Authors: John Grisham
The painter’s name was Lanny Verno. Late on a Friday afternoon the previous October, he was on a ladder in the den of an unfinished home, one of several dozen packed together on an unpaved street in a sprawling new subdivision just outside the city limits of Biloxi. He was touching up the trim at the edge of a twelve-foot ceiling, a gallon bucket of white paint in one hand, a two-inch brush in the other. He was alone; his coworker had already left for the day, the week, and the bar. Lanny glanced at his watch and shook his head. Still working past five on a Friday. A radio in the kitchen played the latest country hits.
He was eager to get to the bar too, for a rowdy night of beer drinking, and he would have already been there but for the promise of a check. His contractor was to deliver one by quitting time, and Lanny was growing irritated as the minutes passed.
The front door was open, but the music drowned out the sound of a truck door closing in the driveway.
A man appeared in the den and greeted him with a friendly hello. “Name’s Butler, county inspector.”
“Come on in,” Verno said with hardly a look. The home was a construction site with steady foot traffic.
“Workin’ mighty late,” Butler drawled.
“Yeah, ready for a beer.”
“Anybody else here?”
“Nope, just me and I’m on the way out.” Verno glanced down again and noticed that the inspector had on disposable shoe covers, a soft blue in color. Odd, he thought for a second. Both hands were covered with matching disposable gloves. The guy must be some kind of germ nut. The right hand held a clipboard.
Butler said, “Remind me where the fuse box is.”
Verno nodded, said, “At the end of the hall.” He dipped his brush into the bucket and kept painting.
Butler left the den, walked down the hall, checked all three bedrooms and the two baths, and hurried to the kitchen. He glanced out the dining room window and saw no one. His pickup was parked in the drive behind what could only be a painter’s truck. He returned to the den and without a word shoved over the ladder. Verno yelled as he tumbled and crashed against the fireplace hearth, his head landing hard on the brick. Stunned, he tried to scramble and get his feet under him, but it was too late.
From his right pants pocket, Butler pulled out an eight-inch steel rod with a twelve-ounce lead ball on the tip. He affectionately called it Leddie. He flicked it like an expert and the telescopic rod doubled, then tripled in length. He karate-kicked Verno in the ribs and heard them crunch. Verno shrieked in pain, and before he could make another sound the lead ball landed squarely at the back of his cranium, shattering it like a raw eggshell. For practical purposes, he was all but dead. If left alone his body would rapidly shut down and his heart would beat slower and slower until the ten-minute mark, when he stopped breathing. But Butler couldn’t wait that long. From his left pants pocket he pulled out a short length of rope—⅜-inch nylon, double twin-braided, marine grade, bright blue and white in color. Quickly, he wrapped it twice around Verno’s neck, then rammed his knee into the spinal cord between his shoulder blades and yanked both ends of the rope savagely, snapping back his neck until the top vertebrae began popping.
In his final seconds, Verno grunted one last time and tried to move, as if his body instinctively fought to save itself. He was not a small man and in his younger days had been known to brawl, but with a rope cutting into his throat and his skull fractured, his body had lost all strength. The knee in his back kept him pinned while the monster tried to decapitate him. His last thought may have been one of amazement, at the power and strength of the guy with the goofy shoe covers.
Butler learned years ago that the fight belonged to the fittest. In those crucial seconds, strength and quickness were everything. For thirty years he had pumped iron, practiced karate and tae kwon do, not for his health and not to impress women, but for the surprise attacks.
After two minutes of strangulation, Verno went limp. Butler pulled even tighter, then looped the ends together like a veteran sailor and secured the rope in place with a perfect double clove hitch. He stood, careful to avoid the spattered blood, and allowed himself a few seconds to admire his work. The blood bothered him. There was too much of it and he loathed a messy crime scene. His surgical gloves were covered and there were some small flecks on his work khakis. He should have worn black pants. What was he thinking?
