For almost a week, a string of turbulent summer fronts kept the ceilings low and the winds too dangerous for small planes. When the extended forecasts showed nothing but calm dry air for everywhere but South Texas, Ray left Charlottesville in a Cessna and began the longest cross-country of his brief flying career. Avoiding busy airspace and looking for easy landmarks below, he flew west across the Shenandoah Valley into West Virginia and into Kentucky, where he picked up fuel at a four-thousand-foot strip not far from Lexington. The Cessna could stay aloft for about three and a half hours before the indicator dipped below a quarter of a tank. He landed again in Terre Haute, crossed the Mississippi River at Hannibal, and stopped for the evening in Kirksville, Missouri, where he checked into a motel.
It was his first motel since the odyssey with the cash, and it was precisely because of the cash that he was back in a motel. He was also in Missouri, and as he flipped through muted channels in his room, he remembered Patton French's story of stumbling upon Ryax at a tort seminar in St. Louis. An old lawyer from a small town in the Ozarks had a son who taught at the university in Columbia, and the son knew the drug was bad. And because of Patton French and his insatiable greed and corruption, he, Ray Atlee, was now in another motel in a town where he knew absolutely no one.
A front was developing over Utah. Ray lifted off just after sunrise and climbed to above five thousand feet. He trimmed his controls and opened a large cup of steaming black coffee. He flew more north than west for the first leg and was soon over the cornfields of Iowa.
Alone a mile above the earth, in the cool quiet air of the early morning, and with not a single pilot chattering on the airwaves, Ray tried to focus on the task before him. It was easier though, to loaf, to enjoy the solitude and the views, and the coffee, and the solitary act of leaving the world down there. And it was quite pleasant to put off thoughts of his brother.
After a stop in Sioux Falls, he turned west again and followed Interstate 90 across the entire state of South Dakota before skirting the restricted space around Mount Rushmore. He landed in Rapid City, rented a car, and took a long drive through Badlands National Park.
Morningstar Ranch was somewhere in the hills south of Kalispell, though its Web site was purposefully vague. Oscar Meave had tried but had been unsuccessful in pinpointing its exact location. At the end of the third day of his journey, Ray landed after dark in Kalispell. He rented a car, found dinner then a motel, and spent hours with aerial and road maps.
It took another day of low-altitude flying around Kalispell and the towns of Woods Bay, Polison, Bigfork, and Elmo. He crossed Flathead Lake a half-dozen times and was ready to surrender the air war and send in the ground troops when he caught a glimpse of a compound of some sort near the town of Somers on the north side of the lake. From fifteen hundred feet, he circled the place until he saw a substantial fence of green chain link almost hidden in the woods and practically invisible from the air. There were small buildings that appeared to be housing units, a larger one for administration perhaps, a pool, tennis courts, a barn with horses grazing nearby. He circled long enough for a few folks within the complex to stop whatever they were doing and look up with shielded eyes.
Finding it on the ground was as challenging as from the air, but by noon the next day Ray was parked outside the unmarked gate, glaring at an armed guard who was glaring back at him. After a few tense questions, the guard finally admitted that, yes, he had in fact found the place he was looking for. "We don't allow visitors," he said smugly.
Ray created a tale of a family in crisis and stressed the urgency of finding his brother. The procedure, as the guard grudgingly laid out, was to leave a name and a phone number, and there was a slight chance someone from within would contact him. The next day, he was trout fishing on the Flathead River when his cell phone rang. An unfriendly voice belonging to an Allison with Morningstar asked for Ray Atlee.
Who was she expecting?
He confessed to being Ray Atlee, and she proceeded to ask what was it he wanted from their facility. "I have a brother there," he said as politely as possible. "His name is Forrest Atlee, and I'd like to see him."
"What makes you think he's here?" she demanded.
"Here's there, You know he's there. I know he's there, so can we please stop the games?"
"I'll look into it, but don't expect a return call." She hung up before he could say anything. The next unfriendly voice belonged to Darrel, an administrator of something or other. It came late in the afternoon while Ray was hiking a trail in the Swan Range near the Hungry Horse Reservoir. Darrel was as abrupt as Allison. "Half an hour only. Thirty minutes," he informed Ray. "At ten in the morning."
