Jake entered the Coffee Shop prepared for the questions. It had been quite a while since any case he was involved in had invited public scrutiny, and he was looking forward to the attention.
He sat down and waited for his coffee and the first question. The coffee got there second.
Jake turned. “Yes, Bobby?”
“Did the Judge’s son really kill those guys from Memphis?”
Jake smiled. “I didn’t ask him.”
“Word is he was with Forrest and it was a bad drug deal gone wrong,” said Bobby.
Dickie Stanton, who had been at Clanton High around the same time as Ray, chimed in, “I knew Forrest was a dealer, but never thought Ray was. He was always a goody two shoes.”
“Well, boys, there were no drugs there.”
“So, what happened?”
“You know I can’t talk too much about it. But let me say that my client is innocent.”
“You never met a client who wasn’t innocent.” Jake had to admit the truth of that statement to himself.
Dickie said, “I’ll bet Forrest had the drugs on him and they got lost in the lake.”
Bobby turned around to address the table near the window. “Deputies, you smell any wet weed in Forrest’s car?” Laughter ensued.
Deputy Gardner, who had been sitting quietly with Deputy Conway and catching every word, laughed also. “Well, by the time they pulled it out it was pretty soggy, but some of the highway guys were complaining about having the munchies.” More laughter.
At another table was John Hood, who, like Ray, had a confederate general’s name except that he wasn’t aware of it and thus hadn’t been emotionally scarred by it. John had gone to high school at Karaway High and played football against Forrest. “Deputy, what do you think, did Forrest kill them and run?’
Elmer answered, “The gun had Ray’s fingerprints.” Jake shot Elmer a look.
John insisted, “What if Ray held it at some point and Forrest had gloves on when he shot ‘em?”
“What you think, Jake?”
“No comment,” Jake said. But I like the idea, he thought, gloves would be a great way for the real shooter to hide fingerprints. Have to remember that one.
“I’ll bet that’s it,” Dickie said, “I don’t think Ray did it, I think Forrest shot them guys.” Dickie was the expert on the Atlee boys.
“How would they prove Forrest had gloves, Deputy?” John asked.
Deputy Gardner stared at her food. “Well…”
Bobby interrupted, “Easy, I saw this on TV, they would find fibers. They match the fibers to the gloves. Just like O.J.”
“O.J. didn’t have fibers. The gloves didn’t fit,” said John.
“I say you find the gloves, you find the killer,” said Bobby.
“I’ll bet the gloves got lost in the lake.”
“Maybe,” said Bobby.
Hope not, thought Jake. “Gotta go, boys. Another busy day defending the downtrodden.”
Snorts and laughter followed him out of the Coffee Shop. He didn’t mind the ribbing, since almost all of them had been clients at one point or another over the years. He headed to his office to mull over the gloves and the real shooter.
Harry Rex was waiting to talk to Ray. He had his own clients that were wanting attention, but all he cared about was getting some strategy going in Ray’s defense. The grand jury would surely return an indictment, as the prosecution controlled the proceedings and could frame the evidence in a way that was more favorable to their case.
While he was waiting, Deputy Ruby Gardner left the coffee shop and was reporting for duty, wondering what the latest news from the crash site would be. The desire for information consumed the deputies, as most of their work was boring and routine. Most did not wish harm to anyone, but a break in the normal pace of work was always welcome.
“What’s the latest?” she asked Deputy Dennis Duane Tallie.
“On what?” replied Talley. He wasn’t the biggest fan of Deputy Gardner.
“The crash, the shooting, whatever,”
“Haven’t heard anything. Highway patrol is keeping it tight,” said Tallie as he picked up some reports. Ben came up the hall.
“Gardner, grab Ray and bring him to my office.”
“Naw, don’t worry about it.” Ben continued on.
Quietly, to Tallie, Ruby said, “Do we always treat murderers this nice?”
Tallie turned to her. “I’ve known about the Atlee boys since we were all kids, and this ain’t like Ray. If anything, this smells like Forrest. He once got arrested during a playoff game for dealing drugs. Boy’s been trouble ever since. Surprised he didn’t die years ago.”
“Some people have nine lives, I guess.”
“Looks like just eight,” said Tallie. “You better go get Ray.”
Deputy Ruby Gardner was from Columbus, a small town in eastern Mississippi. She had been adopted as a baby and knew all about it since her parents never tried to hide it. All she had been told about her birth mother was that she was from Ford County and that she didn’t want to give Ruby up. They would say that she knew it would be best for Ruby if she did, but deep-down Ruby never believed it.
Ruby was a natural athlete, participating in various sports in high school. She was a leader on whatever team she was playing for at the time, often pushing teammates on to victory. After high school, she went in to the Army, where she served two tours of duty, rising to the rank of Master Sergeant. She ended her second tour of duty at Camp Shelby near Hattiesburg, entering the Mississippi Law Enforcement Officer’s Training Academy following her honorable discharge. After completing her training, she joined the Harrison County Sheriff’s Department, remaining there until her transfer to Ford County two months earlier. She had expressed a desire to return to her natural home county as the reason for the transfer, and while moving from a large force to a small one was unusual, it was not unprecedented. She said all the right things during the interview, and was certain to be an asset to the force, as well as breaking the gender barrier.
Gardner headed down to the cells. “Atlee, Sheriff wants you.” She unlocked the door and Ray walked out past her and down the hall. “Hey, don’t you think I might want to cuff you?” she said angrily.
“Oh, sure.” Ray turned around distractedly and held his hands out. He looked at Ruby as though seeing her for the first time, even though they had spoken before. She looked vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t place where he had seen her before. Maybe a kid from the town. Maybe he knew her brother.
“Forget it,” she said disgustedly, “apparently you’re privileged. Let’s go,” she gestured for Ray to walk in front of her and guided him forward by his shoulder. Ray walked ahead of her, a strange feeling crawling down his back. He wasn’t used to being touched, but even so this felt eerie. Ray was glad when Gardner left him at the door as he entered Ben’s office. He was surprised to see Harry Rex there.
“Sit down, Mr. Atlee. Mr. Vonner and I want to have a talk.” Ray immediately thought it odd that Jake wasn’t there. Why, he wondered?
Harry Rex looked at Ray. “I have a question to ask you, and you need to be honest with me.”
Ray was taken aback. “Why would you say that? When have I not been honest with you?”
“Really? You want to start with boxes of cash in the Judge’s study? How many opportunities did you have to tell me about that before you finally did?”
Ray looked at Ben. Ben’s eyes were opened wide at the mention of boxes of cash. “Harry Rex,” Ray said hesitantly.
“It’s time he knew it all. You’re behind the eight ball here, Ray, and you need all the help you can get. Stop trying to be the hero. There’s nobody to save. The Judge is gone, and if his reputation gets sullied, no one will care. Forrest is dead, and he never had a reputation to save. It’s just you now. And you are going to either get out of this and get back to Virginia, or you will end up in Parchman Penitentiary, waiting for the gas. It’s time to pick.”
