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The Reckoning / (by John Grisham, 2018) -

The Reckoning /  (by John Grisham, 2018) -

The Reckoning / (by John Grisham, 2018) -

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The Reckoning / (by John Grisham, 2018) -
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2018
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John Grisham
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Michael Beck
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upper-intermediate
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17:37:04
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128 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

The Reckoning / :

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Part One The Killing Chapter 1 O n a cold morning in early October of 1946, Pete Banning awoke before sunrise and had no thoughts of going back to sleep. For a long time he lay in the center of his bed, stared at the dark ceiling, and asked himself for the thousandth time if he had the courage. Finally, as the first trace of dawn peeked through a window, he accepted the solemn reality that it was time for the killing. The need for it had become so overwhelming that he could not continue with his daily routines. He could not remain the man he was until the deed was done. Its planning was simple, yet difficult to imagine. Its aftershocks would rattle on for decades and change the lives of those he loved and many of those he didnt. Its notoriety would create a legend, though he certainly wanted no fame. Indeed, as was his nature, he wished to avoid the attention, but that would not be possible. He had no choice. The truth had slowly been revealed, and once he had the full grasp of it, the killing became as inevitable as the sunrise. He dressed slowly, as always, his war-wounded legs stiff and painful from the night, and made his way through the dark house to the kitchen, where he turned on a dim light and brewed his coffee. As it percolated, he stood ramrod straight beside the breakfast table, clasped his hands behind his head, and gently bent both knees. He grimaced as pain radiated from his hips to his ankles, but he held the squat for ten seconds. He relaxed, did it again and again, each time sinking lower. There were metal rods in his left leg and shrapnel in his right. Pete poured coffee, added milk and sugar, and walked outside onto the back porch, where he stood at the steps and looked across his land. The sun was breaking in the east and a yellowish light cast itself across the sea of white. The fields were thick and heavy with cotton that looked like fallen snow, and on any other day Pete would manage a smile at what would certainly be a bumper crop. But there would be no smiles on this day; only tears, and lots of them. To avoid the killing, though, would be an act of cowardice, a notion unknown to his being. He sipped his coffee and admired his land and was comforted by its security. Below the blanket of white was a layer of rich black topsoil that had been owned by Bannings for over a hundred years. Those in power would take him away and would probably execute him, but his land would endure forever and support his family. Mack, his bluetick hound, awoke from his slumber and joined him on the porch. Pete spoke to him and rubbed his head. The cotton was bursting in the bolls and straining to be picked, and before long teams of field hands would load into wagons for the ride to the far acres. As a boy, Pete rode in the wagon with the Negroes and pulled a cotton sack twelve hours a day. The Bannings were farmers and landowners, but they were workers, not gentrified planters with decadent lives made possible by the sweat of others. He sipped his coffee and watched the fallen snow grow whiter as the sky brightened. In the distance, beyond the cattle barn and the chicken coop, he heard the voices of the Negroes as they were gathering at the tractor shed for another long day. They were men and women he had known his entire life, dirt-poor field hands whose ancestors had toiled the same land for a century. What would happen to them after the killing? Nothing, really. They had survived with little and knew nothing else. Tomorrow, they would gather in stunned silence at the same time in the same place, and whisper over the fire, then head to the fields, worried, no doubt, but also eager to pursue their labors and collect their wages. The harvest would go on, undisturbed and abundant. He finished his coffee, placed the cup on a porch rail, and lit a cigarette. He thought of his children. Joel was a senior at Vanderbilt and Stella was in her second year at Hollins, and he was thankful they were away. He could almost feel their fear and shame at their father being in jail, but he was confident they would survive, like the field hands. They were intelligent and well-adjusted, and they would always have the land. They would finish their education, marry well, and prosper. As he smoked he picked up his coffee cup, returned to the kitchen, and stepped to the phone to call his sister, Florry. It was a Wednesday, the day they met for breakfast, and he confirmed that he would be there before long. He poured out the dregs, lit another cigarette, and took his barn jacket off a hook by the door. He and Mack walked across the backyard to a trail that led past the garden where Nineva and Amos grew an abundance of vegetables to feed the Bannings and their dependents. He passed the cattle barn and heard Amos talking to the cows as he prepared to milk them. Pete said good morning, and they discussed a certain fat hog that had been selected for a gutting come Saturday. He walked on, with no limp, though his legs ached. At the tractor shed, the Negroes were gathered around a fire pit as they bantered and sipped coffee from tin cups. When they saw him they grew silent. Several offered Mornin, Mista Banning, and he spoke to them. The men wore old, dirty overalls; the women, long dresses and straw hats. No one wore shoes. The children and teenagers sat near a wagon, huddled under a blanket, sleepy-eyed and solemn-faced, dreading another long day picking cotton. There was a school for Negroes on the Banning land, one made possible by the generosity of a rich Jew from Chicago, and Petes father had put up enough in matching funds to see it built. The Bannings insisted that all the colored children on their land study at least through the eighth grade. But in October, when nothing mattered but the picking, the school was closed and the students were in the fields. Pete spoke quietly with Buford, his white foreman. They discussed the weather, the tonnage picked the day before, the price of cotton on the Memphis exchange. There were never enough pickers during peak season, and