Page 40 of Ford County

"Where are we going?" Stanley finally asked.

"You're goin' to hell, I reckon."

That response took care of the follow-ups, and Stanley pondered what to say next. They turned onto a gravel lane, the narrowest yet, and Stanley said to himself, This is it. Deep woods on both sides. Not a house within miles. A quick execution. A quick burial. No one would ever know. They crossed a creek and the road widened.

Say something, man. "You're gonna do what you want, Mr. Cranwell, but I'm truly sorry about Michael's case," Stanley said, but he was certain his words sounded as lame as they felt. He could be sincerely drenched with remorse, and it would mean nothing to the Cranwells. But he had nothing left but words. He said, 'Tm willing to help with some of his expenses."

"You're offering money?"

"Sort of. Yes, why not? Fm not rich, but I do okay. I could pitch in, maybe cover the cost of a nurse."

"So let me get this straight. I take you home, safe and sound, and tomorrow I stop by your office and have a chat about your sudden concern over Michael's support. Maybe we have some coffee, maybe a doughnut. Just a couple of old pals. Not one word about tonight. You draw up an agreement, we sign it, shake hands, I leave, and the checks start coming."

Stanley could not even respond to the absurd idea.

"You're a pathetic little creep, you know that, Wade? You'd tell any lie in the world right now to save your ass. If I stopped by your office tomorrow, you'd have ten cops waitin' with handcuffs. Shut up, Wade, you're just makin' things worse. I'm sick of

your lies."

How, exactly, could things get worse? But Stanley said nothing. He glanced at the pistol. It was cocked. He wondered how many victims actually saw their own murder weapons in those last horrible seconds.

Suddenly the darkest road in the thickest woods crested on a small rise, and as the truck barreled forward, the trees thinned, and there were lights beyond. Many lights, the lights of a town. The road ended at a highway, and when they turned south, Stanley saw a marker for State Route 374, an old winding trail that connected Clanton with the smaller town of Karraway. Five minutes later they turned onto a city street, then zigzagged into the southern section of town. Stanley soaked up the familiar sights -  a school to the right, a church to the left, a cheap strip mall owned by a man he'd once defended. Stanley was back in Clanton, back home, and he was almost elated. Confused, but thrilled to be alive and still in one piece.

The other truck did not follow them into town.

A block behind the Rite Price, Jim Cranwell turned in to the gravel lot of a small furniture store. He slammed the truck in park, turned off its lights, then pointed the gun and said, "Listen to me, Lawyer Wade. I don't blame you for what happened to Michael, but I blame you for what happened to us. You're scum, and you have no idea of the misery you've caused."

A car passed behind them, and Cranwell lowered the gun for a moment. Then he continued, "You can call the cops, have me arrested, thrown in jail, and all that, though I'm not sure how many witnesses you can find. You can cause trouble, but those guys back there'll be ready. A stupid move, and you'll regret it immediately."

"I'll do nothing, I promise. Just let me out of here."

"Your promises mean nothing. You go on now, Wade, go home, and then go back to the office tomorrow. Find some more little people to run over. We'll have us a truce, me and you, until Michael dies."

"Then what?"

He just smiled and waved the gun closer. "Go on, Wade. Open the door, get out, and leave us alone."

Stanley hesitated only briefly and was soon walking away from the truck. He turned a corner, found a sidewalk in the darkness, and saw the sign for the Rite Price. He wanted to run, to sprint, but there were no sounds behind him. He glanced back once. Cranwell was gone.

As Stanley hustled toward his car, he began to think about the story he would tell his wife. Three hours late for dinner would require a story.

And it would be a lie, that was certain.

Quiet Haven

The Quiet Haven Retirement Home is a few miles outside the city limits of Clanton, off the main road north, tucked away in a shaded valley so that it cannot be seen by passing motorists. Such homes near such highways pose significant dangers. I know this from experience because I was employed at Heaven's Gate outside Vicksburg when Mr. Albert Watson wandered off and found his way onto a four-lane, where he got hit by a tanker truck. He was ninety-four and one of my favorites. I went to his funeral. Lawsuits followed, but I didn't stick around. These patients often wander. Some try to escape, but they're never successful. I don't really blame them for trying, though.

My first glimpse of Quiet Haven reveals a typical 1960s flat-roof, redbrick run-down building with several wings and the general appearance of a dressed-up little prison where people are sent to quietly spend their final days. These places were once generally called nursing homes, but now the names have been upgraded to retirement homes and retirement villages and assisted-living centers and other such misnomers. "Momma's at the retirement village" sounds more civilized than "We stuck her in a nursing home." Momma's at the same place; now it just sounds better, at least to everyone but Momma.

Whatever you call them, they're all depressing. But they are my turf, my mission, and every time I see a new one I'm excited by the challenges.

I park my ancient and battered Volkswagen Beetle in the small empty parking lot in front. I adjust my black-framed 1950s-style nerd glasses and my thickly knotted tie, no jacket, and get out of my car. At the front entrance, under the sheet-metal veranda, there are half a dozen of my new friends sitting in deep wicker rocking chairs, watching nothing. I smile and nod and say hello, but only a couple are able to respond. Inside, I'm hit by the same thick, putrid antiseptic smell that wafts through the halls and walls of every one of these places. I present myself to the receptionist, a robust young woman in a fake nurse's uniform. She's behind the front counter, going through a stack of paperwork, almost too busy to acknowledge me.

"I have a ten o'clock appointment with Ms. Wilma Drell," I say meekly.

She looks me over, doesn't like what she sees, and refuses to smile. "Your name?" Her name is Trudy, according to the cheap plastic badge pinned just above her massive left breast, and Trudy is precariously close to becoming the first name on my brand-new shit list.

"Gilbert Griffin," I say politely. "Ten a.m."

"Have a seat," she says, nodding at a row of plastic chairs in the open lobby.

"Thank you," I say and proceed to sit like a nervous ten-year-old. I study my feet, covered in old white sneakers and black socks. My pants are polyester. My belt is too long for my waist. I am, in a nutshell, unassuming, easily run over, the lowest of the low.

Trudy goes about her business of rearranging stacks of paper. The phone rings occasionally, and she's polite enough to the callers. Ten minutes after I arrive, on time, Ms. Wilma Drell swishes in from the hallway and presents herself. She, too, wears a white uniform, complete with white stockings and white shoes with thick soles that take a pounding because Wilma is even heavier than Trudy.

I stand, terrified, and say, "Gilbert Griffin."

"Wilma Drell." We shake hands only because we must, then she spins and begins to walk away, her thick white stockings grinding together and creating friction that can be heard at some distance. I follow like a frightened puppy, and as we turn the corner, I glance at Trudy, who's giving me a look of complete disdain and dismissal. At that moment, her name hits my list at number one.