As I pass through the wrought-iron gate of the Perry garden, I see a figure standing at the foot of the steps leading to the side door of the mansion, and the orange eye of a cigarette burning in the dark.
The shrubs and trees in the garden are lighted with white Christmas lights, like little stars. Nearing the steps, I realize that the figure is Caitlin Masters. She's rocking slightly to the rhythm of "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" wafting from the back of the house. I stop a few feet from her.
"I didn't know you smoked."
She blows a stream of smoke away from me. "I don't. You're hallucinating. Is your father okay?"
"He had an emergency call. So, you only smoke at parties?"
"Only when I'm bored."
She doesn't look bored. She looks like she's been waiting for me. "Are there many people in town your age?"
She cuts her eyes at me. "You mean men?"
"I guess I did."
"Nada. It's a desert." She stubs out the cigarette with her sandal and takes a sip of her drink. It looks like white wine, but it's not in a wineglass, and in the dim light has a tinge of green.
"Is that Mountain Dew?"
"God, no. It's a gimlet. Gin and Rose's lime juice. Raymond Chandler turned me on to them."
The Chandler reference surprises me. I'm starting to suspect that Caitlin Masters is full of surprises.
"You know the book?" she asks.
"The Long Goodbye."
"Very good. For that, I'll tell you a little secret I learned today. Interested?"
"Remember I told you about the Sovereignty Commission files? How forty-two of them are sealed for security reasons?"
"One of my reporters requested a Sovereignty Commission file today, and I was more than a little surprised to learn that it was one of the forty-two."
I think for a minute. "Not Del Payton?"
She nods. "I thought you'd be interested."
"I saw you talking to the D.A. inside. Anything I should know about?"
"He's just an old school friend."
"He didn't look too friendly."
Caitlin Masters doesn't miss anything. I wonder what she would do if she knew her story had got me shot at tonight. Probably tear into the story like a bulldog.
"You're dangerous, aren't you?"
She laughs softly and pulls a loose thread of linen from the front of her strapless dress. Her shoulders are lean and ghostly white in the shadows, accenting the long, graceful lines of her neck.
"I try to be. You're sure you won't reconsider lunch tomorrow? I promise to show a little remorse about the articles."
Her tone is casual enough, but there is more in it than hunger for a story. Her steady gaze has nothing to do with the words she spoke. Whatever I felt when we touched after the interview yesterday, she felt too. Between us floats a curious longing to feel that shock again, that aliveness. Without preamble she reaches out with her free hand and takes my right, her eyes unwavering. Her hand is cool, but a rush of warmth runs up my arm.
She smiles. "Feels good, doesn't it?"
It's only her hand, but the intimacy of her touch is undeniable. It's been so long since I've had any physical contact with a woman that it almost paralyzes me. Sarah's illness made it impossible at the end, and in the months since her death I've felt no response at all to the flirtations of the women I've met. It's as though the sexual component of my personality, once dominant, has been wrapped in so many layers of guilt and grief that the prospect of having to work through them with someone new discourages me from even trying. But with one simple gesture Caitlin Masters has cut through all of that.
"I suppose I'm being forward," she says. "By Southern standards anyway."
The urge to kiss her is a living thing inside my chest, and with it returns the guilt I felt yesterday, magnified a hundredfold. I close my eyes and squeeze her hand, fighting and savoring the pleasure at the same time. As though bidden by my thoughts, her lips brush mine.
When I open my eyes, hers are only inches away, green and wide, full of curiosity. She closes them, rises on tiptoe, and presses her lips to mine, sending another thrill of heat through me. From the first moment it is a knowing kiss, not the timid tasting of strangers, but the self-assured encounter of lovers who recognize each other. Her tongue is warm against mine, her lips cool. My senses read every curve and valley beneath the linen, and my arousal is immediate. Immediate and obvious. I slip my hand into the small of her back and for a moment kiss her as I truly want to, and the passion of her response explodes the boundaries I had perceived around us. As she kisses me, I feel something shift deep in my soul, a heavy door, and whatever stirs behind that door is too powerful to set free here, in this place. I break the kiss.
"Well," she says with a laugh, "I guess that answers that question."
"Did we really feel something yesterday."
