The Summons - Page 34

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The attack began shortly after 2 A.M., at the darkest hour of the night, when sleep is heaviest and reactions slowest. Ray was dead to the world, though the world had weighed heavily on his weary mind. He was on a mattress in the foyer, pistol by his side, the three garbage bags of cash next to his makeshift bed.

It began with a brick through the window, a blast that rattled the old house and rained glass and debris across the dining room table and the newly polished wooden floors. It was a well-placed and well-timed throw from someone who meant business and had probably done it before. Ray clawed his way upright like a wounded alley cat and was lucky not to shoot himself as he groped for his gun. He darted low across the foyer, hit a light switch, and saw the brick resting ominously next to a baseboard near the china cabinet.

Using a quilt, he swept away the debris and carefully picked up the brick, a new red one with sharp edges. Attached was a note held in place by two thick rubber bands. He removed them while looking at the remains of the window. His hands were shaking to the point of not being able to read the note. He swallowed hard, tried to breathe, tried to focus on the handwritten warning. It read simply:

"Put the money back where you found it, then leave the house immediately."

His hand was bleeding, a small nick from a piece of glass. It was his shooting hand, if in fact he had such a thing, and in the horror of the moment he wondered how he could protect himself. He crouched in the shadows of the dining room, telling himself to breathe, to think clearly.

Suddenly, the phone rang, and he jumped out of his skin again. A second ring, and he scrambled into the kitchen where a dim light above the stove helped him grapple for the phone. "Hello!" he barked into the receiver.

"Put the money back, and leave the house," said a calm but rigid voice, one he'd never heard, one he thought, in the blur of the moment, carried a slight trace of a coast accent. "Now! Before you get hurt."

He wanted to scream, "No," or "Stop it," or "Who are you?" But his indecision caused him to hesitate, and the line went dead. He sat on the floor, and with his back to the refrigerator he quickly ran through his options, slim as they were.

He could call the police - hustle and hide the money, stuff the bags under a bed, move the mattress, conceal the note but not the brick, and carry on as if some delinquents were vandalizing an old house just for the hell of it. The cop would walk around with a flashlight and linger for an hour or two, but he would leave at some point.

The Priest boys were not leaving. They had stuck to him like glue. They might duck for a moment, but they were not leaving. And they were far more nimble than the Clanton night watchman. And far more inspired.

He could call Harry Rex - wake him up, tell him it was urgent, get him back over to the house and unload the entire story. Ray yearned for someone to talk to. How many times had he wanted to come clean with Harry Rex? They could split the money, or include it in the estate, or take it to Tunica and roll dice for a year.

But why endanger him too? Three million was enough to provoke more than one killing.

Ray had a gun. Why couldn't he protect himself? He could fend off the attackers. When they came through the door, he'd light the place up. The gunfire would alert the neighbors, the whole town would be there.

It just took one bullet, though, one well-aimed, pointed little missile that he would never see and probably feel only for a moment, or two. And he was outnumbered by some fellas who'd fired a helluva lot more of them than Professor Ray Atlee. He had already decided that he was not willing to die. Life back home was too good.

Just as his heart rate peaked and he felt his pulse start to decline, another brick came crashing through the small window above the kitchen sink. He jerked and yelled and dropped his gun, then kicked it as he scrambled toward the foyer. On hands and knees he dragged the three bags of cash into the Judge's study. He yanked the sofa away from the bookshelves and began throwing the stacks of bills back into the cabinet where he'd found the wretched loot in the first place. He was sweating and cursing and expecting another brick or maybe the first round of ammo. When all of it had been crammed back into its hiding place, he picked up the pistol and unlocked the front door. He darted to his car, cranked it, spun ruts down the front lawn, and finished his escape.

He was unharmed, and at the moment that was his only concern.

North of Clanton, the land dipped in the backwaters of Lake Chatoula, and for a two-mile stretch the road was straight and flat. Known simply as The Bottoms, it had long been the turf of late-night drag racers, boozers, ruffians, and hell-raisers in general. His nearest brush with death, prior to that moment, had been in high school when he found himself in the backseat of a packed Pontiac Firebird driven by a drunken Bobby Lee West and drag racing a Camaro driven by an even drunker Doug Terring, both cars flying at a hundred miles an hour through The Bottoms. He had walked away from it, but Bobby Lee had been killed a year later when his Firebird left the road and met a tree.

When he hit the flat stretch of The Bottoms, he pressed the accelerator of his TT and let it unwind. It was two-thirty in the morning, surely everyone else was asleep.

Elmer Conway had indeed been asleep, but a fat mosquito had taken blood from his forehead and awakened him in the process. He saw lights, a car was approaching rapidly, he turned on his radar. It took almost four miles to get the funny little foreign job pulled over, and by then Elmer was angry.

