Authors: John Grisham
She drank some wine. The waiter brushed by, stopped long enough to top off both glasses, and disappeared. She shook her head and said, “I really don’t know. I doubt I’ll be at BJC, but I’ve been telling myself that for several years now. I’m not sure I have the guts to quit and leave the job security.”
“You have a law degree.”
“Yes, but I’m almost forty and I have no speciality, something that law firms prefer. If I hung out my shingle and started drafting wills I’d starve to death. I’ve never written one. My only option is to do what most government lawyers do and scramble up the food chain for a bigger salary. I’m thinking of something different, Allie. Maybe a midlife crisis at the age of forty. Any interest?”
“A joint crisis?”
“Sort of. More like a partnership. Look, both of us have doubts about our futures. We’re forty years old, give or take, still single, no kids, and we can afford to take a chance, do something stupid, fall flat and pick ourselves up.”
There it was. Finally on the table. She took a deep breath, couldn’t believe she had gone so far, and watched his eyes carefully. They were curious and surprised. He said, “There were a couple of important words in there. The first I heard was ‘afford.’ I’m in no position to stop working at my age and launch myself into a crisis.”
“What was the second word?”
“ ‘Stupid.’ ”
“Just a figure of speech. As a general rule, neither of us do stupid things.”
The waiter appeared with a tray and began clearing the table. When he grabbed the empty wine bottle he asked, “Another?” Both shook their heads.
They charged the lunch to their room, which was $200 a night, off-season, and when they checked out on Sunday they would split the bill. They tried to split everything. Both earned around $70,000 a year. Hardly retirement money, but then no one had mentioned retirement.
They left the pool and walked to the edge of the ocean where they realized the water was too cold even for a quick plunge. Arm in arm, they strolled along the beach, drifting aimlessly like the waves.
“I have a confession,” he said.
“You never confess.”
“Okay, try me. For about a year I’ve been saving money to buy you a ring.”
She stopped cold as they disentangled and looked at each other.
“And? What happened to it?”
“I haven’t bought one because I’m not sure you’ll take it.”
“Are you sure you want to offer it?”
He hesitated, for too long, and finally said, “That’s what we have to decide, right, Lacy? Where are we going?”
She crossed her arms and tapped her lips with an index finger. “You want to take a break, Allie?”
“Yes, some time off. From me.”
“Not really. Do you?”
“No. I kinda like having you around.”
They smiled, then hugged, then continued along the beach. With nothing resolved.
The email arrived at 9:40 on Sunday night, when Jeri was alone, as always in her townhouse preparing her week’s lectures and debating whether to watch a television show. The address was one of several permanent ones she maintained, heavily encrypted and seldom used. Only four people had access to it, and no one could follow it. The man on the other end was someone she had never met, would indeed never have reason to, and she did not know his real name. When she paid him, always in cash, she sent the money inside a thin paperback in a little package through the mail to a post office box in Camden, Maine, to a vague outfit called KL Data.
Nor did he know her name. Online, her handle was “LuLu,” and that was all he wanted or needed. As in,
Hello LuLu. Got a nibble on something of possible interest.??
LuLu? She smiled and shook her head in slight bewilderment at the number of facades she had built around herself in the past twenty years. Aliases, temporary post office boxes, facial disguises, impenetrable email addresses with two-factor identification, a bag of cell phones and cheap burners.
In her solitary world she referred to him as KL, and having no idea what those initials meant, she had tagged him as Kenny Lee. According to a reference years ago, Kenny Lee had a background in law enforcement but she had no idea how that career came to an end. She knew he had lost a brother in an unsolved murder, a cold case that haunted him and drove him to his present calling. “Well hello, Kenny Lee,” she mumbled.
How many hours?
Less than three.
She had never heard his voice and had no idea if he was eighty or forty. They had been involved in whatever their relationship could be called for almost ten years. She said to herself, “Let’s see what you have, Kenny Lee.”
