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The Reckoning

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Not one of his best books, hugely predictable and so much stuffing and nonsense, expecting that the plot could not be as shallow as it seemed, that I unfortunately finished the book.
27 March 2020 (14:43) 
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Also By John Grisham

			A Time to Kill

			The Firm

			The Pelican Brief

			The Client

			The Chamber

			The Rainmaker

			The Runaway Jury

			The Partner

			The Street Lawyer

			The Testament

			The Brethren

			A Painted House

			Skipping Christmas

			The Summons

			The King of Torts


			The Last Juror

			The Broker

			The Innocent Man

			Playing for Pizza

			The Appeal

			The Associate

			Ford County

			The Confession

			The Litigators

			Calico Joe

			The Racketeer

			Sycamore Row

			Gray Mountain

			Rogue Lawyer

			The Whistler

			Camino Island

			The Rooster Bar

			The Theodore Boone Books

			Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer

			Theodore Boone: The Abduction

			Theodore Boone: The Accused

			Theodore Boone: The Activist

			Theodore Boone: The Fugitive

			Theodore Boone: The Scandal

			 			This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

			Copyright © 2018 by Belfry Holdings, Inc.

			All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, Toronto.

			DOUBLEDAY and the portrayal of an anchor with a dolphin are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

			Cover photograph by Steve Robinson

			Cover design by John Fontana

			Library of Congress Control Number: 2018952529

			ISBN 9780385544153

			Ebook ISBN 9780385544160





				Also by John Grisham

				Title Page


			 				Part One: The Killing

				 					Chapter 1

				 					Chapter 2

				 					Chapter 3

				 					Chapter 4

				 					Chapter 5

				 					Chapter 6

				 					Chapter 7

				 					Chapter 8

				 					Chapter 9

				 					; Chapter 10

				 					Chapter 11

				 					Chapter 12

				 					Chapter 13

				 					Chapter 14

				 					Chapter 15

				 					Chapter 16

				 					Chapter 17

				 					Chapter 18

				 					Chapter 19

				 					Chapter 20

			 				Part Two: The Boneyard

				 					Chapter 21

				 					Chapter 22

				 					Chapter 23

				 					Chapter 24

				 					Chapter 25

				 					Chapter 26

				 					Chapter 27

				 					Chapter 28

				 					Chapter 29

				 					Chapter 30

				 					Chapter 31

				 					Chapter 32

				 					Chapter 33

				 					Chapter 34

				 					Chapter 35

			 				Part Three: The Betrayal

				 					Chapter 36

				 					Chapter 37

				 					Chapter 38

				 					Chapter 39

				 					Chapter 40

				 					Chapter 41

				 					Chapter 42

				 					Chapter 43

				 					Chapter 44

				 					Chapter 45

				 					Chapter 46

				 					Chapter 47

				 					Chapter 48

				 					Chapter 49

				 					Chapter 50

			 				Author’s Note

Part One

The Killing

Chapter 1

On 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 didn’t. 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 Pete’s 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 Pete’s, 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 didn’t. 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.”

			Pete’s children were expected to write at least one letter a week to their aunt, who wrote to them at least twice a week. Pete wasn’t much for letters and had told them not to bother. However, writing to their aunt was a strict requirement.

			“Haven’t heard from Joel,” she said.

			“I’m sure he’s busy,” Pete said as he flipped a page of the newspaper. “Is he still seeing that girl?”

			“I suppose. He’s much too young for romance, Pete, you should say something to him.”

			“He won’t listen.” Pete took a bite of his omelet. “I just want him to hurry up and graduate. I’m 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. There’s too much cotton this year.”

			“The price goes up and down, doesn’t it? When the price is high there’s not enough cotton and when it’s low there’s too much of it. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

			“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.

			“You’re not eating much,” she said. “And you’re 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 who’d 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 couldn’t 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 didn’t read poetry, and after being forced to read his sister’s he had sworn off the stuff forever. He preferred fiction, especially from southern writers, and especially William Faulkner, a man he’d 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 o’clock, 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 passenger’s 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 Pete’s 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 wasn’t 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 county’s 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 I’m here.”

			Bell froze and gawked in horror at the weapon and barely managed to say, “Pete, what are you doing?”

			“I’ve killed a lot of men, Preacher, all brave soldiers on the field. You’re the first coward.”

			“Pete, no, no!” Dexter said, raising his hands and falling back into his chair, eyes wide and mouth open. “If it’s 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 Dexter’s 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. Dexter’s 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 couldn’t 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 pastor’s study when the door opened and Pete walked out, still holding the pistol. He raised it, aimed it at Hop’s face, and seemed ready to fire. Hop fell to his knees and pleaded, “Please, Mista Banning. I ain’t done nothin’. I got kids, Mista Banning.”

			 			Pete lowered the gun and said, “You’re a good man, Hop. Go tell the sheriff.”

Chapter 2

Standing 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 shuffled—his right leg was two inches shorter than his left—back 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 didn’t 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 Bell’s been shot,” Hop blurted. “He’s 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, “He’s dead! He’s 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, “He’s dead, Nix! Dexter’s 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 Bell’s body on the floor beside his chair. Nix carefully touched his right wrist and after a few seconds said, “There’s no pulse.”

			 			“No surprise there,” Arnett said. “Don’t reckon we need an ambulance.”

			“I’d 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. That’s 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 didn’t believe him. Hop said, “That’s 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 Dexter’s 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 let’s take some pictures and look for slugs.”

			“What about the family?” Red asked.

			“Same thought here. Let’s get Mrs. Bell back in the parsonage and get some ladies to sit with her. I’ll go to the school and talk to the principal. They have three kids, right?”

			“I think so.”

			“That’s 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. Don’t tell a soul what happened here. If you talk, I swear I’ll throw you in jail.”

