The Summons - Page 3

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The law school was next to the business school, and both were at the northern edge of a campus that had expanded greatly from the quaint academic village Thomas Jefferson designed and built.

To a university that so revered the architecture of its founder, the law school was just another modern campus building, square and flat, brick and glass, as bland and unimaginative as many others built in the seventies. But recent money had renovated and landscaped things nicely. It was ranked in the Top Ten, as everybody who worked and studied there knew so well. A few of the Ivys were ranked above it, but no other public school. It attracted a thousand top students and a very bright faculty.

Ray had been content teaching securities law at Northeastern in Boston. Some of his writings caught the attention of a search committee, one thing led to another, and the chance to move South to a better school became attractive. Vicki was from Florida, and though she thrived in the city life of Boston, she could never adjust to the winters. They quickly adapted to the slower pace of Charlottesville. He was awarded tenure, she earned a doctorate in romance languages. They were discussing children when the Liquidator wormed his way into the picture.

Another man gets your wife pregnant, then takes her, and you'd like to ask him some questions. And perhaps have a few for her. In the days right after her exit he couldn't sleep for all the questions, but as time passed he realized he would never confront her. The questions faded, but seeing her at the airport brought them back. Ray was cross-examining her again as he parked in the law school lot and returned to his office.

He kept office hours late in the afternoon, no appointment was necessary. His door was open and any student was welcome. It was early May, though, and the days were warm. Student visits had become rare. He reread the directive from his father, and again became irked at the usual heavy-handedness.

At five o'clock he locked his office, left the law school, and walked down the street to an intramural sports complex where the third-year students were playing the faculty in the second of a three-game softball series. The professors had lost the first game in a slaughter. Games two and three were not really necessary to determine the better team.

Smelling blood, first -  and second-year students filled the small bleachers and hung on the fence along the first-base line, where the faculty team was huddled for a useless pre-game pep talk. Out in left field some first-years of dubious reputation were bunched around two large coolers, the beer already flowing.

There's no better place to be in the springtime than on a college campus, Ray thought to himself as he approached the field and looked for a pleasant spot to watch the game. Girls in shorts, a cooler always close by, festive moods, impromptu parties, summer approaching. He was forty-three years old, single, and he wanted to be a student again. Teaching keeps you young, they all said, perhaps energetic and mentally sharp, but what Ray wanted was to sit on a cooler out there with the hell-raisers and hit on the girls.

A small group of his colleagues loitered behind the backstop, smiling gamely as the faculty took the field with a most unimpressive lineup. Several were limping. Half wore some manner of knee brace. He spotted Carl Mirk, an associate dean and his closest friend, leaning on a fence, tie undone, jacket slung over his shoulder.

"Sad-looking crew out there," Ray said.

"Wait till you see them play" Mirk said. Carl was from a small town in Ohio where his father was a local judge, a local saint, everybody's grandfather. Carl, too, had fled and vowed never to return.

"I missed the first game," Ray said.

"It was a hoot. Seventeen to nothing after two innings."

The leadoff hitter for the students ripped the first pitch into the left-field gap, a routine double, but by the time the left fielder and center fielder hobbled over, corralled the ball, kicked it a couple of times, fought over it, then flung it toward the infield, the runner walked home and the shutout was blown. The rowdies in left field were hysterical. The students in the bleachers yelled for more errors.

"It'll get worse," Mirk said.

Indeed it did. After a few more fielding disasters, Ray had seen enough. "I'll be out of town early next week," he said between batters. "I've been called home."

"I can tell you're excited," Mirk said. "Another funeral?"

"Not yet. My father is convening a family summit to discuss his estate."

"I'm sorry"

"Don't be. There's not much to discuss, nothing to fight over, so it'll probably be ugly "

"Your brother?"

"I don't know who'll cause more trouble, brother or father."

"I'll be thinking of you."

"Thanks. I'll notify my students and give them assignments. Everything should be covered."

"Leaving when?"

"Saturday, should be back Tuesday or Wednesday, but who knows."

"We'll be here," Mirk said. "And hopefully this series will be over."

A soft ground ball rolled untouched between the legs of the pitcher.

"I think it's over now," Ray said.

Nothing soured Ray's mood like thoughts of going home. He hadn't been there in over a year, and if he never went back it would still be too soon.

He bought a burrito from a Mexican takeout and ate at a sidewalk cafe near the ice rink where the usual gang of black-haired Goths gathered and spooked the normal folks. The old Main Street was a pedestrian mall - a very nice one with cafes and antique stores and book dealers - and if the weather was pleasant, as it usually was, the restaurants spread outdoors for long evening meals.

When he'd suddenly become single again, Ray unloaded the quaint townhouse and moved downtown, where most of the old buildings had been renovated for more urban-style housing. His six-room apartment was above a Persian rug dealer. It had a small balcony over the mall, and at least once a month Ray had his students over for wine and lasagne.

It was almost dark when he unlocked the door on the sidewalk and trudged up the noisy steps to his place. He was very much alone - no mate, no dog, no cat, no goldfish. In the past few years he'd met two women he'd found attractive and had dated neither. He was much too frightened for romance. A saucy third-year student named Kaley was making advances, but his defenses were in place. His sex drive was so dormant he had considered counseling, or perhaps wonder drugs. He flipped on lights and checked the phone.