His rate was $200 an hour and she could not afford any surprises. He was a freelance investigator, a lone gunman who worked for no one and anyone who was willing to pay his rate. He worked for the families of victims, small-town cops in dozens of states, the FBI, investigative journalists, novelists, and Hollywood producers. For those seeking data on violent crime, he was the source. He seldom left his basement and lived online digging, trolling, gathering, reporting, and selling his data. He absorbed murder statistics from all fifty states and probably spent more time in the FBI’s violent crime clearinghouse than anyone inside or outside the Bureau.
When the issue was murder, and especially unsolved murder, Kenny Lee was the man. Above the table, he ran his little business through a Bangor lawyer who handled his contracts and wire transfers of fees. All of his business was word of mouth, and quiet words at that. KL did not advertise and could say no to anyone. Under the table, he used aliases and coded emails and took his fees in cash, anything to protect the identity of his clients and the killers they were stalking.
An hour later, Jeri was sitting in the dark, waiting, asking herself what she would do if KL had another victim. He wasn’t always right. No one could be. Ten months earlier, KL had appeared from the clouds and reported on a strangulation in Kentucky that at first looked promising. Jeri paid him for four hours of work, then spent two months digging before she hit a dead end, a rather abrupt one, when the police arrested a man who confessed.
KL had sent a note and said too bad, those are the breaks. He followed thousands of cases around the country, and many of them were old and would never be solved.
Each year in the United States there were about three hundred murders officially categorized as
Half involved a lunge for the throat to end a domestic disagreement, and those were usually solved in short order.
The rest involved strangulation, the act of wrapping something violently around the neck, with the murderer routinely leaving behind the ligature. Electrical cords, belts, bandanas, baling wire, chains, bootlaces, coat hangers, and ropes and cords of many makes and varieties. The same type of nylon rope used to kill her father was used all the time. It was readily available in stores and online.
Most of the murders in the second category were never solved.
Her laptop pinged, and she opened it and went through her authentication protocols and typed in her passcodes. It was Kenny Lee:
Five months ago, in Biloxi, Mississippi, Harrison County, victim name of Lanny Verno was found strangled. No crime scene photos yet but maybe soon. Description of ligature sounds close. 3/8 inch nylon rope tied off with the same knot to keep pressure on. Severe head wound, probably before death. Deceased was 37 years old and working as a house painter, killed on the job, no witnesses. However, a complication. The police think a witness appeared at the wrong time and met the same fate, minus the rope. Severe head wounds. Police believe second victim had stopped by to give Verno a check—it was Friday afternoon and Verno was expecting a check—and the second murder was not planned. The Verno murder was definitely planned. No crime scene evidence, other than the rope. No blood samples from anyone other than the two victims. No fibers, no prints, no forensics, and no witnesses. Another clean site—too clean. Active investigation with little word to the press. File is being tightly sealed—thus no photos, no autopsy reports. As you well know, these always take time.
KL paused to give Jeri time to respond. She shook her head in frustration as she remembered her often futile efforts to go through police files that had been gathering dust for years. As was always the case, the fewer clues the investigators had, the more zealous their protection of their files. They didn’t want anyone to know of their paltry progress.
What do you know about the rope and the knot?
Method and motive. The first was in plain sight for the detectives to ponder and the lab technicians to analyze. The second, though, could take weeks and months to track down.
I have the report filed by the state crime lab with the FBI clearinghouse. The rope is described as nylon, green in color, 3/8 inch, a 30 inch section, tied and secured in place and left behind, obviously. There is no mention of a knot, tourniquet, ratchet, or any device to hold the rope in place. No photos were attached to the report. The crime is obviously unsolved, the investigation is open and in full swing, so most of the relevant details are being guarded by the police. Standard procedure. The old stonewall.
Jeri walked to her kitchen and took a diet soda from the fridge. She popped the top, took a drink, and returned to the sofa and her laptop. She wrote:
Okay, I’m in. Send what you have. Thanks.
