Authors: John Grisham
“I do, and I can’t imagine it. I can recall, with horror, my con law course.”
“That seems to be the norm. The eighty students, all first year, who were lucky enough to get in, knew that he could be tough. He expected them to be prepared and ready to express themselves.”
Her eyes moistened again as she remembered her father. Lacy smiled and nodded and tried to encourage her.
“Dad loved to lecture, and he also loved the Socratic method of teaching, where he would select a student at random and ask him or her to brief a case for the benefit of the class. If the student made a mistake, or couldn’t hold her ground, then the discussion often became contentious. Over the years I’ve talked to many of his former students, and while all still express admiration, they still shudder at the thought of trying to argue con law with Professor Burke. He was feared, but in the end greatly admired. And every former student was shocked by his murder. Who could possibly want to kill Professor Burke?”
“You’ve talked to former students?”
“Yes. Under the guise of collecting anecdotes about my father for a possible book. I’ve been doing this for years. The book will never be written but it’s a great way to initiate a conversation. Just say you’re working on a book and people start talking. I have at least two dozen photographs sent by his former students. Dad at graduation. Dad drinking a beer at a student softball game. Dad on the bench during moot court. All little slices of college life. They loved him.”
“I’m sure you have a file.”
“Of course. Not here, but I’m happy to show it to you.”
“Maybe later. We were talking about motive.”
“Yes. Well, many years ago I was talking to a lawyer in Orlando who studied under my father, and he told me an interesting story. There was a kid in his class who was rank and file, nothing special. My father called on him in class one day to discuss a case involving the Fourth Amendment, searches and seizures. The kid was prepared but believed something contrary to what my father was saying, and so they had a pretty good row. My father loved it when students became passionate and fought back. But this student made some comments that were a bit extreme and out of line, and he was somewhat cocky in the way he bantered with Professor Burke, who managed to wrap things up with a laugh. The next class, the student probably figured that he was off the hook for a while, and came in unprepared. Dad called on him again. Trying to wing it was an unpardonable sin, and the student flamed out in a big way. Two days later, Professor Burke called on this student for the third time. He was prepared and ready to fight. Back and forth they went as Dad slowly boxed him into a corner. It’s not wise to argue with any professor who’s taught the same material for years, but this guy was arrogant and sure of himself. The knockout punch was a one-liner that destroyed the student’s position and brought down the house. He was humiliated and he totally lost it. He cursed, flung a notebook, snatched his backpack and stomped out of the classroom, the door almost shattering behind him.
“With perfect timing, my father said, ‘I’m not sure he’s cut out for jury trials.’
“The classroom exploded with laughter, so loud the student could not have missed it. He dropped the class and began a counterattack. He complained to the dean and the president. He considered himself a laughingstock and eventually withdrew from the law school. He wrote letters to alumni, politicians, other professors, some really bizarre behavior. He wrote letters to my father. They were remarkably well written but rambling and not really threatening. The last letter was sent from a private mental health facility near Fort Lauderdale and written in longhand on its stationery. In it he claimed to be suffering from a nervous breakdown caused entirely by my father.”
She paused and took a drink of water.
Lacy waited, then said, “That’s it? Motive is a disgruntled law student?”
“Yes, but it’s far more complicated than that.”
“Let’s hope so. What happened to him?”
“He got his head together and finished law school at Miami. Now he’s a judge. Look, I know you’re skeptical, and with good reason, but he is the only possible suspect in the world.”
“Why is it more complicated?”
Jeri took a long look at the files at the end of the table. There were five of them, all an inch thick, each a different color. Lacy followed her gaze, finally caught her drift, and asked, “And those are five more victims of the same killer?”
“If I didn’t think so I wouldn’t be here.”
“I’m sure there is a connection.”
“There are two. One is the method. All six were hit in the head and then asphyxiated with the identical type of nylon rope. Each ligature was grated into the skin of the neck and tied off by the same knot and left behind, sort of like a calling card. And all six had a bad history with our judge.”
“A bad history?”
“He knew them well. And he stalked them for years.”
Lacy caught her breath, swallowed hard, and felt a clutching fear in her stomach. Her mouth was suddenly dry, but she managed to say, “Don’t tell me his name. I’m not sure I’m ready for it.”
There was a long gap in the conversation as both women gazed at the walls. Lacy finally said, “Look, I’ve heard enough for one day. Let me stew on this and I’ll give you a call.”
Jeri smiled and nodded and was suddenly subdued. They swapped phone numbers and said their goodbyes. Lacy hurried through the lobby and couldn’t wait to get in her car.
