As he approached the end, the Judge had been diligent in organizing his affairs. The important records were in his study and easily found.
They went through his mahogany desk first. One drawer had ten years' worth of bank statements, all arranged nearly in chronological order. His tax returns were in another. There were thick ledger books filled with entries of the donations he'd made to everybody who'd asked. The largest drawer was filled with letter-size manila files, dozens of them. Files on property taxes. medical records, old deeds and titles, bills to pay, judicial conferences, letters from his doctors, his retirement fund. Ray flipped through the row of files without opening them, except for the bills to pay. There was one - $13.80 to Wayne's Lawnmower Repair - dated a week earlier.
"It's always weird going through the papers of someone who just died," Harry Rex said. "I feel dirty, like a peeping Tom."
"More like a detective looking for clues," Ray said. He was on one side of the desk, Harry Rex the other, their ties off and sleeves rolled up, with piles of evidence between them. Forrest was his usual helpful self. He'd drained half a six-pack for dessert after lunch, and was now snoring it off in the swing on the front porch. But he was there, instead of lost in one of his patented binges. He had disappeared so many times over the years. If he'd blown off his father's funeral, no one in Clanton would've been surprised. Just another black mark against that crazy Atlee boy, another story to tell.
In the last drawer they found personal odds and ends - pens, pipes, pictures of the Judge with his cronies at bar conventions, a few photos of Ray and Forrest from years ago, his marriage license, and their mother's death certificate. In an old, unopened envelope there was her obituary clipped from the Clanton Chronicle, dated October 12, 1969, complete with a photograph. Ray read it and handed it to Harry Rex.
"Do you remember her?" Ray asked.
"Yes, I went to her funeral," he said, looking at it. "She was a pretty lady who didn't have many friends."
"She was from the Delta, and most of those folks have a good dose of blue blood. That's what the Judge wanted in a wife, but it didn't work too well around here. She thought she was marrying money. Judges didn't make squat back then, so she had to work hard at being better than everybody else."
"You didn't like her."
"Not particularly. She thought I was unpolished."
"I loved your father, Ray, but there weren't too many tears at her funeral."
"Let's get through one funeral at a time."
"What was in the will you prepared for him? The last one."
Harry Rex laid the obituary on the desk and sat back in his chair. He glanced at the window behind Ray, then spoke softly. "The Judge wanted to set up a trust so that when this place was sold the money would go there. I'd be the trustee and as such I'd have the pleasure of doling out the money to you and him." He nodded toward the porch. "But his first hundred thousand would be paid back to the estate. That's how much the Judge figured Forrest owed him."
"What a disaster."
"I tried to talk him out of it."
"Thank God he burned it."
"Yes indeed. He knew it was a bad idea, but he was trying to protect Forrest from himself."
"We've been trying for twenty years."
"He thought of everything. He was going to leave it all to you, cut him out completely, but he knew that would only cause friction. Then he got mad because neither of you would ever live here, so he asked me to do a will that gave the house to the church. He never signed it, then Palmer pissed him off over the death penalty and he ditched that idea, said he would have it sold after his death and give the money to charity." He stretched his arms upward until his spine popped. Harry Rex had had two back surgeries and was seldom comfortable. He continued. "I'm guessing the reason he called you and Forrest home was so the three of you could decide what to do with the estate."
"Then why did he do a last-minute will?"
"We'll never know, will we? Maybe he got tired of the pain. I suspect he'd grown fond of the morphine, like most folks at the end. Maybe he knew he was about to die."
Ray looked into the eyes of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who'd been gazing sternly on the Judge's study from the same perch for almost a century. Ray had no doubt that his father had chosen to die on the sofa so that the general could help him through it. The general knew. He knew how and when the Judge died. He knew where the cash came from. He knew who had broken in last night and trashed the office.
"Did he ever include Claudia in anything?" Ray asked.
"Never. He could hold a grudge, you know that."
"She stopped by this morning."
"What'd she want?"
"I think she was looking for money. She said the Judge had always promised to take care of her, and she wanted to know what was in the will."
"Did you tell her?"
"She'll be all right, never worry about that woman. You remember old Walter Sturgis, out from Karraway a dirt contractor for years, tight as a tick?" Harry Rex knew everybody in the county, all thirty thousand souls - blacks, whites, and now the Mexicans.
"I don't think so."
"He's rumored to have a half a million bucks in cash, and she's after it. Got the ole boy wearing golf shirts and eating at the country club. He told his buddies he takes Viagra every day."
"She'll break him."
