The Summons - Page 8

Listen Audio

When he was alone, Ray sat in the wicker chair across from the empty sofa, and tried to convince himself that life without his father would not be greatly different than life apart from him. This day was long in coming, and he would simply take it in stride and go on with a small measure of mourning. Just go through the motions, he told himself, wrap things up in Mississippi and race back to Virginia.

The study was lit by one weak bulb under the shade of a dust-covered lamp on the rolltop, and the shadows were long and dark. Tomorrow he would sit at the desk and plunge into the paperwork, but not tonight.

Tonight he needed to think.

Forrest was gone, hauled away by Harry Rex, both of them drunk. Forrest, typically, became sullen and wanted to drive to Memphis. Ray suggested he simply stay there. "Sleep on the porch if you don't want to sleep in the house," he said, without pushing.

Pushing would only cause a fight. Harry Rex said he would, under normal circumstances, invite Forrest to stay with him, but the new wife was a hard-ass and two drunks were probably too much.

"Just stay here," Harry Rex said, but Forrest wouldn't budge. Bullheaded enough when he was cold sober, he was intractable after a few drinks. Ray had seen it more times than he cared to remember and sat quietly as Harry Rex argued with his brother.

The issue was settled when Forrest decided he would rent a room at the Deep Rock Motel north of town. "I used to go there when I was seeing the mayor's wife, fifteen years ago," he said.

"It's full of fleas," Harry Rex said.

"I miss it already."

"The mayor's wife?" Ray asked.

"You don't want to know," Harry Rex said.

They left a few minutes after eleven, and the house had been growing quieter by the minute.

The front door had a latch and the patio door had a deadbolt. The kitchen door, the only one at the rear of the house, had a flimsy knob with a lock that was not working. The Judge could not operate a screwdriver and Ray had inherited this lack of mechanical skill. Every window had been closed and latched, and he was certain that the Atlee mansion had not been this secure in decades. If necessary, he would sleep in the kitchen where he could guard the broom closet.

He tried not to think about the money. Sitting in his father's sanctuary, he mentally worked on an unofficial obituary.

Judge Atlee was elected to the bench of the 25th Chancery District in 1959 and was reelected by a landslide every four years until 1991. Thirty-two years of diligent service. As a jurist, his record was impeccable. Rarely did the Appellate Court reverse one of his decisions. Often he was asked by his colleagues to hear untouchable cases in their districts. He was a guest lecturer at the Ole Miss Law School. He wrote hundreds of articles on practice, procedure, and trends. Twice he turned down appointments to the Mississippi Supreme Court; he simply didn't want to leave the trial bench.

When he wasn't wearing a robe, Judge Atlee kept his finger in all local matters - politics, civic work, schools, and churches. Few things in Ford County were approved without his endorsement, and few things he opposed were ever attempted. At various times he served on every local board, council, conference, and ad hoc committee. He quietly selected candidates for local offices and he quietly helped defeat the ones who didn't get his blessing.

In his spare time, what little of it there had been, he studied history and the Bible and wrote articles on the law. Never once had he thrown a baseball with his sons, never once had he taken them fishing.

He was preceded in death by his wife, Margaret, who died suddenly of an aneurysm in 1969. He was survived by two sons.

And somewhere along the way he managed to siphon off a fortune in cash.

Maybe the mystery of the money would be solved over there on the desk, somewhere in the stacks of papers or perhaps hidden in the drawers. Surely his father had left a clue, if not an outright explanation. There had to be a trail. Ray couldn't think of a single person in Ford County with a net worth of two million dollars, and to hold that much in cash was unthinkable.

He needed to count it. He'd checked on it twice during the evening. Just counting the twenty-seven Blake & Son's boxes had made him anxious. He would wait until early morning, when there was plenty of light and before the town began moving. He'd cover the kitchen windows and take one box at a time.

Just before midnight, Ray found a small mattress in a downstairs bedroom and dragged it into the dining room, to a spot twenty feet from the broom closet, where he could see the front drive and the house next door. Upstairs he found the Judge's .38-caliber Smith & Wesson in the drawer of his night table. With a pillow that smelled of mildew and a wool blanket that smelled of mold, he tried in vain to sleep.

The rattling noise came from the other side of the house. It was a window, though it took Ray minutes to wake up, clear his head, realize where he was and what he was hearing. A pecking sound, then a more violent shaking, then silence. A long pause as he poised himself on the mattress and gripped the .38. The house was much darker than he wanted because almost all the lightbulbs had burned out and the Judge had been too cheap to replace them.

Too cheap. Twenty-seven boxes of cash.

Put lightbulbs on the list, first thing in the morning.

There was the noise again, too firm and too rapid to be leaves or limbs brushing in the wind. Tap, tap, tap, then a hard push or shove as someone tried again to pry it open.

There were two cars in the drive - Ray's and Forrest's. Any fool could see the house had people in it, so whoever this fool was he didn't care. He probably had a gun, too, and he certainly knew how to handle it better than Ray.

