Authors: John Grisham
But for Frankie, her PD would have begun with sleeping in, something she could only dream of. The dog was making noises before sunrise and needed to go outside. Afterward, Lacy stretched out on the sofa and tried to nap, but Frankie decided it was time for breakfast. So Lacy sipped her coffee and watched the day slowly arrive.
Her thoughts were a mix of excitement over the meeting with Jeri and the usual angst over her career. In seven months she would turn forty, a reality that saddened her. She was enjoying her life but it was slipping by, with no real plans to marry. She had never longed for children of her own and had already decided it wouldn’t happen. And she was fine with that. All her friends had children, some even teenagers, and she was thankful she wasn’t burdened with those challenges. She could not imagine finding the patience to raise kids in the age of cell phones, drugs, casual sex, social media, and everything else on the Internet.
She had joined BJC twelve years earlier. She should have left years ago, like virtually all the colleagues she had known. BJC was a nice place to begin a career but a dead end for any serious lawyer. Her best friend from law school was a partner in a mega-firm in Washington, but it was an all-consuming lifestyle that she wanted no part of. Their friendship required work, and Lacy often asked herself if it was worth it. Her other girlfriends from back then had drifted away, all scattered around the country, all consumed with busy lives at their desks, and, when time allowed, at home with their families.
Lacy wasn’t sure where to look, or what she wanted, so she had hung around BJC for too long and now worried that she had missed better opportunities. Her biggest case, her pinnacle, was behind her. Three years earlier she had led an investigation that took down a circuit judge in the largest judicial bribery scandal in Florida history. She had caught the judge in bed with a crime syndicate that was skimming millions from an Indian casino. The criminals were now locked away in federal prisons with years to serve.
The case was sensational, and for a brief period of time gave BJC its finest hour. Most of her colleagues quickly parlayed the success into better jobs. The legislature, however, showed its gratitude with another round of budget cuts.
Her pinnacle had cost her dearly. She had been severely injured in a staged auto accident near the casino. She spent weeks in a hospital and months in physical therapy. Her injuries had healed but the aches and stiffness were still there. Hugo Hatch, her friend, colleague, and passenger, had been killed at the scene. His widow filed a wrongful death suit and Lacy pursued her own case for damages. The litigation looked promising, a nice settlement was all but guaranteed, but it was dragging on, as do most civil lawsuits.
She found it impossible not to think about the settlement. A pile of money was almost on the table, funds that were being aggregated by the government forfeiture of dirty assets. But the issues, both criminal and civil, were complicated. There was no shortage of aggrieved people, and their hungry lawyers, clamoring for the cash.
Her case was not yet set for trial, and she had been assured from the beginning that it would never happen. Her lawyer was confident the defendants were horrified at the prospect of facing a jury and trying to explain away the intricate planning of a deliberate crash that killed Hugo and injured her. Settlement negotiations should commence any day now, and the opening round would be in excess of “seven figures.”
Turning forty might be traumatic, but doing so with a fortified bank account would take some of the sting out of it. She had a decent salary, some money inherited from her mother, no debts, and plenty of savings. The settlement would push her over the edge and allow her to walk away. To where, she wasn’t sure, but it was certainly fun to think about. Her days at BJC were numbered, and that in itself made her smile. It was almost time for a new career, and the fact that she didn’t have a clue as to where she might go was actually exhilarating.
In the meantime, though, she had a few files to close, a few judges to investigate. Normally, she began each day with a pep talk to force herself back to the office, but not today. She was intrigued by Jeri Crosby and her fantastic story about a murderous judge. She had doubts about its veracity, but was curious enough to take the next step. What if it were true? What if Lacy Stoltz topped off her stellar career with another pinnacle? Another glorious moment that solved half a dozen cold cases and captured headlines. She told herself to stop dreaming and get on with the day.
She took a quick shower, spent a few minutes with her hair and makeup, threw on some jeans and sneakers, put down food and water for Frankie, and left her apartment. At the first intersection, she eased through a yield sign, one that always reminded her of her car crash. It was odd how certain landmarks triggered certain memories, and each morning she looked at the sign and flashed back. The memory was gone in an instant, until the next day. Three years after the nightmare, she was still cautious behind the wheel, always yielding, never exceeding the limit.
At the western edge of town, away from the Capitol and the campus, she pulled into an old shopping center, parked, and at 8:05 entered Bonnie’s Big Breakfast, a local hangout with no students, no lobbyists. As always, it was crowded with salesmen and cops. She picked up a newspaper and found a seat at the counter, not far from the kitchen window where the waitresses chirped at the cooks, who snapped back their own colorful comments. The menu offered a poached egg on avocado toast that was legendary, and Lacy treated herself to it at least once a month. As she waited, she checked her email and texts and was pleased that all the important messages could be put off for twenty-four hours. She sent a note to Darren with the news that she would not be in.
