It was not the first Christmas Eve that Forrest Atlee had spent alone. Most years, he was too drunk or stoned to attend a party or even go to a bar. Typically, he did not have a Christmas. There were no gifts, at least not anymore. Ellie had always had a tree, and even after they were no longer a couple, they had still exchanged gifts for a few years. But then the gift giving stopped. At some point mutual disinterest kicked in, and not having to buy a gift was a relief for Forrest. Most years on Christmas Day, he would call the Judge, and sometimes the Judge would answer and they would talk.
Except for the solitude, this Christmas Eve was different. His father was no longer around, Ray was in jail, and he himself was sober. He had zero interest in drinking or even going out. It was crazy, he thought. All the money to do whatever he wanted. Yet he didn’t want to do anything. He had a few phone numbers of women he had spent time with since his arrival in Little Rock as Lincoln Allen, but even they held no interest for him.
In Clanton, Ray was experiencing some of the same feelings, except that he couldn’t go out even if he wanted to. Christmas was never an important holiday to him, yet as an active member of the law school faculty there were always numerous parties and office get-togethers that he would attend. When he and Vicki had been married, they would be home on Christmas Eve to exchange gifts, have a quiet dinner and then enjoy the tree with a glass of wine. After the divorce, the dinner changed to Chinese take-out and the wine changed to beer, usually chased by scotch. On Christmas day, he would sleep in, watch A Christmas Story and heat up his left-over Chinese at the appropriate moment. He would call his father always and would speak with him usually. Sometimes he would have a pity invite from a colleague to come over for Christmas dinner, but he would normally decline claiming that he already had plans, and would spend the rest of the day bored but trying to make the best of it.
Ray woke this Christmas morning with the slight disorientation that he had experienced most mornings, as he adjusted to seeing bars instead of a bedroom wall. He got his bearings, then sank back into a fitful sleep. His mind drifted in and out, dreaming of Maple Run as a kid, running with Forrest through the house that seemed so big. Then he was trying to find the money, and the Judge was looking at him and telling him to put out the fire. Then he was driving as fast as he dared through the bottoms, throwing $100 bills out the window. He stopped to pick up Forrest and Harry Rex, and Forrest had a gun. The Judge’s gun.
Ray’s eyes flew open. The gun! He had the gun when he got stopped by Deputy Elmer Conway, who had confiscated the gun and taken him in. That was the last time he had the gun. The Sheriff’s department had it! How could he not remember this? He sat up, suddenly needing to talk to Jake. He called for the jailer. Elmer himself wandered down the hallway, annoyed at having to work on Christmas morning. “What is it, Ray?”
Conway! “Do you remember when you caught me speeding through the Bottoms the night of the fire?”
“Do you remember what you were charging me with?
“Driving like a moron.”
“And what else?”
“I don’t know, Ray, what else? It’s early and I need more coffee.”
“I had a gun.”
“Yes, you had a gun. No permit.”
“You took it from me.”
“Damn right I did.”
“Where’s the gun?”
“I don’t know. Probably in the evidence lockup. We sure didn’t give it back, did we?”
“No, you didn’t. I need to talk to my lawyer.”
“You crazy? It’s Christmas morning!”
“Settle down. What’s so urgent that you have to talk to Jake right now?”
“If you have the gun, how did I use it to kill those guys?”
Elmer looked away from Jake, thought for a moment and then looked back at him. “That’s a good point. I’ll call the Sheriff and he can take it from here.”
Elmer left and Ray paced the cell. Of course! The gun had been taken when he was pulled over and brought in. He hadn’t thought to ask for it afterward, since it was only for protection against whoever was after the money. Once the money was gone, the gun went out of his mind. The night had been so crazy that many of the things that happened were a blur.
Elmer soon came back, carrying some of Ray’s clothes that had been in his suitcase. “Go ahead and get dressed,” he said.
“Where am I going?”
“To see your lawyer. Holler when you’re ready.”
Ray stood for a moment in shock, and then got busy. He dressed quickly, then called for Elmer. Soon they were out the back door, into a patrol car and headed for Jake’s. It only took a couple of minutes to get to the Hocutt House. Ray was quite impressed at the appearance of the old house, even though as a kid he had seen it undergo a dramatic transformation as it was being renovated by the previous owner, Willie Traynor, who used to own the Ford County Times newspaper.
Elmer stopped the car and Ray waited. Elmer got out and opened the door, “Well, go ahead,” he said, motioning with his head toward the front door. “I’m heading back to the station but Jonesy will be here to stand guard in case you try to escape,” said Elmer with a straight face. “He’s a better shot than me anyway.” Ray paused to make sure he was kidding, and then headed for the porch. As he climbed the steps the front door opened and a vaguely familiar woman opened the door.
“You must be Ray,” she said as she held open the door for him.
“Yes, ma’am,” Ray answered. He shook the hand she offered.
“Come on in. We’ve met, but it’s been some time. I’m Carla.”
“It’s good to be reacquainted. Sorry to barge in on Christmas. I didn’t think they would bring me here.”
“No problem, company is always welcome. Christmases are a lot quieter since Hanna’s gotten older. She’s still upstairs sleeping.”
“Well, thanks. I’ll try not to make any noise.”
Carla laughed, “Oh, don’t worry about that! She would sleep through an earthquake if we ever had one!” Jake came down the wide staircase.
“Hello, Ray, Merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas to you,” Ray grinned in spite of himself, gleeful at being out of his cell, but not wanting to show it. Standing the foyer of a house that had a warm, homey feeling to it, the hard feelings that he had harbored against Jake were melting away. “How did you manage this?”
“Connections, son, connections. Want to talk in the study?”
Carla interrupted, “Hold on, Jake. Perhaps our guest is hungry. Ray, would you like some breakfast?”
The thought of a real breakfast was almost overwhelming. “If it’s not too much bother.”
“I’m sorry,” said Jake. “Honey, that’s a good idea. Let’s get something to eat and then we’ll talk.”
Carla smiled. “I’ll get started on it. Why don’t you show him the house?”
