The Summons - Page 7

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Behind the hearse was the county coroner, Thurber Foreman, in the same red Dodge pickup he'd been driving since Ray was in college, and behind Thurber was Reverend Silas Palmer of the First Presbyterian Church, an ageless little Scot who'd baptized both Atlee sons. Forrest slipped away and hid in the backyard while Ray met the party on the front porch. Sympathies were exchanged. Mr. B. J. Magargel from the funeral home and Reverend Palmer appeared to be near tears. Thurber had seen countless dead bodies. He had no financial interest in this one, however, and appeared to be indifferent, at least for the moment.

Ray led them to the study where they respectfully viewed Judge Atlee long enough for Thurber to officially decide he was dead. He did this without words, but simply nodded at Mr. Magargel with a somber, bureaucratic dip of the chin that said, "He's dead. You can take him now." Mr. Magargel nodded, too, thus completing a silent ritual they'd gone through many times together.

Thurber produced a single sheet of paper and asked the basics. The Judge's full name, date of birth, place of birth, next of kin. For the second time, Ray said no to an autopsy.

Ray and Reverend Palmer stepped away and took a seat at the dining room table. The minister was much more emotional than the son. He adored the Judge and claimed him as a close friend.

A service befitting a man of Reuben Atlee's stature would draw many friends and admirers and should be well planned. "Reuben and I talked about it not long ago," Palmer said, his voice low and raspy, ready to choke up at any moment.

"That's good," Ray said.

"He picked out the hymns and scriptures, and he made a list of the pallbearers."

Ray hadn't yet thought of such details. Perhaps they would've come to mind had he not stumbled upon a couple of million in cash. His overworked brain listened to Palmer and caught most of his words, then it would switch to the broom closet and start swirling again. He was suddenly nervous that Thurber and Magargel were alone with the Judge in the study. Relax, he kept telling himself.

"Thank you," he said, genuinely relieved that the details had been taken care of. Mr. Magargel's assistant rolled a gurney through the front door, through the foyer, and struggled to get it turned into the Judge's study.

'And he wanted a wake," the reverend said. Wakes were traditional, a necessary prelude to a proper burial, especially among the older folks.

Ray nodded.

"Here in the house."

"No," Ray said instantly. "Not here."

As soon as he was alone, he wanted to inspect every inch of the house in search of more loot. And he was very concerned with the stash already in the broom closet. How much was there? How long would it take to count it? Was it real or counterfeit? Where did it come from? What to do with it? Where to take it? Who to tell? He needed time alone to think, to sort things out and develop a plan.

"Your father was very plain about this," Palmer said.

"I'm sorry, Reverend. We will have a wake, but not here."

"May I ask why not?"

"My mother."

He smiled and nodded and said, "I remember your mother."

"They laid her on the table over there in the front parlor, and for two days the entire town paraded by. My brother and I hid upstairs and cursed my father for such a spectacle." Ray's voice was firm, his eyes hot. "We will not have a wake in this house, Reverend."

Ray was utterly sincere. He was also concerned about securing the premises. A wake would require a thorough scouring of the house by a cleaning service, and the preparation of food by a caterer, and flowers hauled in by a florist. And all of this activity would begin in the morning.

"I understand," the reverend said.

The assistant backed out first, pulling the gurney, which was being pushed gently by Mr. Magargel. The Judge was covered from head to foot by a starched white sheet that was tucked neatly under him. With Thurber following behind, they rolled him out, across the front porch and down the steps, the last Atlee to live at Maple Run.

HALF AN hour later, Forrest materialized from somewhere in the back of the house. He was holding a tall clear glass that was filled with a suspicious-looking brown liquid, and it wasn't ice tea. "They gone?" he asked, looking at the driveway.

"Yes," Ray said. He was sitting on the front steps, smoking a cigar. When Forrest sat down next to him, the aroma of sour mash followed quickly.

"Where'd you find that?" Ray asked.

"He had a hiding place in his bathroom. Want some?"

"No. How long have you known that?"

"Thirty years."

A dozen lectures leapt forward, but Ray fought them off. They'd been delivered many times before, and evidently they had failed because here was Forrest sipping bourbon after 141 days of sobriety.

"How's Ellie?" Ray asked after a long puff.

"Crazy as hell, the same."

"Will I see her at the funeral?"

"No, she's up to three hundred pounds. One-fifty is her limit. Under one-fifty and she'll leave the house. Over one-fifty, and she locks herself up."

"When was she under one-fifty?"

"Three or four years ago. She found some wacko doctor who gave her pills. Got all the way down to a hundred pounds. Doctor went to jail and she gained another two hundred. Three hundred is her max, though. She weighs every day and freaks out if the big needle goes beyond three."

"I told Reverend Palmer that we would have a wake, but not here, not in the house."

"You're the executor."

"You agree?"

"Sure."

A long pull on the bourbon, another long puff on the cigar.

"What about that hosebag who ditched you? What's her name?"

"Vicki."

"Yeah, Vicki, I hated that bitch even at your wedding."

"I wish I had."

"She still around?"

"Yep, saw her last week, at the airport, getting off her private jet"

"She married that old fart, right, some crook from Wall Street?"

"That's him. Let's talk about something else."

"You brought up women."

"Always a big mistake."

Forrest slugged another drink, then said, "Let's talk about money. Where is it?"

Ray flinched slightly and his heart stopped, but Forrest was gazing at the front lawn and didn't notice. What money are you talking about, dear brother? "He gave it away."

"But why?"

"It was his money, not ours."

"Why not leave some for us?"