Ben jumped in. “Mr. Atlee, I have a job to do in this county, and I don’t really care who killed those two men. Right now, it looks like you. But Mr. Vonner seems to think that there is information I need to know, and if the killer is not you, then you are wasting precious time that I need to find the real killer.”
Ben’s tone changed. “Look, Ray, I knew your dad. Better than most people knew. When I became sheriff, I got a lot of resistance because I wasn’t Ozzie Walls. Your dad welcomed me in. Right now, he would want you to trust in the people who can help you. Now, I don’t know about this money that Mr. Vonner mentioned, but Reuben would say that he did whatever he needed to do, and it was not meant to be a burden for you to carry. He would also say that Forrest made his own bed, and it is not for you to lie in.
He paused, “If you are innocent, let me help you. Because if you are guilty, I will nail you to the wall.”
Harry Rex looked at Ray. “Well?”
“You idiot! Let Ben help you! The more he knows, the better he can help catch the real killer and get you out of this mess.”
“You know, Harry Rex, in this situation, usually the law is on the other side from the guy who was arrested for murder.”
“Well, Ray, welcome back to Ford County.”
Ray looked at both, then had his first smile in days. “Yes.”
Ben looked at Harry Rex, “Mr. Vonner, I’ll send Deputy Tallie with you two. Go see Jake. I’ll be over in a bit.”
Dumas Lee sat back and pondered. He had become a pretty good investigative reporter over the years, and he knew that there was something he was missing. He had known Judge Atlee to be a fair man, while at the same time slightly unaware of the changing world around him. Dumas had not known the Atlee boys, if men in their late thirties and early forties could still be called that. He knew Forrest’s history but was less familiar with Ray. From what he had been able to piece together, Ray was an above average student, a fair athlete and a model citizen. Judge Atlee had expected both sons to pursue the law, which Ray had done. Forrest did the opposite, rather, by having the law pursue him.
For Ray to now join Forrest in his shady activity was out of character. Professors at top law schools like Virginia did not take part in drug deals ten hours from home. Dumas knew that Ray made $160,000 a year and from all that he could find was living within his means. He had stretched it with an ill-advised partnership in a Bonanza twin engine airplane, but even that was still not foolish for that kind of income.
No, there was something out of place. He went through the list of people to talk to. Jake, Sheriff Sawyer, Harry Rex, maybe some of the deputies. Normally they were a good source of information if they didn’t think you were trying to get around them. He still needed the report from the highway patrol. They had finally found the body and were trying to match it now. He had a couple of good sources in that office, but had gotten nowhere. Time to call Anita. She’d be glad to share her private information.
Dumas dialed the phone, which Anita answered after two rings. “Anita, it’s Dumas.”
“Dumas! Giving or getting?”
“You’re funny. I’m giving. Word is it that Forrest did the murders, framed Ray, then was driven off the road by the goons’ friends.” Dumas had just made that up.
Anita laughed victoriously. “Nope! That’s stupid. Especially since Forrest may not be dead.”
“Why would you say that? They found the body!” Dumas said.
“Well, until they declare him dead he’s just missing. Maybe the body is not his? What if he staged the accident to make it appear that he was dead?”
“That seems pretty far-fetched. They find a random body that physically resembles Forrest?”
“Or it was a plant.”
“That’s even more far-fetched. And again, why?”
“I don’t know. But I’ll bet you lunch I find out first!”
Ray, Harry Rex and Jake were seated at a table in a conference room in the Wilbanks’ building. The building had been built by the Wilbanks family in the 1890’s to house their law firm and various businesses. The mighty Wilbanks law firm had ceased to exist in 1979, when the last remaining Wilbanks, Lucien, had managed to get himself disbarred. At the time, Lucien had a young associate who took over the few cases that were left and carried on with his own practice. That associate was Jake Brigance. He was fortunate to have an entire building at his disposal for the princely sum of $400 a month. When Lucien died, he willed the building to Jake, and even now there were offices in the huge building that remained unused.
Jake had a secretary/receptionist named Mary Reyes and a part-time paralegal named Janie Cox, who was also at the table. Over the years he had hired various staff members, and except for Mary, none had remained long, until Janie joined him four years prior. She was a friend of Carla’s from church who had worked for a law firm in Tupelo before returning to Clanton following a divorce. She had two kids who were now old enough to watch themselves after school for a bit or go to her father’s house, so Janie’s hours were edging up toward full-time when Jake had the cases. Janie was happy to undertake any of the research that Jake rigorously avoided, so they made a good team.
The conversation in the conference room was slow and stilted at first. Ray was still uncomfortable with Jake, and was thrown by the fact that he had been able to leave the station house, albeit accompanied by Deputy Tallie, who was out in the waiting room chatting up Mary Reyes, the secretary. The Tallie’s and Reyes’ both had kids at the elementary school, several of whom had been taught by Carla, or as they called her, Miz Brigance.
Soon, though, Ray felt more comfortable as Jake and Harry Rex began to lay out the facts of the case, their arguing and bantering showing that they had done this many times before.
“Let’s go through the time line again,” Jake said.
“We’ve got the time line,” Harry Rex objected.
“One more time, for Janie.” She had arrived in the middle of the discussion and was introduced to Ray. “One more time, in broad strokes. Six months ago, you get a letter supposedly from the Judge, requesting your presence to talk about his estate. The Judge was terminally sick and you thought he was getting things lined up. You learn that Forrest got the same letter. You come to Clanton, you get here before Forrest, you find the Judge dead. Then you start looking around and you find a one page handwritten will and over three million dollars in cash in boxes behind the sofa. Right so far?”
Janie had not heard this part. Her eyes grew big in spite of her training to not show emotion when discussing client business. Judge Atlee was a millionaire? And no one knew?
“Yes”, said Ray, “in broad strokes.”
“Alright,” Jake said, then turned as Mary came in the door with coffee.
“Jake, you got any beer?” asked Harry Rex. It was after 10 am, of course.
“Nope, drank ‘em all before you got here this morning. Have some coffee.”
“While you yahoos are doing the time line, I’ll run out and get a six pack.”
“Lush,” said Jake, then continued, “So you find boxes full of cash, then Forrest gets there, you don’t say anything about it to anyone.”
“I did tell Harry Rex that I had found some cash to see if he knew about it,” said Ray.
“Not all of it!” yelled Harry Rex over his shoulder as he left.
“So not the whole amount,” said Jake.
“No, I told him it was about $100,000,” replied Ray. “But then I told him about the whole amount later!” he yelled towards the door.
“So, then you are trying to decide what to do with the money, somebody is threatening you, you are carting it around, you hide it in storage, eventually you bring it all back to Clanton, then find where it came from…”
Ray interrupted, “I found out where it came from before I got back.”
“Ok, you learned its origin, then came back here.”
