Authors: John Grisham
He took his time and zigzagged back to the subdivision. He saw lights before he got to the street. It was blocked by squad cars. As he drove past he nodded at the cop and glanced beyond him. A thousand red and blue lights lit up the street. Something really bad must have happened down there.
He drove on, with a slight rush, but certainly no thrill.
Just before 10:00 p.m., Sheriff Black and Chief Deputy Mancuso approached the town of Neely. In the rear seat was Nic, a twenty-year-old college kid who hung around the police station as the department’s part-time techie. He was staring at his iPad and giving directions.
“We’re getting close,” he said. “Take a right. It appears to be at the post office.”
“The post office?” Mancuso said. “Why would he drop off a stolen cell phone at a post office?”
“Because he had to get rid of it,” Black said.
“Why not throw it in the river?”
“I don’t know. You’ll have to ask him.”
“Real close now,” Nic said. “Right here.”
Black pulled into the gravel lot and all three stared at the dark and deserted Neely Post Office. Nic fiddled with his iPad and said, “It’s actually right over there, in that blue drop box.”
“Of course,” Mancuso said. “Makes perfect sense.”
Black asked, “Who’s the damned postmaster around here?”
“Who’d want to be?” asked Mancuso.
Nic pecked away and said, “Herschel Dereford. Here’s his number.”
Herschel was sleeping peacefully in his small home five miles out from Neely when he answered the emergency call from a Sheriff Black. It took a few minutes for things to register, and Herschel was at first reluctant to get involved. He said he didn’t have the authority, under federal guidelines, to open “his” drop box and allow local authorities to pick through “his” mail.
Sheriff Black pressed harder and said that two men had been murdered that evening, not far away, and they were in pursuit of the killer. An iPhone tracking app had led them to Neely, to “his” post office, and, well, it was crucial to get their hands on the phone immediately. This frightened Herschel enough to agree. He showed up fifteen minutes later but was not happy to be called out. He mumbled something about violations of federal law as he rattled his keys. He explained that he collected the mail every afternoon at precisely 5:00 p.m. when he closed the post office. A truck from Hattiesburg picked it up. Since it was now pushing 11:00 p.m., he expected no other mail to be in the box.
Sheriff Black said to Nic, “Get your phone and film this. Everything.”
Herschel turned a key and the front door of the box swung open. From inside he removed a square aluminum box, which he sat on the ground. It had no top. Inside was a single mailer. Mancuso covered it with a flashlight.
Herschel said, “I told you there wouldn’t be much.”
Sheriff Black said, “Let’s go real slow here. Okay, I’m going to take my cell phone and call Mike Dunwoody’s number. Understood?”
The rest of them nodded as they stared at the small package. After a few seconds it began emitting a ringing noise.
Sheriff Black ended the call. He took his time and said, “Now, I’ll call Lanny Verno’s number, the one given to us by his girlfriend.” He tapped the number, waited, and from the envelope came the chorus of “On the Road Again” by Willie Nelson. Just as the girlfriend said.
With Nic filming with his iPhone and Mancuso holding his flashlight, and with Herschel not sure what to do next, if anything, the sheriff calmly explained, “Now, we called both numbers, and it’s safe to assume both cell phones are in the mailer, about five-by-eight, here in the drop box.” He reached into a pocket of his windbreaker and pulled out a pair of surgical gloves. Nic filmed it all. Black said, “Now I’m going to retrieve the package, the mailer, but we will not open it here. The prudent thing to do is to give it to the state crime lab and let their experts analyze things.”
He reached down, gently took the envelope, pulled it up for all to see, and for Nic to film, then turned it over. There was an address label on the flip side, and printed in a weird font was:
Cherry McGraw, 114 Fairway #72, Biloxi, MS 39503.
He exhaled, mumbled an “Oh shit!” and almost dropped the envelope.
“Who is it, boss?” Mancuso asked.
“That’s my daughter’s address.”
His daughter was upset but unharmed. She had been married less than a year and lived near her parents. Her husband had been raised in the country, was an avid hunter, and owned a nice collection of guns. He assured the sheriff that they were safe and taking no chances.
