The Clanton square had three cafes, two for the whites and one for the blacks. The Tea Shoppe crowd leaned toward banking and law and retail, more of a white-collar bunch, where the chatter was a bit heavier - the stock market, politics, golf. Claude's, the black diner, had been around for forty years and had the best food.
The Coffee Shop was favored by the farmers, cops, and factory workers who talked football and bird hunting. Harry Rex preferred it, as did a few other lawyers who liked to eat with the people they represented. It opened at five every morning but Sunday, and was usually crowded by six. Ray parked near it on the square and locked his car. The sun was inching above the hills to the east. He would drive fifteen hours or so and hopefully be home by midnight.
Harry Rex had a table in the window and a Jackson newspaper that had already been rearranged and folded to the point of being useless to anyone else. "Anything in the news?" Ray asked. There was no television at Maple Run.
"Not a damned thang," Harry Rex grumbled with his eyes glued to the editorials. "I'll send you all the obituaries." He slid across a crumpled section the size of a paperback. "You wanna read this?"
"No, I need to go."
"You're eating first?"
"Hey, Dell!" Harry Rex yelled across the cafe. The counter and booths and other tables were crowded with men, only men, all eating and talking.
"Dell is still here?" Ray asked.
"She doesn't age," Harry Rex said, waving. "Her mother is eighty and her grandmother is a hundred. She'll be here long after we're buried."
Dell did not appreciate being yelled at. She arrived with a coffeepot and an attitude, which vanished when she realized who Ray was. She hugged him and said, "I haven't seen you in twenty years." Then she sat down, clutched his arm, and began saying how sorry she was about the Judge.
"Wasn't it a great funeral?" Harry Rex said.
"I can't remember a finer one," she said, as if Ray was supposed to be both comforted and impressed.
"Thank you," he said, his eyes watering not from sadness but from the medley of cheap perfumes swirling about her.
Then she jumped up and said, "What're y'all eatin'? It's on the
Harry Rex decided on pancakes and sausage, for both of them, a tall stack for him, short for Ray. Dell disappeared, a thick cloud of fragrances lingering behind.
"You got a long drive. Pancakes'11 stick to your ribs."
After three days in Clanton, everything was sticking to his ribs. Ray looked forward to some long runs in the countryside around Charlottesville, and to much lighter cuisine. "
To his great relief, nobody else recognized him. There were no other lawyers in the Coffee Shop at that hour, and no one else who'd known the Judge well enough to attend his funeral. The cops and mechanics were too busy with their jokes and gossip to look around. Remarkably, Dell kept her mouth shut. After the first cup of coffee, Ray relaxed and began to enjoy the waves of conversation and laughter around him.
Dell was back with enough food for eight; pancakes, a whole hog's worth of sausage, a tray of hefty biscuits with a bowl of butter, and a bowl of somebody's homemade jam. Why would anyone need biscuits to eat with pancakes? She patted his shoulder again and said, "And he was such a sweet man." Then she was gone.
"Your father was a lot of things," Harry Rex said, drowning his hotcakes with at least a quart of somebody's homemade molasses. "But he wasn't sweet."
"No he was not," Ray agreed. "Did he ever come in here?"
"Not that I recall. He didn't eat breakfast, didn't like crowds, hated small talk, preferred to sleep as late as possible. I don't think this was his kind of place. For the past nine years, he hasn't been seen much around the square."
"Where'd Dell meet him?"
"In court. One of her daughters had a baby. The daddy already had a family. A real mess." He somehow managed to shovel into his mouth a serving of pancakes that would choke a horse. Then a bite of sausage.
"And of course you were in the middle of it."
"Of course. Judge treated her right." Chomp, chomp.
Ray felt compelled to take a large bite of his food. With molasses dripping everywhere, he leaned forward and lifted a heavy fork to his mouth.
"The Judge was a legend, Ray, you know that. Folks around here loved him. He never got less than eighty percent of the vote in Ford County."
Ray nodded as he worked on the pancakes. They were hot and buttery, but not particularly tasty.
"If we spend five thousand bucks on the house," Harry Rex said without showing food, "then we'll get it back several times over. It's a good investment."
"Five thousand for what?"
He wiped his mouth with one long swipe. "Clean the damned thing first. Spray it, wash it, fumigate it, clean the floors and walls and furniture, make it smell better. Then paint the outside and the downstairs. Fix the roof so the ceilings won't spot. Cut the grass, pull the weeds, just spruce it up. I can find folks around here to do it." He thrust another serving into his jaws and waited for Ray to respond.
"There's only six thousand in the bank," Ray said.
Dell dashed by and somehow managed to refill both coffee cups and pat Ray on the shoulder without missing a stride.
"You got more in that box you found," Harry Rex said, carving another wedge of pancakes.
"So we spend it?"
"I been thinking about it," he said, gulping coffee. "Fact, Fs up all night thinking about it."
