Authors: John Grisham
By Thursday he was weary of the well-wishers, their texts and voicemails, their concerns about his health. He waited until the mailman stopped by at noon. He put on gloves, retrieved his mail, and saw another plain envelope. Inside, there was another poem:
greetings from the grave
it’s rather cold and dark down here
whispers, voices, groans
no shortage of things to fear
your crimes took no courage
the shock, the rope, the knot
you’re a coward in your sickness
the worst of a loathsome lot.
a pathetic student of the law
the most pompous in the class
i had you pegged for failure
a cocky, bumbling ass
“She’s writing about her father now,” he said to himself as he stared at the sheet of paper on the kitchen table.
His bag was packed. He drove to Pensacola, to the shopping center, and parked in front of the gym. He went to his other chamber, opened the Vault, placed the latest letter in a folder, tidied things up a bit, checked his cameras and video footage, and when he was satisfied that his world was perfectly secure, he drove to the airport and waited three hours for a flight to Dallas. He changed planes there and landed in Santa Fe after dark. Reservations for the flight, the rental car, and the hotel were made in his real name and paid for with his credit card.
Dinner was room service. He tried to watch a baseball game on cable but switched to an hour of porn. He fell asleep and managed a few hours before his alarm clock went off at 2:00 a.m. He showered, popped a benny, put his tools in a small gym bag, and left the hotel. Houston was fifteen hours away.
At nine Eastern time, he called Diana Zhang and checked in by telling her he was at the cancer treatment facility in Santa Fe. He said he was feeling fine and mentally prepared to begin his fight against the disease. He sounded optimistic and promised to be back on the bench before he was missed. She passed along the usual sympathies and concerns and said everyone was so worried. Not for the first time, he explained that one reason he was being treated far away was because he didn’t want all the fuss. It would be a long, solitary journey, one that he must face alone. Her voice was breaking when he hung up.
Such a devoted woman.
He turned off the smartphone and removed its battery.
At dawn, he stopped at a rest area near El Paso and changed license plates. He was now driving a four-door Kia registered to a Texan who did not exist. And he drove it carefully, the cruise control set precisely on the posted speed limit, every single rule of the road followed to perfection. A speeding ticket, or, heaven forbid, an accident, would quash the mission. As always, he wore a cap pulled low, one of many from his collection, and never took off his sunglasses. He bought gas and snacks with a valid credit card issued to one of his aliases. The monthly statements went to a post office box in Destin.
He rarely listened to music or books and couldn’t stand the relentless chatter of talk radio. Instead, he had always used the solitude of the open road to plan his next move. He loved the details, the plotting, the what-ifs. He had become so proficient, so highly skilled, and so merciless, that for years now he had believed he would never be caught. Other times, he walked through his old crimes to keep them fresh and make sure he had missed nothing.
When you murder someone you make ten mistakes. If you can think of seven of them you’re a genius.
Where had he read this? Or perhaps it was a line from a movie.
What had been his mistake?
How had it happened? He had to know.
He had lived with the certainty that he would never be forced to plan the Exit.
In 1993, when he was barely two years out of law school, the Pensacola law firm where he was employed blew up when the partners argued over a large fee, the usual source of discontent. He found himself on the street with no office. He borrowed $5,000 from his father, opened up his own shop, and declared himself ready to sue. A new gunslinger in town. He didn’t starve but business was slow. He stayed busy writing wills for people with few assets and hustling small-time criminals in city court. His big break came when a party boat loaded with bridesmaids sank in the Gulf and six young ladies drowned. The usual frenzied slugfest ensued as the local bar frothed and fought over the cases. One landed in his office, thanks in part to a $50 will he had prepared for a client.
A slick ambulance chaser named Mal Schnetzer roped in three of the families and filed the first lawsuit, practically before the funerals were over. Without the slightest reserve or concern about ethical niceties, he paid a visit to the home of Bannick’s client and tried to steal the case. Bannick threatened him; they cursed each other and feelings were raw until Bannick agreed to join the lawsuit. He had no experience with death cases and Schnetzer talked a good game about going to trial.