			“No, suh, Mista Sheriff, I ain’t 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 can’t 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 cars—the county’s entire fleet—along with the hearse from Magargel’s 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 tragedy—crime or accident—what 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 Dexter’s 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 let’s 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 sheriff’s car made its turn, Pete said, “There he comes.”

			“Who?” she asked.

			“Sheriff Gridley.”

			“What he want?”

			“He’s 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 Pete’s 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 sheriff’s 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.

			“Let’s 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 town’s 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, “I’m not going to ask why you did it, Pete. Just want to confirm it was you, that’s 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 word’s 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, “You’ll die in hell, Banning!”

			 			“That’s right, that’s right,” someone else added.

			The suspect didn’t 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 I’m here to represent him,” Wilbanks replied. He stepped forward and shook hands with Pete without a word.

			Nix said, “We’ll do our business first, then you can do yours.”

			Wilbanks said, “I’ve already called Judge Oswalt and we’ve discussed bail.”

			“Wonderful. When you’ve discussed it to the point of him granting bail, I’m sure he’ll give me a call. Until then, Mr. Wilbanks, this man is a suspect in a murder and I’ll deal with him accordingly. Now, would you please leave?”

			“I would like to speak with my client.”

			“He’s 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 he’s 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 hadn’t 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 they’d 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

The 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 Bell’s 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, Pete’s 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 town’s 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 Pete’s 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 weren’t 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 wasn’t 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, I’m afraid, Pete, but then it is a jail, after all.”

			Pete stepped inside, glanced around, and said, “I’ve seen worse.” He stepped to the cot and sat on it.

			“Bathroom’s 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 didn’t 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 Gridley’s prisoners. Their status warranted a proper place to meet, and the sheriff’s office would work just fine. Gridley finally acquiesced—few people won arguments with John Wilbanks, who, by the way, had always supported the sheriff at election time—and 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, let’s talk about the crime. If you did it, tell me you did it. If you didn’t do it, then tell me who did.”

			“I have nothing to say,” Pete said and lit a cigarette.

			“That’s 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, here’s the scenario. In a day or two they’ll take you over to the courtroom for an initial appearance before Judge Oswalt. I assume you’ll plead not guilty, then they’ll 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 I’m ready to handle, if that’s what you want.”

			“John, you’ve always been my lawyer.”

			“Good. Then you have to 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.”

			 			“It’s between me and Dexter Bell.”

			“No, it’s 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.”

			“That’s not a defense, Pete.”

			“Maybe I don’t 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. I’m as sane as you are.”

			“But I’m not facing the electric chair, Pete.”

			Pete blew a cloud of smoke and said, “I’m 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. It’s 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 dean’s 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 dean’s 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 dean’s 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 friend’s 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 mother’s 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 wife’s 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. Don’t ask why and don’t say anything that might get overheard, wherever you are, Joel, but it’s just awful and God help us.

			Joel leaned on the secretary’s 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 president’s office with a nurse. She explained that Pete had given her specific instructions, in writing no less, that they—Joel and Stella—were 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

The 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 Banning’s, or maybe he was a close friend of Dexter Bell’s. 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 & Wilbanks. All six were related. For over a hundred years, the Wilbanks family had been prominent in law, politics, banking, real estate, and farming. John and his brother Russell studied law up north and ran the firm, which seemed to run most other commercial matters in the county. Another brother was the chairman of the largest bank in the county, along with owning several businesses. A cousin farmed two thousand acres. Another cousin handled real estate and was also a state representative with ambitions. It was rumored that the family met in secret the first week of January of each year to tally up the various profits and divide the money. There seemed to be plenty to go around.

			Florry had known John Wilbanks since high school, though she was three years older. His firm had always taken care of the Bannings’ legal matters, none of which had ever seemed that complicated until now. There had been the sticky problem of shipping Liza off to the asylum, but John had discreetly pulled the right strings and away she went. Florry’s ancient divorce had likewise been swept under the rug by John and his brother, with hardly a record of it in the county books.

			He greeted her with a solemn hug and she followed him upstairs to his large office, the finest in town, with a terrace that overlooked the courthouse square. The walls were covered with grim portraits of his dead ancestors. Death was everywhere. He waved at a rich leather sofa and she took a seat.

			 			“I met with him,” John began as he struck a match and lit a short black cigar. “He didn’t say much. In fact he’s refusing to say anything.”

			“What in God’s name, John?” she asked as her eyes watered.

			“Hell if I know. You didn’t see it coming?”

			“Of course not. You know Pete. He doesn’t talk, especially about private matters. He’ll chat a bit about his kids, go on like all farmers about the weather and the price of seed and all that drivel. But you get nothing personal. And something as awful as this, well, no, he would never say a word.”

			John sucked on his cigar and blasted a cloud of blue smoke at the ceiling. “So you have no idea what’s behind this?”

			She dabbed her cheeks with a handkerchief and said, “I’m too overwhelmed to make any sense of it, John. I’m having trouble breathing right now, forget thinking clearly. Maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day, but not now. Everything is a blur.”

			“And Joel and Stella?”

			“I’ve spoken with both of them. Poor children, away at school, enjoying the college life, nothing really to worry about, and they get the news that their father has just murdered their minister, a man they admired. And they can’t come home because Pete gave strict instructions, in writing no less, that they stay away until he changes his mind.” She sobbed for a minute as John worked his cigar, then she clenched her jaws, dabbed some more, and said, “I’m sorry.”

			“Oh, go ahead, Florry, cry all you want. I wish I could. Get it out of your system because it’s only natural. This is no time to be brave. Emotion is welcome here. This is a perfectly awful day that will haunt us for years to come.”

			“What is coming, John?”