Janie raised her hand to interrupt. “I’m sorry, tell me if I’m out of line, but when you say that you found out where the money came from makes it sound like it came from a single source. You know? As opposed to something like saving it over a period of time. I mean, three million in cash…”
Ray, more in lawyer mode and less in defendant mode, said matter of factly, “You’re right. My father had presided over a trial involving the drug Ryax, which was proven to cause kidney damage.”
“I’ve heard of it. Big settlement a couple of years back.”
“Yes, well, the plaintiffs’ lawyer was so pleased about the Judge’s ruling in the case that he sent him one percent of his profits in the class action settlement.”
Ray was impressed. “Yes, that’s correct. Patton French sent it out of appreciation, had a couple of boxes of cash delivered to my father’s doorstep.”
Janie just looked at him, her mind whirling. “Your father presided over the Ryax trial?”
“Yes, he did. And Patton French was grateful for the favorable result.” Ray continued, “I know, it sounds illegal, right? Shouldn’t he be in jail, shouldn’t he have reported French, shouldn’t he blah, blah, blah, yes to all that. But the upshot of it all is that he put it in boxes and hid them in a cabinet behind a couch. And said nothing to anyone. Then he died,” Ray said.
“I’m sorry, I…”
Ray smiled for the second time that day. “It’s okay, it wasn’t that traumatic. Once I saw the money, the Judge’s death took somewhat of a back seat. I don’t mean that badly, it’s just that we weren’t real close.”
“Well, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to pry,” she said.
“Really, it’s okay. The bottom line is that no one will ever know what he thought of the ‘gift’. Certainly, Patton French thought it was a grand gesture of goodwill, but I would think the Judge would have been pretty upset by it.”
Janie paused, then said, “Do you really call him the Judge?”
Ray smiled again, ruefully, “Everyone called him the Judge.”
Harry Rex arrived not long after with his Bud Light and a sack full of sandwiches and greasy french fries. Mary ran out to grab some Cokes. Deputy Tallie ran over to the station house to check in with Ben, unconcerned that a suspected murderer was unguarded. Throughout the morning, the mental haze that had hung over Ray since his arrest was dissipating, and the discussion about the case was mentally stimulating. It felt good to talk about the law, and at times Ray was even able to ignore the fact that it was he who was suspected of being the perpetrator. Perhaps it was knowing that he didn’t do it that allowed him to overlook his predicament. Now he somewhat relished the challenge of figuring out how to prove his innocence.
As they ate, Jake and Harry Rex told stories about some of the lawyers around the Clanton square. Janie shook her head at the one about the lawyer who took his client’s money and was now living in the Caribbean somewhere. They swore it was true. She had heard the story before and thought about it occasionally when she walked past the departed lawyer’s still deserted office on the way to the Wilbanks Building. Then the stories turned around to Judge Atlee, and as Ray listened, his mood turned melancholy hearing both men speak of the Judge as a friend, and he realized that they both knew Reuben Atlee in a way Ray never had, and never would.
Janie was watching Ray as they talked and felt him drifting away. She wondered what was causing the change in his mood, perhaps the talk about his father or was it perhaps simply knowing that he was being charged with double homicide? Before she could ask, he looked around and caught her gaze. She smiled quickly and glanced away. Ray was too preoccupied to think much about it as he wished that Harry Rex and Jake would get back to the case. He excused himself to go the bathroom.
Janie watched him go. This was not the first time she had met Ray. Janie grew up in Clanton, which was small enough that you knew most of the other families in town, especially those with “family money.” Janie was four years younger than Ray which was an eternity in kid years, but she knew of the Atlee family. Her father had known Judge Atlee very well, and Janie remembered Ray as being old and mature. Janie knew Forrest better since he was only a year ahead of her in school. She had been trying to remember some trouble in which Forrest had been involved, but couldn’t piece the details together, only recollecting that he got suspended from football for some reason and people had been pretty upset about it. She would have to ask her dad about it, as he had been a big Clanton High football fan in those years.
Janie was sure that Ray didn’t remember her. But she remembered him, especially the one time back in junior high when she had been cutting through a neighborhood with some friends. They caught Ray and a girl coming down the back stairs of Mr. Trainor’s garage apartment, which was a notorious make out spot since Mr. Trainor traveled a lot and lived alone. She remembered the sheepish look on Ray’s face at getting caught since everyone knew what they were up to. She also remembered spending quite a lot of time after that wondering when she would get to sneak up to the apartment and with whom.
Janie was also very sure that Ray didn’t remember their last interaction together. It was the summer before her senior year of high school, and a Saturday swim party had been thrown together out on Lake Chatoula at the home of one of her friends. It was meant to be attended by just the girls she ran around with but word of the party quickly spread and the crowd grew. Because the girl’s parents were home, the party didn’t get out of hand, but what was supposed to be a relaxing time laying around in the sun soon became loud and rowdy.
The noise attracted a boat that had been towing skiers up and down the lake. It circled around to get a look at the kids on the pier and in the yard. It was obvious that those in the boat recognized some people at the party because the boat pulled alongside the pier and was quickly tied up. The boaters were college men, home for the summer. Of the five, Janie recognized only one: Ray Atlee.
Ray walked up the pier with his friends, greeting others that he knew along the way. His hair was stylishly long and he walked like Forrest. The boys passed right by the spot where Janie and her friends had parked their chaise lounges so that they could catch the best angle of the sun. She saw him coming, and pretended to close her eyes. Through the slits of her eyelids, she could see him start at her toes and give her a full-length lingering survey, finally finishing at her eyes. When she glanced at him, he flashed her a quick smile before following his buddies toward the patio where the girl’s parents were making a heroic effort to keep the snacks and Cokes in supply. Janie spent a few minutes trying to decide if she was flattered or offended at his crude inspection, then tried to ignore him until he and his friends went back to the skiing. Illogically disappointed that ignoring him didn’t somehow cause him to notice her again, Janie watched the boat glide up and down the lake, then laughed gleefully when Ray crashed spectacularly trying to launch a jump across the wake of the boat. Soon, however, the boat was gone, and eventually the short preoccupation with Ray Atlee was ended.
Janie remembered that summer afternoon clearly, and couldn’t help but compare that carefree guy with the great smile to the burdened man with the troubled frown who now walked back into the room. She debated saying something to him about it, but decided to leave him alone with his brooding.
Janie left the room to talk to Mary. She noticed that the deputy was gone and marveled that a suspected murderer with no bail would be left unguarded. “Where’s the deputy?” she asked.
“He had to run back to the station house,” Mary answered.
“And left you guarding the prisoner?” Janie joked.
“Maybe you should be guarding the prisoner, Janie. He’s cute.” The two of them frequently assessed the various unmarried men that came through the door of Jake’s office.
“Maybe so, but he’s also charged with double homicide.”
“He didn’t do it, you know.”
Janie grinned, “Said like a true defense lawyer.”
Mary’s face got earnest, “No, I’m serious. He didn’t do it.”
“And you know this how?”
“Because Ben doesn’t think he did it,” Mary said.
“I didn’t realize you and the Sheriff were so close,” Janie teased.