Buford was expecting a truckload of white workers from Tupelo. He had expected them the day before but they did not show. There was a rumor that a farmer two miles away was offering a nickel more per pound, but such talk was always rampant during the harvest. Picking crews worked hard one day, disappeared the next, and then came back as prices fluctuated. The Negroes, though, did not have the advantage of shopping around, and the Bannings were known to pay everyone the same. The two John Deere tractors sputtered to life, and the field hands loaded into the wagons. Pete watched them rock and sway as they disappeared deep into the fallen snow. He lit another cigarette and walked with Mack past the shed and along a dirt road. Florry lived a mile away on her section of land, and these days Pete always went there on foot. The exercise was painful, but the doctors had told him that long walks would eventually fortify his legs and the pain might one day subside. He doubted that, and had accepted the reality that his legs would burn and ache for the rest of his life, a life he was lucky to have. He had once been presumed dead, and had indeed come very close to the end, so every day was a gift. Until now. Today would be the last day of his life as he knew it, and he had accepted this. He had no choice. Florry lived in a pink cottage she had built after their mother died and left them the land. She was a poet with no interest in farming but had a keen interest in the income it generated. Her section, 640 acres, was just as fertile as Petes, and she leased it to him for half the profits. It was a handshake arrangement, one as ironclad as any thick contract, and grounded on implicit trust. When he arrived, she was in the backyard, walking through her aviary of chicken wire and netting, scattering feed as she chatted to her assortment of parrots, parakeets, and toucans. Beside the bird haven was a hutch where she kept a dozen chickens. Her two golden retrievers sat on the grass, watching the feeding with no interest in the exotic birds. Her house was filled with cats, creatures neither Pete nor the dogs cared for. He pointed to a spot on the front porch and told Mack to rest there, then went inside. Marietta was busy in the kitchen and the house smelled of fried bacon and corn cakes. He said good morning to her and took a seat at the breakfast table. She poured him coffee and he began reading the Tupelo morning paper. From the old phonograph in the living room, a soprano wailed in operatic misery. He often wondered how many other folks in Ford County listened to opera. When Florry was finished with her birds, she came in the rear door, said good morning to her brother, and sat across from him. There were no hugs, no affection. To those who knew them, the Bannings were thought to be cold and distant, devoid of warmth and rarely emotional. This was true but not intentional; they had simply been raised that way. Florry was forty-eight and had survived a brief and bad marriage as a young woman. She was one of the few divorced women in the county and thus looked down upon, as if somehow damaged and perhaps immoral. Not that she cared; she didnt. She had a few friends and seldom left her property. Behind her back she was often referred to as the Bird Lady, and not affectionately. Marietta served them thick omelets with tomatoes and spinach, corn cakes bathed with butter, bacon, and strawberry jam. Except for the coffee, sugar, and salt, everything on the table came from their soil. Florry said, I received a letter from Stella yesterday. She seems to be doing fine, though struggling with calculus. She prefers literature and history. She is so much like me. Petes children were expected to write at least one letter a week to their aunt, who wrote to them at least twice a week. Pete wasnt much for letters and had told them not to bother. However, writing to their aunt was a strict requirement. Havent heard from Joel, she said. Im sure hes busy, Pete said as he flipped a page of the newspaper. Is he still seeing that girl? I suppose. Hes much too young for romance, Pete, you should say something to him. He wont listen. Pete took a bite of his omelet. I just want him to hurry up and graduate. Im tired of paying tuition. I suppose the picking is going well, she said. She had hardly touched her food. Could be better, and the price dropped again yesterday. Theres too much cotton this year. The price goes up and down, doesnt it? When the price is high theres not enough cotton and when its low theres too much of it. Damned if you do, damned if you dont. I suppose. He had toyed with the idea of warning his sister of what was to come, but she would react badly, beg him not to do it, become hysterical, and they would fight, something they had not done in years. The killing would change her life dramatically, and on the one hand he pitied her and felt an obligation to explain. But on the other, he knew that it could not be explained, and attempting to do so would serve no useful purpose. The thought that this could be their last meal together was difficult to comprehend, but then most things that morning were being done for the last time. They were obliged to discuss the weather and this went on for a few minutes. According to the almanac, the next two weeks would be cool and dry, perfect for picking. Pete offered the same concerns about the lack of field hands, and she reminded him that this complaint was common every season. Indeed, last week over omelets he had lamented the shortage of temporary workers. Pete was not one to linger over food, especially on this awful day. He had been starved during the war and knew how little the body needed to survive. A thin frame kept weight off his legs. He chewed a bite of bacon, sipped his coffee, turned another page, and listened as Florry went on about a cousin who had just died at ninety, too soon in her opinion. Death was on his mind and he wondered what the Tupelo paper would say about him in the days to come. There would be stories, and perhaps a lot of them, but he had no desire to attract attention. It was inevitable, though, and he feared the sensational. Youre not eating much, she said. And youre looking a bit thin. Not much of an appetite, he replied. How much are you smoking? As much as I want. He was forty-three, and, at least in her opinion, looked older. His thick dark hair was graying above his ears, and long wrinkles were forming across his forehead. The dashing young soldier whod gone off to war was aging too fast. His memories and burdens were heavy, but he kept them to himself. The horrors he had survived would never be discussed, not by him anyway. Once a month he forced himself to ask about her writing, her poetry. A few pieces had been published in obscure literary magazines in the