Jake led the way into the kitchen where they got coffee while Carla started frying bacon. Jake offered the tour and Ray gladly accepted. They looked out into the backyard and talked about the house. Jake told the story of how it ended up in his possession and Ray told about the sneaking around that he and his friends did in the overgrown jungle of a backyard as it was in the late sixties and early seventies. Looking up at the apartment above the garage, Ray also told about the time in high school he had snuck a girl into it. Jake and Ray laughed as Ray told how they were so afraid of getting caught that his grand plan of seduction failed.
What he didn’t say was that when he and the girl (what was her name?) were coming down the back stairs, they had run into a group of junior high age kids who were cutting through the yard. The couple tried to look innocent but the other kids knew what they were doing, as they had all heard the stories of how the apartment was a great make out spot. Ray could see the faces of the kids in his mind even now; he knew all of them but just couldn’t put any names to the faces. Something nagged him about it and he lost his train of thought.
“You okay?” asked Jake.
Ray looked at him. “Um, yeah, I, well. You know how something gets around the edge of your mind and you can kind of remember something but can’t catch hold of it?”
Jake looked confused. “Maybe. Is this something about the case?”
Ray smiled. “No, nothing like that, something about the house when I was with that girl. Can’t put my finger on it though. But it’s nothing bad.”
“Well, good, because I’ll bet breakfast is just about ready.”
They were eating a great breakfast, and Ray couldn’t help but marvel at the difference a couple of hours could make. He had been dressed in a jail jumpsuit, sleeping in a cell, and was now sitting in regular clothes in an elegant Victorian house enjoying the total opposite of jail food. He remarked as such to Jake, who laughed.
“I remember during the Hailey trial walking into Ozzie’s office and finding Carl Lee and him playing checkers, just passing the time. When you have the support of the voters, you can pretty much write the rules as Sheriff. You know Ben doesn’t think that you are guilty, right?” Jake asked.
Ray smiled, “I kind of thought as much but didn’t want to make any assumptions. If I were sheriff I would be treating this suspected murdered quite different.”
Jake said, “You have to remember two things. One is that whether you know it or not, you have credibility in this community, completely outside of the goodwill that your father’s legacy left. The other is that Ben has a feeling for things, and it does my heart good to know that a client of mine has already been exonerated in the Sheriff’s mind. His continuing search for the real killer is comforting.” Jake took a bite. “Now, once we finish this magnificent meal, we’ll head into the study for that chat. What did you want to talk about?”
“The gun. I know where I saw it last.”
At that moment Forrest Atlee was in the car headed to Memphis. He couldn’t wait any longer to move on the money. He picked up the phone and dialed, let it go to voicemail and hung up. He passed quite a few truck stops before the phone rang back at him.
“Hello,” Forrest answered.
“You realize it’s Christmas,” the voice said.
“This will just take a moment. Is there anything new?”
“On Christmas? Seriously?”
“Hey, we haven’t talked for a couple of days. What’s going on?” Forrest pressed.
“No change, still the same. Your brother’s in jail, they set a trial date for a month or so, meaning the prosecution is apparently pretty confident in their case.”
“I just don’t get it,” Forrest interrupted. “Ray’s not the kind to carry a gun, and those guys were professional intimidators. I just don’t see him getting the jump on them.”
“Me neither, but he did.”
There was a pause in the conversation as each though about that. Forrest asked, “What about the crash?”
“What can you do?”
The voice snorted a laugh. “Me? Nothing. I can’t get near that, and you know it. I can only do things on this end.”
“Well you better think of something, because if that falls apart, so does the rest of your money.”
“That wasn’t the agreement and you know it. Once we did it, the accident was always out my control.”
“I know, but we both have an interest in making sure I stay dead.” Forrest paused as his mind wandered. “And I have to figure out a way to help Ray,” he said absently.
Good luck, pal, thought the voice. “Forrest, I have to go. Remember, payday’s coming soon.”
“I know. You’ll get it.”
I’ll get more than you think, the voice thought. So, you care about Ray after all, huh?
Janie Cox rarely enjoyed a mess in the house, but on Christmas, all was forgiven. Since her divorce, the gifts had gotten cheaper, thus her parental guilt allowed them to be strewn about wherever they landed. She would happily help the kids clean up later, but for now was content to hear them playing while she enjoyed yet another cup of coffee as she half-watched the end of one of the Christmas parades.
Janie had the kids for Christmas this year, then would trade off midweek with her ex-husband. The kids would get a second round of gifts that would have a much higher cost and quality. Her ex had remarried the year before to a woman with one daughter who was sandwiched in between her two children’s ages so that they at least had one ally in the house, since her two weren’t real thrilled about their stepmom.
But for today, she would spoil them as much as she could. They would be going over to Jake and Carla’s for a midafternoon Christmas dinner where Hanna would entertain them until Janie took them to spend the evening with her father. Jake would serve egg nog himself, telling each of the kids as he gave them their cup, “It’s my special blend. Don’t tell your mother.” The kids would have no idea what that meant, but would make a special effort to make sure their mother saw them drink it.
After her coffee, Janie roamed lazily around the small house, cleaning up the stray wrapping paper and covertly herding toy parts into their proper piles. Soon the kids began complaining of hunger pangs, since breakfast had been oh so many minutes ago. “If you’re really hungry, let’s get this cleaned up and head over to the Brigance’s,” she said, happily enduring the protests. She knew Carla would have out the Christmas goodies and Chex mix. Picking up their toys was not what the children wanted to do, but eventually they gave up the fight and half-heartedly moved toys from one pile to another. After the kids suffering a change of clothing and a washcloth to the face, they were parked in front of a Christmas movie while Janie cleaned herself up. She knew Carla would be in a comfortable outfit so she gave little thought to putting on a flannel shirt and jeans. They piled into her old Toyota for the five-minute drive to the Hocutt House.
Pulling onto Maple Street, Janie was surprised to see a Sheriff’s department car parked across the street with a deputy inside. She recognized one of the younger deputies and he waved as she drove by. Janie knew that at one point in the Hailey trial Jake had needed protection, but hadn’t since then. Her mind tried to process what this might mean as she turned into the wide gravel driveway, stopping to the side where the kids jumped out and ran onto the porch. Janie followed them and arrived after they had rung the bell and the door had swung wide open with Jake’s grinning face behind it. “Merry Christmas,” he bellowed, then leaned down to hug each of the kids and give Janie a festive peck on the cheek.