Forrest shifted somehow in the porch swing and the chains creaked. They waited a moment, until all was quiet out there. Harry Rex opened a file and said, "Here's the appraisal. We had it done late last year by a guy from Tupelo, probably the best appraiser in north Mississippi."
"Four hundred thousand."
"I thought he was high. Of course, the Judge thought the place was worth a million."
"I figure three hundred is more likely."
"We won't get half that much. What's the appraisal based on?"
"It's right here. Square footage, acreage, charm, comps, the usual."
"Give me a comp."
Harry Rex flipped through the appraisal. "Here's one. A house about the same age, same size, thirty acres, on the edge of Holly Springs, sold two years ago for eight hundred grand."
"This is not Holly Springs."
"No, it's not."
"That's an antebellum town, with lots of old houses."
"You want me to sue the appraiser?"
"Yeah, let's go after him. What would you give for this place?"
"Nothing. You want a beer?"
Harry Rex lumbered into the kitchen, and returned with a tall can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. "I don't know why he buys this stuff," he mumbled, then gulped a fourth of it.
"Always been his brand."
Harry Rex peeked through the blinds and saw nothing but Forrest's feet hanging off the swing. "I don't think he's too worried about his father's estate."
"He's like Claudia, just wants a check."
"Money would kill him."
It was reassuring to hear Harry Rex share this belief. Ray waited until he returned to the desk because he wanted to watch his eves carefully. "The Judge earned less than nine thousand dollars last year," Ray said, looking at a tax return.
"He was sick," Harry Rex said, stretching and twisting his substantial back, then sitting down. "But he was hearing cases until this
"What kind of cases?"
"All sorts of stuff. We had this Nazi right-wing governor a few years back - "
"I remember him."
"Liked to pray all the time when he campaigned, family values, anti-everything but guns. Turned out he liked the ladies, his wife caught him, big stink, really juicy stuff. The local judges down in Jackson wanted no part of the case for obvious reasons, so they asked the Judge to ride in and referee things."
"Did it go to trial?"
"Oh hell yeah, big ugly trial. The wife had the goods on the governor, who thought he could intimidate the Judge. She got the governor's house and most of the money. Last I heard he was living above his brother's garage, with bodyguards, of course."
"Did you ever see the old man intimidated?"
"Never. Not once in thirty years."
Harry Rex worked on his beer and Ray looked at another tax return. Things were quiet, and when he heard Forrest snore again, Ray said, "I found some money, Harry Rex."
His eyes conveyed nothing. No conspiracy, no surprise, no relief. They didn't blink and they didn't stare. He waited, then finally shrugged and said, "How much?"
"A boxful." The questions would follow, and Ray had tried to predict them.
Again Harry Rex waited, then another innocent shrug. "Where?"
"Over there, in that cabinet behind the sofa. It was cash in a box, over ninety thousand bucks."
So far he had not told a lie. He certainly hadn't given the entire truth, but he wasn't lying. Not yet.
"Ninety thousand bucks?" Harry Rex said, a little too loudly and Ray nodded toward the porch.
"Yes, in one-hundred-dollar bills," he said in a lower voice. "Any idea where it came from?"
Harry Rex gulped from the can, then squinted his eyes at the wall and finally said, "Not really."
"Gambling? You said he could throw the dice."
Another sip. "Yeah, maybe. The casinos opened six or seven years ago, and he and I would go once a week, at least in the beginning."
"I wish. Between me and you, I was going all the time. I was gambling so much I didn't want the Judge to know it, so whenever he and I went I always played it light. Next night, I'd sneak over and lose my ass again."
"How much did you lose?"
"Let's talk about the Judge."
"Okay, did he win?"
"Usually. On a good night he'd win a coupla thousand."
"On a bad night?"
"Five hundred, that was his limit. If he was losin', he knew when to quit. That's the secret to gamblin', you gotta know when to quit, and you gotta have the guts to walk away. He did. I did not."
"Did he go without you?"
"Yeah, I saw him once. I sneaked over one night and picked a new casino, hell they got fifteen now, and while I was playin' black-jack things got hot at a craps table not too far away. In the thick of things, I saw Judge Atlee. Had on a baseball cap so folks wouldn't recognize him. His disguises didn't always work because I'd hear things around town. A lot of folks go to the casinos and there were sightings."
"How often did he go?"
"Who knows? He answered to no one. I had a client, one of those Higginbotham boys who sell used cars, and he told me he saw old Judge Atlee at the craps table at three o'clock one mornin' at Treasure Island. So I figured the Judge sneaked over at odd hours so folks wouldn't see him."