			“Well, nothing good, I can promise you that. I spoke with Judge Oswalt this afternoon and he will not even consider the notion of bail. Out of the question, which I completely understand. It is murder, after all. I met with Pete this afternoon, but he’s not cooperative. So, on the one hand he will not plead guilty, and on the other he won’t provide any cooperation for a defense. This could change, of course, but you and I both know him and he doesn’t change his mind once it’s made up.”

			 			“What kind of defense?”

			“Our options appear to be rather limited. Self-defense, irresistible impulse, an alibi perhaps. Nothing fits here, Florry.” He pulled again on the cigar and exhaled another cloud. “And there’s more. I received a tip this afternoon and walked over to the land records office. Three weeks ago, Pete signed a deed transferring ownership of his land to Joel and Stella. There was no good reason for doing this, and he certainly didn’t want me to know about it. He used a lawyer from Tupelo, one with few contacts in Clanton.”

			“And the point is? I’m sorry, John, help me here.”

			“The point is Pete was planning this for some time, and to protect his land from possible claims to be made by the family of Dexter Bell, he gave it to his children, took his name off the title.”

			“Will that work?”

			“I doubt it, but that’s another issue for another day. Your land is, of course, in your name and will not be affected by any of this.”

			“Thanks, John, but I haven’t even thought about that.”

			“Assuming he goes to trial, and I can’t imagine why he will not, the land transaction will be entered into evidence against him to prove premeditation. It was all carefully planned, Florry. Pete had been thinking about this for a long time.”

			Florry held the handkerchief to her mouth and stared at the floor as minutes passed. The office was perfectly still and quiet; all sounds from the street below were gone. John stood and stubbed his cigar into a heavy crystal ashtray, then walked to his desk and lit another one. He went to the windows of a French door and gazed at the courthouse across the street. It was almost dusk and the shadows were falling on the lawn.

			Without turning around, he asked, “How long was Pete in the hospital after he escaped?”

			“Months and months. I don’t know, maybe a year. He had extensive wounds and weighed 130 pounds. It took time.”

			“How about mentally? Were there problems?”

			“Well, typically, he’s never talked about them if they in fact existed. But how can you not be a bit off in the head after going through what he endured?”

			 			“Was he diagnosed?”

			“I have no idea. He is not the same person after the war, but how could he be? I’m sure a lot of those boys are scarred.”

			“How is he different?”

			She stuck her handkerchief in her purse, as if to say the tears were over for now. “Liza said there were nightmares at first, a lot of sleepless nights. He’s moodier now, prone to long stretches of silence, which he seems to enjoy. But then, you’re talking about a man who’s never said a lot. I do remember thinking that he was quite happy and relaxed when he got home. He was still convalescing and gaining weight, and he smiled a lot, just happy to be alive and happy the war was over. That didn’t last, though. I could tell things were tense between him and Liza. Nineva said they were not getting along. It was really strange because it seemed as though the stronger he got, the more he got himself together, the quicker she unraveled.”

			“What were they fighting about?”

			“I don’t know. Nineva sees and hears everything, so they were careful. She told Marietta that they often sent her out of the house so they could discuss things. Liza was spiraling. I remember seeing her once, not long before she went away, and she looked thin, frail, and sort of beleaguered. It’s no secret that she and I have never been close, so she never confided in me. I guess he didn’t either.”

			John puffed his cigar and returned to his seat near Florry. He stared at her with a pleasant smile, one old friend to another, and said, “The only possible connection between Reverend Bell, your brother, and a senseless murder is Liza Banning. Do you agree?”

			“I’m in no position to agree to anything.”

			“Come on, Florry, help me out here. I’m the only person who might be able to save Pete’s life, and that looks pretty doubtful right now. How much time did Dexter Bell spend with Liza when we thought Pete was dead?”

			“Good God, John, I don’t know. Those first days and weeks were just awful. Liza was a wreck. The kids were traumatized. The house was a beehive as everybody in the county stopped by with a ham or a pork shank and a spare shoulder to cry on, along with a dozen questions. Sure, Dexter was there, and I remember his wife too. They were close to Pete and Liza.”

			 			“But nothing unusual?”

			“Unusual? Are you suggesting something went on between Liza and Dexter Bell? That’s outrageous, John.”

			“Yes it is, and so is this murder, the defense of which I’m now in charge of, if there is to be a defense. There’s a reason Pete killed him. If he won’t explain things, then it’s up to me to find a motive.”

			Florry raised her hands and said, “I’m done. It’s been a stressful day, John, and I can’t go on. Maybe another time.” She got to her feet and headed for the door, which he quickly opened for her. He held her arm down the stairs. They hugged at the front door and promised to talk soon.

* * *


			His first meal as an inmate was a bowl of soup beans with a wedge of stale corn bread. Both were cold, and as Pete sat on the edge of his cot and held the bowl he pondered the question of how difficult it might be to keep the beans warm long enough to serve them to the prisoners. Surely that could be done, though he would suggest it to no one. He would not complain, for he had learned the hard way that complaining often made matters worse.

			Across the dark passageway another prisoner sat on his cot and dined under the dim glow of a bare bulb at the end of a cord. His name was Leon Colliver, a member of a family known for making good moonshine, a flask of which he had hidden under his cot. Twice throughout the afternoon Colliver had offered a swig to Pete, who declined. According to Colliver, he would be shipped out to the state penitentiary at Parchman, where he was scheduled to spend a few years. It would be his second visit there and he was looking forward to it. Any place was better than this dungeon. At Parchman, the inmates spent most of their time outdoors.

			Colliver wanted to chat and was curious as to why Pete was in jail. As the day wore on, the gossip spread, even to the other four white inmates, and by dusk everyone knew Pete had killed the Methodist preacher. Colliver had plenty of time to talk and wanted some details. He got nothing. What Colliver didn’t know was that Pete Banning had been shot, beaten, starved, tortured, locked in barbed wire, ship hulls, boxcars, and POW camps, and one of many survival lessons he’d picked up during his ordeal was to never say much to a person you don’t know. Colliver got nothing.