Janie returned the holiday greeting as she continued into the house, stopping short as she entered the kitchen.
Unexpectedly, standing by the sink was Raymond Atlee.
Ray was staring out the back, looking like his mind was a million miles away. Carla was working away at the stove, and smiled brightly when she saw Janie, taking a moment to give her a hug. Ray looked up with the movement, and seeing Janie, gave her a strange look.
Janie was suddenly very conscious of her decision to dress casually.
“Hi,” said Ray awkwardly. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
Janie raised her eyebrows. “Well, I certainly didn’t expect to see you here. Is that your escort outside?”
“The squad car?”
“Oh, the deputy. Yeah, guess they have to keep you all safe from this menace to society.”
Janie laughed and shook her head. “How many hardened criminals get to spend Christmas at their lawyer’s house? As far as I know, you’re the first.”
“I suppose. Anyway, Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas,” Janie replied.
Jake stepped into the kitchen, saying, “Janie, can I borrow Ray for a bit? We need to have a chat.”
“Sure.” Janie watched them walk away, and then excused herself to run to the bathroom to fix herself up.
Ray followed Jake down the hall and into the study. The room had a great old smell and was a very comforting place. Out of habit Jake sat behind the desk, motioning Ray to the leather couch. They picked up where their conversation had left off while they were finishing their breakfast and cleaning up.
“So, you remembered about the gun.”
“I did. The last place I had it was in the car when I was running away from the break-in at Maple Run, the night it burned. I floored it going through the bottoms and Elmer Conway pulled me over. He took me in for speeding and carrying a gun without a permit. He confiscated the gun, and I never got it back.”
“And Maple Run caught fire, and they never charged you for speeding or for the gun,” Jake finished.
“Right, and I never even thought about getting it back.”
“And we’re sure that this is the same gun?”
“Oh, it’s the same gun. I knew it the minute the Sheriff showed me the picture.”
“It’s a pretty common gun. You think you could just recognize it from the picture?”
“Oh yeah. We became very close for a while,” Ray said and smiled.
“We need to get Ben to let you see the gun. I’ve seen it, and it does look like it’s been around a while. You need to identify it was the gun that was confiscated. And we need to get Ben to check the evidence log to check the trail. Did it get logged in and logged out? Or logged in and then just disappeared? Or never even logged in at all?”
Ray said, “You know, I’ve tried to figure out how framing me for these murders could involve the money. Who would have any incentive at all to frame me for the murders? Forrest is the only person I can think of, though Lord knows why.”
“I’ve got a meeting this week with Tyler Price up in Memphis, and I’m hoping that will shed some light on what happened.”
Ray was surprised. “He agreed to meet with you? How did that come about?”
“I have a friend with good contacts who may or may not have been involved with Price in the past. That part’s a little fuzzy.” Jake smiled. “And I’m assuming it’s fuzzy on purpose. But apparently, Price owes them a favor. Or, I guess the other possibility is that he still has something to gain and sees this as a way to trade some information. He can’t be real pleased that two people of his got killed.”
Jake summarized. “I’ll get with Ben in the morning and we’ll take a look at the gun. I also have to get it examined for fibers.” He glanced out the study’s door. “We better get out there and be sociable. Hey, by the way, and this is just between me and you, I think Janie likes you.”
“Seriously. Maybe when we bust you out of the joint you two can get together.”
“The good news is that they do allow conjugal visits at Parchman,” Jake joked.
“Seriously. First state prison in the United States to allow it.”
“You’re twisted.”, said Ray, rolling his eyes in mock disgust as they walked out, nearly running into Janie who was coming out of the bathroom with new hair. He didn’t notice, quickly looking away, extremely embarrassed at the thoughts he was having. Jake saw his reaction and laughed out loud.
Janie looked at Jake. “What are you laughing about?”
“Man talk.” Jake continued to laugh as they made their way to the kitchen.
Carla looked up, “What are you laughing about?”
“Nothing,” replied Ray quickly.
“Jake said it was man talk,” volunteered Janie.
Carla looked at her husband. “Well, do some man work and set the dining room table.”
Later in the day, after dinner, Ray was sitting on the porch, enjoying his freedom while he had it. He could see the deputy’s car across the street and wondered how long they would let him stay out. The front door of the house opened and Jake offered him a glass. “Eggnog?”
“Thanks,” Ray took a sip and smiled. “Oh. The good stuff.”
“Darn tootin’. My goal is to send you back to jail in style, drunker than a skunk. Carla wants to know if you want pie.”
“If you don’t mind, maybe in a bit. I’m enjoying spending some time outside.” Ray took aother sip of his drink. Heavy on the bourbon, light on the eggnog. “I was thinking of making a run for it.”
“Well, you’d probably make it. I think the deputy is asleep. Pumpkin or apple?”
“Pumpkin sounds good,” Ray said.
“See you in a bit.”
Ray was left alone with his thoughts, but not for long. Janie came through the door with two pieces of pumpkin pie, handing him one of them. “Special delivery.”
“You didn’t have to do that,” Ray said.
“My pleasure. Mind if I sit down?” asked Janie, sitting without waiting for permission.
“Help yourself,” Ray answered. Silence ensued as they each started eating. Janie felt Ray looking at her and glanced his way.
“What, Ray? You have a strange look on your face. Again. Or actually, still.”
“Are you from Clanton?” Ray asked.
“Yes. I grew up here, just like you.”
“Did I know you?”
“That sounded like a weird question. Kind of like you have amnesia.”
“I just mean, you’re obviously much younger than me, but did our families know each other?”
“I was only four years behind you in school, and yes, our families knew each other. My father knew yours very well.”
“Who’s your father?”
“Henry Harrison is your father?”
“I just said that.”
“That makes you Janie Harrison?” Ray looked incredulous. “You’re little Janie Harrison!”
“Yes, I am. Well, I was. Then I grew up and married a jerk, and now I’m Janie Cox.”