My pleasure. In fifteen minutes.
Driving along the Gulf Coast on Interstate 10, Mobile was only an hour from Biloxi, but the two towns were in different states, different worlds. Mobile’s
had few readers next door, and Biloxi’s
had even fewer subscribers in Alabama.
Jeri was not surprised that the Mobile press had not covered a double murder sixty miles away. She opened her laptop, turned on her security VPN, and began searching. On Saturday, October 19, the front page of the
was covered with breaking news of the twin homicides. Mike Dunwoody was a well-known builder around Biloxi and along the Gulf Coast. There was a photo of Mike taken from his company’s website. He left behind his wife, Marsha, two children, and three grandchildren. His funeral arrangements were incomplete when the story was published.
Of Lanny Verno, much less was known. He lived in a trailer park somewhere near Biloxi. A neighbor said he had been there for a couple years. His live-in girlfriend came and went. One of his employees said Lanny was from somewhere in Georgia but had lived all over the place.
In the days that followed, the
worked hard to keep the story fresh. The police were incredibly quiet and offered almost nothing. No one in the Dunwoody family would venture a word. The funeral was at a large church and drew a crowd. Reporters were kept away by deputies, at the request of the family. A distant cousin of Verno’s showed up to reluctantly claim the body and take it back to Georgia. He cursed a reporter. A week after the murders, Sheriff Black held a press conference and divulged absolutely nothing new. A reporter asked if any portable phones were retrieved from the bodies, and this drew a firm “No comment.”
“But isn’t it true that two cell phones were recovered from a postal box in the town of Neely?”
The sheriff looked like someone had just revealed the killer’s name, but managed to recover with a stern “No comment.”
Virtually every other question was met with the same response.
The lack of cooperation by the sheriff fueled gossip that something big was coming down, that perhaps they were so tight-lipped because they were closing in on the killer and didn’t want to spook him.
Nothing happened, though, and the days dragged into weeks and months. The Dunwoody family posted a reward of $25,000 for any information about the murders. This attracted a rash of calls from nuts who knew nothing.
The Verno family was never heard from.
At midnight, Jeri was drinking strong coffee and preparing for another sleepless night at the computer. KL sent his summary along with a copy of the official violent crime report the Mississippi state police had filed with the FBI.
She had been down this road many times and did not look forward to opening another file.
BJC was governed by a five-person Board of Directors, all retired judges and lawyers who had found favor, or something along those lines, with the Governor. The big donors and heavy hitters were awarded appointments far more prestigious than BJC—college boards and gaming commissions and such, gigs with nice budgets and perks that allowed the chosen ones to travel and rub elbows with the powerful; whereas BJC board members got meals, rooms, and fifty cents a mile. They met six times a year—three in Tallahassee and three in Fort Lauderdale—to review cases, hold hearings, and occasionally reprimand judges. Removal from office was rare. Since the BJC’s creation in 1968, only three judges had been kicked off the bench.
Four of the five board members gathered late Monday morning for a scheduled meeting. The fifth seat was vacant and the Governor was too busy to fill it. His last two invitations had been declined by his chosen appointees, so he said screw it. Meetings were held in a borrowed conference room at the Supreme Court because the BJC suite was too depressing to take over for the day.
The first item on their agenda was a ten o’clock appointment with the director, a private, one-hour recap of the agency’s caseload, finances, personnel, and so on. It had become an unpleasant ritual because Charlotte Baskin had one foot out the door and everyone knew it.
After going through the motions with her, the members were scheduled to take up the docket of pending cases.
Lacy was thankful she had nothing on the docket and would not appear before the board. Her Monday began like most others and required the usual pep talk to herself about hustling to the office and, as the senior investigator, arriving with lots of smiles and encouragement and excitement about serving the taxpayers. But the pep talk didn’t work, primarily because she was still mentally at the beach and by the pool. She and Allie had enjoyed three long lunches, with wine, and plenty of naps and sex and long walks along the water’s edge. At some point they had agreed that they should forget the future for the time being and simply live in the moment. Worry about the important stuff later.
