Trying hard to be normal, Ray took a long jog on a favorite trail, along the downtown mall, down Main Street to the campus, up Observatory Hill and back, six miles in all. He had lunch with Carl Mirk at Bizou, a popular bistro three blocks from his apartment, and he drank coffee afterward at a sidewalk cafe. Fog had the Bonanza reserved for a 3 P.M. training session, but the mail came and everything normal went out the window.
The envelope was addressed to him by hand, nothing on the return, with a postmark in Charlottesville the day before. A stick of dynamite would not have looked more suspicious lying there on the table. Inside was a letter-size sheet of paper, trifolded, and when he spread it open all systems shut down. For a moment, he couldn't think, breathe, feel, hear.
It was a color digital photo of the front of 14B at Chaney's, printed off a computer on regular copier paper. No words, no warnings, no threats. None were needed.
When he could breathe again he also started sweating, and the numbness wore off enough for a sharp pain to knife through his stomach. He was dizzy so he closed his eyes, and when he opened them and looked at the picture again, it was shaking.
His first thought, the first he could remember, was that there was nothing in the apartment he could not do without. He could leave everything. But he filled a small bag anyway.
Three hours later he stopped for gas in Roanoke, and three hours after that he pulled into a busy truck stop just east of Knoxville. He sat in the parking lot for a long time, low in his TT roadster, watching the truckers come and go, watching the movements in and out of the crowded cafe. There was a table he wanted in the window, and when it was available he locked the Audi and went inside. From the table, he guarded his car, fifty feet away and stuffed with three million in cash.
Because of the aroma, he guessed that grease was the cafe's specialty. He ordered a burger and on a napkin began scribbling his options.
The safest place for the money was in a bank, in a large lock box behind thick walls, cameras, etc. He could divide the money, scatter it among several banks in several towns between Charlottesville and Clanton, and leave a complicated trail. The money could be discreetly hauled in by briefcase. Once locked away, it would be safe forever.
The trail, though, would be extensive. Lease forms, proper ID, home address, phones, here meet our new vice president, in business with strangers, video cameras, lock box registers, and who knew what else because Ray had never hidden stuff in a bank before.
He had passed several self-storage places along the interstate. They were everywhere these days and for some reason wedged as close to the main roads as possible. Why not pick one at random, pull over, pay cash, and keep the paperwork to a minimum? He could hang around in Podunk town for a day or two, find some more fireproof boxes at a local supply house, secure his money, then sneak away. It was a brilliant idea because his tormentor would not expect it.
And it was a stupid idea because he would leave the money.
He could take it home to Maple Run and bury it in the basement. Harry Rex could alert the sheriff and the police to watch for suspicious outsiders lurking around the town. If an agent showed up to follow him, he'd get nailed in Clanton, and Dell at the Coffee Shop would have the details by sunrise. You couldn't cough there without three people catching your cold.
The truckers came in waves, most of them talking loudly as they entered, anxious to mix it up after miles of solitary confinement. They all looked the same, jeans and pointed-toe boots. A pair of sneakers walked by and caught Ray's attention. Khakis, not jeans. The man was alone and took a seat at the counter. In the mirror Ray saw his face, and it was one he'd seen before. Wide through the eyes, narrow at the chin, long flat nose, flaxen hair, thirty-five years old give or take. Somewhere around Charlottesville but impossible to place.
Or was everyone now a suspect?
Run with your loot, like a murderer with his victim in the trunk, and plenty of faces look familiar and ominous.
The burger arrived, hot and steaming, covered with fries, but he'd lost his appetite. He started on his third napkin. The first two had taken him nowhere.
His options at the moment were limited. Since he was unwilling to let the money out of his sight, he would drive all night, stopping for coffee, perhaps pulling over for a nap, and arrive at Clanton early in the morning. Once he was on his turf again, things would become clearer.
Hiding the money in the basement was a bad idea. An electrical short, a bolt of lightning, a stray match, and the house was gone. It was hardly more than kindling anyway.
The man at the counter had yet to look at Ray, and the more Ray looked at him the more convinced he was that he was wrong. It was a generic face, the kind you see every day and seldom remember. He was eating chocolate pie and drinking coffee. Odd, at eleven o'clock at night.
He rolled into Clanton just after 7 A.M. He was red-eyed, ragged with exhaustion, in need of a shower and two days' rest. Through the night, while he wasn't watching every set of headlights behind him and slapping himself to stay awake, he'd dreamed of the solitude of Maple Run. A large, empty house, all to himself. He could sleep upstairs, downstairs, on the porch. No ringing phones, no one to bother him.
But the roofers had other plans. They were hard at work when he arrived, their trucks and ladders and tools covering the front lawn and blocking the driveway. He found Harry Rex at the Coffee Shop, eating poached eggs and reading two newspapers at once.
"What are you doing here?" he said, barely looking up. He wasn't finished with his eggs or his papers, and didn't appear too excited to see Ray.
"Maybe I'm hungry"
"You look like hell."
