Chapter 39

THE PRESIDING JUDGE'S last official act in the matter was an impromptu hearing of an undetermined variety, in his office, and without the accused's attorney present. Nor the prosecutor. The file would indicate no record of the meeting. Patrick was rushed through the rear of the courthouse by three escorts, up the back stairs, and quietly into Huskey's chambers, where His Honor waited, robeless. No trial was in session, and on an otherwise typical day the courthouse would have been peaceful. But four prominent lawyers had been arrested that morning, and the gossip was bouncing along the hallways at full throttle.

His wounds were still bandaged and prevented tight clothing. The aqua surgeon's scrubs were nice and baggy, and they also reminded people that he was hospitalized, not jailed like a criminal.

When they were alone and the door was locked,

Karl handed him a single sheet of paper. "Take a look at this."

It was a one-paragraph order, signed by Judge Karl Huskey, in which he, upon his own motion, recused himself in the matter of State versus Patrick S. Lanigan. Effective at noon, an hour away.

"I spent two hours with Judge Trussel this morning. In fact, he just left."

"Will he be nice to me?"

"As fair as possible. I told him that, in my opinion, it's not a capital murder trial. He was very relieved."

"There's not going to be a trial, Karl."

Patrick looked at a calendar on the wall, the same kind Karl had always used. Each day for the month of October was packed with more hearings and trials than any five judges could handle. "Haven't you bought a computer yet?" he asked.

"My secretary uses one."

They had first met in this room, years earlier when Patrick arrived as a young, unknown lawyer representing a family devastated by a car wreck. Karl was presiding. The trial lasted for three days, and the two became friends. The jury awarded Patrick's client two point three million dollars, at that time one of the largest verdicts on the Coast. Against Patrick's wishes, the Bogan firm agreed to settle the case for an even two million dollars during appeal. The lawyers took a third, and after the firm paid some debts and made some purchases, the remaining fee was split four ways. Patrick was not a partner at the time. They reluctantly gave him a bonus of twenty-five thousand dollars.

It was the trial in which Clovis Goodman was the star.

Patrick picked at Sheetrock peeling in a corner. He examined a brown water spot on the ceiling. "Can't you get the county to paint this room. It hasn't changed a bit in four years."

"I'm leaving in two months. Why should I care?"

"Remember the Hoover trial? My first in your courtroom, and my finest hour as a trial lawyer."

"Of course." Karl crossed his feet on his desk, his hands locked behind his head.

Patrick told him the Clovis story.

A FIRM RAP on the door interrupted the narrative near the end. Lunch had arrived, and it would not wait. A deputy walked in with a cardboard box, and the aroma floated from it. Patrick stood close by as it was unloaded on Karl's desk: gumbo and crab claws.

"It's from Mahoney's," Karl said. "Bob sent it over. He said hello."

Mary Mahoney's was more than a Friday afternoon watering hole for lawyers and judges. It was the oldest restaurant on the Coast, with delicious food and legendary gumbo.

"Tell him I said hello too," Patrick said, reaching for a crab claw. "I want to eat there soon."

At precisely noon, Karl turned on the small television mounted in the center of a set of bookshelves, and they watched without comment the frenzied coverage of the arrests. It was a mum bunch. No comments from anybody, certainly the lawyers, in fact their office doors were locked; Maurice Mast surprisingly had nothing to say; nothing from the FBI. Nothing of any substance, so the reporter did what she'd been trained to do. She lapsed into gossip and rumor, and that's where Patrick entered the piece. Unconfirmed sources told her that the arrests were part of an ever-widening investigation in the Lanigan matter, and to prove this she flashed up uncontroverted footage of Patrick entering the Biloxi courthouse for his appearance. An earnest colleague appeared on the screen, informed them in hushed tones that he was standing outside the door of the Biloxi office of Senator Harris Nye, first cousin to Charles Bogan, in case anybody had missed the connection. The Senator was off in Kuala Lumpur on a trade mission to bring more minimum-wage jobs back to Mississippi, and thus unavailable for comment. None of the eight people in the office knew anything about anything; thus they had nothing to say.

The story ran uninterrupted for ten minutes.

"Why are you smiling?" Karl asked.

"It's a wonderful day. I just hope they have the guts to nail the Senator."

"I hear the feds have dropped everything against you."

"That's correct. I testified before the grand jury yesterday. It was great fun, Karl, finally unloading all this baggage I've been keeping secret for years."

Patrick had stopped eating during the news story, and was suddenly bored with food. According to Karl's observations, he had eaten two crab claws and hardly touched the gumbo. "Eat. You look like a skeleton."

Patrick took a saltine and walked to the window.

"So let me get this straight," Karl said. "The divorce is settled. The feds have dropped all charges and you've agreed to pay back the ninety million, plus a little interest."

"Total of a hundred and thirteen."

"The capital murder is about to collapse because there wasn't a murder. The state can't charge you with theft because the feds have already done so. The lawsuits filed by the insurance companies have been dismissed. Pepper is still alive, out there somewhere. Clovis took his place. That leaves one lousy little charge of grave tampering."

"Close. It's called mutilating a corpse, should you care to check the criminal code. You should know this stuff by now."

"Right. A felony, I believe."

"A light felony."

Karl stirred his gumbo and admired his skinny friend gazing out the window, nibbling on a cracker, no doubt plotting his next maneuver.