A deputy was dispatched to sit in the sheriff’s driveway. Mrs. Black promised her husband that she was safe.
Halfway back to the crime scene, Nic in the rear seat finally said, “I don’t think he intended to mail the phones to your daughter.”
Sheriff Black did not suffer fools, was otherwise preoccupied anyway, and not eager to hear theories from a college kid who could pass for a fourteen-year-old. “Okay,” he said.
“He knew we’d find the phones, plain and simple. There are about ten different ways to find a lost cell phone and he knew we’d track ’em down. According to the postmaster, the late Friday mail is not picked up until Monday after 5:00 p.m. There’s no way the package would sit there for seventy-two hours without being found. He had to know that.”
“So why address the envelope to my daughter?”
“I don’t know. Probably because he’s a psychopath who’s smart as hell. Many of them are.”
Mancuso said, “He’s just having a little fun, huh?”
The sheriff was not in the mood for conversation. There were too many conflicting thoughts, unanswered questions, and frightening scenarios.
The nickname of “Cleopatra” had followed her from the Tourism Council, a much larger state agency where she had worked for a few years as a staff attorney. Before that, there had been brief stints in state offices that dealt in such matters as mental health, air quality, and beach erosion. It would never be known who tagged her as “Cleopatra,” and it wasn’t clear, at least to those laboring at the Board on Judicial Conduct, if Charlotte was even aware what her underlings called her. It stuck because it fit, or because Elizabeth Taylor’s version was somewhat similar. Pitch-black hair, straight and long with obnoxious bangs that tickled her thick eyebrows and must have required constant care; layers of foundation that strove to fill the cracks and wrinkles the Botox couldn’t get to; and enough liner and mascara to doll up a dozen hookers in Vegas. A decade or two earlier, Charlotte might have had a chance at being pretty, but the years of constant work and misguided improvements had robbed her of all possibilities. Any lawyer whose reputation and gossip dwelled on her bad makeup and tight clothing as opposed to her legal skills was doomed to toil in the netherworld of the profession.
She had other physical problems. She liked skirts that were too short that revealed thighs that were too thick. Outside the office she wore six-inch dagger-like heels that would make a stripper blush. They were abnormal and painful to wear, and for that reason she went barefoot at her desk. She had no sense of fashion, which was okay around BJC, where slumming had become the trend. Charlotte’s problem was that she fancied herself a real trendsetter. No one was following.
Lacy was wary from day one, for two reasons. The first was that Cleo had a reputation as a climber who was always on the prowl for a bigger job, something that was hardly unusual among the agencies. The second was related to the first, but far more problematic. Cleo didn’t like women with law degrees and viewed them all as threats. She knew that most hiring was done by men, and since her entire career was predicated on the next move, she had no time for the girls.
“We may have a serious problem,” Lacy said.
Cleo frowned, though the wrinkles in her forehead were well hidden by the bangs. “Okay. Let’s have it.”
It was late on Thursday and most of the others were already gone. The door to Cleo’s large office was closed. “I’m expecting a complaint, one filed with an alias, and one that will be difficult to handle. I’m not sure what to do.”
“Unidentified as of now. Circuit court, ten years on the bench.”
“Are you going to make me beg for the dirt?”
Cleo fancied herself a tough cookie, a no-nonsense lawyer with little time for small talk or bullshit. Just give her the facts, because she could damned sure handle them.
“The alleged wrongdoing is murder.”
The bangs dangled slightly. “By a sitting judge?”
“I just said that.” Lacy was not an abrupt person, but she entered into every conversation with Cleo with her guard up, her tongue ready to fight back, even to strike first.
“Yes you did. When was the alleged murder?”
“Well, there have been several. Alleged. The last was about two years ago, in Florida.”
“Yes, several. The complainant thinks there may be as many as six, over the past two decades.”
“Do you believe him?”
“I didn’t say it was a him. And I don’t know what I believe right now. But, I do believe that she or he is near the point of filing a complaint with this office.”