He replied quickly and asked if she was quitting.
Such was the mood around BJC these days. Those still hanging around were suspected of planning their escapes.
At 9:30, Lacy was on Interstate 10 going west. It was March 4, a Tuesday, and each week on that day at about that hour she expected a call from her older brother and only sibling, Gunther. He lived in Atlanta where he was a player in the real estate development business. Regardless of the market, he was always upbeat and on the verge of another major deal, conversations that Lacy had grown weary of but had no choice but to endure. He worried about her and usually hinted that she should shuck her job and come make some big bucks with him. She always politely declined. Gunther lived on a tightrope and seemed to relish borrowing from one bank to pay another, always one step ahead of the bankruptcy lawyers. The last career she could imagine was building more strip malls in the Atlanta suburbs. Another recurring nightmare was having Gunther for a boss.
They had always been close, but seven months earlier their mother had died suddenly and the loss made them even closer. And, Lacy suspected, so had her pending lawsuit. Gunther believed she was due millions and had developed the irritating habit of tossing around investment advice for his kid sister. She was not looking forward to the day when he needed a loan. Gunther lived in a world of debt and would promise the moon to secure more of it.
“Hey Sis,” he said cheerfully. “How’s it going down there?”
“I’m fine, Gunther. And you?”
“Got the tiger by the tail. How’s Allie? How’s your love life?”
“Pretty dull. He’s out of town a lot these days. And yours?”
“Not much to report.” Recently divorced, he chased women with the same enthusiasm as he did banks, and she really didn’t want to hear about it. After two failed marriages she had encouraged him to be more selective, advice he routinely ignored.
“You sound like you’re in the car,” he said.
“I’m driving to Pensacola to chase down a witness. Nothing exciting.”
“You always say that. Are you still looking for another job?”
“I never said I was looking for another job. I said that I’m getting a bit bored with the one I have.”
“There’s more action up here, kid.”
“So you’ve said. I don’t suppose you’ve talked to Aunt Trudy lately.”
“Not if I can help it, you know?”
Trudy was their mother’s sister, a real busybody who was working too hard to keep the family together. She was grieving over her sister’s sudden death and wanted to share her misery with her niece and nephew.
“She called two days ago, sounded awful,” Lacy said.
“She always sounds awful. That’s why I can’t talk to her. Strange, isn’t it? We barely spoke to the woman until Mom died, and now she really wants to be pals.”
“She’s struggling, Gunther. Give her a break.”
“Who’s not struggling these days? Oops. Look, got another call. It’s a banker who wants to throw some money at me. Gotta go. Will call later. Love you, Sis.”
Most of their Tuesday chats ended abruptly when he was besieged with other, more important calls. Lacy was relieved, because he usually asked about her lawsuit. She called Darren at the office just to say hello and reassure him that she would indeed be back tomorrow. She called Allie and left a voicemail. She turned off her phone and turned on the stereo.
Adele Live in London.
Thanks to GPS, she found the Brookleaf Cemetery in an old section of Pensacola and parked in the empty lot. Just ahead was a square, bunker-like building that could only be a mausoleum, and beyond it were acres and acres of tombstones and monuments. It was a slow day for burials and there was only one other car.
She was ten minutes early and punched in Jeri’s number. She answered with “Are you in the copper-colored Subaru?”
“I am. Where are you?”
“I’m in the cemetery. Go through the main gate and past the old graves.”
Lacy walked along a paved trail lined with weathered monuments and family tombs, the last stops for the prominent from other centuries. With time the tombs lost their significance and yielded to elaborate headstones. Quick looks to both sides dated burials to mere decades ago. The trail turned to the left, and Jeri Crosby appeared from behind one of the few trees left standing.
“Hello, Lacy,” she said with a smile.
“Hello, Jeri. Why are we meeting in a cemetery?”
“Thought you might ask. I could say it’s privacy, a change of scenery, other reasons.”
“Let’s pursue the other reasons.”
“Sure.” She nodded and said, “This way.” They walked past hundreds of headstones and could see thousands in the distance. On a slight incline far away, a crew of gravediggers labored under a purple canopy. Another casket was on the way. “Here,” Jeri said as she stepped off the trail and wound her way around a row of graves. She stopped and nodded silently at the final resting place of the Leawood family. Father, infant daughter, and son Thad, who was born in 1950 and died in 1991.
