Chapter 9

At seven-thirty, sunlight woke him. The money was still there, untouched. The doors and windows had not been opened, as far as he could tell. He fixed a pot of coffee, and as he drank the first cup at the kitchen table he made an important decision. If someone was after the money, then he could not leave it, not for a moment.

But the twenty-seven Blake & Son boxes would not fit in the small trunk of his little Audi roadster.

The phone rang at eight. It was Harry Rex, reporting that For-rest had been delivered to the Deep Rock Motel, that the county would allow a ceremony in the rotunda of the courthouse that afternoon at four-thirty, that he had already lined up a soprano and a color guard. And he was working on a eulogy for his beloved friend.

"What about the casket?" he asked.

"We're meeting with Magargel at ten," Ray answered.

"Good. Remember, go with the oak. The Judge would like that."

They talked about Forrest for a few minutes, the same conversation they'd had many times. When he hung up, Ray began moving quickly. He opened windows and blinds so he could see and hear any visitors. Word was spreading through the coffee shops around the square that Judge Atlee had died, and visitors were certainly possible.

The house had too many doors and windows, and he couldn't stand guard around the clock. If someone was after the money, then that someone could get it. For a few million bucks, a bullet to Ray's head would be a solid investment.

The money had to be moved.

Working in front of the broom closet, he took the first box and dumped the cash into a black plastic garbage bag. Eight more boxes followed, and when he had about a million bucks in bag number one he carried it to the kitchen door and peeked outside. The empty boxes were returned to the cabinet under the bookshelves. Two more garbage bags were filled. He backed his car close to the deck, as close to the kitchen as possible, then surveyed the landscape in search of human eyes. There were none. The only neighbors were the spinsters next door, and they couldn't see the television in their own den. Darting from the door to the car, he loaded the fortune into the trunk, shoved the bags this way and that, and when it looked as though the lid might not close he slammed it down anyway. It clicked and locked and Ray Atlee was quite relieved.

He wasn't sure how he would unload the loot in Virginia and carry it from a parking lot down the busy pedestrian mall to his apartment. He would worry about that later.

The Deep Rock had a diner, a hot cramped greasy place Ray had never visited, but it was the perfect spot to eat on the morning after Judge Atlee's death. The three coffee shops around the square would be busy with gossip and stories about the great man, and Ray preferred to stay away.

Forrest looked decent. Ray had certainly seen much him worse. He wore the same clothes and he hadn't showered, but with Forrest that was not unusual. His eyes were red but not swollen. He said he'd slept well, but needed grease. Both ordered bacon and eggs.

"You look tired," Forrest said, gulping black coffee.

Ray indeed felt tired. "I'm fine, couple of hours of rest and I'm ready to roll." He glanced through the window at his Audi, which was parked as close to the diner as possible. He would sleep in the damned thing if necessary.

"It's weird," Forrest said. "When I'm clean, I sleep like a baby. Eight, nine hours a night, a hard sleep. But when I'm not clean, I'm lucky to get five hours. And it's not a deep sleep either."

"Just curious - when you're clean, do you think about the next round of drinking?"

"Always. It builds up, like sex. You can do without it for a while, but the pressure's building and sooner or later you gotta have some relief. Booze, sex, drugs, they all get me eventually."

"You were clean for a hundred and forty days."

"A hundred and forty-one."

"What's the record?"

"Fourteen months. I came out of rehab a few years back, this great detox center that the old man paid for, and I kicked ass for a long time. Then I crashed."

"Why? What made you crash?"

"It's always the same. When you're an addict you can lose it any time, any place, for any reason. They haven't designed a wagon that can hold me. I'm an addict, Bro, plain and simple."

"Still drugs?"

"Sure. Last night it was booze and beer, same tonight, same tomorrow. By the end of the week I'll be doing nastier stuff."

"Do you want to?"

"No, but I know what happens."

The waitress brought their food. Forrest quickly buttered a biscuit and took a large bite. When he could speak he said, "The old man's dead, Ray, can you believe it?"

Ray was anxious to change the subject too. If they dwelt on Forrest's shortcomings they would be fighting soon enough. "No, I thought I was ready for it, but I wasn't."

"When was the last time you saw him?"

"November, when he had prostate surgery. You?"

Forrest sprinkled Tabasco sauce on his scrambled eggs and pondered the question. "When was his heart attack?"

There had been so many ailments and surgeries that they were difficult to remember. "He had three."

"The one in Memphis."

"That was the second one," Ray said. "Four years ago."

"That's about right. I spent some time with him at the hospital. Hell, it wasn't six blocks away. I figured it was the least I could do."

"What did you talk about?"

"Civil War. He still thought we'd won."

