Seven-year-old Carter Cross Jr. wrapped his hand around the tie hugging his throat and tugged.
In the car on the way from the church, the man on the radio said it was 106 degrees. Hottest day of the year.
Sweating up his Sunday suit, Carter thought he’d die.
His chest squeezed like the time his cousin, Troy, knocked him to the ground with a Bruce Lee kick and sat on him to steal the quarters his grandmother had given him.
He pulled a little harder, and the stupid thing popped loose. His arm jerked, and the clipped-on fabric flew to the crumbs of dirt skirting the pit in front of him.
Mama’s elbow jabbed him in the shoulder. Twice. The motion jarred him but didn’t get to him through the thick pad of his jacket.
She didn’t look at him. She didn’t even drop her chin in his direction. She rubbed her swollen belly and stared forward at the hole. The hole large enough for the box inside it. The fancy box that didn’t look big enough.
There was a crowd. Even in this heat. A woman sang some sad song that Carter had never heard before. People cried and carried on. Mama’s sister, Carla, plus some other ladies who hadn’t let up since the service at the church. With the heat and her being so upset, Mama told Grandma Etta to stay at the house. People kept whispering how it was unnatural to outlive a child.
Uncle Shepard squeezed an arm around Aunt Carla as she waved her hand around.
“Not our Carter. No, Lord!”
Over her shoulder, a thin, white man Carter Jr. didn’t know handed her a hankie. He turned a stern eye to little Carter.
The man’s blue eyes chilled, which should have been a blessing in the Texas heat. It wasn’t.
Carter bit his lip to nearly bleeding. He huffed. Oven-hot air blazed his lungs and prickled his eyes.
Daddy had told him that crying was for girls. Men had to be strong. In charge. That’s the only lesson his father had taught him.
Carter’s little sister, Jasmine, trembled next to him. Her face twisted up in a ball of tears and snot.
Mama wasn’t crying at all. Not that Carter could see. If there were tears behind her huge, round sunglasses, they weren’t falling. She kept staring.
Maybe Daddy’s wrong.
Feeling like a back-stabber made Carter bite down harder. The salty tang of blood seeped across the tip of his tongue.
Mama would cry. Carter knew it. She was a girl. And Daddy had never been wrong.
The preacher kept talking about dust and going to Heaven and how God called Daddy home. Carter pressed his eyes shut. The blaze of the sun through his lids turned his vision red.
Couldn’t God do whatever he wanted? What’d he need Daddy for? Daddy had a home.
He thought about his dad arriving in front of Jesus on a cloud. Everything was white. Isn’t that how Heaven would be? He didn’t know.
The preacher stopped talking, and following a chorus of amens, people rustled. He kept his eyes closed, trying to see Daddy on that cloud. That made more sense than the idea of his father in that box.
A pop on Carter’s back opened his eyes. He squinted up to see his Uncle Shepard.
“Come on, boy. We’re heading back to the house. Your mama wants you to ride with us.”
His uncle was even sweatier than normal. He pulled a tissue from his suit and gave his forehead a wide swipe. Uncle Shepard’s head, puffy and dark like a toasted marshmallow, craned around toward Carter’s mother. She was over talking to the old white man.
“I wanna ride with Mama.”
“No. You’re coming with us.”
The tears Carter fought so hard started to spill. He stopped breathing, thinking they would stop. They didn’t. His chest convulsed as he sobbed. The sound of his screaming filled everything around him. He tried to stop it. He did.
“Come on, your Daddy wouldn’t want you crying.” Uncle Shepard’s smooth voice grasped for comforting but didn’t quite reach. The lumbering man hitched his pants and kneeled down to look Carter in his watery eyes. “Be a little man now.”
Carter swallowed. The lump in his throat felt like a porcupine. He didn’t speak. He just followed his aunt and uncle to their car.
Looking out the window as they drove away, he saw his mother waving her finger in the white man’s face. That finger usually had people shaking. Mama could be scary. But the man stood and stared–tall and rooted like a weed.
The car lurched and kicked up a swirl of dust on the dirt road leading out of the cemetery, and the pair disappeared.
John Peter Star died trussed up like a Christmas goose and with a ball gag in his mouth.
He was 90.
Waves of news crews descended on Dallas to cover the ignominious death of the oil billionaire turned magnate of international business. His death dropped him precipitously from the Forbes list, bumping up friends and some rivals–which would have made John Peter grumble curses through quick puffs on one of his favorite Cuban cigars.
