The afternoon had been long, impeded by discoveries of even more cracks to caulk, more questions to quell, more smoke, more smiling. Now the sun was slatted on the wall, and he heard Mazie closing her office. She came through his door minutes later, a sheaf of files in her hand.
“This is the last of them,” she said. “Do you want me to take them to the bank?”
“No,” Clayton said. “I’ve got to go see Eddie later, just leave them here.” Mazie hesitated.
“Just leave them here,” Clayton repeated. “I’ll take care of them. And Mazie, you should know that I’ve decided to let you have that free time you’ve always wanted.”
“Yes,” Clayton said. “Now that Jack is gone, I’ve decided to make some changes, and one of them is rewarding you for your service to the firm. You and Bud will be able to take those long fishing trips you’ve always wanted.”
Mazie looked at him steadily. “You’re firing me.”
“I’ll give you a nice severance check, and you have the retirement account Jack set up for you,” Clayton said. “Things are changing, and we need someone who knows all these new gadgets we’re using better than you do.”
“You won’t get away with it. I know things,” Mazie said.
“I know things, too,” Clayton said. “I know lots of things, Mazie. Like I know that Jack kept Bud out of prison fifteen years ago, and I know why. There’s no statute of limitation on murder, you know. I have the evidence.”
“It was an accident,” Mazie said, too quickly. She knew that Clayton would have the facts that Bud fired the shots that ended the woman’s life, and shots fired with malice and deliberation. Jack, only Jack, could have kept Bud out of prison, and he did somehow, before Clayton had joined the firm. Mazie didn’t even know that Clayton knew about it, but now that he did, and now that he intended to use it to keep Mazie at home and silent, she set her mouth.
“Then I’ll go,” she said. “You’re a bastard, Clayton Isley, a shit-splattered son-of-a-bitch. Your buddy Ward Mason is in the conference room. He said you told him to come in the back door. If Jack were here . . .”
Clayton pounded his fist on the desk. “Jack is NOT here! Jack is DEAD! I’m in charge now, and things are going to be different around here.” He sat back in his chair, breathing heavily and loosened his tie. “Go home, Mazie. And don’t forget what I said about Bud.”
Mazie left, her face set in fury and resignation. Clayton took the files she had been holding, the last of Jack Delancy’s records, and tossed them into the smoldering incinerator out back as he had done the rest of them.
He walked down the hall to the conference room. At the end of the table sat a wiry muscular man dressed in a threadbare jacket and a badly-pressed shirt. His watery blue eyes were set in a long face topped with thinning blond hair. His hands held a cigarette that wobbled slightly over the ashtray.
“Hey, Clayton!” the man said. His smile was wide, and his teeth were large, long and bright.
Clayton walked to a cabinet against the wall and poured a generous shot of whiskey into a glass. He sat the drink and bottle on the table next to the man and watched as he gulped down the drink, wiped his mouth with a hairy hand and poured another.
“How’ve you been, Ward?”
“Great! Great! I got a new car last week, found a place down on Hooper Road, and I’m going to start fixing up the cabins on the lake, run the snakes out, do some rewiring, fix the plumbing, you know.”
“That’s just fine,” Clayton said. “You know, Ward, since Jack died . . . “
“Loved Jack!” Ward said. “He knew that boy was all about a bunch of lies, sayin’ I did all those things. Hell, I got kids of my own, you know. Love kids.”
Clayton looked at him. “Well, I believe that, Ward, I really do. You know, Frances has been a total mess since Jack died.”
“I can see why,” Ward said, nodding. “Losing a husband like that and them both in the prime of life.”
“She’s been having a lot of problems,” Clayton said. “We’ve had to keep her under a lot of sedation. I talked to a psychiatrist in Birmingham and he said it’s best that she goes to a place where she can get some rest, a private hospital he runs up in Gardendale. My wife and I are going to take care of the little girl, but the boy, well, he needs attention, and that’s why I asked you here.”
Ward’s smile faltered. “What do you mean, Clayton?”
“Well, a boy his age, he’ll be fourteen next week, a boy his age needs a man in his life, and I just don’t have the time,” Clayton said. “Now, I’ve arranged for him to be sent away to school, to a school up in North Carolina, not really a military academy, just an all-boys school that stresses discipline. But I think it would be a good idea for him to get to the country for a while before he goes, and I think you ought to take him with you up to the lake. Take him fishing, get some good fresh air. It’ll only be for a month or so.”
Ward licked his lips. “Clayton, you know, that boy in Jackson who got me into trouble . . .”
“I know all about the boy in Jackson,” Clayton said. He also knew about the boy in Mobile, the boy in Greenwood and the one in Memphis. He had seen the photographs Ward had taken, the looks in the boys’ eyes, and he knew that if it weren’t for Jack, Ward would probably be dead; either shot by a father or killed in prison.
“But Frances . . .”
“Frances doesn’t need to know,” Clayton said. “Nobody needs to know but you and me. I’ll bring him to you myself next Friday to stay with you at the lake. You can go fishing, take the boat out, skinny-dippin’ . . . He’s a good-looking kid. You two should have a good time together. I’ll pick him up in six weeks, in time for school.”
“Nobody’s gonna know?” Ward asked.
“Nope,” Clayton said. “I’ll pay you, of course. Cash. I’ll arrange for you to pick it up at the bait shop on Cane Creek.” He took out a manila envelope and pushed it across the table.
“Here’s some photos of him at the swimming pool.”
Ward opened the envelope. A smile flickered at the corners of his mouth. He replaced the photos and put the money in his jacket pocket. “Wonder if he’s a real redhead?”
Clayton looked at him. “I’m sure you’ll find out, Ward. Now you’d better go. Did you park at the supermarket like I told you?”
“Yeah, and I came down the alley.”
“Okay, I’ll see you Friday,” Clayton said. “Now get the hell out of here.”
Ward left. It was dusk. Clayton drew a cigar from his shirt pocket, lit it and leaned back in his chair. Sometimes, he thought, it isn’t enough just to kill a man.