Once she was away from him, though, she began to ask herself the question that had nagged her since Friday: If he gave me a ring, what would I do with it?
The answer was elusive.
At 9:48 another email arrived, again from Jeri. There had been at least five over the weekend, all ignored until now. Lacy had put off the difficult conversation long enough. She had learned long ago that procrastination only made the task more unpleasant. On her cell phone, she punched one number. No answer. No voicemail. She tried another one. Same result. She was quickly losing patience with the cloak-and-dagger as she punched the last number she had for Jeri.
“Hi, Lacy,” came the pleasant but tired voice. “Where have you been?”
And how is that any of your business? She swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and replied, “Good morning, Jeri. I trust this line is secure.”
“Of course. Sorry for the inconvenience.”
“Yes. You’ve called and emailed all weekend, I see.”
“Yes, we need to talk, Lacy.”
“We’re talking now, on Monday. I thought I explained to you that I do not work on weekends and I asked you not to call or email me. Right?”
“Yes, you’re right, and I’m sorry, but this is really important.”
“I know it is, Jeri, and I have some bad news. I met again with my boss and presented the allegations, and she was adamant. We will not get involved in a murder investigation. Period. As I have already told you several times, we are not equipped or trained for that kind of work.”
A pause. One that would be brief because, Lacy knew Jeri was not accustomed to taking no. Then she said, “But I have the right to file a complaint. I’ve memorized the statute. I can do so anonymously. And by law the BJC is required to spend forty-five days assessing the allegations. Right, Lacy?”
“Yes, that’s the statute.”
“Then I’ll file a complaint.”
“And my boss says we will immediately refer it to the state police for investigation.”
Lacy waited for a sharp rebuke, one that Jeri had no doubt worked on. She waited and waited and finally realized the call was over. Jeri had abruptly ended it and walked away.
Lacy was not naive enough to think they would never speak again. Maybe, though, Jeri would simply go away for a while. They had met only a week before.
And maybe the killings would stop.
Half an hour later, Jeri was back. She began with “I’m not sure, Lacy, but there could be two more dead bodies. Numbers seven and eight. I’m digging for confirmation and I could be wrong. I certainly hope so. Regardless, he will not stop.”
“Confirmation? I didn’t know you had confirmed the others.”
“I have, in my mind at least. My theory may be based on coincidental evidence, but you have to admit it’s overwhelming.”
“I’m not sure it’s overwhelming but it’s certainly insufficient to start an investigation. I’ll say it again, Jeri, we are not getting involved.”
“Is it your decision or your interim director’s?”
“What difference does it make? We’re not getting involved.”
“Would you if you had the authority?”
“Fine, Lacy, but from this point on the blood will be on your hands.”
“That strikes me as an overreaction.”
Jeri mumbled incoherently as if trying to hide her words. After a few seconds she said, “He’s killing more these days, Lacy, almost one victim per year. This is not unusual for serial killers, the smart ones anyway. They start slow, find some success, hone their skills, lose their reluctance and fear, and convince themselves they are too clever. That’s when they start making mistakes.”
“What kind of mistakes?”
“I’m not going to discuss this on the phone.”
“You called me.”
“Right, and I’m not sure why.” Her line went dead again.
Felicity suddenly appeared at her desk without making a sound and handed over a telephone message, an old-fashioned pink slip. “Better call this guy,” she said. “He was pretty rude.”
“Thanks,” Lacy said, taking the message and looking at her receptionist as if she could leave now. “Please close the door on the way out.”
Earl Hatley was the current chairman of the BJC. He was a former judge, a nice gentleman, and one of the few members Lacy had met over the years who actually cared about improving the judiciary. He must have been holding his phone because he answered immediately. He asked if she could drop whatever she was doing and hustle over to the Supreme Court building for an urgent meeting.