"Thanks. I couldn't sleep there, so I drove here."
"You're cracking up."
"Yes, l am."
He finally lowered the newspaper and stabbed an egg that appeared to be covered with hot sauce. "You drove all night from Charlottesville?"
"It's only fifteen hours."
A waitress brought him coffee. "How long are those roofers planning on working?"
"Oh yes. At least a dozen of them. I wanted to sleep for the next two days."
"It's those Atkins boys. They're fast unless they start drinking and fighting. Had one fall off a ladder last year, broke his neck. Got him thirty thousand in workers' comp."
"Anyway, why, then, did you hire them?"
"They're cheap, same as you, Mr. Executor. Go sleep in my office. I got a hideaway on the third floor."
"With a bed?"
Harry Rex glanced around as if the gossipmongers of Clanton were closing in. "Remember Rosetta Rhines?"
"She was my fifth secretary and third wife. That was where it all started."
"Are the sheets clean?"
"What sheets? Take it or leave it. It's very quiet, but the floor shakes. That's how we got caught."
"Sorry I asked." Ray took a long swig of coffee. He was hungry, but not ready for a feast. He wanted a bowl of flakes with skim milk and fruit, something sensible, but he'd be ridiculed for ordering such light fare in the Coffee Shop.
"You gonna eat?" Harry Rex growled at him.
"No. We need to store some stuff. All those boxes and furniture. You know a place?"
"Okay, I need a place."
"It's nothing but crap." A bite of a biscuit, one loaded with sausage, Cheddar, and what appeared to be mustard. "Burn it."
"I can't burn it, at least not now."
"Then do what all good executors do. Store for two years, then give it to the Salvation Army and burn what they don't want."
"Yes or no. Is there a storage place in town?"
"Didn't you go to school with that crazy Cantrell boy?"
"There were two of them."
"No, there were three of them. One got hit by that Greyhound out near Tobytown." A long pull of coffee, then more eggs.
"A storage place, Harry Rex."
"Testy, aren't we?"
"I've offered my love nest."
"No thanks. I'll try my luck with the roofers."
"Their uncle is Virgil Cantrell, I handled his first wife's second divorce, and he's converted the old depot into a storage warehouse."
"Is that the only place in town?"
"No, Lundy Staggs put in some of those mini-storage units west of town, but they got flooded. I wouldn't go there."
"What's the name of this depot?" Ray asked, tired of the Coffee Shop.
"The Depot." Another bite of biscuit.
"By the railroad tracks?"
"That's it." He began shaking a bottle of Tabasco sauce over the remaining pile of eggs. "He's usually got some space, even put in a block room for fire protection. Don't go in the basement, though."
Ray hesitated, knowing he should ignore the bait. He glanced at his car parked in front of the courthouse and finally said, "Why not?"
"He keeps his boy down there."
"Yeah, he's crazy too. Virgil couldn't get him in Whitfield and couldn't afford a private joint, so he figured he'd just lock him up in the basement."
"You're serious?" - .
"Hell yes, I'm serious. I told him it wasn't against the law. Boy's got everythang - bedroom, bathroom, television. Helluva lot cheaper than paying rent in a nuthouse."
"What's his name?" Ray asked, digging the hole deeper.
"Little Virgil." ; ,
"How old is Little Virgil?"
"I don't know, forty-five, fifty."
To Ray's great relief, no Virgil was present when he walked into the Depot. A stocky woman in overalls said Mr. Cantrell was out running errands and wouldn't be back for two hours. Ray inquired about storage space, and she offered to show him around.
Years before, a remote uncle from Texas had come to visit. Ray's mother scrubbed and polished him to the point of misery. With great anticipation they drove to the depot to fetch the uncle. Forrest was an infant and they left him at home with the nanny. Ray clearly remembered waiting on the platform, hearing the train's whistle, seeing it approach, feeling the excitement as the crowd waited. The depot back then was a busy place. When he was in high school they boarded it up, and the hoodlums used it as a hangout. It was almost razed before the town stepped in with an ill-advised renovation.
Now it was a collection of chopped-up rooms flung over two floors, with worthless junk piled to the ceiling. Lumber and wall-board were stacked throughout, evidence of endless repairs. Sawdust covered the floors. A quick walk-through convinced Ray that the place was more flammable than Maple Run.
"We got more space in the basement," the woman said.
He stepped outside to leave, and flying by on Taylor Street was a brand-new black Cadillac, glistening in the early sun, not a speck of dirt anywhere, Claudia behind the wheel with Jackie O sunglasses.
Standing there in the early morning heat, watching the car race down the street, Ray felt the town of Clanton collapse on top of him. Claudia, the Virgils, Harry Rex and his wives and secretaries, the Atkins boys roofing and drinking and fighting.
Is everybody crazy, or is it just me?
He got in his car and left the Depot, slinging gravel behind. At the edge of town the road stopped. To the north was Forrest, to the south was the coast. Life would get no simpler by visiting his brother, but he had promised.
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