The pot of gold soon turned out to be much smaller than the plaintiffs’ lawyers were dreaming of. The company that owned the party barge had no other assets and filed for bankruptcy. Its insurance carrier at first denied any liability, but Schnetzer effectively threatened it and got some money on the table. He then went behind Bannick’s back again and told his client that he could deliver a check for $400,000 immediately if the client agreed to ditch his lawyer and claim he never wanted him in the first place. Before Bannick could figure out his next move, Schnetzer had settled the cases and disbursed the money to the clients, to himself, and to the other lawyers, except, of course, the rookie who had just been thoroughly outmaneuvered. Bannick had neglected to negotiate a joint agreement with the tort team, and his deal with his ex-client had been verbal. They had agreed that he would receive one-third of any settlement.
One-third of $400,000 was a gigantic fee for a hungry young lawyer, but the money had vanished. Bannick complained to the judge, who was not sympathetic. He thought about suing Schnetzer but decided against it for three reasons. The first was that he was afraid to tangle with the crook. The second was that he doubted he would ever see a dime. And the third, and most important, was that he didn’t want the embarrassment of a public lawsuit in which he played the role of a green lawyer who got duped by an ambulance chaser. There was enough humiliation already as the story made the rounds in the courthouses.
So he added Mal Schnetzer to his list.
To his delight, Mal eventually fleeced some more clients, got caught, indicted, convicted, disbarred, and sent to prison for two years. When he was released, he drifted to Jacksonville where he hustled cases for a gang of billboard lawyers. He made a few bucks and was brazen enough to set up a small law office at Jacksonville Beach, where he settled car wrecks without the benefit of any bar membership. When he was accused of practicing law without a license, he closed up shop and left the state.
Bannick watched him and tracked his movements.
Years passed and he surfaced in Atlanta where he worked in the back room as a paralegal for some divorce lawyers. In 2009, Bannick found him in Houston working as a “consultant” for a well-known tort firm.
Two months earlier, Bannick had rented a furnished eighty-foot unit in a high-end trailer park just outside Sugar Land, half an hour from downtown Houston. It was a massive place with eight hundred identical white trailers parked in long neat rows with wide streets. The rules were strict and enforced: only two vehicles per trailer, no boats or motorcycles, no laundry hanging from lines, no yard signs, no excessive noise. The small neat lawns were maintained by management. All lawn chairs, bikes, and barbecue grills were stored in identical sheds behind the trailers. He had been there twice and, though he had never dreamed of living in a trailer, found it relaxing. No one within a thousand miles knew who he was or what he was doing.
After a quick nap, he drove down the street to a big-box discount store and paid $58 in cash for a Nokia burner phone with a prepaid SIM card good for seventy-five minutes. Since no contract was involved, the clerk didn’t ask for personal information. If he had, there was an entire collection of fake driver’s licenses ready in the wallet. Sometimes they wanted ID, but usually they didn’t care. He had bought so many burners and tossed them all away.
Back at the trailer, he called the law firm late Friday afternoon and asked for Mal Schnetzer, who was gone for the day and the weekend. He explained to the secretary that it was urgent and he needed to speak with him. The secretary, obviously well trained by her bosses, pried a bit and was told that the case involved a young man who had been badly burned on an offshore oil rig, one owned by ExxonMobil. She offered to find another lawyer in the firm, but Mr. Butler said no, he had been referred by a friend and told that Mr. Schnetzer was the man to talk to.
Ten minutes later, his cheap phone buzzed and there was the voice he recognized. He raised his an octave and tried to sound somewhat squeakier. “My son is in the hospital in Lake Charles with burns over eighty percent of his body. It’s just awful, Mr. Snitcher.”
“It’s Schnetzer, by the way.” Still an ass. “And this happened on a rig, right?” Every injury on an offshore platform was covered by the Jones Act, a lawyer’s bonanza.
“Yes, sir. Three days ago. I’m not sure he’s gonna make it. I’m trying to get over there but I’m disabled and can’t drive right now.”
“And you’re down in Sugar Land, right?”
“Yes, sir. And I got lawyers callin’ right and left, buggin’ the hell out of me.”
“Not surprised to hear that.”
“I just hung up on one.”
“Don’t talk to them. How old is your son?”
“Nineteen. He’s a good boy, works hard, supports me and his mom. Still single. He’s all we got, Mr. Schnetzer.”
“I see. So you can’t drive over here to the office.”
“No, sir. If my wife was here she could drive me, but she’s comin’ in from Kansas. That’s where we’re from. We need to get to the hospital. I don’t know what to do, sir. We need your help.”