“No, listen. There is no way that Ben would allow anyone, including Ray Atlee, to go to their lawyer’s office to hang out for the day, with a deputy who has the freedom to leave him alone, if he didn’t feel that person was innocent. Ben’s been around the block, and his instincts are really good. If he doesn’t think Ray did it, then he didn’t do it.”
“So, we have our first innocent client who is truly innocent,” said Janie sarcastically but with a grin.
Mary smiled, “You got it.”
Deputy Dennis Duane Tallie was finishing a sandwich at his desk when a shadow fell over his paperwork. He looked up at Deputy Gardner who said, “What are you doing here?”
“What’s it to you?”
“You’re supposed to be with Atlee.”
Tallie waited a beat. “Lunch time. Don’t worry about it.”
“Does Sawyer know you’re here?” asked Gardner.
“Not that it’s any of your business, but yes, I just talked to him. He was getting ready to go over to Jake’s himself.”
Ruby turned and went down the hall to Ben’s office and stuck her head in the open door. “Sheriff.”
“I just ran into Tallie and I’m concerned that Atlee is being left unguarded. We have a duty to keep him secured.”
“Your concerned is noted, Gardner. But I’m not concerned. Because you know why?”
“Because I think we still have a killer on the loose, which is why we are still combing the neighborhood for witnesses. Now, why don’t you take another look at the garage and see if there’s anything you missed. Take Coe with you.”
“Just for my knowledge, Sheriff, what makes you think that Atlee didn’t do it? Clearly the evidence points to him as being the shooter,” Gardner insisted.
“Deputy, I’ve talked to a lot of people who have just committed murder, all of whom said they were innocent. And I didn’t believe a single one. They can’t hide their guilt. It’s the ones you don’t catch right away that are harder to read. We had Ray dead to rights, at the scene, and brought him in immediately. He acted like a witness, not a murderer. So, it’ll take a lot more than opportunity and means to make me think he’s guilty.”
“So, we treat him like anything but a suspect.”
“No. He is a suspect. But he is not a threat. Because the killer’s still out there.”
After lunch, the defense team gathered together and the time line discussion continued. Ray still felt like the outsider, as Harry Rex and Jake had continued on with their stories about Judge Atlee, both of whom had taken their fair share of grief from the Judge. The part that dug at Ray the most was their unflagging respect for his father in the legal wars they had fought, wars that Ray had avoided purposefully and effectively. Jake jolted him back to the narrative.
“So, after you found him dead, and found the money, then what?”
“Ah…we called the funeral home, the police arrived and Mr. Margarel showed up.”
“So, after they all left, you couldn’t decide how to handle the cash, and loaded it into your car. What did you intend to do with it?”
Ray was still somewhat out of sorts from the lunch time discussion and was starting to feel attacked. “Look, my father just died, I found three million dollars and I didn’t know what to do! Would you?”
Harry Rex took control. “Ray, hold on, we just need to get this documented. No one is judging what happened.” Janie, watching Ray intently, could feel the emotion there.
Jake stepped in. “No one’s judging you Ray, let’s just go through the narrative, so we know where to go from here.”
At the phrase, “No one’s judging”, Ray began to cry. At first the tears came silently, and soon the sobs came audibly, seemingly out of nowhere. Ray had never cried for his father, had never allowed himself to grieve, and finally an indistinct recollection of his father triggered an outpouring of emotion at his loss.
Ray explained, “The Judge, my father. I never knew him like you did. When he died, I should have felt more, but I didn’t. He never let me get close to him.” The stunned room fell silent and still, until Harry Rex went over to Ray put his hand on Ray’s shoulder.
“It’s okay, boy, let it out.”
Ray resisted at first, then reached up and grasped Harry Rex’ arms, and Janie’s heart physically hurt watching him.
Jake and Janie left Ray and Harry Rex alone as the tears continued. They joined Mary in the reception area where they were silent at Ray’s grief. They tried not to listen to the fading sobs coming from inside the conference room, but were soon joined together in silent prayer for Ray.
Sheriff Ben Sawyer’s cruiser pulled out onto the street from the station house and headed over to the Wilbanks Building. Ordinarily prisoners had to meet with their lawyers at the station, but county sheriffs had a lot of leeway, and he had let Ray go to the Wilbanks Building as a special favor to Jake. Jake had defended Ben’s son when he had gotten into a scrape over in Polk County after the divorce that Harry Rex had done. Jake had succeeded in getting probation for the troubled boy and prevented the further deterioration of the son’s situation. Since then, Ben and Jake had both made each other’s professional lives easier whenever it was possible.
He mulled over the conversation with Ruby Gardner. He knew that as a deputy from a larger area the methods would be different, and certainly Biloxi and Gulfport saw more serious crime than Clanton. Gardner would expect stricter procedures as the norm. But what bothered Ben about their talk wasn’t just that. Deputy Gardner seemed to have an unusual interest in painting Ray as the killer, rather than being an impartial enforcer of the law. But Gardner had come highly recommended, and maybe she just needed to get used to the Ford County way.
As Ben got to the building and came through the door, he was confused by the scene in front of him, with Jake, Mary and Janie wiping their eyes and looking sheepishly at each other. Jake broke the ice, “Sheriff.”
“Jake. Are we okay?”
Jake smiled and looked at the others. “Let’s just say that someone just released a lot of pent up emotion. And it was all good.” He glanced at the still closed door of the conference room as he spoke.
“Okay…” The door opened and Harry Rex motioned them in.
The four marched in to find Ray sitting at the table, eyes still moist, but with a completely different look on his face. Janie looked at Ray in a different light, not seeing a client, but a man wounded by his father yet grieving the man’s passing at the same time. Ben looked at Jake. “Did I miss something? I haven’t seen this many wet eyes since Thurber Foreman sang ‘Just a Closer Walk with Thee’ at the Judge’s funeral.”
Harry Rex nodded, “Yes, there’s been a tragedy. We’re out of beer.”
The afternoon wore on as the legal team put the events on paper and created a specific time line. They continued on through the funeral, Ray’s increasingly frantic moving of the cash, the visit with Patton French, the burning of Maple Run, and the discovery of Forrest’s hideaway in Montana. Ray danced around Forrest’s semi-admission of burning the house and the plane, and of having the money, but fooled no one.
Then he told of the call, the trip, the gunshots in the garage and the arrest. Discussion flowed freely but always stalled when the topic came to the gun and where it had been between the time Ray said he had seen it and the murders. They were tossing out different ideas and pressing Ray when in frustration he said, “Well, apparently I clearly had it and did the killings. Guys, just because we can’t put a location on the gun doesn’t mean I didn’t have it in my possession!”
Harry Rex said, “What does that mean?”
“I just think you are trying to get me to admit that I had it.”
“No,” said Jake. “The question I keep asking myself is, what if someone had got hold of the gun, and wearing gloves, had shot those men?”
Harry Rex said, “You mean, Forrest?”