A maximum security prison would have been more agreeable. The same guard frisked him at the gate and inspected his car. "Follow him," the guard said. Another guard in a gold cart was waiting on the narrow drive, and
Ray followed him to a small parking lot near the front building. When he got out of his car Allison was waiting, unarmed. She was tall and rather masculine, and when she offered the obligatory handshake Ray had never felt so physically overmatched. She marched him inside, where cameras monitored every move with no effort at concealment. She led him to a windowless room and passed him off to a snarling officer of an unknown variety who, with the deft touch of an baggage handler, poked and prodded every bend and crevice except the groin, where, for one awful moment, Ray thought he might just take a jab there too.
"I'm just seeing my brother," Ray finally protested, and in doing so came close to getting backhanded.
When he was thoroughly searched and sanitized, Allison gathered him up again and led him down a short hallway to a stark square room that felt as though it should have had padded walls. The only door to it had the only window, and, pointing to it, Allison said gravely, "We will be watching."
"Watching what?" Ray asked.
She scowled at him and seemed ready to knock him to the floor.
There was a square table in the center of the room, with two chairs on opposite sides. "Sit here," she demanded, and Ray took his designated seat. For ten minutes he looked at the walls, his back to the door. ; . ':
Finally, it opened, and Forrest entered alone, unchained, no handcuffs, no burly guards prodding him along. Without a word he sat across from Ray and folded his hands together on the table as if it was time to meditate. The hair was gone. A buzz cut had removed everything but a thin stand of no more than an eighth of an inch, and above the ears the shearing had gone to the scalp. He was clean-shaven and looked twenty pounds lighter. His baggy shirt was a dark olive button-down with a small collar and two large pockets, almost military-like. It prompted Ray to offer the first words: "This place is a boot camp."
"It's tough," Forrest replied very slowly and softly.
"Do they brainwash you?"
"That's exactly what they do."
Ray was there because of money, and he decided to confront it head-on. "So what do you get for seven hundred bucks a day?" he began.
"A new life."
Ray nodded his approval at the answer. Forrest was staring at him, no blinking, no expression, just gazing almost forlornly at his brother as if he were a stranger.
'And you're here for twelve months?"
"That's a quarter of a million dollars."
He gave a little shrug, as if money was not a problem, as if he just might stay for three years, or five.
"Are you sedated?" Ray asked, trying to provoke him.
"You act as if you're sedated."
"I'm not. They don't use drugs here. Can't imagine why not, can you?" His voice picked up a little steam.
Ray was mindful of the ticking clock. Allison would be back at precisely the thirtieth minute to break up things and escort Ray out of the building and out of the compound forever. He needed much more time to cover their issues, but efficiency was required here. Get to the point, he told himself. See how much he's going to admit.
"I took the old man's last will," Ray said. 'And I took the summons he sent, the one calling us home on May the seventh, and I studied his signatures on both. I think they're forgeries."
"Good for you." •
"Don't know who did the forging, but I suspect it was you."
"What difference does it make?"
Ray repeated those words, half-aloud and in disgust as if repeating them made him angry. A long pause while the clock ticked. "I received my summons on a Thursday. It was postmarked in Clan-ton on Monday, the same day you drove him to the Taft Clinic in Tupelo to get a morphine pack. Question - how did you manage to type the summons on his old Underwood manual?"
"I don't have to answer your questions."
"Sure you do. You put together this fraud, Forrest. The least you can do is tell me how it happened. You've won. The old man's dead. The house is gone. You have the money. No one's chasing you but me, and I'll be gone soon. Tell me how it happened."
"He already had a morphine pack."
"Okay, so you took him to get another one, or a refill, whatever. That's not the question."
"But it's important."
"Because he was stoned." There was a slight break in the brainwashed facade as he took his hands off the table and glanced away.
"So he was suffering," Ray said, trying to provoke some emotions here.
"Yes," Forrest said without a trace of emotion.
"And if you kept the morphine cranked up, then you had the house to yourself?"
"Something like that."
"When did you first go back there?"
"I'm not too good with dates. Never have been."
"Don't play stupid with me, Forrest. He died on a Sunday."
"I went there on a Saturday."