After staring at the single headstone for a moment or so, Lacy was about to start asking questions when Jeri said, “Thad was a local boy, grew up around here, went off to college, came back, got a job as a social worker. Never married. He was an Eagle Scout and loved scouting, loved working with kids. Coached youth baseball, taught kids in church, that sort of stuff. Lived alone in a small apartment not far from here. In his mid-twenties he became scoutmaster of Troop 722, one of the oldest troops in the area. He treated it like a full-time job and seemed to love every minute of it. Many of his former scouts still remember him fondly. Others, not so much. Around 1990, he abruptly quit and left the area amid allegations of abuse and molestation. It became a scandal and the police opened an investigation, but nothing came of it because the victims backed away. Can’t really blame them. Who would want the attention? After he left town, things settled down and the alleged victims went silent. The police lost interest. After he died, the case was closed.”
“He died young,” Lacy observed and waited for more.
“He did. He lived in Birmingham for a while, then drifted here and there. They found him in Signal Mountain, a small town outside of Chattanooga. He was living in a cheap apartment and driving a forklift in a warehouse. Went out for a jog one evening and never came back. Some kids found his body in the woods. The same rope around his neck. A nasty blow to the head, then asphyxiation. As far as I can tell, he was the first, but who knows?”
“I’m sure you have a file.”
“Oh yes. There were stories in the Chattanooga paper, and the
covered it down here. A short obit. The family brought him back for a simple ceremony. And here he is. Seen enough?”
They followed the trail back to their cars. Jeri said, “Get in and I’ll drive. It’s a brief tour. Have you had lunch?”
“No. I’m not hungry.”
They got in Jeri’s white Toyota Camry and drove away. She was extremely cautious and nervously checked her rearview mirror. Lacy finally said, “You act as though someone is following you.”
“That’s the way I live, Lacy. We’re on his turf now.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“Dead serious. For twenty years I’ve stalked the killer and at times I think he’s stalking me. He’s back there, somewhere, and he’s smarter than I am.”
“But he’s not following you?”
“I can’t be certain.”
“You don’t know for sure?”
“I don’t think so.”
Lacy bit her tongue and let it go.
A few blocks away Jeri turned onto a wider street and nodded at a church. “That’s the Westburg Methodist Church, one of the largest in town. In the basement there is a large fellowship room, and that’s where Troop 722 has met forever.”
“Can I assume that Ross Bannick was a member of the troop?”
They drove past the church and weaved through several streets. Lacy bit her tongue to suppress a flood of questions. It was apparent that Jeri was telling the story at her own pace. She turned onto Hemlock, a lovely shaded street with prewar homes, all well preserved with narrow drives and flower beds around the porches. Jeri pointed and said, “That blue one up there on the left, that’s where the Bannick family lived. Ross grew up there and, as you can tell, he could walk to school and church, and Boy Scouts. His parents are dead and his sister got the house. She’s a good bit older. He inherited some land next door in Chavez County, and that’s where he lives. Alone. Never married.”
They drove past the house. Lacy finally asked, “Was his family prominent?”
“His father was a beloved pediatrician who died at the age of sixty-one. His mother was an eccentric artist who went nuts and died in an institution. The family was fairly well known back then. They were members of the Episcopal church just around the corner. Evidently it was a nice, cozy little neighborhood.”
“Any allegations that he was molested by Thad Leawood?”
“None. And no evidence of it. As I said yesterday, Lacy, I have no evidence. Only assumptions based on unfounded theories.”
Lacy almost said something sarcastic but let it go. They turned onto a wider street and drove for a few minutes with no conversation. Jeri turned and the streets were narrower, the houses smaller, the lawns not as well manicured. She pointed to her right and said, “Up there, the white frame house with the brown pickup. That’s where the Leawoods lived. Thad grew up there. He was fifteen years older than Ross.”
They drove past the house. Lacy asked, “Who lives there now?”
“Don’t know. It’s not important. All the Leawoods are gone.”
Jeri turned at an intersection, then zigzagged away from the residential areas. They were on a busy highway headed north. Finally, Lacy asked, “So how much longer is the tour?”
“We’re getting there.”
“Okay. As we drive around, mind if I ask some questions?”
“The crime scene, up in Signal Mountain, and the investigation. What do you know?”
“Almost nothing. The killing was in an area that was popular with joggers and walkers, but there were no witnesses. According to the autopsy, the time of death was between seven and eight p.m., on a warm day in October. Leawood punched the clock at the warehouse at five-oh-five, the usual time, and left. He lived alone and kept to himself, very few friends. A neighbor saw him jog away from his apartment around six thirty, and as far as the police know, that was the last he was seen. He lived at the edge of town, not far from where the walking trail begins.”
The traffic thinned as they left the sprawl of Pensacola. A sign read:
Lacy said, “I take it we’re going to Cullman.”