“And not so little,” she said, wishing she had worn something more slimming.
“Well, I will always think of you as little Janie Harrison,” he teased. “Glad to make your re-acquaintance.” Little Janie Harrison grew up, he thought.
“I don’t know if this is good or bad.”
“I think it’s funny. I was telling Jake about something that happened in high school and I remembered some kids there but I couldn’t put any names with faces and it bothered me, you know, like I’d seen one of them recently. And now I realize, yep, I have, and it’s you.”
“Was it when you were coming down those stairs right over there with Patricia Rooney?”
Ray bit his lip. “Oh, crap.”
Janie smiled. “Busted.”
So that was her name, Ray thought, Patricia. He quickly turned his attention to his plate. “Pie’s good, don’t you think?”
“Way to change the subject.” Janie put her fork down. “Can I ask you a question?”
“I think you just did.”
“Smart ass. This may seem random, but what is happening with your job?”
Ray smiled. “Yes, that was random.”
“I was just wondering. It’s one of those things you don’t think about.”
“But apparently it is.”
“It is what?” Janie asked.
“You just said, it’s one of those things you don’t think about. But apparently you thought about it.” Ray was enjoying being an instigator, especially since it had been a pretty long time since he had had the chance to be one.
“Again, a smart ass,” Janie said as Ray smirked at her. Just then Jake came through the door with a pitcher. “More eggnog?” he asked.
Janie shook her head. “No, I have to drive home and can’t get out of a drunk driving charge. I don’t know any good lawyers.” Jake faked a kick at her.
“Well, I have a chauffeur, so load me up,” Ray said, handing Jake his glass.
Janie continued, “So, what about it?”
Ray shrugged, “What about it?”
“What are they doing? Leave of absence, fired, sick days, vacation?”
“Oh, I get what you’re asking.” Ray gathered his thoughts. It was becoming difficult, due to the egg nog. “One of the associate deans is a really good friend and knows what I went through when the Judge died.”
“Did you ever call him Father or Dad?”
“Oh, god no. Maybe when we were very young. I don’t remember when we started calling him the Judge. I do remember there was lot of ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, sir.’”
“What did he want you to call him?”
“I don’t really know. Everyone called him the Judge, and at some point, we did too. So, anyway, back to my job, I was able to call Carl and explain what happened and he got my classes covered for the semester. I was only on the hook for one class next semester, so he got me a leave of absence and reassigned the class. I’m not sure what he said to whom, and I have to remind myself that I may not have a job when I go back.” He looked down. “If I get to go back,” he said quietly.
His statement hung in the air, as Janie worked on a response. “Jake’s a wonderful lawyer. And besides, you’re innocent, right?”
Ray looked at her. “Was that a statement or a question?”
Janie looked right back. “I don’t believe you did it. So, it was a statement. And a reminder. You’ll be back in Virginia before you know it.”
Ray was quite for a moment, looking off into the distance. “I hope so,” he said. Then he looked at Janie. Or maybe I don’t want to go back, he thought. Especially if Parchman really does have conjugal visits. At that, he tried not to smile, but did anyway.
Janie was watching him. “What?”
Ray now laughed openly. “Man talk.”
Forrest stared at the dark mid-town Memphis Victorian house that he had called home for so many years. Memories, mostly bad, flashed through his mind as he watched the house in the dark. He had driven from Little Rock knowing that he would have to sneak in, grab the money and sneak out. He figured he had burnt his bridge with Ellie because of his unexplained absences, although there really wasn’t anything between them. It was just that she had provided him a room and expected the simple courtesy in return of letting her know if he would be gone for an extended time. He felt that there would be a confrontation and that it would cause a scene. He didn’t need that while making multiple trips out to his car with a couple of hundred thousand dollars in cash tucked under his arm. And, but not least, he was supposed to be dead. Regardless, now was the time. He knew that by Christmas night anyone in the house would be tired and/or drunk and therefore not very observant.
As he looked at the house he began to think. This whole thing had gone south really fast. Forrest had felt in control of this plan until he had found out that Ray had been arrested. How was that possible? Would Ray have come armed and taken out Tyler’s men in a firefight? As much as that was what had appeared to happen, Forrest still thought that there was simply no way that he could have done the killings. Someone else had to have taken them out and left Ray alive. And as far as he knew, other than Tyler Price, there was only one other person who knew what was supposed to go down at the garage.
The one person who also knew that Forrest was still alive.
Forrest shivered in the car and tried to make sense of it. He picked up his phone and dialed, getting the same generic voicemail, leaving the same silent five second message, then waiting for the return call. An hour later, it still had not come and he needed to move. He couldn’t sit there all night, waiting for a call that might not come. It was time to get the money. He had a key to a creaky back door to the basement, so the trick would be getting in and out without making noise. The good thing was that the house was creaky anyway.
Forrest got out of the car and approached the house. He followed the shadows that he knew so well around the side of the house and made his way to the concrete stairwell leading to the basement door. He eased in and made his way back to the furnace room. He could see the furnace and the ever-present layer of old ashes around it. The last time he had been there, he had re-spread the ashes around the furnace, to make it seem like it hadn’t been touched in years, as well as to show footprints in case anyone was snooping. Seeing no footprints, he relaxed, and gave a sigh of relief when he opened the coal door to find the money still buried there.
He moved slowly but purposefully transferring the money to clean canvas bags and carrying them out to his car. He wished he had gotten rid of this car, but at least it couldn’t be traced to him. It was registered to a different identity that he had picked up at the same time as Lincoln Allen. About halfway through, he heard a door slam and ducked behind one of the overgrown shrubs in the yard. He waited, then peeked out to see someone get in a car in front of the house and drive away. Other voices could be heard in the house and a couple of lights came on. He felt panic, and decided to not risk it any further. He would leave the rest in the furnace. He made one last trip, spreading ashes to again conceal what was left.
Forrest snuck around to the car, glancing at the dent in the right front fender before settling in behind the wheel. He started the car and pulled away from the curb, not noticing a dark sedan pull out and follow a discrete distance behind him.