"So eight days before he died?"
"Yes, I guess."
"And why did you go back?"
He folded his arms across his chest and lowered his chin and his eyes. And his voice. "He called me," he began, "and asked me to come see him. I went the next day. I couldn't believe how old and sick he was, and how lonely." A deep breath, a glance up at his brother. "The pain was terrible. Even with the painkillers, he was in bad shape. We sat on the porch and talked about the war and how things would've been different if Jackson hadn't been killed at Chancellorsville, the same old battles he's been refighting forever. He shifted constantly, trying to fight off the pain. At times it took his breath away. But he just wanted to talk. We never buried the hatchet or tried to make things right. We didn't feel the need to. The fact that I was there was all he wanted. I slept on the sofa in his study, and during the night I woke up to hear him screaming. He was on the floor of his room, his knees up to his chin, shivering from the pain. I got him back in his bed, helped him hit the morphine, finally got him still. It was about three in the morning. I was wild-eyed. I started roaming."
The narrative fizzled, but the clock didn't.
"And that's when you found the money," Ray said.
"The money that's paying seven hundred dollars a day here."
"Oh, that money."
"Yeah, that's when I found it, same place as you. Twenty-seven boxes. The first one had a hundred thousand bucks in it, so I did some calculations. I had no idea what to do. I just sat there for hours, staring at the boxes all stacked innocently in the cabinets. I thought he might get out of bed, walk down the hall, and catch me looking at all his little boxes, and I was hoping he would. Then he could explain things." He put his hands back on the table and stared at Ray again. "By sunrise, though, I thought I had a plan. I decided I'd let you handle the money. You're the firstborn, the favorite son, the big brother, the golden boy, the honor student, the law professor, the executor, the one he trusted the most. I'll just watch Ray, I said to myself, see what he does with the money, because whatever he does must be right. So I closed the cabinets, slid the sofa over, and tried to act as though I'd never found it. I came close to asking the old man about it, but I figured that if he wanted me to know, then he would tell me."
"When did you type my summons?"
"Later that day. He was passed out under the pecan trees in the backyard, in his hammock. He was feeling a lot better, but by then he was addicted to the morphine. He didn't remember much of that last week."
"And Monday you took him to Tupelo?"
"Yes. He'd been driving himself, but since I was around he asked me to take him over."
"And you hid in the trees outside the clinic so no one would see you."
"That's pretty good. What else do you know?"
"Nothing. All I have is questions. You called me the night I got the summons in the mail, said you had received one too. You asked me if I was going to call the old man. I said no. What would've happened if I had called him?"
"Phones weren't working."
"The phone line runs into the basement. There's a loose connecting switch down there."
Ray nodded as another little mystery was solved.
"Plus, he didn't answer it half the time," Forrest added.
"When did you redo his will?"
"The day before he died. I found the old one, didn't like it much, so I thought I'd do the right thing and equally divide his estate between the two of us. What a ridiculous idea - an equal split. What a fool I was. I just didn't understand the law in these situations. I thought that since we are the only heirs, that we should divide everything equally. I wasn't aware that lawyers are trained to keep whatever they find, to steal from their brothers, to hide assets that they are sworn to protect, to ignore their oaths. No one told me this. I was trying to be fair. How stupid."
"When did he die?"
"Two hours before you got there."
"Did you kill him?"
A snort, a sneer. No response.
"Did you kill him?" Ray asked again.
"No, cancer did."
"Let me get this straight," Ray said, leaning forward, the cross-examiner moving in for a strike. "You hung around for eight days, and the entire time he was stoned. Then he conveniently dies two hours before I get there."
"I assisted him with the morphine, okay? Feel better? He was crying because of the pain. He couldn't walk, eat, drink, sleep, urinate, defecate, or sit up in a chair. You were not there, okay? I was. He got all dressed up for you. I shaved his face. I helped him to the sofa. He was too weak to press the button on the morphine pack. I pressed it for him. He went to sleep. I left the house. You came home, you found him, you found the money, then you began your lying."
"Do you know where it came from?"
"No. Somewhere on the coast, I presume. I don't really care."
"Who burned my airplane?"
"That's a criminal act, so I know nothing."
"Is it the same person who followed me for a month?"
