CREIGHTON WHEELER STORMED ACROSS THE bluestone terrace, whipping off his sun visor and making a swipe at the sweat streaming down his face, then without breaking stride, angrily tossed the damp towel and visor onto a chaise. “This better be damn important. I was about to break his serve.”
The housekeeper who’d summoned him from the tennis court was unfazed by his temper. “Don’t you take that tone with me. It’s your daddy wants to see you.”
Her name was Ruby. Creighton didn’t know her last name and had never bothered to ask, although she’d been in the family’s employ since before he was born. Any time he got out of sorts with her, she reminded him that she’d wiped his butt and his nose, that both had been nasty, and that she hadn’t enjoyed doing either. It rankled to think of
her being that familiar with his person, even when he was a baby.
He brushed past her three-hundred-pound bulk and crossed the industrial-size kitchen to one of several refrigerators, yanking open the door.
“Right now, he said.”
Ignoring her, Creighton got a can of Coke from the Sub-Zero, ripped off the tab, and took a long drink. He rolled the cold can across his forehead. “Take one of these out to Scott.”
“Your tennis coach’s legs ain’t broke.” She turned back to the counter and slapped her large hand on the hunk of beef she was preparing to go into the roasting pan.
Something ought to be done about her sass, Creighton thought as he pushed through the swinging door and made his way toward the front of the house, where his father had a study. The door was ajar. He paused outside it, then knocked once on the doorjamb with his Coke can, nudged the door open, and strolled in, twirling the tennis racquet against his shoulder. He looked every inch the aristocrat called away from a session of healthy exercise. It was a role he was perfectly suited to play.
Doug Wheeler was seated behind his desk, which was presidential in proportion but much more pretentious than anything inside the Oval Office. The desk was flanked by mahogany flagpoles, one for the Georgia state flag, the other for Old Glory. Ancestors glared from oil portraits hanging on opposite walls, which were paneled in stained cypress meant to last till the Second Coming.
“Scott’s time is money, and the clock is ticking,” Creighton said.
“I’m afraid this can’t wait. Please sit down.”
Creighton took a seat in one of the cordovan leather chairs facing his father’s desk and propped his tennis racquet against it. “I didn’t know you were here. Weren’t you scheduled to play golf this afternoon?” He leaned forward and set his Coke can on the polished surface of the desk.
Frowning, Doug placed a coaster beneath the can so it wouldn’t leave a moisture ring. “I dropped by here to change before going to the club,” he said. “But something urgent—”
“Don’t tell me,” Creighton interrupted. “The paper clip audit exposed an embezzlement. Damn those sneaky secretaries.”
“Paul is dead.”
Creighton’s heart gave a bump. His smile collapsed. “What?”
Doug cleared his throat. “Your uncle was shot and killed in the Hotel Moultrie about an hour ago.”
Creighton continued to stare at him, then finally released his breath. “Well, in the immortal words of Forrest Gump. Actually his mother. ‘Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.’ ”
His father lurched to his feet. “Is that all you can say?”
“I think that says it fairly well.”
Creighton had never seen his father cry. He wasn’t crying now, but his eyes looked suspiciously moist and he was swallowing too often and too hard. In an attempt to hide the emotion about to overwhelm him, he stepped from behind his desk and moved to the wide window. He looked out over the grounds of the estate, where Mexican laborers
were hand-picking weeds from colorful beds of impatiens and caladiums.
Quietly Creighton asked, “Did I hear you correctly, Father? Uncle Paul was shot?”
“In the forehead. Almost point-blank range. During an apparent holdup.”
“A holdup? Like a robbery? At the Moultrie?”
“As unheard of as that seems.”
Doug ran a hand through his hair, which was thick and gray like that of his brother—now late brother—who had been his senior by only eleven months. He and Paul went to the same barber and used the same tailor. Of almost identical height and weight, they were often mistaken for each other from the back. Their sibling relationship had been almost as close as that of twins.
“I don’t know any details,” Doug continued. “Julie was almost too distraught to speak.”
“She was notified first?”
“Actually, she was with him when it happened.”
“At the Hotel Moultrie. During the middle of a weekday.”
Doug came around and gave his son a hard look. “She was almost hysterical. According to the policeman. Detective actually. He took the phone from her when she could no longer speak. He told me that she had insisted on calling and telling me herself. But she managed to get out only a few incoherent words before she began crying to the point that I could no longer understand her.” He paused to clear his throat.
“The detective, Sanford I think he said his name was, seemed decent enough. He extended his condolences
and told me I could come to the morgue if I . . . if I wanted to see Paul’s body. There’ll be an autopsy, of course.”
Creighton looked away. “Christ.”
“Yes,” Doug said on a weighty sigh. “I can’t come to terms with it either.”
“Did they catch the guy?”
“Where in the hotel?”
“The detective didn’t say.”
“One of the shops?”
“I don’t know.”
“Who would rob—”
“I don’t know,” Doug snapped.