Dumas Lee sat in front of the TV enjoying the end of another Christmas. His kids had finally left, leaving him to a quiet house. His wife was napping, wrapped up with a quilt in a recliner, exhausted from the constant action of their small grandchildren.
His thoughts drifted to the Atlee story. He replayed what he knew in his mind, looking for his next story. Raymond Atlee shows up in Clanton unannounced in a place with two dead bodies, or to be more accurate, one dead and one on its way to dead. They find the murder weapon with Ray’s fingerprints on it. Forrest Atlee supposedly leaves the scene and dies in a crash after being driven from the road.
He also knew that the deputies who came upon the scene described Ray as being scared, and that he called out to them to show his presence. He didn’t appear as if he’d just shot two men. He seemed more like a witness. Dumas had researched Raymond Atlee deeply in the last several weeks, and everything he knew about Ray told him that this guy wasn’t capable of doing what he had done and then lying about it.
What was fascinating about this case was that he hadn’t come forth with any kind of story about why he was in the garage in the first place. The only apparent explanation was that he was there to meet Harper and Parnell, that a shootout ensued and that Ray survived. But it didn’t explain the why.
So, you add in Forrest Atlee, who lived in Memphis, had worked for Tyler Price, and now you have a connection. But at this point it’s all conjecture! You have to explain the why. Why was Ray there?
That’s what Dumas had to find out. He drifted off, but not before pledging to track down Jake and get some answers. Starting tomorrow.
Jake called Ben early the day after Christmas, asking if they could get some time together outside of the Sheriff’s headquarters. Ben agreed to come to Jake’s office, and arrived shortly after 10 am. “Ray remembered where he last had the gun.”
“So, I heard.”
“Do you remember the night Maple Run burned, and he got caught speeding?”
“Yeah, then Elmer brought him to the house.”
“Yes, well, Elmer also confiscated a gun that Ray had in the car. It was the Judge’s gun. Ray never got it back.”
“So, it should still be in the evidence locker. Unless Elmer never put it in.”
“Yes. This is why I wanted to meet with you here. If the gun shows up in the evidence log but is missing, now you have an internal problem in your department.”
“Yep,” Ben agreed. “I need to check the log, and then talk to Elmer.”
“And keep it quiet.”
“And keep it quiet.”
Jake then told Ben about his meeting the next day with Tyler Price and how he hoped to get more information about the meet at the garage. Ben asked, “What makes you think he’ll want to talk to you about it?
“Maybe he won’t. But if we can find out why his people were there, that could be one more piece to the puzzle. Ray was there to meet Forrest, that we know. So why were they there? That’s what I want to find out.”
They finished their conversation and Ben got up to go. “Let me know what he says, okay?” He headed down the stairs and was passed by Dumas Lee coming up the stairs. Dumas marched right in the door, surprising Jake, which annoyed him greatly, but he knew it was useless to yell at Mary for Dumas having gotten up the stairs unannounced. Dumas was slippery that way.
“Not now, Dumas, I have nothing new to tell you.”
“Well, I have questions. Can we go off the record?”
“We are neither on the record nor off the record. Go away.”
Dumas didn’t budge. “Just give me five minutes.”
Jake sighed. He knew five minutes would stretch into thirty minutes. He also knew Dumas wouldn’t leave until threatened with bodily harm. “Okay, you have five minutes but you’ve already used one.” Jake let Dumas come all the way in and sat back down behind his desk. “What.”
“Why was Ray Atlee in the garage?”
Jake paused, then said, “I’m not prepared to tell you that.”
“Was Forrest in the garage with Ray?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“Did this involve Forrest at all?”
“Not to my knowledge,” said Jake.
“When was the last time that Ray saw Forrest?”
Dumas looked surprised. “Is that true?”
“That is true. Ray hadn’t seen Forrest since last June.”
Dumas hoped the next question would surprise him. ‘Where’s Forrest now?”
The question did surprise Jake. “He’s dead. You know that.”
“Is he really?”
Jake’s eyes narrowed. “What are you saying?”
“My sources tell me that the case is still open, and that they still haven’t positively identified the body pulled out of Lake Chatoula. Word is that they need dental records but they don’t know who his dentist was here, and no one knows who Forrest might have gone to in Memphis.”
“Surely someone could find out who they went to. There weren’t that many dentists in Clanton,” said Jake.
“After their mom died, the Judge never took them. They’re going to ask Ray.”
“Over my dead body.”
“They can get a warrant.”
“And he can invoke the Fifth Amendment.”
“Why wouldn’t you want to help them find out whether it’s Forrest or not?”
“Not my job, and it doesn’t help Ray’s case. Let them match the DNA.”
“From what I hear, they got a warrant to his last known address in Memphis and got some hair, but the results are inconclusive. They don’t know if the test is right, or if it’s faulty. There’s still enough mistrust in it to question the results.”
“Are you saying Forrest might have staged his death?”
“And hung Ray out to dry.”
“Dumas, you may be on to something. Thanks for giving me something to think about,” Jake said, while still thinking that unless Forrest had some way to get a hold of the gun out of the evidence locker, his committing the murders was unlikely indeed. “Your five minutes is up.”
“Just a couple more questions.”
Dumas scowled. “Looks like I gave you a lot more than you gave me.”
“This time,” said Jake, and laughed. “For once.”
“You’re sure it was the car?” asked Tyler.
“No doubt about it. Plates matched. We just couldn’t see who the driver was.”
“Was it that girl?”
“No, it was definitely a guy. Probably the guy who owns the car, it was just too dark to see him good. He was carrying something, though, that’s for sure.”
“So it definitely ties him to Forrest. The girl was in the car at the garage, and now this guy has the car at Ellie’s. Therefore, he went to Ellie’s to get something that he knew was at the house.”
“Want us to go take another look at his room?”
“Yeah, take a look. And this time, give it the full treatment, but keep it quiet. No stones unturned. Find out what he’s hiding, or any clues that can tell us how to find this guy.”
“You got it, boss.”
“And put the word out to keep an eye open for the car. If anyone sees it again, nab the driver.”
