The consortium was put together by one of Dick Docker's flying buddies. It was built around two local ophthalmologists who had clinics in West Virginia. Both had just learned to fly and needed to shuttle back and forth at a faster pace. Docker's pal was a pension consultant who needed the Bonanza for about twelve hours a month. A fourth partner would get the deal off the ground. Each would put up $50,000 for a quarter interest, then sign a bank loan for the balance of the purchase price, which was currently at $390,000 and not likely to move lower. The note was spread over six years and would cost each partner $890 per month.
That was about eleven hours in a Cessna for Pilot Atlee.
On the plus side, there was depreciation and potential charter business when the partners were not using the plane. On the negative, there were hangar fees, fuel, maintenance, and a list that seemed to go on too long. Unsaid by the pal of Dick Docker, and also very much on the negative side, was the possibility of getting into business with three strangers, two of whom were doctors.
But Ray had $50,000, and he could swing $890 a month, and he wanted desperately to own the airplane that he secretly considered to be his.
Bonanzas held their value, according to a rather persuasive report that was attached to the proposal. Demand had remained high in the used-aircraft market. The Beech safety record was second only to Cessna and practically as strong. Ray carried the consortium deal around with him for two days, reading it at the office, in his apartment, at the lunch counter. The other three partners were in. Just sign his name in four places, and he would own the Bonanza.
The day before he left for Mississippi, he studied the deal for the last time, said to hell with everything else, and signed the papers.
If the bad guys were watching him, they were doing an excellent job of covering their tracks. After six days of trying to find the surveillance, Corey Crawford was of the opinion that there was nobody back there. Ray paid him thirty-eight hundred in cash and promised to call if he got suspicious again.
Under the guise of storing more junk, he went to Chaney's Self-Storage every day to check on the money. He hauled in boxes filled with anything he could find around his apartment. Both 14B and 37F were slowly taking on the appearance of an old attic.
The day before he left town, he went to the front office and asked Mrs. Chaney if someone had vacated 18R. Yes, two days ago.
"I'd like to rent it," he said.
"That makes three," she said.
"I'm going to need the space."
"Why don't you just rent one of our larger units?"
"Maybe later. For now, I'll use the three small ones."
It really didn't matter to her. He rented 18R in the name of Newton Aviation and paid cash for a six-month lease. When he was certain no one was watching, he moved the money out of 37F and into 18R, where new boxes were waiting. They were made of aluminum-coated vinyl and guaranteed to resist fire up to three hundred degrees Fahrenheit. They were also waterproof, and they locked. The money fit into five of them. For good measure, Ray threw some old quilts and blankets and clothes over the boxes so things would look a little more normal. He wasn't sure whom he was trying to impress with the randomness of his little room, but he felt better when it looked disheveled.
A lot of what he was doing these days was for the benefit of someone else. A different route from his apartment to the law school. A new jogging trail. A different coffee bar. A new downtown bookstore to browse through. And always with an eye for the unusual, an eye in the rearview mirror, a quick turnaround when he walked or jogged, a peek through shelves after he entered a shop. Someone was back there, he could feel it.
He had decided to have dinner with Kaley before he went South for a while, and before she technically became a former student. Exams were over, what was the harm? She would be around for the summer and he was determined to pursue her, with great caution. Caution because that's what every female got from him. Caution because he thought he saw potential in this one.
But the first phone call to her number was a disaster. A male voice answered, a younger voice, Ray thought, and whoever he was, he wasn't too pleased that Ray had called. When Kaley got on the phone she was abrupt. Ray asked if he could call at a better time. She said no, she'd ring him back.
He waited three days then wrote her off, something he could do as easily as flipping the calendar to the next month.
So he departed Charlottesville with nothing left undone. With Fog in the Bonanza, he flew four hours to Memphis, where he rented a car and went to look for Forrest.
His first and only visit to the home of Ellie Crum had been for the same purpose as this one. Forrest had cracked up, disappeared, and his family was curious as to whether he might be dead or thrown in jail somewhere. The Judge was still presiding back then, and life was normal, including the hunt for Forrest. Of course the Judge had been too busy to search for his youngest son, and why should he when Ray could do it?