			 			After dinner, Nix Gridley appeared in the cell block and stopped at Pete’s cell. Pete stood and took three steps to the bars. In a voice that was almost a whisper, Gridley said, “Look, Pete, we got some nosy reporters pesterin’ us, hangin’ around the jail, wantin’ to talk to you, me, anybody who’ll engage them. Just want to make sure you have no interest.”

			“I have no interest,” Pete said.

			“They’re comin’ from all over—Tupelo, Jackson, Memphis.”

			“I have no interest.”

			“That’s what I figured. You doin’ all right back here?”

			“Doin’ fine. I’ve seen worse.”

			“I know. Look, Pete, just so you’ll know, I stopped this afternoon and had a word with Jackie Bell, at the parsonage. She’s holdin’ up okay, I guess. Kids are a mess, though.”

			Pete glared at him without a trace of sympathy, though he thought about saying something smart like “Please give her my regards.” Or, “Aw shucks, tell her I’m sorry.” But he only frowned at the sheriff as if he were an idiot. Why tell me this?

			When it was obvious Pete would not respond, Gridley backed away and said, “If you need anything, let me know.”


Chapter 5

At 4:00 a.m., Florry finally abandoned all efforts at sleep and went to the kitchen to make coffee. Marietta, who lived in the basement, heard noises and soon appeared in her nightshirt. Florry said she couldn’t sleep, didn’t need anything, and sent her back to her room. After two cups with sugar, and another round of tears, Florry bit her lip and decided the dreadful nightmare might inspire creativity. For an hour she fiddled with a poem but tossed it at dawn. She turned to nonfiction and began a diary dedicated to the tragedy in real time. She skipped a bath and breakfast and by 7:00 a.m. was in Clanton, at the home of Mildred Highlander, a widow who lived alone and was, as far as Florry knew, the only person in town who understood her poetry. Over hot tea and cheese biscuits, they talked of nothing but the nightmare.

			Mildred took both the Tupelo and the Memphis morning papers and, expecting the worst, they were not disappointed. It was the lead story on the front page of the Tupelo paper with the headline “War Hero Arrested For Murder.” Memphis, with obviously less interest in what happened down in Mississippi, ran the story on the front page, metro section, under the headline “Popular Preacher Shot Dead At Church.” The facts varied little from one article to the other. Not a word from the suspect’s lawyer or any of the authorities. General shock around town.

			The local paper, The Ford County Times, was a weekly that hit the stands early each Wednesday morning, so it missed the excitement by one day and would have to wait until the following week. Its photographer, though, had nailed Pete Banning as he walked into the jail, and the same photo was used by both the Memphis and the Tupelo papers. Pete, with three good-ole-boy cops in mismatching uniforms and hats, being led into the jail with a look of complete indifference.

			 			Since it seemed as though Clanton was suffering from a case of collective lockjaw, the reporters dwelled on Pete’s colorful record as a war hero. Relying heavily on their archives, both newspapers detailed his career and his exploits as a legendary soldier in the South Pacific. Both used smaller photos of Pete when he returned to Clanton the year before. Tupelo even used a photo of Pete and Liza during a ceremony on the courthouse lawn.

			Vic Dixon lived across the street from Mildred, and was one of the few people in Clanton who subscribed to the Jackson morning paper, the largest in the state but one with a slim following in the northern counties. After he read it that morning with his coffee, he walked over and offered it to Mildred, who had requested it. While in her den, he spoke to Florry and passed along his condolences, or sympathies, or whatever the hell one is supposed to offer to the sister of a man who is charged with murder and appears guilty of it. Mildred shooed him away, but only after squeezing a promise that Vic would save his dailies.

			Florry wanted everything for her file, or scrapbook, or nonfiction account of the nightmare. She wanted to save, record, and preserve it all. For what purpose she was not quite certain, but a long, sad, and also truly unique story was unfolding, and she had no intentions of missing any of it. When Joel and Stella finally returned home, she wanted to be able to answer as many questions as possible.

			She was disappointed, though, when she realized that Jackson, which was farther away from Clanton than Tupelo or Memphis, had even fewer details, and fewer photos. It ran the rather lame headline “Prominent Farmer Arrested in Clanton.” Nevertheless, Florry clipped a subscription coupon and planned to mail it with a check.

			Using Mildred’s private line, she called Joel and Stella and tried to assure them that things at home were not as catastrophic as they might seem. She failed miserably, and when she finally rang off both her niece and her nephew were in tears. Their father was in jail, damn it, and charged with an awful murder. And they wanted to come home.

			 			At nine, Florry braced herself and drove to the jail in her 1939 Lincoln. It had less than twenty thousand miles on the odometer and rarely left the county, primarily because its owner had no driver’s license. She had flunked the test twice, been stopped by the police on several occasions, without penalties, and continued to drive because of a handshake agreement with Nix Gridley that she would drive only to town and back, and never at night.

			She walked into the jail, into the sheriff’s office, said hello to Nix and Red, and announced that she was there to see her brother. In a heavy straw bag, she had packed three novels by William Faulkner, three pounds of Standard Coffee, mail-ordered from the distributor in Baltimore, one coffee mug, ten packs of cigarettes, matches, a toothbrush and toothpaste, two bars of soap, two bottles of aspirin, two bottles of painkillers, and a box of chocolates. Every item had been requested by her brother.

			After some awkward conversation, Nix finally asked her what was in the bag. Without offering it, she explained there were a few harmless items for her brother, stuff he had requested.

			Both cops made a mental note to write this down and pass it along to the prosecutor. The prisoner planned his crime so carefully he made a list of items to be brought to the jail by his sister. Clear evidence of premeditated murder. An honest but potentially damaging mistake by Florry.

