Mr. and Mrs. Vonner left Clanton on a cloudy June morning in a new sports utility four-wheel drive that promised twelve miles to the gallon and was loaded with enough luggage for a month in Europe. The District of Columbia was the destination, however, since Mrs. Vonner had a sister there whom Harry Rex had never met. They spent the first night in Gatlinburg and the second night at White Sulphur Springs in West Virginia. They arrived in Charlottesville around noon, did the obligatory tour of Jefferson's Monticello, walked the grounds at the university, and had an unusual dinner at a college dive called the White Spot, the house specialty being a fried egg on a hamburger. It was Harry Rex's kind of food.
The next morning, while she slept, he went for a stroll on the downtown mall. He found the address and waited.
A few minutes after 8 A.M., Ray double-tied the laces of his rather expensive running shoes, stretched in the den, and walked downstairs for the daily five-miler. Outside, the air was warm. July was not far away and summer had already arrived.
He turned a corner and heard a familiar voice call, "Hey, boy."
Harry Rex was sitting on a bench, a cup of coffee in hand, an unread newspaper next to him. Ray froze and took a few seconds to collect himself. Things were out of place here.
When he could move, he walked over and said, "What, exactly, are you doing here?"
"Cute outfit," Harry Rex said, taking in the shorts, old tee shirt, red runner's cap, the latest in athletic eye glasses. "Me and the wife are passing through, headed for D.C. She has a sister up there she thinks I want to meet. Sit down."
"Why didn't you call?"
"Didn't want to bother you."
"But you should've called, Harry Rex. We could do dinner, I'll show you around."
"It's not that kind of trip. Sit down."
Smelling trouble, Ray sat next to Harry Rex. "I can't believe this," he mumbled.
"Shut up and listen."
Ray removed his running glasses and looked at Harry Rex. "Is it bad?"
"Let's say it's curious." He told Jacob Spain's story about For-rest hiding in the trees at the oncology clinic, six days before the Judge passed away. Ray listened in disbelief and slid lower on the bench. He finally leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, his head hung low.
"According to the medical records," Harry Rex was saying, "he got a morphine pack that day, May the first. Don't know if it was the first pack or a refill, the records are not that clear. Looks like Forrest took him to get the good stuff."
A long pause as a pretty young woman walked by, obviously in a hurry, her tight skirt swaying wonderfully as she sped along. A sip of coffee, then, "I've always been suspicious of that will you found in his study. The Judge and I talked about his will for the last six months of his life. I don't think he simply cranked out one more right before he died. I've studied the signatures at length, and it's my untrained opinion that the last one is a forgery."
Ray cleared his voice and said, "If Forrest drove him to Tupelo, then it's safe to assume Forrest was in the house."
"All over the house."
Harry Rex had hired an investigator in Memphis to find Forrest, but there was no trail, no trace. From somewhere within the newspaper, he pulled out an envelope. "Then, this came three days ago."
Ray pulled out a sheet of paper and unfolded it. It was from Oscar Meave at Alcorn Village, and it read: "Dear Mr. Vonner: I have been unable to reach Ray Atlee. I know the whereabouts of Forrest, if by chance the family does not. Gall if you would like to talk. Everything is confidential. Best wishes, Oscar Meave."
"So I called him right away," Harry Rex said, eyeing another young woman. "He has a former patient who's now a counselor at a rehab ranch out West. Forrest checked in there a week ago, and was adamant about his privacy, said he did not want his family to know where he was. Evidently this happens from time to time, and the clinics are always caught in a bind. They have to respect the wishes of their patient, but on the other hand, the family is crucial to the overall rehabilitation. So these counselors whisper among themselves. Meave made the decision to pass along the information to you."
"Where out West?"
"Montana. A place called Morningstar Ranch. Meave said it's what the boy needs - very nice, very remote, a lockdown facility for the hard cases, said he'll be there for a year."
Ray sat up and began rubbing his forehead as if he'd finally been shot there.
"And of course the place is pricey," Harry Rex added.
"Of course," Ray mumbled.