Police found the elderly man’s body in a five-star hotel room on Christmas Eve after an as-yet-unknown woman called 9-1-1 then split the scene of sexual adventure. Perhaps no one would have known had a tabloid photographer from The Dallas Post not been tipped off and, in the commotion, snuck into the hotel and into the penthouse suite. And snapped a photo. And sold said photo to a national online gossip site after publishing it.
Now everyone knew. It was all anyone could talk about.
I’d thought the entire thing hilarious and recounted each funny fact of the news story with my cackling childhood friends at the barbershop I frequented whenever I came back to town for the holidays.
When a report notes that police “discovered” you, that alone signals trouble. Dead was, of course, not a good sign. Arms bound. Naked from the waist down. A missing lady friend. The gag.
I rolled with laughter, doubling over and practically out of the barber’s chair. It was an immature reaction, considering I’d be forty on my next birthday. But wild stories of wealth and perversion served the universal need to bring the well-heeled back to Earth. All good fun.
Then, more than three months later, I received the phone call.
“There’s a legal matter I need to discuss with you. Are you available to meet in my Dallas office next Thursday afternoon? It’s vital that we speak,” an attorney informed me.
“I’d rather not say over the phone.”
I rolled my eyes and geared up to tune out the man, reviewing figures on my computer screen. “Well, then I guess you’d rather I not be there. I’m not in Dallas, as my phone number might indicate to you, and have a business to run.”
Dallas wasn’t home anymore. I’d lived in Raleigh for years.
The man persisted. “This is a conversation best had in person. If you’d like me to come to you, I can bring the necessary paperwork, but…” Silence and a sigh. “This has to do with a confidential matter of high importance. Trust me. It’s going to be worth your while. And I’d prefer to talk with you and your siblings at the same time.”
Trust him? All he’d said was his name was William Traynor, an estate attorney. What did he know about Jazz and Nate? If this was family business, he could deal with me or Mom, but he wasn’t calling about my mother, clearly.
“You’re going to have to explain yourself if you want an appointment. I’m a busy man.”
I worked for a top commercial and residential real estate developer and had projects stretching coast to coast. My time was literally money. Lots of money.
The guy acquiesced. “Okay. Can we meet in person tomorrow? I’ll fly out.”
He did. He flew to North Carolina to meet me at my office with shocking news.
Now, here I was a week later, using up vacation days and walking out of the private executive elevator at the J.P. Star Energy corporate office.
The Star family wanted the meeting in the boardroom, and William was obliging them. The family members stood outside the doors of the meeting room, whispering. They slid their furtive glances at me with lips pressed tight. Anger? Grief? Probably some of both. But I couldn’t quite tell. I didn’t know these people.
I’d heard of them. All of Dallas had. Their names had been on the lips of every person in the country for months.
The executive floor looked like I would expect. Endless mahogany panels. Photos of oil fields throughout the years with the famous face of John Peter Star staring out at various ages. Four desks lined each side of the reception area opposite the express elevator–two by two. Only two were staffed, and one of the women stood as I stepped onto the floor.
The other woman eyed me then looked quickly away, tapping away on her keyboard.
“Good afternoon. You must be Carter. I’m Hannah Carlsson, Theresa Star-Hunter’s assistant.” The older, icier blond woman moved forward.
“I must be.”
My taut grin excited a plastered smile from the woman that cracked for a second as we shook hands.
“Theresa and the rest of the family are in the boardroom. I’ll walk you back.”
I followed her through reception to the broad hallway extending to the left.
One after the other, more pictures came into view all the way down the hall. In one, a younger version of the old man stood arm-in-arm with T. Boone Pickens–a tick shorter and slighter but, somehow, he still filled the frame. The brim of his straw hat half shaded his face, so only one crystalline eye was visible as if he were a Western pirate. The man’s angled jaw formed a clean-shaven foundation for his pointed features.
This bony redneck?
Hannah deposited me at the doorway of a huge, paneled room with a massive, burled-wood table in the center and seating for over twenty.
Six nervous people already sat clustered at the far end. One wall of floor-to-ceiling glass overlooked all of downtown Dallas, peeking over every high-rise except the green-lit building opposite them across the city center.
I barely looked at them. Over their heads, dominating the wall, was a portrait. It had to be at least five feet high.
The thin, sharp-cheeked white man stared back in a black suit and bolo tie. A black, feather-topped cowboy hat perched forward on his head, framing sharp blue eyes. The man’s wide smile curled, flexing like a crossbow poised to launch.
The news of the past few months floated through my head again, less funny and more stomach churning.
Grandma Etta must have been out of her mind to get mixed up with him. This pervy, fucking liar. This conniving, double-dipping prick. This manipulative, sneak-down-to-the-quarters piece of shit.