			“When did he request these items?” Nix asked nonchalantly, as if it meant nothing.

			Florry, eager to cooperate, said, “Oh, he left a note with Nineva, told her to bring it to me after he was arrested.”

			“I see,” Nix said. “Tell me, Florry, how much did you know about his plans?”

			“I knew nothing. I swear. Absolutely nothing. I’m as shocked as you, even more so because he’s my brother and I can’t imagine him doing anything like this.” Nix glanced at Red with a look that conveyed doubt, in something. Doubt that she knew nothing beforehand. Doubt that she knew nothing about motive. Doubt that she was telling everything. The look exchanged between the two cops startled Florry, and she realized she shouldn’t be talking. “Could I please see my brother?” she practically demanded.

			 			“Sure,” Nix said. He looked again at Red and said, “Go fetch the prisoner.” When Red stepped out, Nix took the bag and examined its contents. This irritated Florry, who said, “What are you looking for, Nix, guns and knives?”

			“What’s he supposed to do with this coffee?” Nix asked.

			“Drink it.”

			“We have our own, Florry.”

			“I’m sure you do, but Pete is particular about his coffee. Goes back to the war, when he couldn’t get any. It has to be Standard Coffee from New Orleans. That’s the least you can do.”

			“If we serve him Standard, then we have to serve the same to the rest of the prisoners, at least to the white ones. No preferential treatment here, Florry, you understand? Folks already suspect Pete’ll get a special deal.”

			“I can accept that. I’ll haul in all the Standard Coffee you want.”

			Nix held up the coffee mug. It was ceramic, off-white in color, with light brown stains, obviously well used. Before he could say anything, Florry added, “That’s his favorite mug. They gave it to him at the military hospital after his surgeries while he was convalescing. Surely, Nix, you will not deny a war hero the simple favor of drinking coffee from his favorite mug.”

			“I suppose not,” Nix mumbled as he began placing the items back in the bag.

			“He’s not your typical prisoner, Nix, remember that. You’ve got him locked up back there with God knows who, probably a bunch of thieves and bootleggers, but you must remember that he is Pete Banning.”

			“He’s locked up because he murdered the Methodist preacher, Florry. And as of right now he’s the only murderer back there. He will not be given special treatment.”

			The door opened and Pete walked in with Red behind him. He looked stone-faced at his sister and stood erect in the middle of the room, looking down at Nix.

			“I suppose you want to use my office again,” Nix said.

			 			“Thanks, Nix, that’s mighty nice of you,” Pete said. Nix grudgingly stood, picked up his hat, and left the room with Red. His gun and holster hung from a rack in a corner, in plain sight.

			Pete moved a chair, took a seat, and looked at his sister, whose first words were “You idiot. How could you be so stupid and selfish and shortsighted and absolutely idiotic? How could you do this to your family? Forget me, forget the farm and the people who depend on you. Forget your friends. How in the world could you do this to your children? They are devastated, Pete, frightened beyond belief and absolutely distraught. How could you?”

			“I had no choice.”

			“Oh, really? Care to explain things, Pete?”

			“No, I will not explain, and lower your voice. Don’t assume they’re not listening.”

			“I don’t care if they’re listening.”

			His eyes glazed as he pointed a finger at her and said, “Settle down, Florry. I’m in no mood for your theatrics and I will not be abused. I did what I did for a reason and perhaps one day you will understand. For now, though, I have nothing to say about the matter and since you don’t understand I suggest you watch your words.”

			Her eyes instantly watered and her lip quivered. She dropped her chin to her chest and mumbled, “So you can’t even talk to me?”

			“To no one, not even you.”

			She stared at the floor for a long time as his words sank in. The day before they’d had their usual fine Wednesday breakfast with no hint of what was to come. Pete was like that now: aloof, distant, often in another world.

			Florry looked at him and said, “I’m going to ask you why.”

			“And I have nothing to say.”

			“What did Dexter Bell do to deserve this?”

			“I have nothing to say.”

			“Is Liza involved in this?”

			Pete hesitated for a second and Florry knew she had touched a nerve. He said, “I have nothing to say,” and went about the deliberate business of removing a cigarette from a pack, tapping it on his wristwatch for some unfathomable reason, as always, then lighting it with a match.

			 			“Do you feel any remorse or sympathy for his family?” she asked.

			“I try not to think about them. Yes, I’m sorry it had to happen, but this was not something I wanted to do. They, along with the rest of us, will simply learn to live with what has happened.”

			“Just like that? It’s over. He’s dead. Too bad. Just deal with it as life goes on. I’d like to see you trot this little theory out in front of his three beautiful children right now.”

			“Feel free to leave.” She made no movement except for the gentle dabbing of her cheeks with a tissue. Pete blew some smoke that settled into a fog not far above their heads. They could hear voices in the distance, laughter coming from the sheriff and his deputies as they went about their business.

			Finally, Florry asked, “What are the conditions like back there?”

			“It’s a jail. I’ve seen worse.”

			“Are they feeding you?”

			“The food’s okay. I’ve seen worse.”

			“Joel and Stella want to come home and see you. They are terrified, Pete, absolutely frightened stiff, and, understandably, quite confused.”

			“I’ve made it very clear they are not to come home until I say. Period. Please remind them of this. I know what’s best.”

			“I doubt that. What’s best is for their father to be at home going about his business and trying to keep a fractured family together, not sitting in jail charged with a senseless murder.”

			Ignoring this, he said, “I worry about them, but they are strong and smart and they’ll survive.”

			“I’m not so sure about that. It’s easy for you to assume they’re as strong as you, given what you went through, but that may not be the case, Pete. You can’t just assume that your children will survive this unscarred.”