last decade, but not much. In spite of her lack of success, she loved nothing more than to bore her brother, his children, and her small circle of friends with the latest developments in her career. She could prattle on forever about her projects, or about certain editors who loved her poetry but just couldnt seem to find room for it, or fan letters she had received from around the world. Her following was not that wide, and Pete suspected the lone letter from some lost soul in New Zealand three years earlier was still the only one that arrived with a foreign stamp. He didnt read poetry, and after being forced to read his sisters he had sworn off the stuff forever. He preferred fiction, especially from southern writers, and especially William Faulkner, a man hed met before the war at a cocktail party in Oxford. This morning was not the time to discuss it. He was facing an ugly chore, a monstrous deed, one that could not be avoided or postponed any longer. He shoved his plate away, his food half-eaten, and finished his coffee. Always a pleasure, he said with a smile as he stood. He thanked Marietta, put on his barn coat, and left the cottage. Mack was waiting on the front steps. From the porch Florry called good-bye to him as he walked away and waved without turning around. Back on the dirt road he lengthened his stride and shook off the stiffness caused by half an hour of sitting. The sun was up and burning off the dew, and all around the thick bolls sagged on the stems and begged to be picked. He walked on, a lonely man whose days were numbered. Nineva was in the kitchen, at the gas stove stewing the last tomatoes for canning. He said good morning, poured fresh coffee, and took it to his study, where he sat at his desk and arranged his papers. All bills were paid. All accounts were current and in order. The bank statements were reconciled and showed sufficient cash on hand. He wrote a one-page letter to his wife, addressed and stamped the envelope. He placed a checkbook and some files in a briefcase and left it beside his desk. From a bottom drawer he withdrew his Colt .45 revolver, checked to make sure all six chambers were loaded, and stuck it in the pocket of his barn jacket. At eight oclock, he told Nineva he was going to town and asked if she needed anything. She did not, and he left the front porch with Mack behind him. He opened the door to his new 1946 Ford pickup, and Mack jumped onto the passengers side of the bench seat. Mack rarely missed a ride to town and today would be no different, at least for the dog. The Banning home, a splendid Colonial Revival built by Petes parents before the crash in 1929, sat on Highway 18, south of Clanton. The county road had been paved the year before with postwar federal money. The locals believed that Pete had used his clout to secure the funding, but it wasnt true. Clanton was four miles away, and Pete drove slowly, as always. There was no traffic, except for an occasional mule-drawn trailer laden with cotton and headed for the gin. A few of the countys larger farmers, like Pete, owned tractors, but most of the hauling was still done by mules, as were the plowing and planting. All picking was by hand. The John Deere and International Harvester corporations were trying to perfect mechanized pickers that would supposedly one day eliminate the need for so much manual labor, but Pete had his doubts. Not that it mattered. Nothing mattered but the task at hand. Cotton blown from the trailers littered the shoulders of the highway. Two sleepy-eyed colored boys loitered by a field road and waved as they admired his truck, one of two new Fords in the county. Pete did not acknowledge them. He lit a cigarette and said something to Mack as they entered the town. Near the courthouse square he parked in front of the post office and watched the foot traffic come and go. He wished to avoid people he knew, or those who might know him, because after the killing any witnesses were apt to offer such banal observations as I saw him and he seemed perfectly normal, while the next one might say, Bumped into him at the post office and he had a deranged look about him. After a tragedy, those with even the slightest connections to it often exaggerate their involvement and importance. He eased from his truck, walked to the letter box, and mailed the envelope to his wife. Driving away, he circled the courthouse, with its wide, shaded lawn and gazebos, and had a vague image of what a spectacle his trial might be. Would they haul him in with handcuffs? Would the jury show sympathy? Would his lawyers work some magic and save him? Too many questions with no answers. He passed the Tea Shoppe, where the lawyers and bankers held forth each morning over scalding coffee and buttermilk biscuits, and wondered what they would say about the killing. He avoided the coffee shop because he was a farmer and had no time for the idle chitchat. Let them talk. He expected little sympathy from them or from anyone else in the county for that matter. He cared nothing for sympathy, sought no understanding, had no plans to explain his actions. At the moment, he was a soldier with orders and a mission to carry out. He parked on a quiet street a block behind the Methodist church. He got out, stretched his legs for a moment, zipped up his barn jacket, told Mack that he would return shortly, and began walking toward the church his grandfather had helped build seventy years earlier. It was a short walk, and along the way he saw no one. Later, no one would claim to have seen him. The Reverend Dexter Bell had been preaching at the Clanton Methodist Church since three months before Pearl Harbor. It was the third church of his ministry, and he would have been rotated onward like all Methodist preachers but for the war. Shortages in the ranks had caused a shifting of duties, an upsetting of schedules. Normally, in the Methodist denomination, a minister lasted only two years in one church, sometimes three, before being reassigned. Reverend Bell had been in Clanton for five years and knew it was only a matter of time before he was called to move on. Unfortunately, the call did not arrive in time. He was sitting at his desk in his office, in an annex behind the handsome sanctuary, alone as usual on Wednesday morning. The church secretary worked only three afternoons each week. The reverend had finished his morning prayers, had his study Bible open on his desk, along with two reference books, and was contemplating his next sermon when someone knocked on his door. Before he could answer, the door swung open, and Pete Banning walked in, frowning and filled with purpose. Surprised at the intrusion, Bell said, Well, good morning, Pete. He was about to stand when Pete whipped out a pistol with a long barrel and said, You know why Im here. Bell