“Who else could have had access to the gun? Who else could have found it at the house before it burned? And then used it in the shooting, knowing you would be there? I’m sorry, Ray, but that seems to make the most sense. We’ve got to be able to give a jury an alternative.”
Janie raised her hand. Jake looked over at her with amusement, “How many times do I have to tell you that you don’t have to raise your hand?”
Janie lowered her hand and smiled sweetly. “Just one more time, I promise. This may be a stupid question, but if Ray hasn’t had the gun for six months, would it still have his fingerprints on it?”
Harry Rex fielded it, “It all depends on where the gun was. If it was flopping around in somebody’s trunk, or out in the elements, probably not. If it was sealed in a plastic bag immediately after being handled and kept in a cool, dry place, there’s a good chance those fingerprints would appear like they had been put there yesterday.”
Janie said, “A plastic bag.”
“Yes, a plastic bag.”
“Like an evidence bag?”
Jakes eyes narrowed, “Maybe, or even a big sandwich bag. What are you thinking?”
“I’m just saying, if it were in a bag, then this whole scenario might have been dreamed up around the time of the fire, and the gun put in the bag for future use.”
“And that person would be Forrest,” Ray said sadly.
“Most likely,” said Harry Rex quietly.
Forrest Atlee, AKA Lincoln Allen, was thinking hard. He needed to come to grips with the fact that Ray had been arrested. But what did he care? If he was willing to let Ray think that Forrest was dead, why should it bother him with whatever else came his way? Then he thought, if the meeting at the garage could go wrong, what else could? Someone somehow goes into his hiding place and finds the money? What if his new identity gets blown? Forgetting Ray and his mess, Forrest decided that it was time to get the cash out of the country. And get lost.
Ray was back in his cell following the crazy day at Jake’s office. He thought about how the day had gone, where at times he had forgotten about his predicament, solely looking at the legal ramifications of the situation. And he thought about the other times when he realized that his brother was most likely dead and that he was going to take the fall for what Forrest had done.
He did enjoy the discussion of the law, and the easy camaraderie of Jake and Harry Rex, and had to allow that Jake was a pretty likable guy, his maddening relationship with the Judge notwithstanding. The talk that Ray had overheard between Jake and the Judge on the porch was still somewhat formal, and Ray realized that it was not too tremendously different from Ray and Forrest’s own dealings with their father. Perhaps it was just the comfortable setting that was so upsetting. Surprisingly, that did not make Ray sad, and it was actually reassuring to Ray that had he stayed to practice law at Atlee and Atlee, things might not have changed much between he and his father. If he had gone that route, Ray would just be ham and egging it at the courthouse now, no disrespect to Jake and Harry Rex, wondering why he let the Judge talk him into it.
He thought of their houses. He had been in Harry Rex’ house and to his cabin out in the woods. He hadn’t been to the Hocutt House, except as a kid, trying to sell candy bars door to door for a fundraiser and sneaking into the apartment above the garage as a teenager. He seemed to remember the previous owner of the Hocutt House buying something from him. Ray wondered where he himself would be living, had he stayed in Clanton. Certainly not Maple Run, he hoped. He loved the big lot and the trees but the house had become an increasingly depressing place after his mother died. Not that that mattered anymore. Maybe things would have been different if he’d married in Clanton and had some grandkids for the Judge. Then Janie crossed his mind. She was cute. And sharp. He wondered why she was divorced. He wondered why he was divorced. He wondered if he’d settled in Clanton and married her instead, would they now be divorced?
“Where did that come from?” he asked audibly. Then laid down and closed his eyes.
The grand jury predictably brought back an indictment, granting the District Attorney what was normally a welcome opportunity, which was a criminal trial involving a public figure. Not that Ray was widely known, but the last name of Atlee guaranteed publicity, since many people from Clanton had flowed through Judge Atlee’s courtroom over the years.
District Attorney Paxton Jonas was a man in trouble. He had been elected on the pledge to put criminals in jail, yet had failed spectacularly on two high profile murder cases. He was becoming known as a prosecutor who couldn’t convict, even with what appeared to be an airtight case. While he was pleasant to be with on a personal basis, he lacked charm and charisma in the courtroom, and he would often send a jury into deliberations bewildered and unsure about his case. Paxton was sure to lose the next election unless things changed.
Now that the grand jury had returned an indictment he could press on with preparing for trial. On the surface, this case looked like one that could turn things around. As he read through the grand jury indictment, he could see a clear path to conviction. He said as much to his Assistant District Attorney, Arnold Adams. Adams was an attorney who was well thought of by his peers. Many people with ties to the DA’s office thought that Jonas should really be Adams’ assistant. Adams, the first black ADA in the Twenty-Second Judicial District, often had a similar thought, but he did not allow it to affect his job nor his relationship with Paxton Jonas.
“Arnie, this one looks like a slam dunk. Ray Atlee looks guilty as sin. His old man must be spinning in his grave,” said Paxton smugly.
“Paxton, I’m sure it’s not all that cut and dried.”
“Sure it is. Ray Atlee had the means to commit the murders, with his fingerprints on the murder weapon. He had the opportunity, being apprehended on the scene with the victims. He had the motive, trying to protect his brother from those thugs, God rest all their souls.”
“I think the challenge will be the motive. The grand jury felt that the dubious association between the victims’ employer and Forrest was sufficient to surmise that Ray was protecting his brother. We have to find witnesses who will solidify the threat against Forrest and remove any belief that Ray killed for self-protection.”
“Self-protection? He clearly went into that garage with vengeance in his heart!”
“Objection, your honor. Counsel is testifying.”
“Just practicing my closing remarks,” Paxton grinned. “We’re going to nail this one to the wall.”
Just what you said about the last two, thought Adams.
Judge Kenneth Ray Stroker was not a happy man. He had been assigned to the Atlee case and it bothered him for two reasons. One reason was that the holidays were approaching and he was looking forward to an easy docket that would allow significant time off for family. The other was that he had personally known Judge Reuben Atlee and could think of nothing more distasteful than sitting over the trial of the Judge’s son.
Prior to becoming a judge, Kenny Ray Stroker had been a well-regarded attorney known for his meticulous research that in many cases proved to be the difference between victory and defeat for his clients. But he had not always been that way. As a young attorney, he had walked into Chancery Court, confident that his client was on the right side of a property dispute. When the judge ruled against him, he immediately and defiantly informed the judge that he would be appealing the travesty of justice. His lengthy tirade and repeated attempts to one up the judge with his flawed research resulted in him being quickly remanded into custody for contempt of court.
While he was in his jail cell considering his alleged sins, the judge made an appearance at the jail, obtained Stroker’s release and had him accompany the judge to his chambers. There the judge explained not only the grievous mistake of challenging a judge, any judge, in open court, but also self-righteously explained to him the legal justification for his decision in the case. Stroker was incensed at the heavy-handed treatment he was getting from the judge, but he was not stupid. He apologized for the defiance and thanked the judge for bailing him out and for the legal lesson. In Stroker’s opinion Chancellor Reuben Atlee had been overbearing and too quick to punish. And then he had overstepped his authority by getting Stroker from the jail in order to continue lecturing him. As their paths continued to cross over the years, Kenneth considered him a blowhard and then eventually a judge who was past his effectiveness. When the Judge was finally turned out by the voters, Stroker felt no small sense of satisfaction at the humiliation the Judge must have experienced.