			“I’ll not be lectured. You are welcome to come visit, and I appreciate it, but not if you feel the need to deliver a sermon with each visit. Let’s keep things on the light side, Florry, okay? My days are numbered. Don’t make them worse.”

Chapter 6

The Honorable Rafe Oswalt had been the circuit court judge for Ford, Tyler, Milburn, Polk, and Van Buren Counties for the past seventeen years. Because he lived next door in Smithfield, the seat of Polk County, he had never met either the defendant or the deceased. Like everyone else, though, he was intrigued by the facts and eager to assume jurisdiction over the matter. During his unremarkable career on the bench, he had presided over a dozen or so rather routine murders—drunken brawls, knife fights in black honky-tonks, domestic conflicts—all crimes of rage or passion that usually ended in short trials followed by long prison sentences. Not a single murder had involved the death of such a prominent person.

			Judge Oswalt had read the newspaper reports and heard some of the gossip. He had spoken twice on the phone with John Wilbanks, a lawyer he greatly admired. He had also spoken on the phone with the district attorney, Miles Truitt, a lawyer he admired less. On Friday morning, the bailiff cracked the door to the judge’s chambers behind the courtroom and reported that a crowd was waiting.

			Indeed it was. Friday just happened to be a scheduled docket day for routine appearances for criminal matters and motion hearings in civil suits. No jury trials were planned in Ford County for months, and normally such a dull lineup on a Friday would attract almost no spectators. Suddenly, though, there was curiosity, and admission was free. The curiosity wasn’t limited to the few courthouse regulars who whittled carvings and dipped snuff under the old oaks on the lawn while waiting for some action inside. The curiosity consumed Ford County, and by 9:00 a.m. the courtroom was filled with dozens of people wanting to get a glimpse of Pete Banning. There were reporters from several newspapers, one from as far away as Atlanta. There were a lot of Methodists, now committed anti-Banning folks who bunched together on one side behind the prosecutor’s table. Across the aisle were assorted friends of Pete and Dexter Bell, along with the courthouse regulars, as well as a lot of townsfolk who managed to sneak away from their jobs for the moment. Above them, in the balcony, sat a few Negroes, isolated by their color. Unlike most buildings in town, the courthouse allowed them to come and go through the front door, but once inside they were banished to the balcony. They too wanted a look at the defendant.

			 			No members of the Bell or Banning family were present. The Bells were in mourning and preparing for a funeral the following day. The Bannings were staying as far away as possible.

			Because they were officers of the court, the town’s lawyers were allowed to come and go beyond the bar and around the bench. All twelve were present, all wearing their best dark suits and feigning important legal business while the crowd looked on. The clerks, normally a languid if not lethargic group, were shuffling their useless paperwork with vigor.

			Nix Gridley had two full-time deputies—Roy Lester and Red Arnett—and three part-timers, along with two volunteers. On this fine day the entire force of eight was present, all in proper, well-starched, and almost matching uniforms and presenting an impressive show of muscle. Nix himself seemed to be everywhere—laughing with the lawyers, flirting with the clerks, chatting with a few of the spectators. He was a year away from reelection and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to appear important in front of so many voters.

			And so the show went on as the crowd grew and the clock ticked past nine. Judge Oswalt finally emerged from behind the bench in his flowing black robe and assumed his throne. Acting as if he hadn’t noticed the spectators, he looked at Nix and said, “Mr. Sheriff, bring in the prisoners.”

			 			Nix was already at the door by the jury box. He opened it, disappeared for a moment, then reappeared with Pete Banning in handcuffs and wearing bulky gray overalls with the word “Jail” across the front. Behind Pete was Chuck Manley, an alleged car thief with the misfortune of being arrested a few days before Pete shot the preacher. Under normal circumstances, Chuck would have been hauled in from the jail, frog-marched in front of the judge, appointed a lawyer, and sent back to jail with hardly a soul knowing anything about it. Fate intervened, though, and Manley’s alleged crime would now be known to many.

			Pete moved as if on parade, ramrod straight with an air of confidence and a nonchalant look. Nix led him to a chair in front of the empty jury box, and Manley sat beside him. Their handcuffs were not removed. The lawyers found their seats and for a moment all was quiet as His Honor studiously reviewed a few sheets of paper. Finally, he said, “The matter of State versus Chuck Manley.”

			A lawyer named Nance jumped to his feet and motioned for his client to join him in front of the bench. Manley stepped over and looked up at the judge, who asked, “You are Chuck Manley?”

			“Yes, sir.”

			“And Mr. Nance here is your lawyer?”

			“I guess. My momma hired him.”

			“Do you want him to be your lawyer?”

			“I guess. I’m not guilty, though; this is just a misunderstanding.”

			Nance grabbed his elbow and told him to shut up.

			“You were arrested last Monday and charged with stealing Mr. Earl Caldwell’s 1938 Buick out of his driveway over in Karraway. How do you plead?”

			Manley said, “Not guilty, sir. I can explain.”

			“Not today, son. Maybe later. Your bond is hereby set at $100. Can you pay this?”

			“I doubt it.”

			Nance, eager to say something in front of such a crowd, bellowed, “Your Honor, I suggest that this young man be released on his own recognizance. He has no criminal record, has a job, and will show up in court whenever he is supposed to.”

			 			“That true, son, you have a job?”

			“Yes, sir. I drive a truck for Mr. J. P. Leatherwood.”

			“Is he in the courtroom?”

			“Oh, I doubt it. He’s very busy.”

			Nance jumped in with “Your Honor, I’ve spoken with Mr. Leatherwood and he is willing to sign a guarantee that my client will appear in court when directed. If you’d like to talk to Mr. Leatherwood, I can arrange this.”

			“Very well. Take him back to jail and I’ll call his boss this afternoon.”

