The Summons - Page 17

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The solitude of a late Friday morning was broken by the doorbell. Ray had slept late, still trying to shake off the fatigue from the trip home. Three newspapers and four coffees later he was almost fully awake.

It was a FedEx box from Harry Rex, and it was filled with letters from admirers and newspaper clippings. Ray spread them on the dining table and began with the articles. The Clanton Chronicle ran a front-page piece on Wednesday that featured a dignified photo of Reuben Atlee, complete with black robe and gavel. The picture was at least twenty years old. The Judge's hair was thicker and darker, and he filled out the robe. The headline read.

Judge Reuben Atlee Dead at 79

There were three stories on the front page. One was a flowery obituary. One was a collection of comments from his friends. The third was a tribute to the Judge and his amazing gift of charity.

The Ford County Times likewise had a picture, one taken just a few years earlier. In it Judge Atlee was sitting on his front porch holding his pipe, looking much older but offering a rare smile. He wore a cardigan and looked like a grandfather. The reporter had cajoled him into a feature with the ruse of chatting about the Civil War and Nathan Bedford Forrest. There was the hint of a book in the works, one about the general and the men from Ford County who'd fought with him.

The Atlee sons were barely mentioned in the stories about their father. Referring to one would require referring to the other, and most folks in Clanton wanted to avoid the subject of Forrest. It was painfully obvious that the sons were not a part of their father's life.

But we could've been, Ray said to himself. It was the father who'd chosen early on to have limited involvement with the sons, not the other way around. This wonderful old man who'd given so much to so many had had so little time for his own family.

The stories and photos made him sad, which was frustrating because he had not planned to be sad this Friday. He had held up quite well since discovering his father's body five days earlier. In moments of grief and sorrow, he had dug deep and found the strength to bite his lip and push forward without breaking down. The passage of time and the distance to Clanton had helped immensely, and now from nowhere had come the saddest reminders yet.

The letters had been collected by Harry Rex from the Judge's post office box in Clanton, from the courthouse, and from the mail-box at Maple Run. Some were addressed to Ray and Forrest and some to the family of Judge Atlee. There were lengthy letters from lawyers who'd practiced before the great man and had been inspired by his passion for the law. There were cards of sympathy from people who, for one reason or another, had appeared before Judge Atlee in a divorce, or adoption, or juvenile matter, and his fairness had changed their lives. There were notes from people all over the state - sitting judges, old law school pals, politicians Judge Atlee had helped over the years, and friends who wanted to pass along their sympathies and fond memories.

The largest batch came from those who had received the Judge's charity. The letters were long and heartfelt, and all the same. Judge Atlee had quietly sent money that was desperately needed, and in many cases it had made a dramatic change in the life of someone.

How could a man so generous die with more than three million dollars hidden below his bookshelves? He certainly buried more than he gave away. Perhaps Alzheimer's had crept into his life, or some other affliction that had gone undetected. Had he slipped toward insanity? The easy answer was that the old man had simply gone nuts, but how many crazy people could put together that kind of money?

After reading twenty or so letters and cards, Ray took a break. He walked to the small balcony overlooking the downtown mall and watched the pedestrians below. His father had never seen Charlottesville, and though Ray was certain he had asked him to visit, he could not remember a specific invitation. They had never traveled anywhere together. There were so many things they could have done.

The Judge had always talked of seeing Gettysburg, Antietam, Bull Run, Chancellorsville, and Appomatox, and he would have done so had Ray shown an interest. But Ray cared nothing for the refighting of an old war, and he had always changed the subject.

The guilt hit hard, and he couldn't shake it. What a selfish ass he'd been.

There was a lovely card from Claudia. She thanked Ray for talking to her and expressing his forgiveness. She had loved his father for years and would carry her grief to her grave. Please call me, she begged, then signed off with hugs and kisses. And she's got her current boyfriend on Viagra, according to Harry Rex.

The nostalgic journey home came to an abrupt halt with a simple anonymous card that froze his pulse and sent goose bumps down the backs of both legs.

The only pink envelope in the pile contained a card with the words "With Sympathy" on the outside. Taped to the inside was a small square piece of paper with a typed message that read: "It would be a mistake to spend the money. The IRS is a phone call away." The envelope had been postmarked in Clanton on Wednesday, the day after the funeral, and was addressed to the family of Judge Atlee at Maple Run.

Ray placed it aside while he scanned the other cards and letters. They were all the same at this point, and he'd read enough. The pink one sat there like a loaded gun, waiting for him to return to it.

He repeated the threat on the balcony as he grasped the railing and tried to analyze things. He mumbled the words in the kitchen as he fixed more coffee. He'd left the note on the table so he could see it from any part of his rambling den.

Back on the balcony he watched the foot traffic pick up as noon approached, and anyone who glanced up was a person who might know about the money. Bury a fortune, then realize you're hiding it from someone, and your imagination can get crazy.

The money didn't belong to him, and it was certainly enough to get him stalked, followed, watched, reported, even hurt.

Then he laughed at his own paranoia. I will not live like this, he said, and went to take a shower.

Whoever it was knew exactly where the Judge had hidden the money. Make a list, Ray told himself as he sat on the edge of his bed, naked, with water dripping onto the floor. The felon who cut the lawn once a week. Perhaps he was a smooth talker who'd befriended the Judge and spent time in the house. Entry was easy. When the Judge sneaked off to the casinos, maybe the grass cutter slinked through the house, pilfering.

Claudia would be at the top of the list. Ray could easily see her easing over to Maple Run whenever the Judge beckoned. You don't sleep with a woman for years then cut her off without a replacement. Their lives had been so connected it was easy to imagine their romance continuing. No one had been closer to Reuben Atlee than Claudia. If anyone knew where the money came from, it was her.

If she wanted a key to the house, she could've had one, though a key was not necessary. Her visit on the morning of the funeral could've been for surveillance and not sympathy, though she'd played it well. Tough, smart, savvy, calloused, and old but not too old. For fifteen minutes he dwelt on Claudia and convinced himself that she was the one tracking the money.

Two other names came to mind, but Ray could not add them to the list. The first was Harry Rex, and as soon as he mumbled the name he felt ashamed. The other was Forrest, and it too was a ridiculous idea. Forrest had not been inside the house for nine years. Assuming, just for the sake of argument, that he somehow had known about the money, he would never have left it. Give Forrest three million in cash and he would've done serious damage to himself and those around him.

The list took great effort but there was little to show for it. He wanted to go for a quick run, but instead stuffed some old clothes into two pillowcases, then drove to Chaney's, where he unloaded them into 14B. Nothing had been touched, the boxes were just as he'd left them the day before. The money was still well hidden. As he loitered there, not wanting to leave until the last second, he was hit with the thought that perhaps he was creating a trail. Obviously, someone knew he had taken it from the Judge's study. For that kind of money, private investigators could be hired to follow Ray.

They could follow him from Clanton to Charlottesville, from his apartment to Chaney's Self-Storage.

He cursed himself for being so negligent. Think, man! The money doesn't belong to you!

He locked up 14B as tightly as possible. Driving across town to meet Carl for lunch, he glanced at his mirrors and watched other drivers, and after five minutes of this he laughed at himself and vowed that he would not live like wounded prey.

Let them have the damned money! One less thing to worry about. Break into 14B and haul it away. Wouldn't affect his life in the least. No sir.

Tags: John Grisham Thriller