Her cheeks are flushed, and part of her hair has fallen around her neck. She points at the edge of the flower bed beside us, where her gimlet glass lies in the monkey grass. "I dropped my drink."
"I'm sorry, Caitlin."
"I can get another one."
"I meant for getting so… you know."
She shakes her head. "I liked it. Hey, you didn't break any laws here. You look like you saw a ghost." Her smile vanishes. "You did see a ghost. God, I'm such an ass sometimes."
"It's all right."
She takes my hand again. "This just happened, okay? Nobody's fault. We'll just be friends, if you want."
"This is unfamiliar territory for me."
"We're the only ones out here, Penn. Everything's fine." She reaches behind her neck to pin her hair back up. "Do you need a ride home?"
"No. I need to talk to Sam Jacobs. He'll give me a ride. Thanks, though."
She releases my hand and gives me the kind of encouraging smile you give a sick friend, then walks up the steps ahead of me. As she turns the doorknob, I reach out and touch her elbow. "I do think that lunch would be nice, though."
She turns and smiles. "Same place?"
"Works for me. Twelve?"
"I'll meet you there."
She opens the veneered door and goes inside, and I follow, watching her wend her way through the crowd in the hall, drawing looks from most of the women and all of the men. A woman that beautiful and perceptive hasn't been seen in these precincts for quite some time. Not since Livy Marston came back from the University of Virginia to serve as Queen of the Confederate Pageant.
As Caitlin disappears into one of the great rooms, I detour out of the hallway to search for Sam. The first room I enter is relatively empty, but the arched proscenium leading to the next is completely blocked by a semicircle of men and women. I move closer to the line of backs, then freeze.
The focus of their attention is Judge Leo Marston.
The mere sight of him raises my temperature a couple of degrees, from anger mostly, but also-though I hate to admit it-from a residue of fear. Most of the men I knew as a boy I outgrew during high school, and they seem small to me now. Leo Marston still has three inches on me, and age has not diminished his physical presence. He must be nearly seventy by now, but he looks as though he could outfight any man here. With bulk in proportion to his height, he dwarfs the men standing in his audience. He masks his rawboned body in bespoke suits shipped to him once a year from London, but his out-sized hands betray the power beneath. Like my father, Marston has kept his hair through the years, and he wears it in a steel-gray brush cut reminiscent of the leading men of the 1950s. When I was younger, I thought of him as an oversized Lee Marvin with a patina of Southern refinement. But no amount of refinement can conceal the animal alertness of his eyes. The irises are ice blue with gray rims, giving him a wolfish aspect, and they never settle anywhere for long. In moments they will pick me from the crowd.
I step behind a tall man to my right, removing myself from Leo's line of sight. Still, his mellifluous basso carries to me without losing any volume to distance. It's one of his most formidable weapons as an attorney, second only to his intellect. The timbre of that voice is graven forever in the circuits of my brain. Twenty years ago I listened to it accuse my father of negligence bordering on murder, first indirectly, as Marston tried to draw out testimony from reluctant nurses and technicians, then directly, like an inquisitor, as he cross-examined Dad on the stand. I took two weeks off from college to attend the trial, and by the second Friday I was ready to confront Marston on his way home from court and put a bullet through his heart.
"My point," Marston is saying, "is that the Germans are either at your feet or at your throat. We have to let BASF know that while we want them to locate here, we won't grovel."
"But we will," someone says. "And they know it."
Everyone laughs, then stops abruptly when they see that Marston does not share their humor.
"It all comes down to dollars," he says in a cold voice. "That's when you find out who needs whom. And that remains to be settled."
He continues in this line, tantalizing the men with his inside knowledge and the women with his references to money. When people speak of "old Natchez families," they mean the Marstons. Leo's great-great grandfather,
Albert Marston, owned a massive cotton plantation in Louisiana, which he administered from an Italianate mansion in Natchez called Tuscany. During the Civil War, Albert paid lip service to the Confederate cause while lavishly entertaining the Union officers occupying the city. He was the first Natchez planter to sign the loyalty oath to the Union, which enabled him to maintain his assets and continue to do business while prouder men lost everything. Many called Marston a traitor, but he laughed all the way to the bank.