Ray slid across the foyer on his stomach, wiggling like a crab and breathing like a sprinter. He stopped in the dark hallway and listened to the silence. Lovely silence. Just go away, he kept saying to himself. Please go away.

Tap, tap, tap, and he was sliding again toward the rear bedroom with the pistol aimed in front of him. Was it loaded? he asked himself, much too late. Surely the Judge kept his bedside gun loaded. The noise was louder and coming from a small bedroom they had once used for guests, but for decades now it had been collecting boxes of junk. He slowly nudged the door open with his head and saw nothing but cardboard boxes. The door swung wider and hit a floor lamp, which pitched forward and crashed near the first of three dark windows.

Ray almost began firing, but he held his ammo, and his breath. He lay still on the sagging wooden floor for what seemed like an hour, sweating, listening, swatting spiders, hearing nothing. The shadows rose and fell. A light wind was hitting every branch out there, and somewhere up near the roof a limb was gently rubbing the house.

It was the wind after all. The wind and the old ghosts of Maple Run, a place of many spirits, according to his mother, because it was an old house where dozens had died. They had buried slaves in the basement, she said, and their ghosts grew restless and roamed about.

The Judge hated ghost stories and refuted them all.

When Ray finally sat up, his elbows and knees were numb. With time he stood and leaned on the door frame, watching the three windows with his gun ready. If there had actually been an intruder, the noise evidently spooked him. But the longer Ray stood there the more he convinced himself that the racket had been nothing but the wind.

Forrest had the better idea. As grungy as the Deep Rock was, it had to be more restful than this place.

Tap, tap, tap, and he hit the floor again, stricken with fear once more, except this was worse because the noise came from the kitchen. He made the tactical decision to crawl instead of slide, and by the time he got back to the foyer his knees were screaming. He stopped at the French doors that led to the dining room and waited. The floor was dark but a faint porch light slanted feebly through the blinds and shone along the upper walls and ceiling.

Not for the first time, he asked himself what, exactly, was he, a professor of law at a prestigious university, doing hiding in the darkness of his childhood home, armed, frightened out of his mind, ready to jump out of his skin, and all because he wanted desperately to protect a mysterious horde of cash he had stumbled upon. "Answer that one," he mumbled to himself.

The kitchen door opened onto a small wooden deck. Someone was shuffling around out there, just beyond the door, footsteps on boards. Then the doorknob rattled, the flimsy one with the malfunctioning lock. Whoever he was, he had made the bold decision to walk straight through the door instead of sneaking through a window.

Ray was an Atlee, and this was his soil. This was also Mississippi, where guns were expected to be used for protection. No court in the state would frown on drastic action in this situation. He crouched beside the kitchen table, took aim at a spot high in the window above the sink, and began squeezing the trigger. One loud gunshot, cracking through the darkness, coming from inside and shattering a window, would no doubt terrify any burglar.

Just as the door rattled again, he squeezed harder, the hammer clicked, and nothing happened. The gun had no bullets. The chamber spun, he squeezed again, and there was no discharge. In a panic, Ray grabbed the empty pitcher of tea on the counter and hurled it at the door. To his great relief, it made more noise than any bullet could possibly have done. Scared out of his wits, he hit a light switch and went charging to the door, brandishing the gun and yelling, "Get the hell outta here!" When he yanked it open and saw no one, he exhaled mightily and began breathing again.

For half an hour he swept glass, making as much noise as possible.

The cop's name was Andy, nephew of a guy Ray finished high school with. That relationship was established within the first thirty seconds of his arrival, and once they were linked they talked about football while the exterior of Maple Run was inspected. No sign of entry at any of the downstairs windows. Nothing at the kitchen door but broken glass. Upstairs, Ray looked for bullets while Andy went from room to room. Both searches produced nothing. Ray brewed coffee and they drank it on the porch, chatting quietly in the early morning hours. Andy was the only cop protecting Clanton at that time, and he confessed he wasn't really needed. "Nothin' ever happens this early Monday morning," he said. "Folks are asleep, gettin' ready for work." With a little prodding, he reviewed the crime scene in Ford County - stolen pickups, fights at the honky-tonks, drug activity in Lowtown, the colored section. Hadn't had a murder in four years, he said proudly. A branch bank got robbed two years ago. He prattled on and took a second cup. Ray would keep pouring it, and brewing it if necessary, until sunrise. He was comforted by the presence of a well-marked patrol car sitting out front. Andy left at three-thirty. For an hour Ray lay on the mattress, staring holes in the ceiling, holding a gun that was useless. He fought sleep by plotting strategies to protect the money. Not investment schemes, those could wait. More pressing was a plan to get the money out of the broom closet, out of the house, and into a safe place somewhere. Would he be forced to haul it to Virginia? He certainly couldn't leave it in Clan ton, could he? And when could he count it?

At some point, fatigue and the emotional drain of the day overcame him, and he drifted away. The tapping came back, but he did not hear it. The kitchen door, now secured by a jammed chair and a piece of rope, was rattled and pushed, but Ray slept through it all.

Tags: John Grisham Thriller