Judge Stroker knew Raymond Atlee only from his association with the Judge, and despite his personal dislike for Rueben Atlee, had on several occasions been at the social functions in which he was forced into polite conversation with the Judge. Stroker never would have realized that Ray had never known just how proud the Judge was of him. In fact, it would have surprised Ray immensely to know that the Judge had ever uttered words of praise upon him, as all Ray ever remembered was Judge Atlee’s disappointment at Ray’s decision to begin his legal career in Boston, rather than putting out a shingle in Clanton with the “Atlee and Atlee Law Firm” proudly emblazoned on it.
Judge Atlee had, however, spoken just as much about Forrest in those gatherings as well, and actually had never said a harsh word about him. Judge Stroker was not surprised to learn that Ray’s arrest was tied into an appeal from Forrest, but agreed with the public reaction to what had happened. He surmised that if most people had had the choice, they would have summarily switched out Forrest for Ray, declared him guilty and called it a day. Since that, however, was not an option for him, he had called a pretrial conference to try to get some business out of the way before his Christmas break.
Not only did Judge Stroker have his poor opinion of Judge Atlee shaping his view of the case, he had had even worse experiences with Jake Brigance. A few years older than Jake, he had been involved in cases with him, first as opposing counsel, and then as the presiding judge. He found Jake to be arrogant and self-absorbed, and felt that he had ridden the results of the Hailey and Hubbard trials far longer that he was entitled too. After the Hubbard trial, the talk around the courthouse square had been that the Judge had made his mind up early, and had given Jake every advantage. Judge Stroker had readily agreed with that assessment, although his opinion softened somewhat when he himself had reached the bench. In some of his own cases, he had made his mind up early as well. Nonetheless, it had irked him to hear Judge Atlee heap praises on Jake for the fine job he did in the Hubbard trial.
As he looked at the case file that he had been given, he could envision Jake expecting special treatment for his client, thinking that perhaps since Stroker and Reuben Atlee had been judges together, they had also been friends. Jake wouldn’t hesitate to try to capitalize on any relationship that might help his case. Not that it was unusual for attorneys to do that anyway, but in this case, it bothered him because it was Jake.
Sheriff Ben Sawyer, Paxton Jonas, Arnie Adams and Jake Brigance each walked confidently into the office, each having previously dealt with Judge Stroker on various cases, with the opposing sides believing that in this case the weight of the evidence was behind them. “Good morning, gentlemen,” said the judge.
“Good morning, your Honor,” various voices said nearly in unison.
“Thank you for taking a few moments to help get our bearings on this trial. Now, since the holidays are nearly upon us, I’d like to get as much under our belts before the break as we can. Get your calendars out. Mr. Brigance, how much time do you need to prepare for trial?”
“Your honor, I can be ready in thirty days.”
I’m sure you can’t wait for a trial and a news conference with all those reporters, thought Stroker. “That’s a little too soon for the court. My schedule is packed tight. Mr. Paxton?”
“Judge, what with Christmas and all, I think we’ll need a little more time than that.”
“Well, what are you thinking?”
Paxton was thinking he wanted this to drag out as long as possible to move it closer to the elections. And he wanted to please the judge who didn’t seem to like Jake’s answer. “We’ll need closer to sixty days, your honor.”
“That’s better for the court. I’m looking at Monday the 14th of February to select a jury and get started. Now, what motions might we be considering? Change of venue?”
Paxton jumped in, “No, your honor.”
Judge Stroker looked surprised. “Mr. Jonas, do you think you can get a fair trial in here in Clanton?”
“Absolutely, your Honor.” Jake looked at Paxton and caught the look Adams was giving him. Clearly this had been a point of discussion, which apparently hadn’t been resolved.
“Well, I admire your confidence, Mr. Jonas. I might not have been so eager to try it here.” Jake kept watching their faces. The look on Paxton’s face was confusion. The look on Adams’ face was some version of “I told you so.”
“We are confident in the facts, your honor,” Paxton said. Jake was thinking that a smarter lawyer would have pursued the judge’s view.
Jake looked thoughtful, “Well, your honor, I was anticipating a motion arguing for a change of venue. I don’t believe my client can get a fair trial in the town that he grew up in. There has just been too much publicity.”
Arnie stared at Jake with eyes that asked whether Jake had lost his mind. Obviously, Arnie’s opinion was that Ray would get sympathy from those who knew his father. Paxton waded right in. “Judge, we will surely oppose that motion. Ray Atlee has been gone from this county for a long time…”
Judge Stroker held up his hand. “Mr. Jonas, we are not arguing motions now. You prepare your brief and I’ll consider it when the time comes. Now, Mr. Brigance, any other motions you are thinking about?”
“No, your honor.”
“All right, I’ll ask the clerk to send out the jury duty summons. Sheriff, does fifty sound about right?”
Jake interrupted, “Your honor, I do believe that we need more potential jurors than fifty.”
Arnie pulled Paxton aside and whispered in his ear. He was determined to get out of there with no additional damage. They went back and forth a few times. Stroker interrupted. “Gentlemen?”
“We agree, Judge.”
Ben ended it. “How about one hundred?”
“Good. I’d like to have the arraignment on Thursday at 1 pm. Mr. Brigance, I’m assuming a plea of not guilty?” Jake was a little surprised that the judge would ask, because it was rarely discussed before the arraignment.
“Yes, your Honor, and we will be requesting the defendant be released on his own recognizance.”
“Released?” Paxton fairly shouted. “Jake, have you gone crazy? The man killed two people!”
“Allegedly,” Jake said, “Your Honor, Ray Atlee is a respected professor of law at the University of Virginia. He’s not a threat to flee.”
Paxton answered, “Judge, Mr. Brigance has clearly forgotten his fine legal education at Ole Miss. According to Rule 27(f), the minimum bail in a capital case is $25,000.” Arnie rolled his eyes behind his bosses back. He hid it from the judge, but couldn’t from Ben, who stifled a smile.
“$25,000 will be fine, Judge,” said Jake, with a straight face.
“Wait, Judge, I wasn’t recommending that, I was just quoting the rules!”
“And I do appreciate that, Mr. Jonas. Mr. Brigance, Mr. Jonas is right, of course, your client cannot be released on his own recognizance,” said Judge Stroker. “I’ll consider your request, but even $25,000 sounds a little light.”
“Judge, you really can’t be serious about granting bail,” said Paxton.
“That’s enough, Mr. Jonas. Come prepared on Thursday and we’ll discuss it,” said the judge. “Now, anything else?”