Her apartment was a chic, ultra-modern unit in a newly renovated warehouse not far from the Florida State campus. She lived alone, at least most of the time, with Frankie, her obnoxious French bulldog. The dog was always waiting at the door, turning flips to urinate in the flower beds, regardless of the hour. Lacy let him outside for a pee, then poured a glass of wine, fell onto the sofa, and stared out the large plate glass window.
It was early March, the days were getting longer but they were still too short. She had grown up in the Midwest and did not miss the cold dark winters with too much snow and too little sunshine. She loved the Panhandle with its mild winters, real seasons, and long warm spring days. In two weeks the clock would change, the days would lengthen, and the college town would get even livelier with backyard cookouts, pool parties, rooftop cocktails, and outdoor dining. And that was for the adults. The students would live in the sun, head for the beach, and work on their tans.
After twelve years of investigating judges, Lacy considered herself immune from shock. She was also calloused and jaded enough to have serious doubts about Jeri’s story, much the same way she doubted every complaint that landed on her desk.
But Jeri Crosby wasn’t lying.
Her theories might be wrong; her hunches off-base; her fears unfounded. But she believed that her father was murdered by a sitting judge.
Lacy had left their meeting at the Ramada with nothing. The one file she opened had been left on the table for Jeri to deal with. Curiosity settled in. She checked her phone and saw two missed calls from Allie Pacheco, her boyfriend. He was out of town and she would chat with him later. She fetched her laptop and began searching.
The Twenty-Second Judicial District encompassed three counties in the far northwest corner of the state. Among the 400,000 or so people who lived in the Twenty-Second were forty-one circuit judges, elected by that same population. In her twelve years at BJC, Lacy could remember only two or three minor cases from the Twenty-Second. Of the forty-one judges, fifteen had been elected in 2004, the year Jeri said her suspect took the bench. Of those fifteen, only one finished law school at the University of Miami.
In less than ten minutes, Lacy had the name of Ross Bannick.
He was forty-nine, a native of Pensacola, undergrad at the University of Florida, no mention of a wife or family. Scant bio on the judicial district’s website. His photo portrayed a rather handsome guy with dark eyes, strong chin, and lots of salt-and-pepper hair. Lacy found him quite attractive and wondered why he wasn’t married. Maybe he was divorced. She dug some more without getting too deep and found little about Judge Bannick. Evidently, he had managed to avoid controversy during his two-and-a-half terms on the bench. She went to her BJC files and found no complaint filed against him. In Florida, lawyers were expected to submit an annual review of the judges they encountered, anonymously of course. For the past five years, Bannick had received a stellar A+ rating from the bar. The comments were glowing: prompt, punctual, prepared, courteous, professional, witty, compassionate, bright, an “intimidating intellect.” Only two other judges in the Twenty-Second received such high marks.
She kept digging and finally found some dirt. It was a newspaper article from the
dated April 18, 2000. A local lawyer, Ross Bannick, age thirty-five, was seeking his first political office and trying to unseat an old judge in the Twenty-Second. Controversy arose when one of Bannick’s clients, a real estate developer, proposed a water park on some prime property near a Pensacola beach. The park was strongly opposed by seemingly everyone, and in the midst of the lawsuits and related brouhaha it was revealed that lawyer Bannick owned a 10 percent stake in the venture. The facts were not that clear, but it was alleged that he tried to hide his involvement. His opponent seized the moment and ran ads that proved fatal. The election returns, from a later edition of the paper, showed a landslide defeat for Bannick. Though it was impossible to determine with such scant evidence, it looked as though he had done nothing wrong. Nonetheless, he was beaten badly by the incumbent.
Lacy dug some more and found the election coverage from 2004. There was a photo of the old judge, who appeared to be at least ninety, and two stories about his declining health. Bannick ran a slick campaign and the controversy from four years earlier was apparently forgotten. He won his race by a thousand votes. His opponent died three months later.
Lacy realized she was hungry and pulled a leftover quiche out of the fridge. Allie had been gone for three nights and she had not been cooking. She poured more wine and sat at her kitchen table, pecking away. In 2008, Bannick was unopposed for reelection. Sitting circuit judges rarely faced serious opposition in Florida, or any other state for that matter, and he seemed to be set for a long career on the bench.
Her phone pinged and she jumped. Lost in another world, she had even forgotten about the quiche. Caller unknown.
“Got his name yet?” Jeri asked.
Lacy smiled and replied, “It wasn’t difficult. Miami Law, elected in 2004 in the Twenty-Second. That narrowed it down to one.”
“Nice-looking guy, huh?”
“Yes. Why is he not married?”
“Don’t get any ideas.”
“He has a problem with women, part of his long history.”
Lacy took a deep breath. “Okay. I don’t suppose you’ve met him?”