Otherwise, he rather admired the scene. The body was facedown, arms and legs at odd angles. Blood was slowly spreading from the corpse and contrasting nicely with the new pine flooring. The white paint had splattered across the hearth and against a wall, even reaching so far as a window. The ladder on its side was a nice touch. At first glance, the next person on the scene might think Verno had taken a bad fall and struck his head. A step closer, though, and the rope would tell another story.
Checklist: perimeter, phone, photo, blood, footprints. He glanced through a window and saw nothing moving in the street. He went to the kitchen and rinsed the gloves on his hands, then wiped everything carefully with a paper towel he crammed into a pocket. He closed the two back doors and locked them. Verno’s phone was on the counter next to his radio. Butler turned down the radio so he could hear and stuck the phone in his rear pocket. He picked up his clipboard and walked to the foyer where he stopped and breathed deeply. Don’t waste a second but never hurry.
He was about to reach for the knob to the front door when he heard the engine of a truck. Then a door slammed. He ducked into the dining room and glanced out the window. “Oh shit.”
It was an oversized Ram truck parked at the curb, with
dunwoody custom homes
painted on the driver’s door. Its driver was walking across the front yard, holding an envelope. Average height and weight, about fifty years old, with a slight limp. He would enter and immediately see Verno’s body in the den to his left. From that moment on, he would be aware of nothing else.
The killer calmly moved into position, ready with his weapon.
A husky voice called out, “Verno, where are you?” Steps, a pause, then “Lanny, you okay?” He took three steps into the den before the lead ball shattered the back of his skull. He fell hard, almost landing on Verno, and was too stunned, too wounded to look behind him. Butler hit him again and again, each blow splintering his cranium and spraying blood across the room.
Butler hadn’t brought enough rope for two strangulations, and besides, Dunwoody didn’t deserve one. Only the special people got the rope. Dunwoody groaned and thrashed as his mortal wounds shut down his organs. He turned his head and looked at Butler, his eyes red and glazed and seeing nothing. He tried to say something but only grunted again. Finally, he fell hard on his chest and stopped moving altogether. Butler waited patiently and watched him breathe. When he stopped, Butler took his cell phone out of a small pocket of his jacket and added it to his growing collection.
Suddenly, he felt like he had been there for an hour. He checked the street again, eased out the front door, and locked it behind him—all three doors were locked now, which might stall them for a few minutes—and climbed into his truck. Cap down, sunglasses on, though the day had been cloudy. He backed into the street and drove slowly away, just another inspector closing out a busy week.
He parked in a shopping center, far away from the stores and their cameras. He removed the surgical gloves and shoe covers and put them in a bag. He placed the two stolen phones on the seat where he could see and hear them. He tapped one and the name
flashed on the screen. He tapped the other and saw the name
. He was not about to get caught with the phones and would lose them in short order. He sat for a long time and collected his thoughts.
Verno had it coming. His name had been on the list for a long time as he drifted from one town to the next, from one bad romance to another, living from paycheck to paycheck. If he had not been such a shiftless and sorry bastard, his life might have been worth something. His early demise could have been avoided. He had signed his death warrant years earlier when he physically threatened the man who called himself Butler.
Dunwoody’s mistake was simply bad timing. He had never met Butler and certainly didn’t deserve such a violent end. Collateral damage, as they say in the military, but at that moment Butler didn’t like what he had done. He didn’t kill innocent people. Dunwoody was probably a decent man with a family and a company, maybe even went to church and played with his grandchildren.
Dunwoody’s phone blinked and hummed at two minutes after seven. “Marsha” was calling. No voicemail. She waited six minutes and called again.
Probably his wife, thought Butler. Really sad and all, but he had almost no capacity for sympathy, or remorse.
Collateral damage. It had not happened before, but he was proud of the way he handled it.