All said no, and except for Ben, were dismissed. When the door closed, Judge Stroker said, “Give them a moment, and then grab Brigance for me, will you?” Stroker wanted to lean on Jake a little. After Jake came back in, Judge Stroker said, “I look forward to your motion for change of venue.”
“Yes sir.” Jake smiled, and Ben grinned as well. Judge Stroker did not, and went on.
“On a serious note, I know how hard this is on all of us who knew the Judge well.” Even other judges called Reuben Atlee ‘the Judge’. “Jake, he spoke highly of you and I think it’s commendable of you to defend his son. And, as hard a time as I have believing that Ray Atlee would kill these men, I will make the state prove its case, regardless of my personal feelings in this matter.”
Where’s he going with this? Jake thought. “Of course, your Honor.”
“And I will not give you any undue leeway either. I cannot afford to give the impression of partiality simply because the Judge was your friend.”
“I would expect nothing else, Judge.”
“Thank you, Mr. Brigance. I hoped you would understand. That’s all.”
Jake shrugged and left. When he was gone, the Judge said, “Ben, I assume you will test the gun for fibers matching with Ray’s clothing. You’ll have to share that with Jonas and Brigance. What about Forrest Atlee? Have any arrangements been made yet? I haven’t heard anything.”
Ben frowned. “Well, Judge, Forrest hasn’t been declared dead yet. The investigation is still pending.”
“They are keeping a pretty tight lid on it, Judge. Which tells me they haven’t been able to make a definite match. Or rule out a match.”
“Is there any question as to whether it really is Forrest?”
“If it’s not him, the accident was staged,” Ben said.
“Which deepens the mystery, and directly impacts Ray. So, if Forrest is still alive, can he be found and answer the questions? Did he kill them and run, and if so, where did he get the gun?” said Judge Stroker. “Thanks, Ben, it’s going to be a busy sixty days.”
Ben left as Judge Stroker mulled over what Ben had told him. He had no personal animosity toward Ray, and despite his negative feelings toward Reuben Atlee, he would make sure Ray got a fair trial. But if he had a chance to take Jake down a notch while remaining impartial, he would do it.
And enjoy it.
Finch McDonald was an accidental resident of Port Gibson, Mississippi. He had grown up in Denver and had attended law school at the University of Mississippi after getting his history degree at Auburn University in Alabama. He left Colorado because he wanted a place that was not cold and not west. While at Auburn, he found that it was only natural he be drawn to studying the Civil War, especially with so many historic sites within driving distance. He studied the famed battlefields of the War of North Aggression, as he was constantly reminded it should have been called. He like the fun trips as well, like to the birthplace of Elvis Presley in Tupelo.
One of those field trips took him to Natchez, Mississippi, traveling the famed Natchez Trace Parkway. Forty miles northeast of Natchez, he came across Port Gibson, the county seat of Claiborne County. During the Civil War the town was situated in the path of the Union Army’s drive to Vicksburg, but was left unscathed because General Ulysses Grant thought it was “too beautiful to burn.” McDonald was also stricken by its beauty, and knew he would live there someday. After graduation from law school and a few years at a firm in Memphis, Finch and his wife Evelyn packed their bags and established their home in Port Gibson. Finch opened an office on Main Street, not far from the courthouse. He was easily accepted into what society existed in Port Gibson because of his Southern sounding first name, which masked his northern origins. Eventually he adopted a Southern accent that assured him of membership in the country club, with his drawl perfected during conversations with Evelyn, who grew up in Starkville.
Evelyn McDonald had a good friend in college by the name of Carla, who would also marry a man who would become a lawyer. It was through their wives that Jake Brigance and Finch McDonald became friends. The four stayed in touch and over the years had perfected one of those friendships where you would not talk for a year or more, but then get on the phone and it was like old times. Every few years the two couples would meet somewhere for the day and catch up.
This was one of those years. Carla had always wanted to see the Windsor Ruins, which were the remnants of a beautiful mansion that burned in 1890. Jake had trouble working up enthusiasm for the trip after research showed that all that remained were the columns and cast iron stairways, but Carla persisted, and a trip to meet up with the McDonalds to view the ruins was planned.
Early Sunday morning, Jake and Carla jumped into the BMW to make the four-hour trip to Port Gibson. They stopped at the Casey’s on the highway heading out of town to pick up breakfast. A coffee and a greasy breakfast sandwich for Jake, hot chocolate and oatmeal for Carla. Even though they could have swung by the Coffee Shop for much better breakfast fare to go, they didn’t want to be spotted skipping church yet again. They had done that more frequently now that Hanna had left for college, and both dealt with unspoken guilt that was slowly fading. Once out on the open highway, though, they settled into the drive, with a Christian music station on the radio to ease their remorse. At least they would get a little church that way.
Shortly after noon, they pulled off the Natchez Trace Parkway onto Highway 18, having arrived in Port Gibson. They stopped by the convenience store because Carla had to pee, and they assumed from the time on the clock that the McDonalds were not yet out of the service at the First Presbyterian Church. They then headed south on Highway 61 into town, passing by church row which included the Presbyterian church, the Episcopal church, a Jewish synagogue, the Methodist church and two Baptist churches. They could see services getting out, so they continued to Finch and Evelyn’s house, arriving shortly before the McDonalds did.
Evelyn had Sunday dinner ready in the crock pot, so they soon ate, spending time catching up with each other and enjoying time with the two McDonald teenagers as well. They cleaned up and headed out to the ruins, where they parked and walked onto the grounds, the men hanging back slightly to talk.
“So, things are going well?” Jake asked.
“They are, but it takes so long to get your practice where you want it.”
“Don’t I know it.”
“Here’s how I finally think I have things together financially. You remember how in college we would scrounge up five or ten dollars to put gas in the car?” Finch asked.
“Sometimes less than that,” Jake laughed.
“Even if you had enough cash for a full tank, you wouldn’t fill it all the way up because you thought you might need that money for something else?”
“Even though eventually you would need more gas anyway?”
“How long did it take until you would just fill up your car every time without thinking about it?” asked Finch.
“Maybe last year,” laughed Jake.
“Right, me too. So I think I may be an adult now. Every time I stop for gas, I fill the tank all the way up. Because I can. So, yep things are good. What’s new on your end of the world?”
“Remember Judge Atlee?”
“Oh yeah. Remember that summer I was clerking for Judge Noose? I saw ole Reuben nearly make a lawyer cry for incorrectly using the word ‘imply’. Didn’t he sit for the Hubbard trial?”
“That’s him. He died last spring,” Jake said.
“I think I heard that.”
“So, now I’m defending his son for double homicide.”
“Seriously? The shootings in Clanton? I heard the name on the news but didn’t realize it was those Atlees. Do I know the son?”
“Probably not. Went to law school at Tulane, then headed up north to get away from the Judge. Came back earlier this year to find the Judge dead. He has one brother who didn’t like the way Ray was handling the estate and there’s been some trouble.”
“Who’d he shoot?”
“A couple of guys from Memphis.”
Without exposing confidences, Jake filled Finch in, describing the events leading up to Ray’s arrest.