froze and gawked in horror at the weapon and barely managed to say, Pete, what are you doing? Ive killed a lot of men, Preacher, all brave soldiers on the field. Youre the first coward. Pete, no, no! Dexter said, raising his hands and falling back into his chair, eyes wide and mouth open. If its about Liza, I can explain. No, Pete! Pete took a step closer, aimed down at Dexter, and squeezed the trigger. He had been trained as a marksman with all firearms, and had used them in battle to kill more men than he cared to remember, and he had spent his life in the woods hunting animals large and small. The first shot went through Dexters heart, as did the second. The third entered his skull just above the nose. Within the walls of a small office, the shots boomed like cannon fire, but only two people heard them. Dexters wife, Jackie, was alone in the parsonage on the other side of the church, cleaning the kitchen when she heard the noise. She later described it as the muffled sounds of someone clapping hands three times, and, at the moment, had no idea it was gunfire. She couldnt possibly have known her husband had just been murdered. Hop Purdue had been cleaning the church for twenty years. He was in the annex when he heard the shots that seemed to shake the building. He was standing in the hallway outside the pastors study when the door opened and Pete walked out, still holding the pistol. He raised it, aimed it at Hops face, and seemed ready to fire. Hop fell to his knees and pleaded, Please, Mista Banning. I aint done nothin. I got kids, Mista Banning. Pete lowered the gun and said, Youre a good man, Hop. Go tell the sheriff. Chapter 2 S tanding in the side door, Hop watched Pete walk away, calmly putting the pistol in his jacket pocket as he went. When he was out of sight, Hop shuffledhis right leg was two inches shorter than his leftback to the study, eased through the open door, and studied the preacher. His eyes were closed and his head was slumped to one side, with blood dripping down his nose. Behind his head there was a mess of blood and matter splattered on the back of his chair. His white shirt was turning red around his chest, and his chest was not moving. Hop stood there for a few seconds, maybe a minute, maybe longer, to make sure there was no movement. He realized there was nothing he could do to help him. The pungent odor of gunpowder hung heavy in the room and Hop thought he might vomit. Because he was the nearest Negro he figured he would get blamed for something. Stricken with fear and afraid to move, he touched nothing and managed to slowly back out of the room. He closed the door and began sobbing. Preacher Bell was a gentle man who had treated him with respect and shown concern for his family. A fine man, a family man, a loving man who was adored by his church. Whatever he had done to offend Mr. Pete Banning was certainly not worth his life. It occurred to Hop that someone else might have heard the gunshots. What if Mrs. Bell came running and saw her husband bloodied and dead at his desk? Hop waited and waited and tried to compose himself. He knew he didnt have the courage to go find her and break the news. Let the white folks do that. There was no one else in the church, and as the minutes passed he began to realize that the situation was in his hands. But not for long. If someone saw him running from the church he would undoubtedly become the first suspect. So he left the annex as calmly as possible and hurried down the same street Mr. Banning had taken. He picked up his pace, bypassed the square, and before long saw the jail. Deputy Roy Lester was getting out of a patrol car. Mornin, Hop, he said, then noticed his red eyes and the tears on his cheeks. Preacher Bells been shot, Hop blurted. Hes dead. With Hop in the front seat and still wiping tears, Lester sped through the quiet streets of Clanton and minutes later slid to a dusty stop in the gravel parking lot outside the annex. In front of them the door flew open and Jackie Bell ran through it, screaming. Her hands were red with blood, her cotton dress was stained as well, and she had touched and streaked her face. She was howling, screaming, saying nothing they could understand, just shrieking in horror, her face contorted in shock. Lester grabbed her, tried to restrain her, but she tore away and yelled, Hes dead! Hes dead! Somebody killed my husband. Lester grabbed her again, tried to console her and keep her from returning to the study. Hop watched and had no idea what to do. He was still worried that he might get blamed and wanted to limit his involvement. Mrs. Vanlandingham from across the street heard the commotion and came running, still holding a dish towel. She arrived just as the sheriff, Nix Gridley, wheeled into the parking lot and slid in the gravel. Nix scrambled out of his car, and when Jackie saw him she screamed, Hes dead, Nix! Dexters dead! Somebody shot him! Oh my God! Help me! Nix, Lester, and Mrs. Vanlandingham walked her across the street and onto the porch, where she fell into a wicker rocker. Mrs. Vanlandingham tried to wipe her face and hands but Jackie shoved her away. She buried her face in her hands, sobbing painfully while groaning, almost retching. Nix said to Lester, Stay with her. He crossed the street where Deputy Red Arnett was waiting. They entered the annex and slowly crept into the study, where they found Preacher Bells body on the floor beside his chair. Nix carefully touched his right wrist and after a few seconds said, Theres no pulse. No surprise there, Arnett said. Dont reckon we need an ambulance. Id say no. Call the funeral home. Hop stepped into the study and said, Mista Pete Banning shot him. Heard him do it. Saw the gun. Nix stood, frowned at Hop, and said, Pete Banning? Yes, suh. I was out there in the hall. He pointed the gun at me, then told me to go find you. What else did he say? Said I was a good man. Thats all. Then he left. Nix folded his arms across his chest and looked at Red, who shook his head in disbelief and mumbled, Pete Banning? Both looked at Hop as if they didnt believe him. Hop said, Thats right. Seen him myself, with a long-barreled revolver. Aimed it right here, he said, pointing to a spot in the center of his forehead. Thought I was dead too. Nix pushed his hat back and rubbed his cheeks. He looked at the floor and noticed the pool of blood spreading and moving silently away from the body. He looked at Dexters closed eyes and asked himself for the first time, and the first of many, what could have possibly provoked this? Red said, Well, I guess this crime is solved. I suppose it is, Nix said. But lets take some pictures and look for slugs. What about the family? Red asked. Same thought here. Lets get Mrs. Bell back in the parsonage and get some ladies to sit with her. Ill