They smiled at this and ate in silence for a few moments. The silence ended when Harry Rex found them. He helped himself to a biscuit while offering the latest details of the splendid ceremony he was planning for Judge Atlee.

"Everybody wants to come out to the house," he said with a mouthful.

"It's off limits," Ray said.

"That's what I'm tellin' them. Y'all want to receive guests tonight?"

"No," said Forrest.

"Should we?" asked Ray.

"It's the proper thing to do, either at the house or at the funeral home. But if you don't, it's no big deal. Ain't like folks'll get pissed and refuse to speak to you."

"We're doing the courthouse wake and a funeral, isn't that enough?" Ray asked.

"I think so."

"I'm not sittin' around a funeral home all night huggin' old ladies who've been talkin' about me for twenty years," Forrest said. "You can if you want, but I will not be there."

"Let's pass on it," Ray said.

"Spoken like a true executor," Forrest said with a sneer.

"Executor?" said Harry Rex.

"Yes, there was a will on his desk, dated Saturday. A simple, one-page, holographic will, leaving everything to the two of us, listing his assets, naming me as the executor. And he wants you to do the probate, Harry Rex."

Harry Rex had stopped chewing. He rubbed the bridge of his nose with a chubby finger and gazed across the diner. "That's odd," he said, obviously puzzled by something.


"I did a long will for him a month ago."

All had stopped eating. Ray and Forrest exchanged looks that conveyed nothing because neither had a clue what the other was thinking.

"I guess he changed his mind," Harry Rex said.

"What was in the other will?" Ray asked.

"I can't tell you. He was my client, so it's confidential."

"I'm lost here, fellas," Forrest said. "Forgive me for not being a lawyer."

"The only will that matters is the last one," said Harry Rex. "It revokes all prior wills, so whatever the Judge put in the will I prepared is irrelevant." :

"Why can't you tell us what's in the old will?" Forrest asked.

"Because I, as a lawyer, cannot discuss a client's will."

"But the will you prepared is no good, right?"

"Right, but I still can't talk about it."

"That sucks," Forrest said, and glared at Harry Rex. All three took a deep breath, then a large bite.

Ray knew in an instant that he would have to see the other will and see it soon. If it mentioned the loot hidden in the cabinet, then Harry Rex knew about it. And if he knew, then the money would quickly be removed from the trunk of the little TT convertible and repackaged in Blake & Son boxes and put back where it came from. It would then be included in the estate, which was a public record.

"Won't there be a copy of your will in his office?" Forrest asked, in the general direction of Harry Rex.


"Are you sure?" '

"I'm reasonably sure," Harry Rex said. "When you make a new will you physically destroy the old one. You don't want someone finding the old one and probating it. Some folks change their wills every year, and as lawyers we know to burn the old ones. The Judge was a firm believer in destroying revoked wills because he spent thirty years refereeing will contests."

The fact that their close friend knew something about their dead father, and that he was unwilling to share it, chilled the conversation. Ray decided to wait until he was alone with Harry Rex to grill him.

"Magargel's waiting," he said to Forrest.

"Sounds like fun."

They rolled the handsome oak casket down the east wing of the courthouse on a funeral gurney draped with purple velvet. Mr. Magargel led while an assistant pushed. Behind the casket were Ray and Forrest, and behind them was a Boy Scout color guard with flags and pressed khaki uniforms.

Because Reuben V Atlee had fought for his country, his casket was covered with the Stars and Stripes. And because of this a contingent of Reservists from the local armory snapped to attention when Retired Captain Atlee was stopped in the center of the courthouse rotunda. Harry Rex was waiting there, dressed in a fine black suit, standing in front of a long row of floral arrangements.

Every other lawyer in the county was present, too, and, at Harry Rex's suggestion, they were cordoned off in a special section close to the casket. All city and county officials, courthouse clerks, cops, and deputies were present, and as Harry Rex stepped forward to begin the crowd pressed closer. Above, on the second and third levels of the courthouse, another crowd leaned on the iron railings and gawked downward.

Ray wore a brand-new navy suit he'd purchased just hours earlier at Pope's, the only men's clothier in town. At $310 it was the most expensive in the store, and slashed from that hefty price was a ten percent discount that Mr. Pope insisted on giving. Forrest's new suit was dark gray. It cost $280 before the discount, and it had also been paid for by Ray. Forrest had not worn a suit in twenty years and swore he would not wear one for the funeral. Only a tongue lashing by Harry Rex got him to Pope's.

The sons stood at one end of the casket, Harry Rex at the other, and near the center of it Billy Boone, the ageless courthouse janitor, had carefully placed a portrait of Judge Atlee. It had been painted ten years earlier by a local artist, for free, and everyone knew the Judge had not been particularly fond of it. He hung it in his chambers behind his courtroom, behind a door so no one could see it. After his defeat, the county fathers placed it in the main courtroom, high above the bench.