"Can I go with you?" he asked.

"To where?"

"To wherever you're going. You walk outta here, meet the girl, pick up the dough, hit the beach, live on a yacht. I'd just like to tag along for the ride."

"I'm not there yet."

"You're getting closer every day."

Karl turned off the television and moved his food aside. "There's a gap I'd like to fill in," he said. "Clovis died, then he was buried, or he wasn't buried. But what happened in between?"

Patrick chuckled, and said, "You like the details, don't you?"

"I'm a Judge. The facts are important."

Patrick took a seat and propped his bare feet on the desk. "I almost got caught. It's not easy to steal a corpse, you know?"

"I'll take your word for it."

"I had insisted that Clovis make his funeral arrangements. I even added a codicil to his will giving directions to the funeral home-no open casket, no visitation, no music, an overnight wake, a simple wood coffin, and a simple graveside service."

"A wooden coffin?"

"Yeah, Clovis was big on the ashes-to-ashes-dust-to-dust routine. Cheap wooden casket, no vault. That was the way his grandfather was buried. Anyway, I was at the hospital when he died, and I waited for the mortician from Wiggins to arrive with the hearse. Holland was his name, a real card. Owns the only funeral home in town. Black suit, the works. I gave him a copy of Clovis' instructions. The will gave me authority to do what needed to be done, and Holland didn't care. It was around three in the afternoon. Rol-land said he would do the embalming in a few hours. He asked me if Clovis had a suit to be buried in. We hadn't thought of that. I said no, I had never seen Clovis in a suit. Rolland said he kept a few old ones around, and he'd take care of it.

"Clovis wanted to be buried on his farm, but I explained to him many times that in Mississippi you can't do that. Has to be in a registered cemetery. His grandfather fought in the Civil War, and had been quite the hero, according to Clovis. When he was seven years old his grandfather died, and they had one of those old-fashioned wakes that lasted for three days. They placed his grandfather's casket on a table in the front parlor and folks trooped by and looked at him.

Clovis liked that. He was determined to do something similar. He made me swear that I would do a small wake for him. I explained this to Rolland. He said something to the effect that he'd seen everything. This was no surprise.

"Just after dark, I was sitting on Clovis' front porch when the hearse pulled up. I helped Rolland roll the casket down the driveway. We manhandled it up the steps, over the porch, and into the den, where we parked it in front of the television. I remember thinking how light it was. Clovis had shriveled up to a hundred pounds.

" 'You the only one here?' Rolland said, looking around.

" 'Yep. It's a small wake,' I said.

"I asked him to open the casket. He hesitated, and I told him that I had forgotten to include some Civil War memorabilia that Clovis wanted to be buried with. While I watched, he opened the casket with his church key, a small generic wrench which will open any casket in the world. Clovis looked the same. On his waist, I placed his grandfather's infantryman's cap and a tattered regimental banner from the Seventeenth Mississippi. Rolland closed the casket again, and left.

"No one showed up for the wake. Not a soul. I turned the lights off around midnight and locked the doors. Church keys are nothing more than Alien wrenches, and I had purchased a full set. It took less than a minute to open the casket. I removed Clovis; he was light, stiff as a board, and shoeless. I guess for three thousand bucks you don't get a pair of shoes. I laid him gently on the sofa, then I placed four concrete cinder blocks in the coffin, and closed it.

"Clovis and I left and drove to my hunting cabin. He was lying in the backseat, and I was driving very carefully. It would've been difficult to answer questions from a highway patrolman.

"A month earlier, I had bought an old freezer and put it on the screened porch of the cabin. I had just managed to get Clovis stuffed in the freezer when I heard something in the woods. It was Pepper, sneaking up on the cabin. Two o'clock in the morning, and Pepper caught me. I told him my wife and I had just finished a big fight, I was in a foul mood, and would he please leave. I don't think he saw me wrestling the corpse up the steps of the cabin. I locked the freezer with log chains, put a tarp over it, then some old boxes. I waited until dawn because Pepper was out there somewhere. Then I sneaked off, drove home, changed clothes, and was back at Clovis' by ten. Rol-land arrived in a chirpy mood and wanted to know how the wake went. Just perfect, I said. The grieving had been held to a minimum. We pushed and pulled and loaded the casket back into the hearse, then went to the cemetery."

Karl listened with his eyes closed, his lips curled into a smile, his head shaking slowly in disbelief. "You devious bastard," he said, almost to himself.

"Thanks. On Friday afternoon, I went to the cabin for the weekend. I worked on a brief, scouted turkeys with Pepper, checked on old Clovis, who seemed to be resting comfortably. Sunday morning, I left before sunrise and positioned the dirt bike and the gasoline. Later, I drove Pepper to the bus station in Jackson.

After dark, I removed Clovis from the freezer, sat him up next to the fireplace so he'd thaw, then around ten put him in my trunk. An hour later, I was dead."

"No remorse?"

"Of course. It was a terrible thing to do. But I made the decision to vanish, Karl, and I had to figure out a way. I couldn't kill anybody, but I needed a body. It actually makes sense."

"Perfectly logical."

"And when Clovis died, it was time for me to leave. A lot of it was luck. So many things could've gone wrong."

"Your luck continues."

"So far."

Karl looked at-his watch, and took another crab claw. "How much of this do I tell Judge Trussel?"

"Everything but Clovis' name. We'll save that for later."