go to the school and talk to the principal. They have three kids, right? I think so. Thats right, Hop said. Two girls and a boy. Nix looked at Hop and said, Not a word out of you, Hop, okay? I mean it, not a word. Dont tell a soul what happened here. If you talk, I swear Ill throw you in jail. No, suh, Mista Sheriff, I aint sayin nothin. They left the study, closed the door, and walked outside. Across the street more neighbors were gathering around the Vanlandingham porch. Most were housewives standing on the lawn, wide-eyed with their hands over their mouths in disbelief. Ford County had not seen a white murder in over ten years. In 1936, a couple of sharecroppers went to war over a strip of worthless farmland. The one with the better aim prevailed, claimed self-defense at trial, and walked home. Two years later, a black boy was lynched near the settlement of Box Hill, where he allegedly said something fresh to a white woman. In 1938, though, lynching was not considered murder or a crime of any sort anywhere in the South, especially Mississippi. However, a wrong word to a white woman could be punishable by death. At that moment, neither Nix Gridley nor Red Arnett nor Roy Lester nor anyone else under the age of seventy in Clanton could remember the murder of such a prominent citizen. And, the fact that the prime suspect was even more prominent stopped the entire town cold in its tracks. In the courthouse, the clerks and lawyers and judges forgot their business, repeated what they had just heard, and shook their heads. In the shops and offices around the square the secretaries and owners and customers passed along the stunning news and looked at each other in shock. In the schools, the teachers quit teaching, left their students, and huddled in the hallways. On the shaded streets around the square, neighbors stood near mailboxes and worked hard to think of different ways to say, This cant be true. But it was. A crowd gathered in the Vanlandingham yard and gazed desperately across the street at the gravel lot, where three patrol carsthe countys entire fleetalong with the hearse from Magargels Funeral Home were parked. Jackie Bell had been escorted back to the parsonage, where she was sitting with a doctor friend and some ladies from the church. Soon the streets were crowded with cars and trucks driven by the curious. Some inched along, their drivers gawking. Others parked haphazardly as close to the church as possible. The presence of the hearse was a magnet, and the people moved onto the parking lot, where Roy Lester told them to stand back. The rear door of the hearse was partially open, which meant, of course, that a body would soon be brought to it and loaded for the short drive to the funeral home. As with any tragedycrime or accidentwhat the curious really wanted was to see a body. Stunned and shocked as they were, they inched forward in muted silence and realized they were the lucky ones. They were witnesses to a dramatic piece of an unimaginable story, and for the rest of their lives they could talk of being there when Preacher Bell was taken away in a hearse. Sheriff Gridley walked through the annex door, glanced at the crowd, and removed his hat. Behind him, the stretcher appeared, with old man Magargel holding one end and his son the other. The corpse was covered with a black drape and only Dexters brown shoes were visible. All the men instantly removed their hats and caps and all the women bowed their heads, but they did not close their eyes. Some were sobbing quietly. When the body was properly loaded and the rear door was closed, old man Magargel got behind the wheel and drove away. Never one to miss the opportunity for some extra drama, he poked through the side streets until he entered the square, then did two slow laps around the courthouse so the town could have a look. An hour later, Sheriff Gridley called with instructions to transport the body to Jackson for an autopsy. Nineva could not remember the last time Mr. Pete had asked her to sit with him on the front porch. She had better things to do. Amos was in the barn churning butter and needed her help. After that, she had a mess of peas and beans to can. There was some dirty laundry to wash. But if the boss said sit there in that rocker and lets visit for a spell, then she could not argue. She sipped iced tea while he smoked cigarettes, more than usual, she would recall later when she told Amos. He seemed preoccupied with the traffic out on the highway, a quarter of a mile down the drive. A few cars and trucks inched along, passing trailers filled with cotton and headed to the gin in town. When the sheriffs car made its turn, Pete said, There he comes. Who? she asked. Sheriff Gridley. What he want? Hes coming to arrest me, Nineva. For murder. I just shot and killed Dexter Bell, the Methodist preacher. Git outta here! You done what? You heard me. He stood and walked a few steps to where she was sitting. He leaned down and pointed a finger at her face. And you will never say a word to anyone, Nineva. You hear me? Her eyes were as big as eggs and her mouth was wide open, but she could not speak. He pulled a small envelope out of his coat pocket and handed it to her. Get in the house now, and as soon as I leave take this to Florry. He took her hand, helped her to her feet, and opened the screen door. When she was inside she let loose with a painful howl that startled him. He closed the front door and turned to watch the sheriff approach. Gridley was in no hurry. He stopped and parked by Petes truck, got out of his patrol car with Red and Roy for support, and walked toward the porch before stopping at the steps. He stared at Pete, who seemed unconcerned. Better come with us, Pete, Nix said. Pete pointed to his truck and said, The pistol is on the front seat. Nix looked at Red and said, Get it. Pete slowly stepped down and walked to the sheriffs car. Roy opened a rear door, and as Pete was bending over he heard Nineva wail in the backyard. He looked up and saw her scampering toward the barn, holding the letter. Lets go, Nix said as he opened his door and situated himself behind the wheel. Red sat next to him and held the gun. In the rear seat, Roy and Pete were side by side, their shoulders almost touching. No one said a word, indeed no one seemed to breathe as they left the farm and turned onto the highway. The lawmen were going through the motions with a sense of disbelief, shocked like everyone else. A popular preacher murdered in cold blood by the towns favorite son, a legendary war hero. There had to be a damned good reason for it, and it was only a matter of time before the truth spilled out. But, at that moment, the clock had stopped and events were not real. Halfway to town, Nix glanced in his mirror and said, Im not going to ask why you did