Ray wondered what is it about Deputy Gardner that gave him the creeps. Every time she walked past him he felt something weird. And she really seemed to have a chip on her shoulder, like she had something to prove. Ray supposed it had something to do with being the only female on the force. She got along ok with the other deputies, but she seemed to resent any humane treatment Ray received. Oh well, thought Ray, maybe I’m just sensitive. But Deputy Gardner was not like the others, that was for sure. And not because she was a she.
Ben came by to check on Ray after leaving Jake’s. “Sheriff,” greeted Ray.
“Mr. Atlee, how are you holding up? Any complaints about the room service?” Ben smiled.
“Best food I’ve ever had in jail,” Ray quipped. “My compliments to the chef.”
“I’ll pass that along.”
Ray drew closer and lowered his voice. “What’s with that Deputy Gardner?”
“Why?” asked Ben.
“She just gives me the willies, every time I talk to her. It’s like she thinks she knows something you don’t,” said Ray.
Ben paused as a deputy passed in the hall. “Let’s take a walk.” He unlocked the cell and led Ray to his office, motioning for him to have a seat. “Between you and me, she seemed a great hire, but I’m not so sure anymore. She’s not trying to fit in, doesn’t do anything with the others, and she’s critical of how I handle things. Has the feel of a real short timer.”
“What’s her background?”
“She’s from Columbus. Army after high school, then went to the Academy and she had been down in Hattiesburg until a couple of months ago when she transferred here.”
“Why did she transfer?”
“She said she was looking for a change of scenery, plus something about family around and just wanted to come here, Lord knows why. I grilled the Sheriff down there, looking for something wrong, but there just wasn’t anything. But I will be keeping my eye on her. I think you’re right about her, something’s fishy.”
Lincoln Allen relaxed after finally clearing customs in Miami. His trip to the Cayman Islands had been nerve racking from the moment he got on the plane for the flight there. Going to the islands was such a different thing for Forrest. He was used to a rougher, shadier side of life where being lightly buzzed or high didn’t prevent you from functioning in your daily life. In fact, in many ways it helped. But walking into a modern bank building on Grand Cayman Island, meeting polite, upscale bank executives and being expected to know the account numbers and pin numbers by heart was unbelievably intimidating.
Knowing that two thirds of the cash was now resting comfortably in safe accounts and not in a canvas bag hidden under 100-year-old ashes was comforting. What was disquieting was the knowledge that there was someone out there that he had let get too close. This person couldn’t locate him, but could certainly blackmail him. Anyone in this situation could figure that Forrest had a lot more money than was being paid. He cursed himself for not planning better. He should have picked someone to forestall the investigation who didn’t know Forrest Atlee. And he should have picked someone else to help arrange the accident. A double blind, so to speak.
And now Ray was in jail for murdering two of Tyler Price’s men, which just made no sense. Forrest had seen Ray with the gun at Maple Run, but knew that if Ray got a shot off, it would be a miracle if he actually hit anything. So for him to win a gun fight with two of Tyler’s goons was almost impossible. Why would he bring a gun? And why that one? And what…
Forrest stopped. Had Ray driven to Clanton from Charlottesville? Of course not, he would have flown into Memphis. Would he have checked the gun on the plane? Well, maybe, but again, this made no sense.
As he waited for his flight to Little Rock with a stop in Atlanta, he turned on his phone. He hadn’t thought to turn it on earlier. He wasn’t used to carrying one, and thus it didn’t rule his life as it did some other people’s. There was one missed call, and a voicemail. Since only one person had the number, he knew the message would be five seconds of silence. Which it was. He called back and left the same.
Before his flight boarded, the return call came. “Yeah,” said Forrest.
“There may be a problem with the accident.”
“God, now what?”
“The coroner is refusing to certify that the body is yours.”
“So?” asked Forrest.
“He needs to make a ruling that given the evidence, the body is yours and a death certificate is produced. The case is then closed and Forrest is legally dead.”
“Well, how long does that take?”
“You don’t get it. The coroner is saying that the evidence doesn’t support the body being you.”
“Why?” Forrest suddenly had a craving for a cold one.
“Don’t know yet, still working on it. Just thought you should know.”
“Find out, will ya?”
“Working on it. I’ll call you when I know something.” After hanging up, the voice said, “Or when I decide on the next step.”
Jake turned into a small parking lot of the neighborhood Sicilian eatery where he was to meet Tyler Price. He had kind of pictured a garish strip mall Italian place when Finch had given him address and description, but the small bungalow that housed the restaurant was neat and clean. It was the kind of place that he himself would frequent if it were in Clanton.
As he stepped into the lobby, he felt a comfort in the old-world charm that had been created. He almost expected the owner himself to greet him by the door and lead him to the table, describing the wonderful delicacies that Mama had created that day. Instead he was somewhat let down when an indifferent hostess with a nametag that said ‘Maureen’ managed to ignore him while doing nothing yet appearing like she was very busy.
Not knowing really what to say, since there hadn’t been any specific instructions given to him, he held back until she finally deigned to notice him. “Table for one?”
“I’m actually waiting for someone,” Jake said.
“You the lawyer?” she asked.
Surprised, Jake nodded.
“Tyler’s in here,” said Maureen as she led him into the small dining room. In a side booth, he could see a pleasant looking man in a polo shirt and khakis drinking a glass of wine and going over what appeared to be business reports. “Tyler,” she announced, “the lawyer.”
Tyler Price looked up, smiled and gestured to the bench seat opposite him. “Please have a seat. What would you like to drink?”
“Ice tea is fine,” Jake said warily.
“Sweet or unsweet?” Maureen asked.
“Sweet, thank you,” Jake said as he hesitantly accepted the handshake of the man across the table.
“Mr. Brigance, it’s good to meet you,” Tyler said.
“Well, Jake, thanks for meeting me here.”
Where Jake had expected resistance, there was none, in fact it seemed rather pleasant so far. “No,” he said, “Thank you for meeting with me. This is a wonderful place.”
Tyler smiled, “Thanks, I bought it a few years ago and really enjoy it. The cook is great, you really should try the lasagna.”
Jake, returned the smile. “Well, all right, let’s have lasagna.” His tea arrived and Tyler ordered lasagna for both of them.