			Manley was escorted out of the courtroom less than five minutes after entering it. His Honor signed his name a few times and reviewed some papers as everyone waited. Finally he said, “In the matter of State versus Pete Banning.”

			John Wilbanks was on his feet and striding to the bench. Pete stood, grimaced slightly, then walked to a spot next to his lawyer. Judge Oswalt asked, “You are Pete Banning?”

			He nodded. “I am.”

			“And you are represented by the Honorable John Wilbanks?”

			Another nod. “I am.”

			“And you have been arrested and charged for the first-degree murder of the Reverend Dexter Bell. Do you understand this?

			“And do you understand that first-degree murder is based on premeditation and can possibly carry the death penalty, whereas second-degree murder is punishable by a long prison sentence?”

			“I understand this.”

			“And how do you wish to plead?”

			“Not guilty.”

			“The court will accept your plea and enter it on the docket. Anything else, Mr. Wilbanks?”

			The lawyer replied, “Well, yes, Your Honor, I respectfully request the court to consider setting a reasonable bond for my client. Now, I realize the gravity of this charge and do not take it lightly. But a bond is permissible in this case. A bond is nothing but a guarantee that the defendant will not flee, but rather will appear in court when he’s supposed to. Mr. Banning owns an entire section of land, 640 acres, free and clear, with no debts whatsoever, and he is willing to post the deed to his property as security for his bond. His sister owns the adjacent section and will do the same. I might add, Your Honor, that this land has been in the Banning family for over one hundred years and neither my client nor his sister will do anything to jeopardize it.”

			 			Judge Oswalt interrupted with “This is first-degree murder, Mr. Wilbanks.”

			“I understand, Your Honor, but my client is innocent until proven guilty. How does it benefit the State or anyone else to keep him in jail when he can post a secure bond and remain free until trial? He’s not going anywhere.”

			“I’ve never heard of a bond for a charge this serious.”

			“Nor have I, but the Mississippi Code does not prohibit it. If the court would like, I will be happy to submit a brief on this point.”

			During the back-and-forth, Pete stood at attention, stiff and unmoving as a sentry. He stared straight ahead, as if hearing nothing but absorbing it all.

			Judge Oswalt thought for a moment and said, “Very well. I’ll read your brief, but it will have to be quite persuasive to change my mind. Meanwhile, the prisoner will remain in the custody of the sheriff’s office.”

			Nix gently took Pete by the elbow and led him from the courtroom, with John Wilbanks in pursuit. Waiting outside next to the sheriff’s car were two photographers, and they quickly snapped the same shots they had taken when the defendant was entering the courthouse. A reporter yelled a question in Pete’s direction. He ignored it as he ducked into the rear seat. Within minutes, he was back in his cell, handcuffs and shoes off, reading Go Down, Moses and smoking a cigarette.

* * *


			The burying of Dexter Bell became a glorious affair. It began on Thursday, the day after the killing, when old man Magargel opened the doors of his funeral home at 6:00 p.m. and the mob descended. Half an hour earlier, Jackie Bell and her three children were allowed to privately view the body. As was the custom, at that time and in that part of the world, the casket was open. Dexter lay still and quiet on a bed of shiny cloth, his black suit visible from the waist up. Jackie fainted as her children screamed and bawled and fell all over themselves. Mr. Magargel and his son were the only others in the room and they tried to render assistance, which was impossible.

			 			There was no good reason for an open casket. No law or verse of sacred scripture commanded such a ritual. It was simply what folks did to create as much drama as possible. More emotion equaled more love for the deceased. Jackie had sat through dozens of funerals conducted by her husband, and the caskets were always open.

			The Magargels had little experience with gunshot wounds to the face. Most of their clients were old folks whose frail bodies were easy to prepare. But not long into the embalming of Reverend Bell they realized they needed help and called a more experienced colleague from Memphis. A large chunk of the back of the skull had been blown off during the exit of bullet number three, but that was not of any significance. No one would ever see that part of the deceased. With the entry, though, right above the nose, there was a sizable divot that required hours of skillful rebuilding and molding with all manner of restructuring putty, glue, and coloring. The end product was okay, but far from great. Dexter continued to frown, as though he would forever be staring in horror at the gun.

			After half an hour of private viewing, a perfectly miserable time in which even the experienced and cold-blooded Magargels were pushed to the brink of tears, Jackie and her children were arranged in seats near the casket and the doors were opened and the crowd rushed in. What followed were three hours of unrestrained agony, grieving, and suffering.

			After a break, it continued the following afternoon when Dexter was rolled down the aisle of his church and parked under his pulpit. Jackie, who’d seen enough, asked that the casket not be opened. Old man Magargel frowned at this, though he complied and said nothing. He hated to miss such a rich opportunity to see folks racked with grief. For three more hours, Jackie and her children stood gamely by the casket and greeted many of the same people they’d greeted the evening before. Hundreds showed up, including every able-bodied Methodist in the county and many from other churches, and friends of the family, with a lot of children far too young for such mourning but drawn to the wake out of friendship with the Bells. Also paying respects were many outright strangers who simply didn’t want to miss the opportunity to wedge themselves into the story. The pews were filled with people who waited patiently to proceed past the casket and say something banal to the family, and as they waited they prayed, and whispered softly, passing along the latest news. The sanctuary suffered under the weight of inconsolable loss, which was made even worse by the pipe organ. Miss Emma Faye Riddle churned away, playing one sorrowful dirge after another.

			 			Hop watched from a corner of the balcony, vexed again at the strange ways of white folks.

			After two days of these preliminaries, the weary gathered for the last time at the church on Saturday afternoon for the funeral. A preacher friend of Dexter’s led the ceremony, which was complete with a full choir, two solos, a lengthy homily, more of Miss Emma Faye and her organ, scripture readings, three eulogies, tears by the bucket loads, and, yes, an open casket. Though he tried valiantly, the preacher failed to make sense of the death. He relied heavily on the theme of “God works in mysterious ways” but that found little traction. He finally surrendered and the choir rose to its feet.