Fifteen minutes later, Lacy walked into a small conference room and was greeted by the four. Earl asked her to have a seat and pointed to a chair at the end of the table. He said, “I’ll skip the preliminaries, Lacy, because we’re running behind schedule, and we have a more pressing matter.”
She showed them both palms and said, “I’m all ears.”
“We met with Charlotte Baskin first thing this morning and she handed in her resignation. She’s gone, moving out today. It was a mutual parting. She was a bad fit, as I’m sure you were very much aware, and we were getting complaints. So, once again, we have no executive director.”
“Am I still employed?” Lacy asked, not the least bit perturbed.
“Oh, yes. You can’t leave, Lacy.”
“As you well know, Charlotte was the fourth ED in the past two years. I’ve heard that morale is quite low.”
“What morale? Everybody is looking for another job. We sit over there, year in, year out, waiting for the ax to fall. What do you expect? It’s hard to remain enthusiastic when our meager budget gets cut every year.”
“We understand this. It’s not our fault. We’re on the same team.”
“I know who’s at fault and I’m not blaming you. But it’s hard to do our work with weak leadership, sometimes no leadership, and fading support from the legislature. The Governor couldn’t care less what we do.”
Judith Taylor said, “I’m meeting with Senator Fowinkle next week. He’s chair of finance, as you know, and his staff thinks we can get some more money.”
Lacy smiled and nodded as if she were truly grateful. She’d heard it all before.
Earl said, “Here’s our plan, Lacy. You’re the senior investigator and the star of the organization. You are respected, even admired, by your colleagues. We’re asking you to become the interim director until we can find a permanent one.”
“That was quick.”
“Well, so was your request. I’ve been here for twelve years and know my way around. The big office is the worst one.”
“It’s just temporary.”
“Everything is temporary these days.”
“You’re not thinking about leaving, are you?”
“We all think about it. Who can blame us? As state employees, the law says we get the same raises as everyone else, if the legislature is feeling generous. So when they cut our budget, we have no choice but to cut everything but salaries. Staff, equipment, travel, you name it.”
The four looked at each other in defeat. The situation seemed hopeless and at that moment all four could walk out the door, resign, go home, and let someone else worry about judicial complaints.
But Judith gamely hung on and said, “Help us here, Lacy. Take the job for six months. You can stabilize the agency and give us some time to shore up the budget. You’ll be the boss and have complete authority. We have confidence in you.”
Earl added quickly, “A ton of confidence, Lacy. You are by far the most experienced.”
Judith said, “The salary is not bad.”
“It’s not about money,” Lacy said. The salary was $95,000 a year, a nice improvement over her current $70,000. She had never really thought about the director’s salary, at least not in a covetous way. But it was indeed a substantial raise.
Earl said, “You can restructure the place any way you want. Hire or fire, we don’t care. But the ship is sinking and we need stability.”
Lacy asked, “How do you plan to shore up the budget, as you say? This year the legislature cut it again, down to one-point-nine million. Four years ago BJC got two-point-three million. Peanuts compared to a sixty-billion-dollar state government, but we were created by the same legislature and given our orders.”
Judith smiled and said, “We’re tired of the cuts too, Lacy, and we’re going after the legislature. Let us worry about that. You run the agency and we’ll find the money.”
Lacy’s judgment was suddenly clouded with thoughts of Jeri Crosby. What if her suspicions were true? What if the killings continued? As director, interim or not, Lacy would have the authority to do whatever she wanted with Jeri’s complaint.
And she thought about the money, the not insignificant raise. She rather liked the idea of restructuring the office, getting rid of some dead weight and finding younger talent. She thought of her weekend with Allie and the reality that they had not made any progress in planning their future, so a dramatic change in scenery was unlikely, at least anytime soon.
The four smiled at her and waited, as if desperate for the right answer. Lacy kept her frown and said, “Give me twenty-four hours.”