Ray made the mistake of opening his door and getting out, and that was not what Elmer had in mind.

"Freeze, asshole!" Elmer shouted, over the barrel of his service revolver, which, as Ray quickly realized, was aimed at his head.

"Relax, relax," he said, throwing up his hands in complete surrender.

"Get away from the car," Elmer growled, and with the gun pointed to a spot somewhere around the center line.

"No problem, sir, just relax," Ray said, shuffling sideways.

"What's your name?"

"Ray Atlee, Judge Atlee's son. Could you put that gun down, please?"

Elmer lowered the gun a few inches, enough so that a discharge would hit Ray in the stomach, but not the head. "You got Virginia plates," Elmer said.

"That's because I live in Virginia."

"Is that where you're headed?"

"Yes sir."

"What's the big hurry?"

"I don't know, I just - "

"I clocked you doing ninety-eight."

"I'm very sorry."

"Sony's ass. That's reckless driving." Elmer took a step closer. Ray had forgotten about the cut on his hand and he was not aware of the one on his knee. Elmer removed a flashlight and did a body scan from ten feet away. "Why are you bleedin'?"

It was a very good question, and, at that moment, standing in the middle of the dark highway with a light flashed in his face, Ray could not think of an adequate response. The truth would take an hour and fall on unbelieving ears. A lie would only make matters worse. "I don't know," he mumbled.

"What's in the car?" Elmer asked.

"Nothing."

"Sure."

He handcuffed Ray and put him in the backseat of his Ford County patrol car, a brown Impala with dust on the fenders, no hubcaps, a collection of antennae mounted on the rear bumper. Ray watched as he walked around the TT and looked inside. When Elmer was finished he crawled into the front seat, and without turning around said, "What's the gun for?"

Ray had tried to slide the pistol under the passenger's seat. Evidently it was visible from the outside.

"Protection."

"You got a permit?"

"No."

Elmer called the dispatcher and made a lengthy report of his latest stop. He concluded with, "I'm bringin' him in," as if he had just collared one of the ten most wanted.

"What about my car?" Ray asked, as they turned around.

"I'll send a wrecker out."

Elmer turned on the red and blue lights and pushed the speedometer to eighty.

"Can I call my lawyer?" Ray asked.

"No."

"Come on. It's just a traffic offense. My lawyer can meet me at the jail, post bond, and in an hour I'm back on the road."

"Who's your lawyer?"

"Harry Rex Vonner."

Elmer grunted and his neck grew thicker. "Sumbitch cleaned me out in my divorce."

And with that Ray sat back and closed his eyes.

Ray had actually seen the inside of the Ford County jail on two occasions, he recalled as Elmer led him up the front sidewalk. Both times he had taken papers to deadbeat fathers who'd been years behind in child support, and Judge Atlee had locked them up. Haney Moak, the slightly retarded jailer in an oversized uniform, was still there at the front desk, reading detective magazines. He also served as the dispatcher for the graveyard shift, so he knew of Ray's transgressions.

"Judge Atlee's boy, huh?" Haney said with a crooked grin. His head was lopsided and his eyes were uneven, and whenever Haney spoke it was a challenge to maintain a visual.

"Yes sir," Ray said politely, looking for friends.

"He was a fine man," he said as he moved behind Ray and unlocked the cuffs.

Ray rubbed his wrists and looked at Deputy Conway who was busy filling in forms and being very officious. "Reckless, and no gun permit."

"You ain't lockin' him up, are you?" Haney said to Elmer, quite rudely as if Haney were in charge of the case now, and not the deputy.

"Damned right," Elmer shot back, and the situation was immediately tense.

"Can I call Harry Rex Vonner?" Ray pleaded.

Haney nodded toward a wall-mounted phone as if he could not care less. He was glaring at Elmer. The two obviously had a history that was not pretty. "My jail's full now," Haney said.

"That's what you always say."

Ray quickly punched Harry Rex's home number. It was after 3 A.M., and he knew the interruption would not be appreciated. The current Mrs. Vonner answered after the third ring. Ray apologized for the call and asked for Harry Rex.

"He's not here," she said.

He's not out of town, Ray thought. He was on the front porch six hours ago. "May I ask where he is?"

Haney and Elmer were practically yelling at each other in the background.

"He's over at the Atlee place," she said slowly.

"No, he left there hours ago. I was with him."

"No, they just called. The house is burning."

With Haney in the backseat, they flew around the square, lights and sirens fully engaged. From two blocks away, they could see the blaze. "Lord have mercy," Haney said from the back.

Few events excited Clanton like a good fire. The town's two pumpers were there. Dozens of volunteers were darting about, all seemed to be yelling. The neighbors were gathering on the sidewalks across the street.

Flames were already shooting through the roof. As Ray stepped over a water line and eased onto the front lawn, he breathed the unmistakable odor of gasoline.



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