			After two grueling hours, there was nothing left to say, and they loaded Dexter into the hearse and paraded across town to the public cemetery, where he was finally laid to rest amid a sea of flowers and a tide of raw emotion. Long after they were dismissed by the preacher, Jackie and the children sat in their folding chairs under the canopy and stared at the casket and the pile of black dirt beside it.

			Mrs. Gloria Grange was a devout Methodist who missed none of the ceremonies, and after the interment she stopped by the home of Mildred Highlander, for tea. Mildred was a Presbyterian and unacquainted with Reverend Bell; thus she didn’t attend the wake or funeral. But she certainly wanted all the details, and Gloria unloaded.

			 			Late Saturday afternoon, Florry hustled to town, also for tea with Mildred. She was eager to hear the details of the suffering caused by her brother, and Mildred was just as eager to pass them along.

Chapter 7

For the first time in his young life, Joel Banning disobeyed his father. He left Nashville Saturday morning and took the train to Memphis, a four-hour ride that allowed plenty of time to consider his act of disobedience, and by the time he arrived in Memphis he had convinced himself that it was justified. Indeed, he could even articulate his reasons: He needed to check on Florry to see how she was holding up; he needed to meet with Buford the overseer and make sure the harvest was going well; perhaps he would meet with John Wilbanks and discuss his father’s defense, or maybe not. Their little family was disintegrating on all fronts and someone had to step forward and try to save it. Besides, his father was in jail, and if Joel eased in and out the way he planned, his quick visit would not be discovered, his act of disobedience undetected.

			The train from Memphis to Clanton stopped six times, and it was after dark when he stepped onto the platform and pulled his hat low over his eyes. A few people got off and no one seemed to recognize him. There were two cabs in town and both were idling outside the station, their drivers leaning on the same fender chewing tobacco and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes.

			“Is that telephone box still outside the drugstore?” Joel asked the nearest driver.

			“It is.”

			“Can you take me there?”

			“Hop in.”

			The square was packed with late Saturday shoppers. Even during the picking season, the farmers and their field hands cleaned up after lunch and headed to town. The stores were filled, the sidewalks packed, the Atrium was showing Bing Crosby in Blue Skies, and a long line waited around the corner. Live bluegrass was entertaining a throng on the courthouse lawn. Joel preferred to avoid the crowds and asked his driver to stop on a side street. The phone box in front of Gainwright’s Pharmacy was occupied. Joel stood beside it, fidgeting for the benefit of the young lady using the phone, and tried his best to avoid eye contact with the packs of people passing by. When he was finally inside he punched in a nickel and called Aunt Florry. After a few rings she answered.

			 			Assuming, as always, that someone was listening on their rural party line, he said quickly, “Florry, it’s me. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

			“What? Who?”

			“Your favorite nephew. Bye.”

			As the only nephew, he was confident she got the message. Showing up unannounced would give her too much of a shock. Plus, he was starving and figured a little advance notice might get some hot food on the table. Back in the cab, he asked the driver to ease by the Methodist church. As they left the bustling square, they passed Cal’s Game Room, a pool hall known for its bootleg beer and craps in the back. As a young teenager in Clanton, Joel had been strictly warned by his father to stay away from Cal’s, in much the same way that all proper young men had been cautioned. It was a rowdy place on weekends, with a rough crowd, and there were usually fights and such. Because it was off-limits, Joel had always been tempted to sneak in during his high school days. His friends would brag about hanging out at Cal’s, and there were even stories of girls upstairs. Now, though, with three years of college behind him, and in the big city at that, Joel scoffed at the notion of being tempted by such a low-end dive. He knew the fine bars of Nashville and all the pleasures they offered. He could not imagine ever returning to live in Clanton, a town where the beer and liquor were illegal, as were most things.

			The lights were on in the sanctuary of the Methodist church, and as they passed it the driver said, “You from around here?”

			“Not really,” Joel said.

			 			“So you haven’t heard the big news this week, about the preacher?”

			“Yeah, I read about it. A strange story.”

			“Shot him right there,” the driver said, pointing to the annex behind the sanctuary. “Buried him this afternoon. Got the guy in jail but he won’t say anything.”

			Joel did not respond, did not wish to pursue this conversation that he had not initiated. He gazed at the church as they eased past it, and he remembered with great fondness those Sunday mornings when he and Stella would be dressed in their finest, bow ties and bonnets, and walked into the sanctuary holding hands with their parents, who were also turned out in their Sunday best. Joel knew at a young age that his father’s suits and his mother’s dresses were a bit nicer than the average Methodist’s, and their cars and trucks were always newer, and they talked of finishing college and not just high school. He realized a lot as a child, but because he was a Banning he was also taught humility and the virtue of saying as little as possible.

			He had been baptized in that church when he was ten years old; Stella at nine. The family had faithfully attended the weekly services, the fall and spring revivals, the cookouts, potluck suppers, funerals, weddings, and an endless schedule of social events because for them, and for many in their town, the church was the center of society. Joel remembered all of the pastors who had come and gone. Pastor Wardall had buried his grandfather Jacob Banning. Ron Cooper had baptized Joel, and his son had been Joel’s best friend in the fourth grade. And on and on. The pastors came and went until Dexter Bell arrived before the war.

			Evidently, he stayed too long.

			Joel said, “Head out Highway 18. I’ll show you where to stop.”

			The cabbie replied, “To where? Always like to know where I’m goin’.”

			“Out by the Banning place.”

			“You a Banning?”

			There was nothing worse than a nosy cabdriver. Joel ignored hi