Cleo stood, much shorter without those heels, and walked to the window behind her desk. From there she had a splendid view of two other state office buildings. She spoke to the glass: “Well, the obvious question is why not go to the police? I’m sure you’ve asked that, right?”
“It is indeed obvious and it was my first question. His or her reply was that the police cannot be trusted, not at this point. No one can be trusted. And it’s obvious that there isn’t enough evidence to prove anything.”
“Then what does he or she have?”
“Some rather compelling coincidental proof. The murders took place over a twenty-year period and in several different states. All are unsolved and quite cold. At some point during the judge’s life, he crossed paths with each of his victims. And, he has his own method of murder. All of the killings are virtually the same.”
“Interesting, to a point. May I ask another obvious question?”
“You’re the boss.”
“Thank you. If these cases are indeed cold, and the local cops have given up, then how in hell are we supposed to determine that one of our judges is the killer?”
“That’s the obvious question, all right. I don’t have an answer.”
“If you ask me, she sounds like a nut, which, I guess, is about par for the course around here.”
“Clients or staff?”
“Complaining parties. We don’t have clients.”
“Right. The law says we have no choice but to investigate the allegations once a complaint is filed. What do you suggest we do?”
Cleo slid into her executive swivel and looked much taller. “I’m not sure what we will do, but I can promise you what we will not do. This office is not equipped to investigate a murder. If she files a complaint, we will have no choice but to refer it to the Florida state police. It’s that simple.”
Lacy gave a fake smile and said, “Sounds good to me. But I doubt if we’ll see the complaint.”
“Let’s hope not.”
The initial strategy was to inform Jeri by email, and try to avoid any possible histrionics. Lacy sent a terse business-like note that read:
Margie. After meeting with our director, I am sorry to inform you that the complaint you suggested will not be handled by our office. If it is filed, it will be referred to the state police.
Within seconds her cell phone rang with an unidentified caller. Normally she would have ignored it but she figured it was Jeri, who began pleasantly, “You can’t go to the state police. The statute says it’s up to you to investigate the allegations.”
“Hello, Jeri. So how are you today?”
“Miserable, now, anyway. I can’t believe this. I’m willing to stick my neck out and file a complaint, but the BJC doesn’t have the balls to investigate. You’re willing to just sit by and push papers around your desk while this guy literally gets away with murder and keeps on killing.”
“I thought you didn’t like phones.”
“I don’t. But this one can’t be traced. What am I supposed to do now, Lacy? Pack up twenty years of hard work and go home, pretend like nothing ever happened? Allow my father’s killer to go free? Help me here, Lacy.”
“It’s not my decision, Jeri, I promise.”
“Did you recommend that BJC investigate?”
“There’s nothing to investigate, not until a formal complaint is filed.”
“So why bother if you’re just going to run to the police? I can’t believe this, Lacy. I really thought you had more guts than this. I’m stunned.”
“I’m sorry, Jeri, but there are some cases we’re just not equipped to handle.”
“That’s not what the statute says. The law directs the BJC to assess every complaint that’s filed against any judge. There is absolutely no language that says BJC can dump the complaint on the police until after its assessment. You want me to send you a copy of the statute?”
“No, that won’t be necessary. I didn’t make the decision, Jeri. That’s why we have bosses.”
“Okay, I’ll send the statute to your boss. What’s her name? I saw her on the website.”
“Don’t do that. She knows the statutes.”
“Doesn’t sound like it. What am I supposed to do now, Lacy? Just forget about Bannick? I’ve spent the last twenty years.”
“I’m sorry, Jeri.”
“No you’re not. I was planning to drive over Saturday and meet with you in private, lay out everything from the six murders. Give me some guidance here, Lacy.”
“I’m out of town this weekend, Jeri. I’m sorry.”
“How convenient.” After a long pause, she rang off with “Think about this, Lacy. What are you going to do when he kills again? Huh? At some point you and your little BJC become complicit.”
Her line went dead.