“Yes. We’ll cross into Chavez County in about two miles.”
“Be patient, Lacy. This is not easy for me. You’re the only person I’ve confided in and you have to trust me.”
“Back to the crime scene.”
“Yes, back to the crime scene. The police found nothing. No hairs or fabrics, no blunt instrument, nothing but the nylon rope around his neck, tied off with the same knot, a double clove hitch.”
“And it was the same type of nylon rope?”
“Yes. Identical to the others.”
A sign informed them that they were now in Chavez County. Lacy asked, “We’re dropping in on Judge Bannick?”
“No we are not.”
They turned onto a four-lane highway and began passing the sprawl of Cullman: fast-food restaurants, travel motels, shopping centers.
Lacy asked, “So, what did the police do?”
“The usual. They dug around, went door to door, talked to other joggers and walkers, and coworkers, found a friend or two. Searched his apartment, nothing was missing, so they ruled out robbery as a motive. They did their best but got nowhere.”
“And this was 1991?”
“Yes. A very cold case with no clues.”
Lacy was learning patience and took deep breaths between questions. “I’m sure you have all of this in a file.”
“How do you gather this information from the police? They are notoriously protective of their files.”
“Freedom of Information requests. They’ll comply to some degree, but you’re right, they’ll never give you everything. All they have to do is claim it’s an ongoing investigation and slam the door. However, with the old cases they sometimes relax a little. That, plus I go talk to them.”
“Doesn’t that leave a trail?”
They turned off the highway onto an exit ramp and followed a sign pointing toward the historic downtown. “Ever been to Cullman?” Jeri asked.
“I don’t think so. I checked last night, and BJC has not had a case here in the past twenty years. Several in Pensacola, but things have been quiet in Chavez County.”
“How many counties do you cover?”
“Too many. We have four investigators in the Tallahassee office and three in Fort Lauderdale. That’s seven for sixty-seven counties, one thousand judges, six hundred courtrooms.”
“Is that enough?”
“For the most part. Thankfully, the vast majority of our judges behave, with only a few bad apples.”
“Well, you’ve got one here.”
Lacy did not respond. They were on an extended section of Main Street. Jeri turned off of it, turned again, and paused at an intersection. Across the road was an entrance to a gated community. Behind the gate were modern homes and condos with small neat lawns.
Jeri said, “Dr. Bannick bought this land raw forty years ago and it was a good investment. Ross lives in there, and this is as close as we’ll get. There are a lot of surveillance cameras.”
“I’m close enough,” Lacy said, and wanted to ask about the benefits of knowing where he lived. But she held her tongue. As they drove away she said, “Let’s get back to the local police up there. How do you talk to them without worrying about leaving a trail?”
Jeri chuckled and offered a smile, a rare one. “I’ve created a fictional world, Lacy, and in it I am many characters. A freelance journalist, a crime reporter, a private investigator, even a novelist, all with different names and addresses. In this case, I posed as a crime reporter from Memphis, working on a long story about cold cases in Tennessee. Gave the chief my business card, even a phone number and email. Short skirts and a lot of charm can work wonders. They’re all men, you know, the weaker sex. After a few friendly chats they open up, somewhat.”
“How many phones do you have?”
“Oh, I don’t know. At least half a dozen.”
Lacy shook her head in disbelief.
“Plus, you have to remember that this case is all but forgotten. It’s considered ‘cold’ for a reason. Once the police realized they had nothing to work with, they lost interest in a hurry. The victim was not from their town and had no family to poke around and pressure them. The crime seemed thoroughly random and impossible to solve. In some of these cold cases the cops even welcome a fresh set of eyes digging through the file.”
They were back on Main Street, in the historic section. A stately Grecian courthouse came into view, in the very center of the town. The square around it was busy with shops and offices.
“That’s where he works,” Jeri said, looking at the courthouse. “We won’t go in.”
“I’ve seen enough.”
“There are cameras everywhere.”
“Do you really think Bannick would recognize you? I mean, come on. You’ve never met the man and he has no idea who you are or what you’re after, right?”
“Right, but why take the chance? Actually, I walked in one time, years ago. It was the first day of a term and the courthouse was crawling with people, over a hundred prospective jurors summoned for duty. I stayed in the crowd and had a look around. His courtroom is on the second floor, his office just down the hall. It was really weird, almost overwhelming, just being in the same place as the man who killed my father.”
Lacy was struck by the certainty of her words. With no proof, no evidence, she was convinced Bannick was a murderer. And she, Lacy, was expected to get involved and somehow find truth and justice.
They circled the square and left downtown. Jeri said, “I need some coffee. You?”
“Sure. Is the tour over?”
“Yes, but we have much more to talk about.”