“We don’t have to get right to business,” Tyler said, “tell me about the Hailey trial. Did you really think he would be found innocent?”
Jake was surprised that Price would know about Carl Lee Hailey, but recovered nicely and talked for the next few minutes about the case. Tyler absorbed every word, then said, “You know where Carl got the gun, don’t you?”
“I don’t remember. Don’t tell me from you.”
“No, from a competitor of mine. Apparently, they were in Vietnam together so Cat hooked him up.” Cat Williams was an entrepreneur who also roamed the seedier side of Memphis, although his strip club business had diminished somewhat as some close in areas of the city had improved. They continued to talk about the trial, and when that line of conversation had obviously run its course, Tyler folded his hands in front of him and said, “So, Forrest.”
Jake said, “Yes, Forrest. And, as you know, Ray. To be perfectly honest, we just don’t know what was supposed to happen at the garage and I’m hoping you can shed some light on it?”
As their salads arrived, Tyler said, “What do you mean, you don’t know?”
“Ray was there to meet Forrest but something went haywire. Forrest wasn’t there but two dead bodies were. I was hoping you knew why.”
Tyler eyes hardened. “Yeah, I know why. Forrest set my boys up to get killed. And your client did it.”
Jake Brigance looked at Tyler Price. “You really think that your men were lured there so that Ray could kill them?”
“Easy, Forrest had it in for his brother. They had been at it all their lives, Forrest said often how his brother thought that Forrest was a loser. Forrest was always jealous of Ray, and when their father died, Forrest wanted the inheritance all to himself.”
Jake took a bite and chewed thoughtfully. He swallowed and said, “Can you start at the beginning and tell me how the meet at the garage came about?”
Tyler smiled, “Look, Counselor, I’m only talking with you because of a favor I owe. I’m not about to talk about the particulars of my business and have them end up in court.”
“Not the whole story, but maybe you can help me with one thing. Why were your men at the garage? In the most general of terms.”
Tyler slowly finished his mouthful of lasagna, then smiled. “Ok,” he said as he wiped his mouth, “I’m told you’re a straight up guy, so I’ll give you this. I’ve known Forrest for a long time, he’s done some work for me.” Jake wanted to interrupt and ask what kind of work, but wisely held his tongue. “We had some arrangements that he fell through on, and we had some trouble, but we had lost track of him. Then about a month ago, maybe a little more, he calls out of the blue, says he wants to settle up.”
Jake, grateful that Tyler was talking, tried to remember to eat as he listened. Tyler went on, “I admit, with most of the people I deal with, there might have been a little retribution required in addition to the interest on my money, but Forrest and I go way back and I always thought he tried to do the right thing. And I’ve always tried to help him out. He’s just a messed-up dude. So, when he wanted to pay up, I said, what the hell, okay. He even paid the interest in whole. Didn’t whine at all or try to get out of it. Now he’s got my attention, because Forrest never had money. At least, not for long, until he drank it or snorted it. So now I think, he must have really come into some money from his father. We knew that old man Atlee had died, and actually had almost gotten hold of Forrest then.”
Right so far, Jake thought, although, Tyler, you have no idea how much money he had gotten.
Tyler, rolling now, continued, “Then Forrest says he’s having problems with his brother wanting something of his, and wants us to scare him off. He wants my guys at the garage, where Forrest is going to meet Ray. My guys are supposed to surprise them there, then threaten them both, demanding the goods.”
“The goods?” asked Jake, thinking, is this a movie?
“That’s what they were supposed to say. The goods. Cheesy, right? Then when Forrest bolts, they were to take off after him, roughing up Ray on the way out. Just a little. A couple of love taps.”
Tyler’s eyes darkened, “But instead, what ended up happening was, they were ones who got tapped. Double tapped.”
Silence hung heavy as Jake respected the pause. Then Tyler said, “Those guys had families. Were they tough guys in a tough business? Yeah. But they didn’t deserve this. That’s why I want to see your guy hang.”
Jake asked carefully, “What makes you think Forrest didn’t do it before Ray got there? According to Ray, he walked into the building, it was dark, he heard shots and someone ran by him out the door. We think it was Forrest.”
Tyler shook his head. “No, Forrest left before the shots.”
Jake just looked at Tyler, processing the thought. Tyler saved Jake the trouble of speculation, saying, “Ok, look, I had another guy there, ok? He was watching the building, as a security measure. He couldn’t see the side door from where he was parked, but he saw the Explorer before our guys went in, and he could see anyone coming or going from the area. He saw the Explorer leaving the parking lot, and then the shots happened.”
“You’re sure. The Explorer left and then the shots.”
“Positive. Forrest set us up.”
“But why? If he had settled up, he had nothing to worry about.”
“Don’t know. No idea. I also have no idea how the professor brother got the drop on my guys. Shouldn’t have happened.”
“I’m telling you it didn’t happen. Ray absolutely didn’t do it. There had to be someone else,” Jake said.
Tyler took a bite of his now cold lasagna and chewed. “There was a girl in the area not long after the shootings. Got in her car and left. My guy got her license plate, registered to a guy in Arkansas.”
“No, didn’t appear to come from the building, Walking innocently.”
“Do the police know this?”
“No, some things I keep to myself. Got the guy’s name back at the office if you want it.”
“Thanks, that would be great.” Jake knew that he wasn’t getting all of the information, but what he had gotten was very helpful to square up Ray’s story, at least in his mind. “Tyler, thanks so much for taking the time with me. I promise you none of what you told me will be used. Although at some point, I’ll probably have to depose you for the trial.”
“Hey, Counselor, I know how this works, I only gave you today what I’ll give you then.”
“Okay, thanks,” said Jake. He looked at his half-finished lasagna and put his napkin on the table. The conversation had made it hard to eat. “And one more thing. Ray didn’t shoot them.”
“For his sake, I hope not,” said Tyler.
Jake offered to pay, which was politely declined and so he said his goodbyes. On the drive back to Clanton he played the conversation over and over in his mind, and mulled over two things: what was Forrest really trying to accomplish with scaring Ray, if that was really his plan, and how does this information help Ray’s case? Despite Jake’s efforts, he didn’t make any real traction on figuring out either thing, so he eventually gave up and just began enjoying the countryside.