With discipline on the wane, Fridays were quiet around the office. Friday afternoons were tomb-like, as the higher-ups left for long lunches and never returned, and the dwindling hourly staff sneaked off as soon as Cleo closed her door. No one really worried, because Sadelle would work until dark and handle any stray phone calls.
Lacy left before lunch with no plans to return. She went home, changed into shorts, threw a few clothes in a bag, hid a key for Rachel, her new neighbor who was also her dog sitter, and just before 1:00 p.m. hopped in the car with her boyfriend and raced away in the general direction of Rosemary Beach, two and a half hours west along the Gulf Coast. The temperature was pushing eighty and there were no clouds anywhere. She had no laptop, no files, no paperwork of any kind, and, as per their agreement, Allie was similarly unarmed. All evidence of his profession was left in his apartment. Only cell phones were permitted.
The obvious goal of the weekend was to get out of town, leave work behind, go play in the sun and work on their tans. The real reason was far more serious. They were both approaching forty and uncertain about their future, either alone or together. They had been a couple for over two years and had passed through the initial phases of the romance—the dating, the sex, the sleepovers, the trips, the introductions to families, the declarations to friends that they were indeed a pair, the unspoken commitment to faithfulness. There was no hint that either wanted to end the relationship; in fact, both seemed content to keep it on course.
What bothered Lacy, and she wasn’t sure if it also bothered Allie, was the uncertainty of the future. Where would they be in five years? She had serious doubts of continuing much longer at BJC. Allie’s frustration with the FBI was growing. He thrived in his work and was proud of what he did, but the seventy-hour weeks were taking a toll. If he worked less, could they spend more time together? And if so, could that lead to a closeness? Could that enable them to finally decide if they loved each other? They tossed the L-word around, almost playfully at times, but neither seemed fully committed to it. They had avoided it for the first year and still used it reluctantly.
Lacy’s fear was that she would never truly love him, but the romance would plod along conveniently from one stage to the next until there was nothing left but a wedding. And then, at the age of forty or even forty-plus, she would not be able to walk away. She would marry a man she adored but didn’t really love. Or did she?
Half her girlfriends were telling her to ditch the guy after two years. The other half were advising her to snag him before he got away.
The weekend was supposed to answer their most serious questions, though she had read enough trashy novels and watched enough romantic comedies to know that the big summit, the grand romantic getaway, seldom worked. Crumbling marriages were rarely saved by a few days at the beach, nor did struggling love affairs gain traction and find clear definition.
She suspected they would have some fun in the sun as they avoided the future and simply kept kicking the can down the road.
“Something’s bugging you,” he said as he drove with his left hand and rubbed her knee with his right.
It was too early in the weekend to plunge into the serious stuff, so she did a quick pivot and replied, “We have this case that’s keeping me awake at night.”
“You don’t normally stress over your cases.”
“They don’t normally involve murder.”
He looked at her with a smile and said, “Do tell.”
“I can’t tell, okay. Like yours, my cases are strictly confidential. However, I could probably get the story across if we stick to hypotheticals.”
“I’m all ears.”
“So, there’s a judge, a hypothetical one, let’s say he’s about fifty, been on the bench for about ten years, and he’s a sociopath. Follow?”
“Of course. Most of them are, right?”
“Come on. I’m serious.”
“Okay. We studied those in training at Quantico. The BAU—Behavioral Analysis Unit. Part of our standard routine. But that was a long time ago and I’ve yet to run across one in my work. My specialty is cold-blooded murderers who traffic cocaine and neo-Nazis who mail bombs. Keep going.”
“This is all speculation and none of it can be proven, at least not now. According to my witness, also unnamed and too terrified to show her face, the judge has murdered at least six people over the past twenty years. Six kills in six different states. He knew all six victims, had issues with each, of course, and he patiently stalked them until the right moment. All were killed the same way—strangulation with the same type of rope, same method. His signature. Perfect crime scenes, no forensics, nothing but the rope around the neck.”
“All cold cases?”
“Ice cold. The police have nothing. No witnesses, no prints, no fibers, no boot marks, no blood, no motive. Nothing at all.”