it, Pete. Just want to confirm it was you, thats all. Pete took a deep breath and looked at the cotton fields they were passing and said, I have nothing to say. The Ford County jail had been built in a prior century and was barely fit for human habitation. Originally a small warehouse, it had been converted to this and to that and finally bought by the county and divided in two by a brick wall. In the front half, six cells were configured to hold the white prisoners, and in the back eight cells were squeezed in for the blacks. The jail was rarely filled to capacity, at least up front. Attached to it was a small office wing the county had later built for the sheriff and the Clanton police department. The jail was only two blocks off the square and from its front door one could see the top of the courthouse. During criminal trials, which were rare, the accused was often walked from the jail with a deputy or two as escorts. A crowd had gathered in front of the jail to get a glimpse of the killer. It was still inconceivable that Pete Banning did what he did, and there was also a general disbelief that he would be thrown in jail. Surely, for someone as prominent as Mr. Banning, there would be another set of rules. However, if Nix indeed had the guts to arrest him, there were enough curious folks who wanted to see it for themselves. I guess words out, Nix mumbled as he turned in to the small gravel lot by the jail. Not a word by anybody, he instructed. The car stopped and all four doors opened. Nix grabbed Banning by the elbow and ushered him to the front door, with Red and Roy following. The crowd, gawking, was still and silent until a reporter with The Ford County Times stepped forward with a camera and snapped a photo, with a flash that startled even Pete. Just as he was entering the door, someone yelled, Youll die in hell, Banning! Thats right, thats right, someone else added. The suspect didnt flinch and seemed oblivious to the crowd. Soon he was inside and out of sight. Waiting inside, in a cramped room where all suspects and criminals were signed in and processed, was Mr. John Wilbanks, a prominent lawyer in town and longtime friend of the Bannings. And to what do we owe this pleasure? Nix said to Mr. Wilbanks, obviously not pleased to see him. Mr. Banning is my client and Im here to represent him, Wilbanks replied. He stepped forward and shook hands with Pete without a word. Nix said, Well do our business first, then you can do yours. Wilbanks said, Ive already called Judge Oswalt and weve discussed bail. Wonderful. When youve discussed it to the point of him granting bail, Im sure hell give me a call. Until then, Mr. Wilbanks, this man is a suspect in a murder and Ill deal with him accordingly. Now, would you please leave? I would like to speak with my client. Hes not going anywhere. Come back in an hour. No interrogation, you understand? Banning said, I have nothing to say. Florry read the note on her front porch as Nineva and Amos watched. They were still panting from their sprint from the main house and horrified at what was happening. When she finished she lowered it, looked at them, and asked, And hes gone? The law took him, Miss Florry, Nineva said. He knew they were comin to get him. Did he say anything? He said he done kilt the preacher, Nineva replied, wiping her cheeks. The note instructed Florry to call Joel at Vanderbilt and Stella at Hollins and explain to them that their father had been arrested for the murder of the Reverend Dexter Bell. They were to speak to no one about this, especially reporters, and they were to stay away at college until further notice. He was sorry for this tragic turn of events but hopeful that one day they would understand. He asked Florry to visit him the following day at the jail to discuss matters. She felt faint but could show no weakness in front of the help. She folded the note, stuck it in a pocket, and dismissed them. Nineva and Amos backed away, more frightened and confused than before, and slowly walked across her front yard to the trail. She watched them until they were out of sight, then sat in a wicker rocker with one of her cats and fought her emotions. He had certainly seemed preoccupied at breakfast, only a few hours earlier, but then he had not been right since the war. Why hadnt he warned her? How could he do something so unbelievably evil? What would happen to him, his children, his wife? To her, his only sibling? And the land? Florry was far from a devout Methodist, but she had been raised in the church and attended occasionally. She had learned to keep her distance from the ministers because they were gone by the time theyd settled in, but Bell was one of the better ones. She thought of his pretty wife and children, and finally broke down. Marietta eased through the screen door and stood beside her as she sobbed. Chapter 3 T he town descended upon the Methodist church. As the crowd grew, a deacon told Hop to unlock the sanctuary. The stricken mourners filed in and filled the pews and whispered the latest, whatever that happened to be. They prayed and wept and wiped their faces and shook their heads in disbelief. The faithful members, those who knew Dexter well and loved him dearly, clung together in small groups and moaned in their suffering. For the less committed, those who attended monthly but not weekly, the church was a magnet that drew them as close as possible to the tragedy. Even some of the truly backslidden arrived to share in the suffering. At that awful moment, everyone was a Methodist and welcomed in Reverend Bells church. The murder of their preacher was emotionally and physically overwhelming. The fact that he had been killed by one of their own was, initially, too astonishing to believe. Joshua Banning, Petes grandfather, had helped build the church. His father had been a deacon his entire adult life. Most of those present had sat in those same pews and offered countless prayers for Pete during the war. They had been devastated when the news arrived from the War Department that he was presumed dead. They had held candlelight vigils at his second coming. They had rejoiced in tears when he and Liza made their grand reentry the week after the Japanese surrendered. Every Sunday morning during the war, Reverend Bell had called out the names of soldiers from Ford County and offered a special prayer. First on his list was Pete Banning, the towns hero and the source of immense local pride. Now the rumor that he had murdered their preacher was simply too incredible to absorb. But as the news sank in, the whispering intensified, in some circles anyway, and the great question of Why? was asked a thousand times. Only a few of the bravest dared to suggest that Petes wife had something to do with it. What the mourners really wanted was to get their hands