The Summons - Page 33

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The hills began between Jackson and Memphis, and the coast seemed time zones away. He had often wondered at how a state so small could be so diverse: the Delta region along the river with the wealth of its cotton and rice farms and the poverty that still astonished outsiders; the coast with its blend of immigrants and laid-back, New Orleans casualness; and the hills where most counties were still dry and most folks still went to church on Sundays. A person from the hills would never understand the coast and never be accepted in the Delta. Ray was just happy he lived in Virginia.

Patton French was a dream, he kept telling himself. A cartoonish character from another world. A pompous jerk being eaten alive by his own ego. A liar, a briber, a shameless crook.

Then he would glance over at the passenger's seat and see the sinister face of Gordie Priest. One glance and there was no doubt this brute and his brothers would do anything for the money Ray was still hauling around the country.

An hour from Clanton, and again within range of a tower, his cell phone rang. It was Fog Newton and he was quite agitated. "Where the hell have you been?" he demanded.

"You wouldn't believe me."

"I've been calling all morning."

"What is it, Fog?"

"We've had a little excitement around here. Last night, after general aviation closed, somebody sneaked onto the ramp and put an incendiary device on the left wing of the Bonanza. Boom. A janitor in the main terminal just happened to see the blaze, and they got the fire truck out pretty fast."

Ray had pulled onto the shoulder of Interstate 55 and stopped. He grunted something into the phone and Fog kept going. "Severe damage though. No doubt it was an act of arson. You there?"

"Just listening," Ray said. "How much damage?"

"Left wing, the engine, and most of the fuselage, probably a total loss for insurance purposes. The arson investigator is already here. Insurance guy's here too. If the tanks had been full it would've been a bomb."

"The other owners know about it?"

"Yes, everyone's been out. Of course they're first on the suspect list. Lucky you were out of town. When are you coming back?"

"Soon."

He made it to an exit and pulled into the gravel lot of a truck stop, where he sat in the heat for a long time and occasionally glanced down at Gordie. The Priest gang moved fast - Biloxi yesterday morning, Charlottesville last night. Where are they now?

Inside, he drank coffee and listened to the chatter of the truckers. To change the subject, he called Alcorn Village to check on For-rest. He was in his room, sleeping the sleep of the righteous, as he described it. It was always amazing, he said, how much he slept in rehab. He'd complained about the food, and things had improved slightly. Either that or he had developed a taste for pink Jell-O. He asked how long he could stay, like a kid at Disney World. Ray said he wasn't sure. The money that had once seemed endless was now very much in jeopardy.

"Don't let me out, Bro," he pleaded. "I want to stay in rehab for the remainder of my life."

The Atkins boys had finished the roof at Maple Run without incident. The place was deserted when Ray arrived. He called Harry Rex and checked in. "Let's drink some beer on the porch tonight," Ray suggested.

Harry Rex had never said no to such an invitation.

There was a level spot of thick grass just beyond the front sidewalk, directly in front of the house, and after careful deliberation Ray decided it was the place for a washing. He parked the little Audi there, facing the street, its rear and its trunk just a step from the porch. He found an old tin bucket in the basement and a leaky water hose in the back shed. Shirtless and shoeless, he sloshed around for two hours in the hot afternoon sun, scrubbing the roadster. Then he waxed and polished it for an hour. At 5 P.M., he opened a cold bottle of beer and sat on the steps, admiring his work.

He called the private cell phone number given to him by Pat-ton French, but of course the great man was too busy. Ray wanted to thank him for his hospitality, but what he really wanted was to see if they had made any progress down there icing the Priest gang. He would never ask that question directly, but a blowhard like French would happily deliver the news if he had it.

French had probably forgotten about him. He didn't really care if the Priest boys nailed Ray or the next guy. He needed to make a half a billion or so in mass tort schemes, and that took all his energies. Indict a guy like French, for payoffs or contract killings, and he'd hire fifty lawyers and buy every clerk, judge, prosecutor, and juror.

He called Corey Crawford and got the news that the landlord had once again repaired the doors. The police had promised to keep an eye on the place for the next few days, until he returned.

The van pulled into the driveway shortly after 6 P.M. A smiling face jumped out with a thin overnight envelope, which Ray stared at long after it had been delivered. The airbill was a preprinted form from the University of Virginia School of Law, hand-addressed to Mr. Ray Atlee, Maple Run, 816 Fourth Street, Clariton, MS, dated June 2, the day before. Everything about it was suspicious.