Forrest had called, a rare event indeed, but not completely unexpected. Typical of Forrest, he had simply checked in, without leaving a number. Ray fixed tea with no caffeine and put on some jazz, trying to stall as he prepped himself for the call. Odd that a phone chat with his only sibling should take so much effort, but chatting with Forrest was always depressing. They had no wives, no children, nothing in common but a name and a father.

Ray punched in the number to Ellie's house in Memphis. It rang for a long time before she answered. "Hello, Ellie, this is Ray Atlee," he said pleasantly.

"Oh," she grunted, as if he'd called eight times already. "He's not here."

Doing swell, Ellie, and you? Fine, thanks for asking. Great to hear your voice. How's the weather down there?

"I'm returning his call," Ray said.

"Like I said, he's not here."

"I heard you. Is there a different number?"

"For what?"

"For Forrest. Is this still the best number to reach him?"

"I guess. He stays here most of the time."

"Please tell him I called."

They met in detox, she for booze, Forrest for an entire menu of banned substances. At the time she weighed ninety-eight pounds and claimed she'd lived on nothing but vodka for most of her adult life. She kicked it, walked away clean, tripled her body weight, and somehow got Forrest in the deal too. More mother than girlfriend, she now had him a room in the basement of her ancestral home, an eerie old Victorian in midtown Memphis.

Ray was still holding the phone when it rang. "Hey, Bro," Forrest called out. "You rang?"

"Returning yours. How's it going?"

"Well, I was doing fairly well until I got a letter from the old man. You get one too?"

"It arrived today."

"He thinks he's still a judge and we're a couple of delinquent fathers, don't you think?"

"He'll always be the Judge, Forrest. Have you talked to him?"

A snort, then a pause. "I haven't talked to him on the phone in two years, and I haven't set foot in the house in more years than I can remember. And I'm not sure I'll be there Sunday."

"You'll be there."

"Have you talked to him?"

"Three weeks ago. I called, he didn't. He sounded very sick, Forrest, I don't think he'll be around much longer. I think you should seriously consider - "

"Don't start, Ray. I'm not listening to a lecture."

There was a gap, a heavy stillness in which both of them took a breath. Being an addict from a prominent family, Forrest had been lectured to and preached at and burdened with unsolicited advice for as long as he could remember.

"Sorry," Ray said. "I'll be there. What about you?"

"I suppose so."

"Are you clean?" It was such a personal question, but one that was as routine as How's the weather? With Forrest the answer was always straight and true.

"A hundred and thirty-nine days, Bro."

"That's great."

It was, and it wasn't. Every sober day was a relief, but to still be counting after twenty years was disheartening.

"And I'm working too," he said proudly.

"Wonderful. What kind of work?"

"I'm running cases for some local ambulance chasers, a bunch of sleazy bastards who advertise on cable and hang around hospitals. I sign 'em up and get a cut."

It was difficult to appreciate such a seedy job, but with Forrest any employment was good news. He'd been a bail bondsman, process server, collection agent, security guard, investigator, and at one time or another had tried virtually every job at the lesser levels of the legal profession.

"Not bad," Ray said.

Forrest started a tale, this one involving a shoving match in a hospital emergency room, and Ray began to drift. His brother had also worked as a bouncer in a strip bar, a calling that was short-lived when he was beaten up twice in one night. He'd spent one full year touring Mexico on a new Harley-Davidson; the trip's funding had never been clear. He had tried leg-breaking for a Memphis loan shark, but again proved deficient when it came to violence.

Honest employment had never appealed to Forrest, though, in all fairness, interviewers were generally turned off by his criminal record. Two felonies, drug-related, both before he turned twenty but permanent blotches nonetheless.

"Are you gonna talk to the old man?" he was asking.

"No, I'll see him Sunday," Ray answered.

"What time will you get to Clanton?"

"I don't know. Sometime around five, I guess. You?"

"God said five o'clock, didn't he?"

"Yes, he did."

"Then I'll be there sometime after five. See you, Bro."

Ray circled the phone for the next hour, deciding yes, he would call his father and just say hello, then deciding no, that anything to be said now could be said later, and in person. The Judge detested phones, especially those that rang at night and disrupted his solitude. More often than not he would simply refuse to answer. And if he picked up he was usually so rude and gruff that the caller was sorry for the effort.

He would be wearing black trousers and a white shirt, one with tiny cinder holes from the pipe ashes, and the shirt would be heavily starched because the Judge had always worn them that way. For him a white cotton dress shirt lasted a decade, regardless of the number of stains and cinder holes, and it got laundered and starched every week at Mabe's Cleaners on the square. His tie would be as old as his shirt and the design would be some drab print with little color. Navy blue suspenders, always.

And he would be busy at his desk in his study, under the portrait of General Forrest, not sitting on the porch waiting for his sons to come home. He would want them to think he had work to do, even on a Sunday afternoon, and that their arrivals were not that important.

Tags: John Grisham Thriller