on Jackie and the children, to touch them and have a good cry, as if that would soften their shock. But Jackie, according to the gossip, was next door in the parsonage, secluded in her bedroom with her three children, and seeing no one. The house was packed with her closest friends and the crowd spilled out onto the porches and across the front yard, where grim-faced men smoked and grumbled. When friends stepped outside for fresh air, others stepped inside to take their places. Still others moved next door to the sanctuary. The stricken and the curious continued to come, and the streets around the church were lined with cars and trucks. Folks drifted toward the church in small groups, moving slowly as if they werent sure what they would do when they got there but were needed nonetheless. When the pews were packed, Hop opened the door to the balcony. He hid in the shadows below the belfry and avoided everyone. Sheriff Gridley had threatened him and he was saying nothing. He did marvel, though, at the way the white folks managed to keep their composure, most of them anyway. The slaying of a popular black preacher would provoke an outpouring far more chaotic. A deacon suggested to Miss Emma Faye Riddle that some music might be appropriate. She had played the organ for decades, but wasnt sure if the occasion was right. She soon agreed, though, and when she hit the first notes of The Old Rugged Cross, the weeping intensified. Outside, under the trees, a man approached a group of smokers and announced, They got Pete Banning in jail. Got his gun too. This was met with acceptance, commented on, then passed along until the news entered the sanctuary, where it spread from pew to pew. Pete Banning, arrested for the murder of their preacher. When it became obvious that the suspect indeed had nothing to say, Sheriff Gridley led him through a door and into a narrow hallway with little light. Iron bars lined both sides. There were three cells on the right, three on the left, each about the size of a walk-in closet. There were no windows and the jail felt like a damp, dark dungeon, a place where men were forgotten and time went unnoticed. And, evidently, a place where everyone smoked. Gridley stuck a large key into a door, pulled it open, and nodded for the suspect to step inside. A cheap cot was at the far wall, and there was nothing else in the way of furnishings. Gridley said, Not much room, Im afraid, Pete, but then it is a jail, after all. Pete stepped inside, glanced around, and said, Ive seen worse. He stepped to the cot and sat on it. Bathrooms down the hall, Gridley said. If you need to use it, just yell. Pete was staring at the floor. He shrugged, said nothing. Gridley slammed the door and returned to his office. Pete stretched out and consumed the full length of his cot. He was two inches over six feet; the cot was not quite that long. The cell was musty and cold and he picked up a folded blanket, one that was practically threadbare and would be of little use at night. He didnt care. Captivity was nothing new, and he had survived conditions that now, four years later, were still hard to imagine. When John Wilbanks returned less than an hour later, he and the sheriff argued briefly over where, exactly, the attorney-client conference would take place. There was no designated room for such important meetings. The lawyers usually walked into the cell block and huddled with their clients with a row of bars between them, and with every other prisoner straining to eavesdrop. Occasionally, a lawyer would catch his client outside in the rec yard and give advice through chain link. Most often, though, the lawyers did not bother to visit their clients at the jail. They waited until they were hauled into court and chatted with them there. But John Wilbanks considered himself to be superior to every other lawyer in Ford County, if not the entire state, and his new criminal client was certainly a cut above the rest of Gridleys prisoners. Their status warranted a proper place to meet, and the sheriffs office would work just fine. Gridley finally acquiescedfew people won arguments with John Wilbanks, who, by the way, had always supported the sheriff at election timeand after some mumbling and cussing and a few benign rules left to fetch Pete. He brought him in with no handcuffs and said they could chat for half an hour. When they were alone, Wilbanks began with Okay, Pete, lets talk about the crime. If you did it, tell me you did it. If you didnt do it, then tell me who did. I have nothing to say, Pete said and lit a cigarette. Thats not good enough. I have nothing to say. Interesting. Do you plan to cooperate with your defense lawyer? A shrug, a puff, nothing more. Wilbanks offered a professional smile and said, Okay, heres the scenario. In a day or two theyll take you over to the courtroom for an initial appearance before Judge Oswalt. I assume youll plead not guilty, then theyll bring you back here. In a month or so, the grand jury will meet and indict you for murder, first degree. I would guess that by February or March, Oswalt will be ready for a trial, which Im ready to handle, if thats what you want. John, youve always been my lawyer. Good. Then you have to cooperate. Cooperate? Yes, Pete, cooperate. On the surface, this appears to be cold-blooded murder. Give me something to work with, Pete. Surely you had a motive. Its between me and Dexter Bell. No, its now between you and the State of Mississippi, which, like all states, takes a dim view of cold-blooded murder. I have nothing to say. Thats not a defense, Pete. Maybe I dont have a defense, not one that folks would understand. Well, the folks on the jury need to understand something. My first thought, indeed my only one at this moment, is a plea of insanity. Pete shook his head and said, Hell no. Im as sane as you are. But Im not facing the electric chair, Pete. Pete blew a cloud of smoke and said, Im not doing that. Great, then give me a motive, a reason. Give me something, Pete. I have nothing to say. Joel Banning was walking down the steps outside Benson Hall when someone called his name. Another student, a freshman he knew of but had not met, handed him an envelope and said, Dean Mulrooney needs to see you at once, in his office. Its urgent. Thanks, Joel said, taking the envelope and watching the freshman walk away. Inside, a handwritten note on official Vanderbilt stationery instructed Joel to please come without delay to the deans office in Kirkland Hall, the administration building. Joel had a literature class in fifteen minutes and the professor frowned on absences. If he sprinted, he could run by the deans office, tend to whatever matter was at hand, then arrive late for class and hope the professor was in a good mood. He hustled across the quad to Kirkland Hall and