There was no more talk, not about Forrest anyway. After a few minutes, Harry Rex said he was leaving. He had delivered his message, he had nothing more to say, not then. His wife was anxious to see her sister. Perhaps next time they could stay longer, have dinner, whatever. He patted Ray on the shoulder, and left him there. "See you in Clanton" were his last words.
Too weak and too winded for a run, Ray sat on the bench in the middle of the downtown mall, his apartment above him, lost in a world of rapidly moving pieces. The foot traffic picked up as the merchants and bankers and lawyers hustled to work, but Ray did not see them.
Carl Mirk taught two sections of insurance law each semester, and he was a member of the Virginia bar, as was Ray. They discussed the interview over lunch, and both came to the conclusion that it was just part of a routine inquiry, nothing to worry about. Mirk would tag along and pretend to be Ray's lawyer.
The insurance investigator's name was Ratterfield. They welcomed him into the conference room at the law school. He removed his jacket as if they might be there for hours. Ray was wearing jeans and a golf shirt. Mirk was just as casual.
"I usually record these," Ratterfield said, all business as he pulled out a tape recorder and placed it between him and Ray. 'Any objections?" he asked, once the recorder was in place.
"I guess not," Ray said.
He punched a button, looked at his notes, then began an introduction, for the benefit of the tape. He was an independent insurance examiner, hired by Aviation Underwriters, to investigate a claim filed by Ray Atlee and three other owners for damages to a 1994 Beech Bonanza on June 2. According to the state arson examiner, the airplane was deliberately burned.
Initially, he needed Ray's flying history. Ray had his logbook and Ratterfield pored through it, finding nothing remotely interesting. "No instrument rating," he said at one point.
"I'm working on it," Ray replied.
"Fourteen hours in the Bonanza?"
He then moved to the consortium of owners, and asked questions about the deal that brought it together. He'd already interviewed the other owners, and they had produced the contracts and documentation. Ray acknowledged the paperwork.
Changing gears, Ratterfield asked, "Where were you on June the first?" :
"Biloxi, Mississippi," Ray answered, certain that Ratterfield had no idea where that was.
"How long had you been there?"
"A few days."
"May I ask why you were there?"
"Sure," Ray said, then launched into an abbreviated version of his recent visits home. His official reason for going to the coast was to visit friends, old buddies from his days at Tulane.
"I'm sure there are people who can verify that you were there on June the first," Ratterfield said.
"Several people. Plus I have hotel receipts."
He seemed convinced that Ray had been in Mississippi. "The other owners were all at home when the plane burned," he said, flipping a page to a list of typed notes. "All have alibis. If we're assuming it's arson, then we have to first find a motive, then whoever torched it. Any ideas?"
"I have no idea who did this," Ray said quickly, and with conviction.
"How about motive?"
"We had just bought the plane. Why would any of us want to destroy it?"
"To collect the insurance, maybe. Happens occasionally. Perhaps one partner decided he was in over his head. The note is not small - almost two hundred grand over six years, close to nine hundred bucks a month per partner."
"We knew that two weeks earlier when we signed on," Ray said.
They shadowboxed for a while around the delicate issue of Ray's personal finances - salary, expenses, obligations. When Ratterfield seemed convinced that Ray could swing his end of the deal, he changed subjects. "This fire in Mississippi," he said, scanning a report of some type. "Tell me about it."
"What do you want to know?"
"Are you under investigation for arson down there?"
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure. You can call my attorney if you'd like."
"I already have. And your apartment has been burglarized twice in the past six weeks?"
"Nothing was taken. Both were just break-ins."
"You're having an exciting summer."
"Is that a question?"
"Sounds like someone's after you."
"Again, is that a question?"
It was the only flare-up of the interview, and both Ray and Ratterfield took a breath.
"Any other arson investigations in your past?"
Ray smiled and said, "No."
When Ratterfield flipped another page, and there was nothing typed on it, he lost interest in a hurry and went through the motions of wrapping things up. "I'm sure our attorneys will be in touch," he said as he turned off the recorder.
"I can't wait," Ray said.
Ratterfield collected his jacket and his briefcase and made his exit.
After he left, Carl said, "I think you know more than you're telling."
"Maybe," Ray said. "But I had nothing to do with the arson here, or the arson there."
"I've heard enough."