Ray did some quick math. If the Judge gambled three times a week for five years and won two thousand dollars every time, his winnings would have been somewhere around one and a half million.
"Could he have rat-holed ninety thousand?" Ray asked. It sounded like such a small amount.
"Anything's possible, but why hide it?"
"You tell me."
They pondered this for a while. Harry Rex finished the beer and lit a cigar. A sluggish ceiling fan above the desk pushed the smoke around. He shot a cloud of exhaust toward the fan and said, "You gotta pay taxes on your winnings, and since he didn't want anybody to know about his gambling, maybe he just kept it all quiet."
"But don't the casinos require paperwork if you win a certain amount?"
"I never saw any damned paperwork."
"But if you'd won?"
"Yeah, they do. I had a client who won eleven thousand at the five-dollar slots. They gave him a form ten-ninety-nine, a notice to the lRS."
"What about shooting craps?"
"If you cash in more than ten thousand in chips at one time, then there's paperwork. Keep it under ten, and there's nothin'. Same as cash transactions at a bank."
"I doubt if the Judge wanted records."
"I'm sure he did not."
"He never mentioned any cash when y'all were doing his wills?"
"Never. The money is a secret, Ray. I can't explain it. I have no idea what he was thinkin'. Surely he knew it would be found."
"Right. The question now is what do we do with it."
Harry Rex nodded and stuck the cigar in his mouth. Ray leaned back and watched the fan. For a long time they contemplated what to do with the money. Neither wanted to suggest that they simply continue to hide it. Harry Rex decided to fetch another beer. Ray said he'd take one too. As the minutes passed it became obvious that the money would not be discussed again, not that day. In a few weeks, when the estate was opened and an inventory of assets was filled, they could visit the issue again. Or perhaps they would not.
For two days, Ray had debated whether or not to tell Harry Rex about the cash, not the entire fortune, but just a sample of it. .After doing so, there were more questions than answers.
Little light had been shed on the money. The Judge enjoyed the dice and was good at gambling, but it seemed unlikely he could have cleared $3.1 million in seven years. And to do so without creating paperwork and leaving a trail seemed impossible.
Ray returned to the tax records while Harry Rex plowed through the ledgers of donations. "Which CPA are you gonna use?" Ray asked after a long period of silence.
"There are several."
"No, I stay away from the guys around here. It's a small town."
''Looks to me like the records are in good shape," Ray said, closing a drawer.
"It'll be easy, except for the house."
"Let's put it on the market, the sooner the better. It won't be a quick sell."
"What's the asking price?"
"Let's start at three hundred."
"Are we spending money to fix it up?"
"There is no money, Harry Rex."
JUST BEFORE dark, Forrest announced he was tired of Clan-ton, tired of death, tired of hanging around a depressing old house he had never particularly cared for, tired of Harry Rex and Ray, and that he was going home to Memphis where wild women and parties were waiting.
"When are you coming back?" he asked Ray.
"Two or three weeks."
"Yes," Harry Rex answered. "We'll make a brief appearance before the judge. You're welcome to be there, but it's not required."
"I don't do court. Been there enough."
The brothers walked down the drive to Forrest's car. "You okay?" Ray asked, but only because he felt compelled to show concern.
"I'm fine. See you, Bro," Forrest said, in a hurry to leave before his brother blurted something stupid. "Call me when you come back," he said. He started the car and drove away. Ray knew he would pull over somewhere between Clanton and Memphis, either at a joint with a bar and a pool table, or maybe just a beer store where he would buy a case and slug it as he drove. Forrest had survived his father's funeral in an impressive way, but the pressure had been building. The meltdown would not be pretty.
Harry Rex was hungry, as usual, and asked if Ray wanted fried catfish. "Not really," he answered.
"Good, there's a new place on the lake."
"What's it called?"
"Jeter's Catfish Shack."
"No, it's delicious."
They dined on an empty deck jutting over a swamp, on the backwaters of the lake. Harry Rex ate catfish twice a week; Ray, once every five years. The cook was heavy on the batter and peanut oil, and Ray knew it would be a long night, for several reasons.
He slept with a loaded gun in the bed of his old room, upstairs, with the windows and doors locked, and the three garbage bags :ked with money at his feet. With such an arrangement, it was difficult to look around in the dark and conjure up any pleasant childhood memories that would normally be just under the surface. The house had been dark and cold back then, especially after his mother died.
Instead of reminiscing, he tried to sleep by counting little round black chips, a hundred bucks each, hauled by the Judge from the tables to the cashiers. He counted with imagination and ambition. and he got nowhere near the fortune he was in bed with.