“Oh, boys,” the ladies were coming back around, “stop talking shop. We want to go see the Shaifer House.” Jake groaned inwardly, having already researched it. He knew it was an antebellum farmhouse where the Battle of Port Gibson was fought in the Civil War. Finch groaned outwardly, showing more courage than Jake.
“Finch,” Evelyn said, “show our guests some respect. They want to see it, having driven all this way.”
Finch looked at Jake and grinned. “I’m so sorry. Of course, they do. We should go right now.” Jake crossed his eyes at Finch behind the girl’s backs. They loaded into the car and the conversation was dominated by the wives. The women took turns casting disapproving looks at their men whenever they asked about something the men hadn’t seen, explaining all about this or that which was of critical historic importance. They told their husbands what they had seen and speculated what life would have been like at the mansion before it burned.
The short drive to the farmhouse was on the same route General Grant had taken in 1863 on his way to Vicksburg, except the car was heading in the direction of the Mississippi River, not away from it. Once they arrived at the Shaifer House, they resumed formation and conversations picked up where they had left off.
Finch asked, “So what’s your defense going to be if he doesn’t know where he lost the gun?”
“Somehow we have to cast doubt that he definitely had the gun. It’s for sure the Judge’s gun, Ray was seen with it after the funeral and it has his fingerprints on it. We need to cast doubt on the means.”
“How about fibers?”
“Hasn’t been tested yet.”
“But you will do it.”
“Thinking about it.” As recommended by the Coffee Shop legal team, thought Jake.
“Do it,” said Finch. “If you can find fibers that don’t match anything on Ray, then you have more doubt. Especially if you can find a break in the chain of possession.”
“The guys at the Coffee Shop have already decided that the fibers will match either gloves pulled out of the car that Forrest drove into the lake or maybe OJ’s. ”
“Good to know you have the best minds in the country helping you.”
“I know, right?”
“What are you thinking for the jury?” asked Finch.
“Still figuring it out, I need to find a jury consultant who won’t break the bank. Wanted to use one for Hubbard but the Judge wouldn’t let me, and haven’t needed one since. Who did you guys use in Memphis?”
Finch smiled sheepishly. “Actually, me.”
“Fancy yourself a jury consultant, do you?”
“I never did, but along the way it kind of happened. The firm was too cheap to hire one outright so a couple of us were trained in it. It’s not anything I would want to do full time, especially now, but I got somewhat proficient at it. At least the big boys thought so.”
Jake tilted his head with an inquisitive look. “Does that mean you are cheap?”
“Don’t you want someone who does it for a living? I mean, it’s one thing to do it in house, it’s another thing to do it on someone else’ case.”
“I want someone I trust, and who’s cheap.”
Finch smiled. “Well, yes, then, that’s probably me.”
“Good. This is good. You’re hired. Welcome to the team.”
“Thanks, I guess. Now I need you to file for a change of venue. Somewhere a little closer to me.”
“No chance,” said Jake.
“Do you think the Atlee family history helps you?”
“Yep. I want this baby in Clanton. Judge Stroker already talked about it. I was toying with Paxton, and the minute I suggested I was filing for a change of venue, Jonas started arguing against moving it. I almost got him to file a motion.”
“That’s hilarious. With Paxton Jonas on the case, I’m surprised it’s actually going to trial. See if he’ll reduce the charges to bad behavior and send Ray to his room without his supper.”
“I’ll file it as soon as I get back. Although Adams is pretty sharp.”
“Yeah, he’s ADA.”
“He is sharp,” Finch agreed, “but he’ll be pretty busy keeping Paxton out of trouble.”
They walked for a bit, catching up to the girls. Jake spoke, “The other thing is motive. I need to find out why those Memphis boys were there.”
“Who were they, anyway?”
“They worked for a guy that the brother owed money to. A guy named Tyler Price.”
“Familiar with him. Our firm has crossed paths with him from time to time. Do you need a contact in Memphis? Someone who might be able to set up a conversation with Price?”
“Seriously? Heck, yes. Do you have somebody in mind? Or are you the firm’s negotiator to the underworld as well?”
“No, I’m not,” Finch laughed, “but, yes, I have someone in mind. I still talk to some of the guys in my old firm. Then at least you might not have to fight to get him for a deposition. And he’s not a corrupt as his reputation suggests. He’s into legitimate businesses as well, he’s been trying to get away from the seamier stuff. He’s smart enough to see that demand for housing closer to downtown is going to infringe on the sleazy areas so he’s making moves to capitalize on legit businesses. Let me see what I can do.”
Ray Atlee was considering his situation. He had been well regarded at Virginia, and was lucky enough to have a friend in Carl Mirk, the associate dean. He had talked to Carl just after the arrest, knowing that when he left he had covered his classes for only a couple of days. He informed Carl that he was going to need them covered for, oh, say, ten to twenty years. Or maybe life.
Ray looked at the walls and thought, is this really how it ends? He had come to Clanton in good faith, and through no fault of his own, was now sitting in jail, soon to be on trial for double homicide. The penalty could be life in prison, or even the gas chamber.
Now Forrest was dead. Well, maybe. A body presumed to be his had been found downstream of the accident. Wow, he thought, with only a tinge of regret, the idea of Forrest’s death was a breath of fresh air that he was slowly getting used to. Forrest was dead. No more drama. He didn’t have to worry about Forrest anymore. Or the Judge’s money. Forrest’s money. His money. Who cared? He thought about how much he didn’t want people to find out about the money. They were sure to assume that the Judge was on the take. But in a couple of years, thoughts of Rueben Atlee would drift into the past for most people, even those who had remembered him as the Judge.
Ray had to decide. Was safeguarding the Judge’s reputation worth the gas chamber?
Nope, realized Ray. Time to think about himself. He wanted more than the chamber. More than life in prison. Actually, no prison was what he wanted. Take me back to my easy life teaching my classes and trying not to be interested in the female students, he thought.
Or, was he really happy being single? Did he want a family? He had had a wife, but that didn’t turn out so well. Yes, he thought, a family was what he wanted. A wife, some kids, some close friends to have family picnics with. In his distant memory, before his mother’s death, he recalled times that they had done that. The adults drinking tea in the shade while the kids ran around who knows where. Wow, that sounded really good right now.
“How’s our star inmate?”
The voice cut through Ray’s thoughts and he looked up at Deputy Ruby Gardner. “Chow time.” Gardner pushed the tray through the slot.
“Thanks,” Ray absently replied.
Gardner started to turn away and then stopped. “I heard about your brother.”
Ray looked up. “Yeah, it’s hard to believe he’s gone.”
“From what I hear, he exceeded his nine lives.”
“Yes, he did. When I was in law school, they almost declared him dead once.”
“Well, now he’s been declared dead twice, right?”
Ray looked up, thinking, that was a jerk thing to say. But the smirk on Gardner’s face stopped him cold. Where had he seen that expression before? Ruby turned and walked away. A shiver went down his spine as he watched her leave.