Jake arrived back in Clanton in the late afternoon and stopped by the jail before heading home. He found Ben in the hallway heading back to the cells and lured him into his own office. He quickly summarized his conversation with Tyler Price. Ben was skeptical.
“Are you sure he was on the up and up about what Forrest was up too?” Ben asked.
“He sure seemed like it. I actually had quite a nice time with him. He was mostly helpful when he could be,” Jake said.
“Anything I can do?”
“Not yet. I would like to see my client if I could.”
“Sure. We’ll bring him here. Jake, we found the log information on the gun. It got logged in the day after the fire. And never logged out.”
“Is there any way to know when it was seen last?”
“No, but it was here in September, which was when we did the last audit. The problem is, so much stuff gets in there, we wouldn’t know something was missing until the next audit. It could have gone at just about any time since September.”
“Who has access?” Jake asked.
“Mostly staff, deputies, but only people I know and have approved.”
Ben paused. “Why do you ask?”
“Ray’s mentioned a couple of time how there’s just something about her that disturbs him.”
“Well, the answer is yes, she has access, of course. But it’s a pretty far stretch to get her involved in this somehow, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, I suppose so.”
“But regardless, somebody got hold of that gun, knew it had Ray’s prints on it, and used it against him.”
Ben left and soon Ray came in, unshackled. Jake went through the same story with Ray, softening the verbiage when it came to things concerning Forrest and what he had planned for Ray.
“Ray, I’m not sure if the story is right or not, you know, about Forrest.”
“No, that makes sense exactly. The last time I saw him he made his feelings pretty clear about me, so it doesn’t surprise me at all that he would plan something to teach me a lesson. He was mad then, and I’ll bet he just got madder the longer he thought about it.”
“Do you think he would do this to frame you?”
“You know, although I have a hard time believing that Forrest could mastermind something like this, he’s no dummy. Never has been, he just always let the booze and drugs control everything. Would he do it? Possibly. Could he do it? Definitely.”
“Tyler said that his guy never saw Forrest, that his car left before the shots, so he thinks that you did it.”
“Well, we both know that is not true, so it had to be Forrest. He just must have slipped away from them some other way. I know somebody went past me after the shots.”
“Tyler said that his guy could see the back door but not the side. But the only person in the area was a girl who walked down the street and got in a car with Arkansas plates. Unlikely it was her.”
“Then it had to be Forrest. Somehow, he got the gun, shot them and framed me.”
“And then got himself killed,” Jake said.
“And now there’s no one to corroborate my story. It’s just like Forrest to kill himself so it gets pinned on me.”
Jake smiled wryly. “Said just like a big brother.”
“Who’s facing the death penalty,” Ray shot back.
“It’ll never get that far,” Jake replied.
“You can’t know that. We get a bad jury and I’m toast.”
“We won’t get a bad jury. I have my secret weapon.”
“I know, I know. Harry Rex can bug the jury room.” The story of Harry Rex’ first big trial had been around for decades. It had never been proven that he had a listening device in the ductwork of the jury room.
“He doesn’t have to bug the jury room. He can smell likely jurors who will be open and fair.”
“Fair, my ass. I don’t want open and fair. They need to be the ones who will be easily swayed to ignore circumstantial evidence and will love my chiseled looks.”
“Yes, and that too. Look, I gotta run, but I wanted to keep you updated on my visit with Tyler. Tomorrow you’re coming over to my office and we’ll review the trial strategy and talk about our jurors.”
“When do the summonses go out?”
“Not until the week before the trial, which isn’t a lot of notice, but like I said, we have a secret weapon.”
“Our secret weapon will have the list, huh?”
“He’ll have it before they even decide who’s on it.”
Jake had called ahead, so Carla had dinner ready and on the table when he walked through the door. He hadn’t eaten but half of his lunch when talking with Tyler, so he was hungry. He pecked her on the cheek and fell into his kitchen chair, then attacked his plate.
“My, somebody’s starving.”
“Yeth I am,” said Jake with his mouth stuffed.
“Did you not eat at lunch?”
Jake chewed noisily and swallowed. “Let’s just say the food was great, and I should have gotten a doggie bag, but the subject matter made it hard to enjoy it. Let’s talk about something else first.” He forked a big hunk of roast beef. “Tell me about your day.”
Carla proceeded to tell him what she did, including her very interesting conversation with Janie. “She said she likes Ray. She told me that, then laughed, saying something about maybe visiting him in prison.”
Jake snorted like a pig, remembering man talk at Christmas.
“That was gross,” Carla said. “Jake, I don’t think she’s taking Ray’s situation very seriously. I mean, you’re a fantastic lawyer, but the man is going on trial for double murder. She acts like since other people think he’s innocent, that he must be.”
Jake mostly stopped chewing, “He is.”
“Not until the jury says so. That’s what you always tell me. ‘Wait for the verdict, you never know.’ Can you really tell me how a jury will look at this?”
Now Jake did stop chewing and was momentarily annoyed at interruption to his gorging. Had he not just asked to talk about something else? “He has a couple of problems. Number one, the gun. It was clearly used to kill the men, and it clearly has his prints. There’s no getting around that unless we can prove who stole it from the station.”
“Why was it at the station?”
“It got taken from Ray when he got pulled over speeding in June. It got put in the evidence locker. It was there in September, but is gone now.”
“It was stolen? From the station house?”
“Ben told me today. That could be a huge help because it breaks the chain of possession, but without knowing who took it there is still uncertainty and it could be spun that somehow Ray got it back. It was, after all, his gun. Or at least the Judge’s. A good attorney could put forth that Ray came to claim it and it never got logged out.”
“But that would all be speculation, right?”
“Right, and a jury would, or should, take that into consideration. But Ray’s other problem is that the men he killed were known to work for a guy who had been looking to get his brother. I have some testimony that will counter that somewhat, but a skilled lawyer could tie it together really tightly on cross. Even Paxton Jonas.”
“Is there anything that could help?” asked Carla.
“Sure, one thing.”
“A living, breathing Forrest Atlee.”