bounded up the stairs to the third floor, where the deans secretary explained that he was to wait until precisely 11:00 a.m., when his aunt Florry would call from home. The secretary claimed to know nothing. She had spoken to Florry Banning, who was calling on her rural party line and thus without privacy. Florry planned to drive into Clanton and use the private line at a friends home. As he waited, he assumed someone had died and he could not help but think of those relatives and friends he preferred to lose before the others. The Banning family was small: just his parents, Pete and Liza, his sister, Stella, and his aunt Florry. The grandparents were dead. Florry had no children; thus, he and Stella had no first cousins on the Banning side. His mothers people were from Memphis but had scattered after the war. He paced around the office, ignoring the looks from the secretary, and decided it was probably his mother. She had been sent away months earlier and the family was reeling. He and Stella had not seen her and their letters went unanswered. Their father refused to discuss his wifes treatment, and, well, there were a lot of unknowns. Would her condition improve? Would she come home? Would the family ever be a real family again? Joel and Stella had questions, but their father preferred to talk about other matters when he chose to talk at all. Likewise, Aunt Florry was of little help. She called at 11:00 a.m. on the dot. The secretary handed Joel the phone and stepped around a corner, though probably within earshot, he figured. Joel said hello, then listened for what seemed an eternity. Florry began by explaining that she was in town at the home of Miss Mildred Highlander, a woman Joel had known his entire life, and she, Florry, was there because the call needed to be private and there was no privacy on their rural party line, as he well knew. And, really, nothing was private in town right now because his father had driven to the Methodist church just hours earlier and shot and killed the Reverend Dexter Bell, and was now in jail, and, well, as anyone could understand, the entire town was buzzing and everything had come to a complete stop. Dont ask why and dont say anything that might get overheard, wherever you are, Joel, but its just awful and God help us. Joel leaned on the secretarys desk for support as he felt faint. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and listened. Florry said she had just talked to Stella at Hollins and she did not take it well. They had her in the presidents office with a nurse. She explained that Pete had given her specific instructions, in writing no less, that theyJoel and Stellawere to stay at school and away from home and Clanton until further notice. They should make plans to spend Thanksgiving holidays with friends as far away from Ford County as possible. And, if they were contacted by reporters, investigators, police, or anybody else, they were to say absolutely nothing. Not a word to anyone about their father or the family. Not a word, period. She wrapped things up by saying that she loved him dearly, would write a long letter immediately, and that she wished she could be there with him at this horrible moment. Joel put the phone down without a word and left the building. He drifted across the campus until he saw an empty bench partially hidden by shrubbery. He sat there and fought back tears, determined to find the stoicism taught by his father. Poor Stella, he thought. She was as fiery and emotional as their mother, and he knew she was a mess at the moment. Frightened, bewildered, and confused, Joel watched the leaves fall and scatter in the breeze. He felt the urge to go home, immediately, to catch a train and be in Clanton before dark, and once there he would get to the bottom of things. The thought passed, though, and he wondered if he would ever go back. Reverend Bell was a gifted and popular minister, and at the moment there was probably great hostility toward the Bannings. Besides, his father had given him and Stella strict instructions to stay away. Joel, at the age of twenty, could not remember a single instance when he had disobeyed his father. With age, he had learned to respectfully disagree with him, but he would never disobey him. His father was a proud soldier, a strict disciplinarian who said little and valued authority. There was simply no way his father could commit murder. Chapter 4 T he courthouse, and the shops and offices lining the neat square around it, closed at five each weekday. Usually by that time all doors were locked, all lights were off, the sidewalks were empty, and everyone was gone. However, on this day the townsfolk lingered a bit later in case more facts and/or gossip emerged about the killing. They had talked of nothing else since nine that morning. They had shocked each other with the first reports, then spread along later developments. They had stood in solemn respect as old man Magargel paraded his hearse around the square to provide a glimpse of the corpse outlined under a black cape. Some had ventured to the Methodist church and held vigil while offering prayers, then returned to their places around the square with near-breathless descriptions of what was happening on the front line. Baptists, Presbyterians, and Pentecostals were at a disadvantage since they could claim no real connection to either the victim or his killer. The Methodists, though, were in the spotlight, with each one eager to describe relationships that seemed to grow stronger as the day progressed. On this unforgettable day, the Clanton Methodist Church had never known so many congregants. For most people in Clanton, among the white folks anyway, there was a sense of betrayal. Dexter Bell was popular and highly regarded. Pete Banning was a near-mythical figure. To have one kill the other was such a senseless loss it touched almost everyone. Motive was so incomprehensible that no solid rumor emerged to address it. Not that there was a shortage of rumors; there certainly was not. Banning would be in court tomorrow. He was refusing to say anything. He would plead insanity. John Wilbanks had never lost a trial and was not about to lose this one. Judge Oswalt was a close friend of Bannings, or maybe he was a close friend of Dexter Bells. The trial would be moved to Tupelo. He had not been right since the war. Jackie Bell was heavily sedated. Her kids were a mess. Pete would put up his land as security for bail and go home tomorrow. To avoid seeing anyone, Florry parked on a side street and hurried to the law office. John Wilbanks was working late and waiting for her in the reception room on the first floor. In 1946, there were a dozen lawyers in Ford County and half of them worked for the firm of Wilbanks

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