The house was an old Victorian in midtown Memphis, a hand-me-down from Ellie's father, who'd once been prosperous. Not much else was inherited. Forrest had been attracted to the notion of trust funds and real family money, but after fifteen years he'd given up hope. In the early days of the arrangement he had lived in the main bedroom. Now his quarters were in the basement. Others lived in the house too, all rumored to be struggling artists in need of refuge.
Ray parked by the curb in the street. The shrubs needed trimming and the roof was old, but the house was aging nicely. Forrest painted it every October, always in a dazzling color scheme he and Ellie would argue over for a year. Now it was a pale blue trimmed with reds and oranges. Forrest said he'd painted it teal one year.
A young woman with snow-white skin and black hair greeted him at the door with a rude, "Yes?"
Ray was looking at her through a screen. Behind her the house was dark and eerie, same as last time. "Is Ellie in?" Ray asked, as rudely as possible.
"She's busy. Who's calling?"
"I'm Ray Atlee, Forrest's brother."
"Forrest, he lives in the basement."
"Oh, that Forrest." She disappeared and Ray heard voices somewhere in the back of the house.
Ellie was wearing a bedsheet, white with streaks and spots of clay and water and slits for her head and arms. She was drying her hands on a dirty dish towel and looked frustrated that her work had been interrupted. "Hello, Ray," she said like an old friend and opened the door.
"Hello, Ellie." He followed her through the foyer and into the living room.
"Trudy, bring us some tea, will you?" she called out. Wherever Trudy was, she didn't answer. The walls of the room were covered with a collection of the wackiest pots and vases Ray had ever seen. Forrest said she sculpted ten hours a day and couldn't give the stuff away. "I'm sorry about your father," she said. They sat across a small glass table from each other. The table was unevenly mounted on three phallic cylinders, each a different shade of blue. Ray was afraid to touch it.
"Thank you," he said stiffly. No calls, no cards, no letters, no flowers, not one word of sympathy uttered until now, in this happenstance meeting. An opera could barely be heard in the background.
"I guess you're looking for Forrest," she said.
"I haven't seen him lately. He lives in the basement, you know, comes and goes like an old tomcat. I sent a girl down this morning to have a look - she said she thinks he's been gone for a week or so. The bed hasn't been made in five years."
"That's more than I wanted to know."
"And he hasn't called."
Trudy arrived with the tea tray, another of Ellie's hideous creations. And the cups were mismatched little pots with large handles. "Cream and sugar?" she asked, pouring and stirring.
She handed him his brew and he took it with both hands. Dropping it would've crushed a foot.
"How is he?" Ray asked when Trudy was gone.
"He's drunk, he's sober, he's Forrest."
"Don't go there. You don't want to know."
"You're right," Ray said and tried to sip his tea. It was peach-flavored something and one drop was enough. "He was in a fight the other night, did you know about it? I think he broke his nose."
"It's been broken before. Why do men get drunk and beat up each other?" It was an excellent question and Ray had no answer. She gulped her tea and closed her eyes to savor it. Many years ago, Ellie Crum had been a lovely woman. But now, in her late forties, she had stopped trying.
"You don't care for him, do you?" Ray asked.
"Of course I do."
"Is it important?"
"He's my brother. No one else cares about him."
"We had great sex in the early years, then we just lost interest. I got fat, now I'm too involved with my work."
Ray glanced around the room.
"And besides, there's always sex," she said, nodding to the door from which Trudy had come and gone.
"Forrest is a friend, Ray. I suppose I love him, at some level. But he's also an addict who seems determined to always be an addict. After a point, you get frustrated."
"I know. Believe me, I know."
"And I think he's one of the rare ones. He's strong enough to pick himself up at the last possible moment."
"But not strong enough to kick it."
"Exactly. I kicked it, Ray, fifteen years ago. Addicts are tough on each other. That's why he's in the basement."
He's probably happier down there, Ray thought. He thanked her for the tea and the time, and she walked him to the door. She was still standing there, behind the screen, when he raced away.
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