"Yes, two of them, guys I know from prison, old friends. They're very good, and you were very easy. They put a bug under the fender of your cute little car. They tracked you with a GPS. Every move. Piece of cake."
"Why did you burn the house?"
"I deny any wrongdoing."
"For the insurance? Or perhaps to completely shut me out of the estate?"
Forrest was shaking his head, denying everything. The door opened and Allison stuck her long, angular face in. "Everything okay in here?" she demanded.
Fine, yes, we're swell.
"Seven more minutes," she said, then closed it. They sat there forever, both staring blankly at different spots on the floor. Not a sound from the outside.
"I only wanted half, Ray," Forrest finally said.
"Take half now."
"Now's too late. Now I know what I'm supposed to do with the money. You showed me."
"I was afraid to give you the money, Forrest."
"Afraid of what?"
"Afraid you'd kill yourself with it."
"Well, here I am," Forrest said, waving his right arm at the room, at the ranch, at the entire state of Montana. "This is what I'm doing with the money. Not exactly killing myself. Not quite as crazy as everybody thought."
"I was wrong."
"Oh, that means so much. Wrong because you got caught? Wrong because I'm not such an idiot after all? Or wrong because you want half of the money?"
"All of the above."
"I'm afraid to share it, Ray, same as you were. Afraid the money will go to your head. Afraid you'll blow it all on airplanes and casinos. Afraid you'll become an even bigger asshole than you are. I have to protect you here, Ray."
Ray kept his cool. He couldn't win a fistfight with his brother, and even if he could, what would he gain by it? He'd love to take a bat and beat him around the head, but why bother? If he shot him he wouldn't find the money.
"So what's next for you?" he asked with as much unconcern as he could show.
"Oh, I don't know. Nothing definite. When you're in rehab, you dream a lot, then when you get out all the dreams seem silly. I'll never go back to Memphis, though, too many old friends. And I'll never go back to Clanton. I'll find a new home somewhere. What about you? What will you do now that you've blown your big chance?"
"I had a life, Forrest, and I still do."
"That's right. You make a hundred and sixty thousand bucks a year, I checked it online, and I doubt if you work real hard. No family, not much overhead, plenty of money to do whatever you want. You got it made. Greed is a strange animal, isn't it, Ray? You found three million bucks and decided you needed all of it. Not one dime for your screwed-up little brother. Not one red cent for me. You took the money, and you tried to run away with it."
"I wasn't sure what to do with the money. Same as you."
"But you took it, all of it. And you lied to me about it."
"That's not true. I was holding the money."
"And you were spending it - casinos, airplanes."
"No, dammit! I don't gamble and I've been renting airplanes for three years. I was holding the money, Forrest, trying to figure it out. Hell, it was barely five weeks ago."
The words were louder and bouncing off the walls. Allison took a look in, ready to break up the meeting if her patient was getting stressed.
"Give me a break here," Ray said. "You didn't know what to do with the money, neither did I. As soon as I found it, someone, and I guess that someone was either you or your buddies, started scaring the hell out of me. You can't blame me for running with the money."
"You lied to me."
"And you lied to me. You said you hadn't talked to the old man, that you hadn't set foot in the house in nine years. All lies, Forrest. All part of a hoax. Why did you do it? Why didn't you just tell me about the money?"
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"Maybe I was going to, okay? I'm not sure what I had planned. It's kinda hard to think clearly when you find your father dead, then you find three million bucks in cash, then you realize somebody else knows about the money and will gladly kill you for it. These things don't happen every day, so forgive me if I'm a little inexperienced."
The room went silent. Forrest tapped his fingertips together and watched the ceiling. Ray had said all he planned to say. Allison rattled the doorknob, but did not enter.
Forrest leaned forward and said, "Those two fires - the house and the airplane - you got any new suspects?"
Ray shook his head no. "I won't tell a soul," he said.
Another pause as time expired. Forrest slowly stood and looked down at Ray. "Give me a year. When I get out of here, then we'll talk."
The door opened, and as Forrest walked by, he let his hand graze Ray's shoulder, just a light touch, not an affectionate pat by any means, but a touch nonetheless.
"See you in a year, Bro," he said, then he was gone.
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