossed into Florida. For an hour she drifted along Highway 98 until a traffic light stopped her in Fort Walton Beach. A car had been behind her for a few miles and it was odd because there was virtually no other traffic. On a whim, she turned north on Highway 85, but the car did not follow. Half an hour later she crossed Interstate 10 and saw signs for fast food, gas, and lodging.
She needed to rest and was attracted to the bright lights and half-empty parking lot of the Bayview Motel. She parked, put her pistol in her bag, and went in to get a room.
Twenty minutes later, Bannick turned in to the parking lot. He sat with his laptop in his SUV, again with Alabama tags, and reserved a room online. When the confirmation email landed he waited ten minutes and replied that there had been a problem with the reservation. Please look at his attachment. When the clerk did so, Rafe eased through the rather lame security system and began fishing around the network.
Since 9:28 the previous evening, only one guest had checked in, a Margie Frazier, who evidently used a prepaid credit card.
How cute, thought the judge. She likes to use different names.
Rafe found her in room 232. Across the hall, 233 appeared to be vacant. Down the hall was an exit door and stairwell, for emergencies only.
The motel used a typical electronic keycard system with a master switch for fire evacuations. Rafe found the lighting smart panel, and for fun the judge flipped off the lights in the lobby, left the place in the dark for a few seconds, then turned them back on. Not a soul was stirring.
He entered the empty lobby and tapped the bell at the reception desk. Eventually, a sleepy-eyed young man appeared and said hello. They went through the quick paperwork for a single for one night only, with the judge chatting away. He asked for room 233, said he stayed in it six months earlier and slept for nine hours, a recent record. Wanted to try his luck again. Superstition and all that. The kid didn’t care.
He took the elevator to the second floor, eased into room 233 without a sound, and inspected the door. For added security, it had the square bar lock as well as the electronic dead bolt. Nothing fancy, but then it was a tourist motel renting rooms for $99 a night. He pulled on a pair of flesh-colored plastic gloves, opened his laptop, hooked up with Rafe, and looked at the security and lighting systems.
Margie was across the hall in 232. Next door, 234 was vacant. For practice, he instructed Rafe to unlock all room doors, then he stepped over to 234 and opened it by simply turning the knob. Back in his room he relocked all the doors, then arranged his tools on the cheap credenza, carefully laying out a small bottle of ether, a microfiber cloth, a small flashlight, and a latch bypass blade. He put these in the front pockets of a vest he’d worn on several of these special occasions. Beside the tool bag he gently arranged a hypodermic needle and a small bottle of ketamine, a strong barbiturate used for anesthesia.
He stretched his back, took some deep breaths, and reminded himself of two important truths: first—he had no choice; second—failure was not an option.
It was eighteen minutes past 3:00 a.m., Saturday, April 26.
With his laptop, he instructed Rafe to first unlock all doors, then kill the electricity. Everything was instantly black. With the flashlight between his teeth, he opened his door, stepped across the hall, quietly turned the knob to 232, slid the latch bypass blade through the crack, pushed back the square bar lock, opened the door two feet wide, got on his knees, turned off the flashlight, and crawled into the room. As far as he knew at that moment, he had not made a sound.
She was sleeping. He listened to her heavy breathing, smiled, and knew that the rest would be easy. Feeling his way, he inched beside her bed, removed a microfiber cloth soaked with ether from his vest pocket, clicked on the flashlight, and attacked. Jeri was sleeping on her side, under the sheets, and knew nothing was wrong until a heavy hand slapped her mouth and pressed so hard she couldn’t breathe. Groggy, bewildered, terrified, she tried to wiggle free but her assailant was strong and had every advantage. The last thing she remembered was the sweet taste of something on a cloth pad.
He checked the hallway—pitch blackness, no voices anywhere. He dragged her into his room and situated her on the bed, then went to the laptop and turned on the electricity.
He had never seen her before. Average height, slender, sort of pretty though hard to tell with her eyes closed. She had gone to bed in black yoga pants and a faded blue T-shirt, probably ready to run again at a moment’s notice. He drew 500 milligrams of ketamine and shot her in her left arm. The drug should keep her out for three to four hours. He hurried back to her room, got her sneakers and a light jacket, noticed the pistol on the nightstand, a 9-millimeter automatic, for a split second considered himself lucky she didn’t use it, left the room, and closed the door.
His SUV was parked as close to the exterior stairwell as possible. He tossed his bag inside, opened the hatch, looked around the parking lot and saw nothing, then returned to his room. He went to his laptop, switched off the electricity, double-checked to make sure all security cameras were off, then lifted Jeri from the bed, flung her over his shoulder, grunted, and hurried down the hallway and down the stairs. He stopped at the edge of the building for another look, again saw nothing moving, no headlights anywhere, and hurried through the dark shadows to his SUV.
Breathing heavily now, and sweating, he returned to his room to gather his laptop, her sneakers and jacket, and to make sure nothing was left behind. At 3:38, he left the parking lot of the Bayview Motel and headed east along the coast.