Programs had been printed for the "Farewell to Judge Reuben Atlee." Ray studied his intently because he didn't wish to look around the gathering. All eyes were on him, and Forrest. Reverend Palmer delivered a windy prayer. Ray had insisted that the ceremony be brief. There was a funeral tomorrow.

The Boy Scouts stepped forward with the flag and led the congregation in the Pledge of Allegiance, then Sister Oleda Shumpert from the Holy Ghost Church of God in Christ stepped forward and sang a mournful rendition of "Shall We Gather at t River," a cappella because she certainly didn't need any support. The words and melody brought tears to the eyes of many, including Forrest, who stayed close to his brother's shoulder with his chin

Standing next to the casket, listening to her rich voice echo upward through the rotunda, Ray for the first time felt the burden of his father's death. He thought of all the things they could have done together, now that they were men, all the things they had not done when he and Forrest were just boys. But he had lived his life and the Judge had lived his, and this had suited them both.

It wasn't fair now to relive the past just because the old man was dead. He kept telling himself this. It was only natural at death to wish he'd done more, but the truth was that the Judge had carried a grudge for years after Ray left Clanton. And, sadly, he had become a recluse since leaving the bench.

A moment of weakness, and Ray stiffened his back. He would not beat himself up because he had chosen a path that was not the one his father wanted.

Harry Rex began what he promised would be a brief eulogy. "Today we gather here to say good-bye to an old friend," he began. "We all knew this day was coming, and we all prayed it would never get here." He hit the highlights of the Judge's career, then told of his first appearance in front of the great man, thirty years ago, when Harry Rex was fresh out of law school. He was handling an uncontested divorce, which he somehow managed to lose.

Every lawyer had heard the story a hundred times, but they still managed a good laugh at the appropriate time. Ray glanced at them, then began studying them as a group. How could one small town have so many lawyers? He knew about half of them. Many of the old ones he'd known as a child and as a student were either dead or retired. Many of the younger ones he'd never seen before.

Of course they all knew him. He was Judge Atlee's boy.

Ray was slowly realizing that his speedy exit from Clanton after the funeral would only be temporary. He would be forced to return very soon, to make a brief court appearance with Harry Rex and begin probate, to prepare an inventory and do a half-dozen other duties as executor of his father's estate. That would be easy and routine and take just a few days. But weeks and perhaps months were looming out there as he tried to solve the mystery of the money.

Did one of those lawyers over there know something? The money had to originate from a judicial setting, didn't it? The Judge had no life outside of the law. Looking at them, though, Ray could not imagine a source rich enough to generate the kind of money now hidden in the trunk of his little car. They were small-town ham-and-egg lawyers, all scrambling to pay their bills and outhustle the guy next door. There was no real money over there. The Sullivan firm had eight or nine lawyers who represented the banks and insurance companies, and they earned just enough to hang out with the doctors at the country club.

There wasn't a lawyer in the county with serious cash. Irv Chamberlain over there with the thick eyeglasses and bad hairpiece owned thousands of acres handed down through generations, but he couldn't sell it because there were no buyers. Plus, it was rumored he was spending time at the new casinos in Tunica.

As Harry Rex droned on, Ray dwelt on the lawyers. Someone shared the secret. Someone knew about the money. Could it be a distinguished member of the Ford County bar?

Harry Rex's voice began to break, and it was time to quit. He thanked them all for coming and announced that the Judge would lie in state in the courthouse until 10 P.M. He directed the procession to begin where Ray and Forrest were standing. The crowd moved obediently to the east wing and formed a line that snaked its way outside.

For an hour, Ray was forced to smile and shake hands and graciously thank everyone for coming. He listened to dozens of brief stories about his father and the lives the great man had touched. He pretended to remember the names of all those who knew him. He hugged old ladies he'd never met before. The procession moved slowly by Ray and Forrest, then to the casket, where each person would stop and gaze forlornly at the Judge's bad portrait, then to the west wing where registers were waiting. Harry Rex moved about, working the crowd like a politician.

At some point during the ordeal, Forrest disappeared. He mumbled something to Harry Rex about going home, to Memphis, and something about being tired of death.

Finally, Harry Rex whispered to Ray, "There's a line around the courthouse. You could be here all night."

"Get me out of here," Ray whispered back.

"You need to go to the rest room?" Harry Rex asked, just loud enough for those next in line to hear.

"Yes," Ray said, already stepping away. They eased back, whispering importantly, and ducked into a narrow hallway. Seconds later they emerged behind the courthouse.

They drove away, in Ray's car of course, first circling the square and taking in the scene. The flag in front of the courthouse was at half-mast. A large crowd waited patiently to pay their respects to the Judge.

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