“Oh no. Wouldn’t go near him. He has security cameras everywhere—his courtroom, office, home.”
“Weird doesn’t touch it.”
“Are you in the car?”
“I’m driving to Pensacola, maybe on to Mobile. I don’t suppose you could meet me tomorrow.”
“That’s three hours from here.”
“Tell me about it.”
“And what would be the purpose of our meeting?”
“I have only one purpose in life, Lacy, and you know what it is.”
“I have a busy day.”
“They’re all busy, aren’t they?”
“Okay. Then please put me on the calendar and let me know when we can meet there.”
“Sure. I’ll take a look.”
There was a long gap in the conversation, so long that Lacy finally asked, “Are you there?”
“Yes. Sorry. I tend to drift. Have you found much online?”
“Some. Several stories about his elections, all from the
“How about the one from 2000 about the land deal, in bed with the crooked developer, the one that cost him the election?”
“Yes. I’ve read that one.”
“I have all of them in a file, whenever you want to take it.”
“Okay, we’ll see.”
“That reporter was a guy named Danny Cleveland, originally from up north somewhere. He spent about six years with the
then moved around some. The newspaper in Little Rock, Arkansas, was his last stop.”
“Yes. They found him in his apartment. Asphyxiation. Same rope, same unusual knot. Sailors call it the double clove hitch, pretty rare. Another unsolved mystery, another very cold case.”
Lacy struggled to respond and noticed that her left hand was shaking.
“Are you still there?” Jeri asked.
“I think so. When was—”
“Two thousand nine. Not a trace of evidence left behind. Look, Lacy, we’re talking too much on the phone. I prefer face-to-face. Let me know when we can meet again.” She abruptly ended the call.
Her romance with Allie Pacheco was now into its third year and, in her opinion, was stalling. He was thirty-eight years old and, though he denied it, even in therapy, he was still scarred from a terrible first marriage eleven years earlier. It had lasted four miserable months and, mercifully, ended without a pregnancy.
The biggest obstacle to a more serious arrangement was a fact that was becoming more and more obvious: both enjoyed the freedom of living alone. Since high school, Lacy had not lived with a man in the house and she wasn’t keen on having one around. She had loved her father but remembered him as a domineering, chauvinistic sort who treated his wife like a maid. Her mother, always subservient, excused his behavior and whispered over and over, “It’s just his generation.”
It was a lame excuse and one Lacy vowed to never accept. Allie was indeed different. He was kind, thoughtful, funny, and, for the most part, attentive to her. He was also an FBI special agent who these days was spending most of his time in south Florida chasing narco-traffickers. When things were slow, which was rare, he was assigned to counterterrorism. There was even talk of him being transferred. After eight years as a special agent with no shortage of commendations, he was always on the block to be shipped out. At least, in Lacy’s opinion.
He kept a toothbrush and a shaving kit in her spare bathroom, along with some sweats and casual stuff in a closet, enough to sleep over whenever he wanted. She, on the other hand, maintained a presence in his small apartment fifteen minutes away. Pajamas, old sneakers, older jeans, a toothbrush, and some fashion magazines on the coffee table. Neither was the jealous type, but each had quietly marked their territory in the other’s place.
Lacy would have been shocked to learn that Allie slept around. He just wasn’t the type. Nor was she. Their challenge, with his travel and their demanding schedules, was keeping each other satisfied. It was taking more and more effort, and that was because, as a close girlfriend said, “You’re approaching middle age.” Lacy had been appalled at that term and for the next month chased Allie from her condo to his apartment and back, until both were exhausted and called time-out.
He checked in at seven thirty and they chatted for a moment. He was “on surveillance,” whatever that meant, and couldn’t say much. She knew he was somewhere around Miami. They both said “I love you” and rang off.
As a seasoned agent whose career meant everything, Allie was the consummate professional, and as such said little about his work, to Lacy anyway. To those he hardly knew he would not even give the name of his employer. If pressed, his standard reply was “Security.” He pronounced the word with such authority that further questions were cut off. His friends were other agents. There were times, though, maybe after a drink or two, that he lowered his guard a bit and talked, in generic terms, about his work. It was often dangerous and he, like most agents, lived for the adrenaline rush.
By comparison, her cases were the same mundane complaints about judges drinking too much, taking gifts from law firms, dragging their feet, showing partiality, and getting involved in local politics.
Six murders would certainly liven up her caseload.
She sent an email to her boss with the message that she had decided to take a personal day tomorrow and would not be in the office. The handbook gave her four PDs a year, with no questions asked. She rarely took one, and even had three left over from the previous year.
Lacy called Jeri and made arrangements to meet at one o’clock the next day in Pensacola.