The Summons - Page 36

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The old fire truck was gone, the same one Ray and his friends had followed when they were teenagers and bored on summer nights. A lone volunteer in a dirty tee shirt was folding fire hoses. The street was a mess with mud strewn everywhere.

Maple Run was deserted by midmorning. The chimney on the east end was still standing, as was a short section of charred wall beside it. Everything else had collapsed into a pile of debris. Ray and Harry Rex walked around the rubble and went to the backyard, where a row of ancient pecan trees protected the rear boundary of the property. They sat in the shade, in metal lawn chairs that Ray had once painted red, and ate tamales.

"I didn't burn this place," Ray finally said.

"Do you know who did?" Harry Rex asked.

"I have a suspect."

"Tell me, dammit."

"His name is Gordie Priest."

"Oh him!"

"It's a long story."

Ray began with the Judge, dead on the sofa, and the accidental discovery of the money, or was it an accident after all? He gave as many facts and details as he could remember, and he , raised all the questions that had been dogging him for weeks. Both stopped eating. They stared at the smoldering debris but were too mesmerized to see it. Harry Rex was stunned by the narrative. Ray was relieved to be telling it. From Clanton to Charlottesville and back. From the casinos in Tunica to Atlantic City, then back to Tunica. To the coast and Patton French and his quest for a billion dollars, all to be credited to Judge Reuben Atlee, humble servant of the law.

Ray held back nothing, and he tried to remember everything. The ransacking of his apartment in Charlottesville, for intimidation only, he thought. The ill-advised purchase of a share in a Bonanza. On and on he went, while Harry Rex said nothing.

When he finished, his appetite was gone and he was sweating. Harry Rex had a million questions, but he began with, "Why would he burn the house?"

"Cover his tracks, maybe, I don't know."

"This guy didn't leave tracks."

"Maybe it was the final act of intimidation."

They mulled this over. Harry Rex finished a tamale and said, "You should've told me."

"I wanted to keep the money, okay? I had three million bucks in cash in my sticky little hands, and it felt wonderful. It was better than sex, better than anything I'd ever felt. Three million bucks, Harry Rex, all mine. I was rich. I was greedy. I was corrupt. I didn't want you or Forrest or the government or anyone in the world to know that I had the money."

"What were you gonna do with it?"

"Ease it into banks, a dozen of them, nine thousand dollars at a time, no paperwork that would alert the government, let it pile up over eighteen months, then invest it with a pro. I'm forty-three; in two years the money would be laundered and hard at work. It would double every five years. At the age of fifty, it would be six million. Fifty-five, twelve million. At the age of sixty, Td have twenty-four million bucks. I had it all planned, Harry Rex. I could see the future."

"Don't beat yourself up. What you did was normal."

"It doesn't feel normal."

"You're a lousy crook."

"I felt lousy, and I was already changing. I could see myself in an airplane and a fancier sports car and a nicer place to live. There's a lot of money around Charlottesville, and I was thinking about making a splash. Country clubs, fox hunting - "

"Fox hunting?"

"Yep."

"With those little britches and the hat?"

"Flying over fences on a wild horse, chasing a pack of hounds that are in hot pursuit of a thirty-pound fox that you'll never see."

"Why would you wanna do that?"

"Why would anyone?"

"I'll stick to huntin' birds."

"Anyway, it was a burden, literally. I mean, I've been hauling the cash around for weeks."

"You could've left some at my office."

Ray finished a tamale and sipped a cola. "You think I'm stupid?"

"No, lucky. This guy plays for keeps."

"Every time I closed my eyes, I could see a bullet coming at my forehead."

"Look, Ray, you've done nothing wrong. The Judge didn't want the money included in his estate. You took it because you thought you were protectin' it, and also guardin' his reputation. You had a crazy man who wanted it more than you. Lookin' back, you're lucky you didn't get hurt in the whole episode. Forget it."

"Thanks, Harry Rex." Ray leaned forward and watched the volunteer fireman walk away. "What about the arson?"

"We'll work it out. I'll file a claim, and the insurance company will investigate. They'll suspect arson and thangs'll get ugly. Let a few months pass. If they don't pay, then we'll sue, in Ford County. They won't risk a jury trial against the estate of Reuben Atlee right here in his own courthouse. I think they'll settle before trial. We may have to compromise some, but we'll get a nice settlement."

Ray was on his feet. "I really want to go home," he said.

The air was thick with heat and smoke as they walked around the house. "I've had enough," Ray said, and headed for the street.

He drove a perfect fifty-five through The Bottoms. Elmer Conway was nowhere to be seen. The Audi seemed lighter with the trunk empty. Indeed, life itself was shedding burdens. Ray longed for the normalcy of home.

He dreaded the meeting with Forrest. Their father's estate had just been wiped out, and the arson issue would be difficult to explain. Perhaps he should wait. Rehab was going so smoothly, and Ray knew from experience that the slightest complication could derail Forrest. Let a month go by. Then another.

Forrest would not be going back to Clanton, and in his murky world he might never hear of the fire. It might be best if Harry Rex broke the news to him.

The receptionist at Alcorn Village gave him a curious look when he signed in. He read magazines for a long time in the dark lounge where the visitors waited. When Oscar Meave eased in with a gloomy look, Ray knew exactly what had happened.

"He walked away late yesterday afternoon," Meave began as he crouched on the coffee table in front of Ray. "I've tried to reach you all morning."

"I lost my cell phone last night," Ray said. Of all the things he'd left behind when the rocks were falling, he couldn't believe he'd forgotten his cell phone.

"He signed in for the ridge walk, a five-mile nature trail he's been doing every day. It's around the back of the property, no fencing, but then Forrest was not a security risk. We didn't think so, anyway. I can't believe this."

Ray certainly could. His brother had been walking away from detox units for almost twenty years.

"This is not really a lockdown facility," Meave continued. "Our patients want to stay here, or it doesn't work."

"I understand," Ray said softly.

"He was doing so well," Meave went on, obviously more troubled than Ray. "Completely clean and very proud of it. He had sort of adopted two teenagers, both in rehab for the first time. Forrest worked with them every morning. I just don't understand this one."

"I thought you are an ex-addict."

Meave was shaking his head. "I know, I know. The addict quits when the addict wants to, and not before."

"Have you ever seen one who just couldn't quit?" Ray asked.

"We can't admit that."

"I know you can't. But, off the record, you and I both know that there are addicts who will never kick it."

Meave shrugged, with reluctance.

"Forrest is one of those, Oscar. We've lived this for twenty years."

"I take it as a personal failure."

"Don't."

They walked outside and talked for a moment under a veranda. Meave could not stop apologizing. For Ray, it was nothing unexpected.

Along the winding road back to the main highway, Ray wondered how his brother could simply walk away from a facility eight miles from the nearest town. But then, he had fled more secluded places.

He would go back to Memphis, back to his room in Ellie's basement, back to the streets where pushers were waiting for him. The next phone call might be the last, but then Ray had been half-expecting it for many years. As sick as he was, Forrest had shown an amazing ability to survive.

Ray was in Tennessee now. Virginia was next, seven hours away. With a clear sky and no wind, he thought of how nice it would be at five thousand feet, buzzing around in his favorite rented Cessna.



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