No one at the law school had been given the address in Clan-ton. Nothing from there would be so urgent as to require an overnight delivery. And he could think of no reason whatsoever that the school would be sending him anything. He opened another beer and returned to the front steps, where he grabbed the damned thing and ripped it open.

Plain white legal-size envelope, with the word "Ray" hand-scrawled on the outside. And on the inside, another of the now familiar color photos of Chaney's Self-Storage, this time the front of unit 18R. At the bottom, in a wacky font of mismatched letters, was the message: "You don't need an airplane. Stop spending the money."

These guys were very, very good. It was tough enough to track down the three units at Chaney's and take pictures of them. It was gutsy and also stupid to burn up the Bonanza. Oddly, though, what was most impressive at the moment was their ability to swipe an airbill from the business office at the law school.

After a prolonged moment of shock, he realized something that should have been immediately obvious. Since they'd found 18R, then they knew the money wasn't there. It wasn't at Chaney's, nor at his apartment. They'd followed him from Virginia to Clan-ton, and if he'd stopped somewhere along the way to hide the money, they would know it. They'd probably rummaged through Maple Run again, while he was on the coast.

Their net was tightening by the hour. All clues were being linked, all dots connected. The money had to be with him, and Ray had no place to run.

He had a very comfortable salary as a professor of law, with benefits. His lifestyle was not expensive, and he decided right there on the porch, still shirtless and shoeless, sipping a beer in the early evening humidity of a long hot June day, that he preferred to continue that lifestyle. Leave the violence for the likes of Gordie Priest and hit men hired by Patton French. Ray was out of his element.

The cash was dirty anyway.

"Whe'd you park in the front yard?" Harry Rex grumbled as he lumbered up the steps.

"I washed it and left it there," Ray said. He had showered and was wearing shorts and a tee shirt.

"You just can't get the redneck outta some people. Gimme a beer."

Harry Rex had been brawling in court all day, a nasty divorce where the weighty issues were which spouse had smoked the most dope ten years ago and which one had slept with the most people. The custody of four children was at stake, and neither parent was fit

"I'm too old for this," he said, very tired. By the second beer he was nodding off.

Harry Rex controlled the divorce docket in Ford County and had for twenty-five years. Feuding couples often raced to hire him first. One farmer over at Karraway kept him on retainer so he would be available for the next split. He was very bright, but could also be vile and vicious. This had wide appeal in the heat of divorce wars.

But the work was taking its toll. Like all small-town lawyers, Harry Rex longed for the big kill. The big damage suit with a forty percent contingency fee, something to retire on.

The night before, Ray had been sipping expensive wines on a twenty-million-dollar yacht built by a Saudi prince and owned by a member of the Mississippi bar who was plotting billion-dollar schemes against multinationals. Now he was sipping Bud in a rusted swing with a member of the Mississippi bar who'd spent the day bickering over custody and alimony.

"The Realtor showed the house this morning," Harry Rex said. "He called me during lunch, woke me up."

"Who's the prospect?"

"Remember those Kapshaw boys up near Rail Springs?"

"No."

"Good boys. They started buildin' chairs in an old barn ten years ago, maybe twelve. One thang led to another, and they sold out to some big furniture outfit up in the Carolinas. Each of 'em walked away with a million bucks. Junkie and his wife are lookin' for houses."

"Junkie Kapshaw?"

"Yeah, but he's tight as Dick's hatband and he ain't payin' four hundred thousand for this place."

"I don't blame him."

"His wife's crazy as hell and thinks she wants an old house. The Realtor is pretty sure they'll make an offer, but it'll be low, probably about a hundred seventy-five thousand." Harry Rex was yawning.

They talked about Forrest for a spell, then things were silent. "Guess I'd better go," he said. After three beers, Harry Rex began his exit.

"When are you going back to Virginia?" he asked, struggling to his feet and stretching his back.

"Maybe tomorrow."

"Gimme a call," he said, yawning again, and walked down the steps.

Ray watched the lights of his car disappear down the street, and he was suddenly and completely alone again. The first noise was a rustling in the shrubbery near the property line, probably an old dog or cat on the prowl, but regardless of how harmless it was it spooked Ray and he ran inside.



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