“Okay. Look, I can be there in about an hour, if that’ll work.”
“You can come here?”
“Yep, I think I can work in a quick trip over.”
“That’d be great, Mr. Schnetzer. We gotta have someone to help us.”
“Just sit tight, okay?”
“Can you get those other lawyers to leave us alone?”
“Sure, I’ll take care of them, no problem. What’s your address?”
Through the blinds, Bannick watched every car that passed as the minutes ticked by. Finally, a long, shiny Ford pickup with a club cab and oversized wheels slowed, stopped, backed up, and parked behind his rental.
The years had not been kind to Mal Schnetzer. He was much heavier, with an impressive gut hanging over his belt and stretching his shirt, and he had a round face above a double chin. His thick gray hair was pulled back and bunched at the neck. He got out, looked around the neighborhood, sized up the trailer, and touched the automatic pistol in a holster on his hip.
Bannick had never encountered a victim with a weapon and it ramped up the excitement. He moved quickly, grabbed a walking cane off the sofa, opened the door, and stepped onto the small porch, hunched like a man in pain. “Hello there,” he called out as Schnetzer walked past the rental car.
“Howdy,” he said.
“I’m Bob Butler. Thanks for doin’ this. I got a cold beer inside. You want one?”
“Sure.” He seemed to relax as he took Butler in, bent at the waist and nonthreatening.
It had been twenty-one years since the two had been face-to-face, back in their days as lawyers in Pensacola. Bannick doubted he would be recognized, and with the cap pulled low and the cheap eyeglass frames he was confident Schnetzer would have no clue. He stepped inside, held the door open, and they entered the cramped den of the trailer. “Thanks for comin’, Mr. Schnetzer.”
Mal turned away, as if looking for a place to sit, and in that split second Bannick quickly removed Leddie from his pocket, flicked it so that the telescopic sections doubled and tripled in length, and whipped it at the back of Mal’s head. The lead ball sank hard, splintering his cranium. His hands flew up as he grunted and tried to turn around. Leddie landed against his left temple and he fell across a cheap coffee table. Bannick quickly unsnapped the holster, removed the pistol, and shut the door. Schnetzer kicked as he floundered and looked up with wild eyes and tried to say something. Bannick hit him again and again, shattering his skull into a hundred pieces.
“A hundred and thirty-three thousand dollars,” Bannick said, almost spitting the words. “A nice fat fee that you stole. Money I deserved and desperately needed. What a crook, Mal, what a slimy little piece of shit you were as a lawyer. I was so happy when you went to prison.”
Mal grunted and Bannick hit him again. More blood spattered on the sofa and against a wall.
He took a deep breath and watched him try to breathe. He pulled on the plastic gloves, got the rope, wrapped it twice around his neck, and stared at his bloodshot eyes as he pulled it tight. He put a foot on his chest and tried to crush it as he tightened the rope and watched it cut into the skin. A minute passed, then another. Sometimes they died with their eyes open, and those were his favorite ones. He tied off the rope and stood to admire his work.
“One hundred and thirty-three thousand dollars, taken from a kid, stolen from another lawyer. You piece of shit.”
When Mal breathed his last, his bloodshot eyes stayed open, as if something in there wanted to watch the cleanup. Blood was covering his face and neck and puddling on the cheap carpet. What a mess.
Bannick paused and took a breath. He listened for voices from the outside, for any unusual sound, and heard nothing. He walked to the front bedroom and looked out the window. Two kids rode by on bicycles.
Lingering was a luxury he’d rarely enjoyed, but with this one he was in no hurry. He fished through the pockets of Mal’s pants and found his keys. From a rear pocket he removed his cell phone and placed it on his stomach, where he would leave it. In a closet he found the cheap vacuum cleaner he had bought a month earlier, for cash at a discount store, and cleaned the floors of the kitchen and den, careful not to touch the blood. When he finished, he removed the bag and replaced it with a fresh one. He took a pack of kitchen wipes and wiped down Leddie and the pistol. He changed plastic gloves and put the old pair in an empty grocery sack. He wiped the doorknobs, the kitchen counter, the walls, every surface in the bathroom, though he had touched almost nothing. He flushed the toilet and turned off the water to it. He stripped down to his boxers and put his clothes in the small washing machine. As the cycle ran he took a can of diet soda from the empty fridge and sat in the kitchen, his old pal Mal just a few feet away.