Mike Dunwoody had stopped drinking years earlier, and his Friday nights in the bars were now history. Marsha wasn’t worried about a relapse, though she still had vivid memories of the pub-crawling days with his buddies, almost all of whom worked in construction. In her last call that afternoon she had been specific: Stop by the grocery and get a pound of pasta and fresh garlic. She was making spaghetti and their daughter was coming over. He thought he would be home around six, after he dropped off some checks in the subdivision. With a dozen subs building eight houses, he lived on the phone, and if he didn’t take a call it usually meant he was on another line. If he missed a call, especially one from his wife, he returned it almost immediately.
At 7:31, Marsha called his cell for the third time. Butler looked at the screen and almost felt pity, but that lasted for only a second.
She called her son and asked him to drive to the subdivision and look for his father.
No one was calling Verno.
Butler was driving on county roads and heading north, away from the coast. He figured that by now the bodies had been discovered and the cops knew the phones were missing. It was time to get rid of them. He found the town of Neely, population 400, and drove through it. He had been there before, scouting. The only business that appeared to be open on a Friday night was a café on one end of the settlement. The post office was on the other end with an ancient blue drop box outside, next to a gravel drive. Butler parked in front of the tiny building, got out and walked to the door, opened it, went inside to the cramped lobby and saw a wall of small square rentals. Seeing no cameras inside or out, he left the building and casually dropped a 5×8 padded envelope in the drop box.
Dale Black was the elected sheriff of Harrison County. He had finished dinner with his wife and was leashing his dog for their nightly post-meal walk through the neighborhood. His wife was already outside, waiting, checking her phone. His buzzed and he wanted to cuss. It was the dispatcher, and any call at eight o’clock on a Friday night was not good news.
Twenty minutes later, he turned in to the new development and was met with an impressive display of emergency lights. He parked and hustled to the scene. A deputy, Mancuso, met him at the curb. The sheriff looked at a truck and said, “That’s Mike Dunwoody’s truck.”
“Damned sure is.”
“Inside. One of the two.”
“Oh yes. Cracked skull, I’d say.” Mancuso nodded across the street to another truck. “You know his kid Joey?”
“That’s him over there. He came out looking for his dad, saw his truck, went to the house but the doors were locked. He got a flashlight and looked through the front window over there, saw the two bodies on the floor. He did not go charging in but had the good sense to call us.”
“I’m sure he’s a mess.”
“And then some.”
They walked up the drive toward the house, passing other deputies and first responders, all waiting for something to do. Mancuso said, “I kicked the kitchen door in, got inside, took a look, but kept everybody else out till now.”
They entered the house through the kitchen and flipped on every light switch. They stopped at the entrance to the den and tried to absorb the ghastly crime scene. Two lifeless bodies, faces down, heads covered in blood, dark red pools around them, paint splattered, the ladder on its side.
“Have you touched anything?” Black asked.
“I assume that’s Mike,” Black said, nodding.
“And the painter?”
“Got no idea.”
“Looks like he has a wallet. Get it.”
In the wallet, they found a Mississippi driver’s license issued to one Lanny L. Verno, address in Gulfport. The sheriff and the deputy stared at the scene for a few minutes, saying nothing, until Mancuso asked, “Got any knee-jerk reactions?”
“You mean, theories about what happened?”
“Something like that. Joey said his dad was in the subdivision wrapping up the week, paying his subs.”
Black scratched his chin and said, “So, Verno here got jumped, knocked off his ladder by somebody who really didn’t like him. Cracked his skull, then finished him off with the rope. Then Mike showed up at the wrong time and had to be neutralized. Two killings. The first was well planned and done for a reason. The second was not planned and done to cover up the first. You agree?”
“I got nothing else.”
“More than likely the work of someone who knows what he’s doing.”
“He brought the rope.”
“I say we call in the state boys. There’s no hurry. Let’s protect the scene and let them worry about the forensics.”
He had never returned to the scene. He had read countless stories, some fictional, others supposedly true, about killers who got a thrill by going back. And he had never planned to do so, but the moment suddenly seemed right. He had made no mistakes. No one had a clue. His gray pickup looked like a thousand others in the area. Its fake Mississippi license plates seemed perfectly authentic. And if for any reason things appeared threatening, he could always abort and leave the state.