"Got two issues, one's important, the other's not." A quick bite of modest proportions, then using the knife and fork to help him talk, he continued: "First, where'd it come from? That's what we want to know, but it ain't really that important. If he robbed a bank, he's dead. If he hit the casinos and didn't pay taxes, he's dead. If he simply liked the smell of cash and saved it over the years, he's still dead. You follow?"
Ray shrugged as if he was waiting for something complicated. Harry Rex used the break in his monologue to eat sausage, then began stabbing the air again: "Second, what are you going to do with it? That's what's important. We're assuming nobody knows about the money, right?"
Ray nodded and said, "Right. It was hidden." Ray could hear the windows being rattled. He could see the Blake & Son boxes scattered and crushed.
He couldn't help but glance through the window and look at his TT roadster, packed and ready to flee.
"If you include the money in the estate, half will go to the IRS."
"I know that, Harry Rex. What would you do?"
"I'm not the right person to ask. I've been at war with the IRS for eighteen years, and guess who's winnin'? Not me. Screw 'em."
"That's your advice as an attorney?"
"No, as a friend. If you want legal advice, then I will tell you that all assets must be collected and properly inventoried pursuant to the Mississippi Code, as annotated and amended."
"I'd take twenty thousand or so, put it in the estate to pay the up-front bills, then wait a long time and give Forrest his half of the rest."
"Now, that's what I call legal advice."
"Nope, it's just common sense."
The mystery of the biscuits was solved when Harry Rex attacked them. "How 'bout a biscuit?" he said, though they were closer to Ray.
Harry Rex sliced two in half, buttered them, added a thick layer of jam, then, at the last moment, inserted a patty of sausage. "You sure?" . .
"Yes, I'm sure. Could the money be marked in any way?"
"Only if it's ransom or drug money. Don't reckon Reuben Atlee was into those sorts of things, you?"
"Okay, spend five thousand."
"You'll be pleased."
A small man with matching khaki pants and shirt stopped at the table, and with a warm smile said, "Excuse me, Ray, but I'm Loyd Darling." He stuck out a hand as he spoke. "I have a farm just east of town."
Ray shook his hand and half-stood. Mr. Loyd Darling owned more land than anybody in Ford County. He had once taught Ray in Sunday School. "So good to see you," Ray said.
"Keep your seat," he said, gently shoving Ray down by the shoulder. 'Just wanted to say how sorry I am about the Judge."
"Thank you, Mr. Darling."
"There was no finer man than Reuben Atlee. You have my sympathies."
Ray just nodded. Harry Rex had stopped eating and appeared to be ready to cry. Then Loyd was gone and breakfast resumed. Harry Rex launched into a war story about IRS abuse. After another bite or two Ray was stuffed, and as he pretended to listen he thought of all the fine folks who so greatly admired his father, all the Loyd Darlings out there who revered the old man.
What if the cash didn't come from the casinos? What if a crime had been committed, some secret horrible sting perpetrated by the Judge? Sitting there among the crowd in the Coffee Shop, watching Harry Rex but not listening to him, Ray Atlee made a decision. He vowed to himself that if he ever discovered that the cash now crammed into the trunk of his car had been collected by his father in some manner that was less than ethical, then no one would ever know it. He would not desecrate the stellar reputation of Judge Reuben Atlee.
He signed a contract with himself, shook hands, made a blood oath, swore to God. Never would anyone know.
They said good-bye on the sidewalk in front of yet another law office. Harry Rex bear-hugged him, and Ray tried to return the embrace but his arms were pinned to his sides.
"I can't believe he's gone," Harry Rex said, his eyes moist again.
"I know, I know."
He walked away, shaking his head and fighting back tears. Ray jumped in his Audi and left the square without looking back. Minutes later he was on the edge of town, past the old drive-in where porno had been introduced, past the shoe factory where a strike had been mediated by the Judge. Past everything until he was in the country, away from the traffic, away from the legend. He glanced at his speedometer and realized he was driving almost ninety miles an hour.
Cops should be avoided, as well as rear-end collisions. The drive was long, but the timing of the arrival in Charlottesville was crucial. Too early and there would be foot traffic on the downtown mall. Too late and the night patrol might see him and ask questions.
Across the Tennessee line, he stopped for gas and a rest room break. He'd had too much coffee. And too much food. He tried to call Forrest on his cell phone, but there was no answer. He took it as neither good news or bad - with Forrest nothing was predictable.
Moving again, he kept his speed at fifty-five and the hours began to pass. Ford County faded into another lifetime. Everyone has to be from somewhere, and Clanton was not a bad place to call home. But if he never saw it again, he would not be unhappy.
Exams were over in a week, graduation the week after, then the summer break. Because he was supposed to be researching and writing. he'd have no classes to teach for the next three months. Which meant he had very little to do at all.
He would return to Clanton and take the oath as executor of his father's estate. He would make all the decisions that Harry Rex asked him to make. And he would try to solve the mystery of the money.