“If he knew them, then there must be a motive.”
“You’re such a brilliant FBI agent.”
“Thanks. Pretty obvious though.”
“Yes. The motives vary. Some seem serious, others trivial. I don’t know all of them.”
“He thinks they’re serious.”
Allie took his right hand off her knee and scratched his chin with it. After a moment he asked, “And this one is on your desk, right?”
“No. The witness has yet to file a formal complaint against the judge. She’s too frightened. And Cleopatra told me yesterday that BJC will not get involved in a murder investigation.”
“So what happens next?”
“Nothing, I guess. If there’s no complaint there’s nothing for us to do. The judge remains untouched and goes about his business, even if it includes murder.”
“You sound like you believe this witness.”
“I do. I’ve struggled with it since Monday, the day I met her, and I’ve reached the point where I believe her.”
“Why can’t she go to the police with her suspect?”
“Several reasons. One, she’s frightened and convinced that the killer will find out and add her name to his list. Perhaps the biggest hesitation is that the police have no reason to believe her. The cops in small-town South Carolina don’t have time to worry about a cold case in south Florida. The cops in Little Rock don’t have time for a similar killing near Chattanooga, one with no forensics.”
Allie nodded as he thought. “That’s four. Where are the other two?”
“She hasn’t told me yet.”
“Who was murdered in Little Rock?”
“A newspaper reporter.”
“And why was his name on the list?”
“We’re getting away from the hypothetical, Agent Pacheco. I can’t give you any more details.”
“Fair enough. Have you discussed the FBI with her?”
“Yes, briefly, and as of now she has no interest. She’s convinced it’s too dangerous and she also has strong doubts about its willingness to get involved. Why would the FBI get excited about a string of murders they have no chance of solving?”
“She might be surprised at what we can do.”
Lacy thought about this for a few miles as they listened to the radio and zipped through traffic. Allie was a compulsive speeder and when he got nailed by radar, at least twice a year, he loved to pull out his badge and wink at the trooper. He boasted of never getting a ticket.
Lacy asked, “How would that work? Say the witness wanted to lay everything on the table in front of the FBI.”
Allie shrugged and said, “I don’t know, but I can find out.”
“Not yet. I have to go real slow with this witness. She’s damaged.”
“Yes, her father was victim number two.”
“Wow. This gets better.” His most obnoxious habit, to date, was chewing his fingernails, and only the left ones. The ones on the right were never attacked. When he began chewing he was thoroughly engrossed in something and she could almost hear his brain churning away.
After a few miles he said, frowning at the windshield, “This is pretty intense. Hypothetically, let’s say you’re in the room with the police—us, locals, state, doesn’t matter—and you say, ‘Here’s your killer.’ Name, rank, serial number, address. And here are his six victims, all strangled over the past twenty-plus years, and—”
“And there’s no way to prove it.”
“And there’s no way to prove it. Unless.”
“Unless you find evidence from the killer himself.”
“That would require a warrant, wouldn’t it? A document that would be impossible to obtain without probable cause. There’s no cause whatsoever, only some wild speculation.”
“I thought you said you believe her.”
“I think I do.”
“You’re not convinced.”
“Not all the time. You have to admit, it’s far-fetched.”
“Indeed it is. I’ve never heard of anything like it. But then, as you know, I chase a different class of criminal.”
“A warrant is unlikely. Plus, he’s probably paranoid and too smart to get caught.”
“What do you know about him?”
“Nothing. He’s just a hypothetical.”
“Come on. We’ve gone this far.”
“Single, never married, probably lives alone. Security cameras everywhere. A respected judge who gets out enough to appear socially acceptable. Highly regarded by colleagues and lawyers. And voters. You’re the profiler, what else do you want?”
“I’m not a profiler. Again, that’s a different section.”
“Got it. So if you took the six murders and didn’t mention the suspect, and presented them to the top FBI profilers, what would they say?”
“I have no idea.”
“But could you ask someone, you know, sort of off the record?”
“Why bother? You already know the killer.”