Not too many years earlier, the Judge had confided to Ray that over a fifteen-year period he had spent more than ninety thousand dollars on legal fees, court fines, and rehab for Forrest. He could leave the money for Forrest to drink and snort, or he could give it away to charities and needy families during his lifetime. Ray had a profession and could take care of himself.

"He left us the house," Ray said.

"What happens to it?"

"We'll sell it if you want. The money goes in a pot with everything else. Fifty percent will go for estate taxes. Probate will take a year."

"Gimme the bottom line."

"We'll be lucky to split fifty thousand a year from now."

Of course there were other assets. The loot was sitting innocently in the broom closet, but Ray needed time to evaluate it. Was it dirty money? Should it be included in the estate? If so, it would cause terrible problems. First, it would have to be explained. Second, at least half would get burned in taxes. Third, Forrest would have his pockets filled with cash and would probably kill himself with it.

"So I'll get twenty-five thousand bucks in a year?" Forrest said.

Ray couldn't tell if he was anxious or disgusted. "Something like that."

"Do you want the house?"

"No, do you?"

"Hell no. I'll never go back in there."

"Come on, Forrest."

"He kicked me out, you know, told me I'd disgraced this family long enough. Told me to never set foot on this soil again."

"And he apologized."

A quick sip. "Yes, he did. But this place depresses me. You're the executor, you deal with it. Just mail me a check when probate is over."

"We should at least go through his things together."

"I'm not touching them," he said and got to his feet. "I want a beer. It's been five months, and I want a beer." He was walking toward his car as he talked. "You want one?"

"No."

"You wanna ride with me?"

Ray wanted to go so he could protect his brother, but he felt a stronger urge to sit tight and protect the Atlee family assets. The Judge never locked the house. Where were the keys? "I'll wait here," he said.

"Whatever."

The next visitor was no surprise. Ray was in the kitchen digging through drawers, looking for keys, when he heard a loud voice bellowing at the front door. Though he hadn't heard it in years, there was no doubt it belonged to Harry Rex Vonner.

They embraced, a bear hug from Harry Rex, a retreating squeeze from Ray. "I'm so sorry," Harry Rex said several times. He was tall with a large chest and stomach, a big messy bear of a man who worshiped Judge Atlee and would do anything for his boys. He was a brilliant lawyer trapped in a small town, and it was to Harry Rex that Judge Atlee had always turned during Forrest's legal problems.

"When did you get here?" he asked.

"Around five. I found him in his study."

"I've been in trial for two weeks, hadn't talked to him. Where's Forrest?"

"Gone to buy beer."

They both digested the gravity of this. They sat in the rocking chairs near the swing. "It's good to see you, Ray."

"And you too, Harry Rex."

"I can't believe he's dead."

"Nor can I. I thought he'd always be here."

Harry Rex wiped his eyes with the back of a sleeve. "I'm so sorry," he mumbled. "I just can't believe it. I saw him two weeks ago, I guess it was. He was movin' around, sharp as a tack, in pain but not complainin'."

"They gave him a year, and that was about twelve months ago. I thought he'd hang on, though."

"Me too. Such a tough old fart."

"You want some tea?"

"That'd be nice."

Ray went to the kitchen and poured two glasses of instant ice tea. He took them back to the porch and said, "This stuff isn't very good."

Harry Rex took a drink and concurred. "At least it's cold."

"We need to have a wake, Harry Rex, and we're not doing it here. Any ideas?"

He pondered this only for a second, then leaned in with a big smile. "Let's put him in the courthouse, first floor in the rotunda, lay him in state like a king or somethin'."

"You're serious?"

"Why not. He'd love it. The whole town could parade by and pay their respects."

"I like it."

"It's brilliant, trust me. I'll talk to the sheriff and get it approved. Ever'body'll love it. When's the funeral?"

"Tuesday."

"Then we'll have us a wake tomorrow afternoon. You want me to say a few words?"

"Of course. Why don't you just organize the whole thing?"

"Done. Y'all picked out a casket?"

"We were going in the morning."

"Do oak, forget that bronze and copper crap. We buried Momma last year in oak and it was the prettiest damned thang I'd ever seen. Magargel can get one out of Tupelo in two hours. And forget the vault, too. They're just rip-offs. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, bury 'em and let 'em rot is the only way to go. The Episcopalians do it right."

Ray was a little dazed by the torrent of advice, but was thankful nonetheless. The Judge's will had not mentioned the casket but had specifically requested a vault. And he wanted a nice headstone. He was, after all, an Atlee, and he was to be buried among the other great ones.

If anyone knew anything about the Judge's business, it was Harry Rex. As they watched the shadows fall across the long front lawn of Maple Run, Ray said, as nonchalantly as possible, "Looks like he gave all his money away."

"I'm not surprised. Are you?"

"No."

"There'll be a thousand folks at his funeral who were touched by his generosity. Crippled children, sick folks with no insurance, black kids he sent to college, every volunteer fire department, civic club, all-star team, school group headed for Europe. Our church sent some doctors to Haiti and the Judge gave us a thousand bucks."

"When did you start going to church?"

"Two years ago."

"Why?"

"Got a new wife."

"How many is that?" .

"Four. I really like this one, though."

"Lucky for her."

"She's very lucky."

"I like this courthouse wake, Harry Rex. All those folks you just mentioned can pay their respects in public. Plenty of parking, don't have to worry about seating."

"It's brilliant."

Forrest wheeled into the drive and slammed on his brakes, stopping inches behind Harry Rex's Cadillac. He crawled out and lumbered toward them in the semidarkness, carrying what appeared to be a whole case of beer.



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