A taut silence followed. Doug’s shoulders settled heavily on his tall frame. “I’m sorry, Creighton. I’m . . . not myself.”
“Understandably. It’s astonishing.”
Doug massaged his forehead. “The detective said he would give me a full account when I get there.” He glanced at the open door but made no move toward it, clearly reluctant to leave on that errand.
“What about Mother? Has she been told?”
“She was here when Julie called. Naturally she’s upset, but there are arrangements that must be made. She’s upstairs making preliminary calls.” Doug went to the bar and poured himself a shot of bourbon. “Want one?”
“No thank you.”
Doug tossed back the drink and picked up the decanter again. “As difficult as this tragedy is to absorb, there are practical matters that must be addressed.”
Creighton braced himself. He disdained anything with the word practical attached to it.
“Tomorrow morning, I want you to go to the offices and make a personal statement to our personnel.”
Inwardly Creighton groaned. He wanted nothing to do with their personnel, which amounted to several hundred people, each of whom held his uncle Paul in the highest esteem while most demonstrated nothing but contempt for him whenever he graced the corporate headquarters with his presence, which was as seldom as possible.
Wheeler Enterprises manufactured and sold building materials of some kind. Whoopee. Fascinating.
His father looked over his shoulder at him. Obviously a response was expected.
“Of course. What should I say?”
“I’ll write something out tonight. I’ll call for a companywide assembly in the auditorium on the third floor at ten o’clock. Deliver your statement, then perhaps a minute of silence should be observed.”
Creighton nodded solemnly. “Most appropriate.”
Doug downed the second drink, then decisively set the empty tumbler on the bar. “You may be required to take up some of the slack while we’re sorting through all this.”
“All of what?”
“The funeral, for starters.”
“Oh, of course. That’ll be an event.”
“No doubt,” Doug said with a sigh. “I’ll keep it as dignified as possible, but your uncle was involved in—”
“Bloody everything. He was the undeclared king of Atlanta.”
Doug pressed on. “Yes, and now the king is dead. To complicate matters, his death was a homicide.” Thinking about the brutality of it, he winced and dragged his hand down his face. “Jesus.” He glanced toward the bar as though considering pouring one more shot of Kentucky’s finest, but didn’t. “The police will need our full cooperation.”
“What can we do? We weren’t witnesses.”
“But Paul’s killer must be apprehended. You will cooperate and do so willingly. Do we have an understanding?”
“Of course, Father.” Creighton hesitated, then said, “Although I hope you’ll act as the family’s official spokesperson. The media will flock to us like vultures to carrion.”
Doug gave a brusque nod. “I’ll see to it that you and your mother are sheltered. Although I’m compelled to make the funeral a public observance, I’ll insist on it being as low-key as possible.
“We must set an example to our employees, and keep the company running smoothly, which is what Paul would want us to do. To that end, I want you to be prepared. I’ve left some materials in your room. You should review them tonight, bring yourself up to date on new products, where we rank in the market, our projections for next year.”
“All right.” As if.
His father seemed to read his mind. He gave him the full-on, American eagle, hard-ass treatment. “It’s the least you can do, Creighton. You’re almost thirty years old. I’ve been remiss and take partial responsibility for your lack of interest in the
company. I should have given you more responsibility, involved you more in the expansion of the business. Paul . . .” He stumbled over the name. “Paul encouraged me to. Instead, I’ve spoiled you. No more. It’s time you stepped up to the plate. Now that Paul’s gone, you’ll take over when I retire.”
Who was he kidding? Himself maybe, but certainly not Creighton. His father was delusional if he thought Creighton planned on jumping into the corporate cauldron. He knew nothing about the business or management thereof, and didn’t want to know. All he wanted out of the family business was revenue. He loved his life exactly as it was and had no intention whatsoever of changing it by taking on responsibilities that any yes-man could do.
But now wasn’t the time to replay the scene he and his father had played a thousand times before, when his shortcomings and misplaced priorities were paraded for his review, when he was reminded of duty and what it meant to be a grownup, a man, a Wheeler. Bullshit like that.
Changing subjects, he asked, “Has it made the news yet?”
“If not yet, it will soon.” Doug moved to his desk and picked up a sheet of paper, passing it to Creighton. “Would you please call these people and notify them? They deserve to be told by a member of the family, rather than hearing it on the news.”
Creighton scanned the typewritten list, recognizing most of the names as personal friends of his uncle Paul, stockholders in Wheeler Enterprises, city and state officials, other prominent businessmen.
“And would you also break the news to Ruby?” Doug asked. “She knows something’s up, but I didn’t have the heart to tell her, especially considering the horrible circumstances. You know how much she loved and admired Paul.”
“Yes, I’ll do that.” And I’ll enjoy it, Creighton thought. That was one way to get back at her for sassing him. “Would you like me to go to the morgue with you?”
“Thank you, but no,” Doug said. “I wouldn’t ask that of you.”
“Good. I can’t think of anything worse.” Creighton pretended to ponder it a moment, then shuddered. “Maybe a Carnival cruise.”