Their favorite hotel was the Lonely Dunes, a quaint little boutique getaway with forty rooms, all facing the water and just inches from the sand. They checked in, left their bags unpacked in their room, and hurried to the pool where they found a shaded table and ordered lunch and a bottle of cold wine. A young couple cavorted at the far end of the pool; something was happening just under the surface. Beyond the patio the Gulf shimmered in a brilliant blue as the sun beat down upon it.
When their drinks were half gone, Allie’s cell phone vibrated on the table. Lacy said, “What’s that?”
“I thought we agreed no phones at lunch. I left mine in the room.”
Allie grabbed his and said, “It’s the guy I mentioned. He knows a couple of the profilers.”
“No. Let it ring. I’ve said too much and I don’t want to talk about the case.”
The phone eventually stopped vibrating. Allie put it in his pocket as if he would never touch it again. The crab salads were served and the waiter poured more wine. As if on cue, the clouds rolled in and the sun disappeared.
“Chance of scattered showers,” Allie said. “As I recall from my weather app, which is still on my phone, which is tucked away in my pocket and untouchable.”
“Ignore it. If it rains it rains. We’re not going anywhere. A question.”
“It’s almost three on a Friday afternoon. Does your boss know where you are?”
“Not exactly, but he knows I’m off with my girlfriend for the weekend. And Cleopatra?”
“I don’t care. And she doesn’t either. She’ll be gone in a few months.”
“And you, Lacy? How much longer will you be there?”
“Oh, that’s the great question, isn’t it? I’ve stayed too long in a dead-end job and now it’s past time to leave. But where do I go?”
“It’s not a dead end. You enjoy your work and it’s important.”
“Perhaps. Maybe occasionally. But it’s not exactly heavy lifting anymore. I’m bored with it and I probably say that to you too often.”
“It’s just me here. You can tell me anything.”
“My deepest, darkest secrets?”
“Please. I’d love to hear them.”
“But you wouldn’t tell me, Allie. You’re not wired that way. You’re too much of an agent to drop your guard.”
“What do you want to know?”
She smiled at him and sipped her wine. “Okay. Where will you be one year from now?”
He frowned and looked away. “That’s a punch in the gut.” A sip of his own wine. “I don’t know, really. I’ve been with the Bureau for eight years and love it. I always figured I’d be a lifer, that I’d chase the bad guys until they put me in an office at the age of fifty and kicked me out the door at fifty-seven, the mandatory. But, I’m not so sure now. What I do is often thrilling and rarely boring, but it’s definitely a younger man’s job. I look at the guys who are pushing fifty and they’re burning out. Fifty is not that old, Lacy. I’m not sure I’ll be a career guy.”
“You’ve thought about leaving?”
“Yes.” It was tough to admit and she doubted he had ever said so before. He sniffed his wine, drank some, and said, “And, there’s something else. I’ve been in Tallahassee for five years and it’s time for a change. There are more and more hints of transfers. It’s part of the business, something we all expect.”
“You’re getting transferred?”
“I didn’t say that. But there might be some pressure over the next few months.”
Lacy was stunned and tried hard not to show it. After a moment she was surprised by how unsettling it was. The thought of not being with Allie was, well, inconceivable. She managed to ask, calmly, “Where would you go?”
He casually glanced around, the way savvy agents learn to do, saw no one even remotely interested in them, and said, “This is on the quiet. The director is organizing a national task force on hate groups and I’ve been invited to sort of try out for the team. I have not said yes or no, and if I said yes there’s no guarantee that I would be chosen. But it’s a prestigious group of elite agents.”
“Okay. Where would you be assigned?”
“Either Kansas City or Portland. But it’s all preliminary.”
“Are you tired of Florida?”
“No. I’m tired of lost weekends chasing cartels. I’m tired of living in a cheap apartment and not being sure about the future.”
“I can’t handle a long-distance romance, Allie. I prefer to have you close by.”
“Well, as of now, I have no plans to leave. It’s just a possibility. Can we talk about you?”
“I’m an open book.”
“Anything but. The same question: Where will you be one year from now?”