People say Leo is the reincarnation of Albert, and they're right. I often saw the grim ancestral portrait in the hall at Tuscany when I picked up Olivia in high school, a canvas enshrining a virtual twin of the man who warned me without subtlety to have "his angel" home by eleven "or else." By the time Leo graduated law school nearly a century after Albert's death, the family appetites for power and profit had expressed themselves as forcefully as the genes for those chilling blue eyes. Leo Marston knew the secret and immutable laws of Mississippi politics the way a farmer knows his fields. The state's eighty-two counties function more or less as feudal domains, each with its closed circle of power, and Leo was born into one of the richest. Yet despite the relative wealth of Adams County, its elected officials cannot help but be swayed by admiration, envy, or outright fear of men like Leo Marston. Add to these the appointees whose hirings Marston has assured, and the result is a local political network that allows the judge to grant or quash things like building permits and zoning variances with a single phone call.
And Marston's power is not limited to the city. During his judicial career- first as a circuit judge, then a justice of the state supreme court-he did so many favors for so many people that his capital reserves of influence are impossible to estimate. Nor did he idly spend his time as state attorney general or chairman of the Agriculture Board. He has like-minded friends in every corner of Mississippi, and owns financial stakes in businesses all over the state, including the two biggest banks. He can sway the trials of friends and enemies from Tupelo to Biloxi, and put fear into newspaper editors as far away as Memphis and New Orleans. He is a vindictive son of a bitch, and everybody knows it.
On the other hand, he is easy to like. A man doesn't attain that kind of power without being able to play the social game with flair. Marston can discuss the finer points of obscure wines with vintners vacationing in Natchez, and an hour later put a crew of roughnecks on the floor of an oil rig with jokes that would make a sailor blush. In the company of women he becomes whatever the mood and situation require. With a priggish society wife he fancies, he tells off-color stories in a quiet, bourbon-laced voice, flustering her with the idea that a man in the judge's exalted position could be so down-to-earth. With a buxom barmaid he plays the cultured Southern aristocrat for all he is worth. I've seen Leo Marston play so many roles that I'm not sure anything lies at the center of the man other than a burning compulsion to increase his dominion over people, land, and money.
As I contemplate him, his words begin to lose their rhythm, then falter altogether. He has spotted me. The blue-gray eyes hold mine, unblinking, searching, revealing nothing. A few heads in the audience turn to me, wondering who could possibly have upset the equilibrium of the judge. Noticing this, Leo resumes speaking, though without the ease he earlier displayed.
He focuses on the women in his audience, lingering upon the prettiest. That his weakness was women I discovered in high school, when his sexual escapades almost destroyed his family. Leo's wife found a way to live with his flagrant infidelities, but his youngest daughter could not. When Olivia Marston learned at sixteen that her father had left a wake of brokenhearted and pregnant women behind him (which clarified the mystery of her mother's chronic alcoholism), she turned the strength she'd inherited from Leo against him, shaming and threatening him into changing his ways. It worked for a while, but appetites on that scale can't be suppressed long. What I found fascinating-and Livy disgusting-was that she was the only woman who ever challenged him. Not one of Leo's cast-off paramours ever tried to bring him down. The single ones he paid off with abortion money and more, frequently enough to send them back to college or get them started in a new town. The married ones nursed their broken hearts in silence, or, if they confessed to their husbands, were surprised by the nonviolence of the reaction. Such male passivity was unheard of in the South, but by virtue of his power, Leo Marston enjoyed a sort of modern-day droit du signeur, and he used it. As far as I know, he's paid only one price for his sexual adventures. Though his name has been floated more than once as a potential candidate for governor, each time party officials quietly let the suggestion die. No one feels confident about exposing Leo Marston's past to the scrutiny of a modern election.
"You're not carrying a gun, are you?"
Startled from my reverie, I find Sam Jacobs standing beside me. He looks as though he's only half joking.
"Am I that obvious?"
"You look like you're ready to tear Leo a new one."
"I can dream, can't I? Look, I need to talk to you. Can you give me a ride home?"
"I'm ready now. Let's hit the bar before we go. Don's got a bottle of Laphroig over there."
Sam leads the way. I shake hands with several people as we move through the crowd, accepting compliments on my books and answering polite questions about Annie. The alcohol has loosened everybody up, though thankfully not too much. As Lucy Perry promised, no one mentions the newspaper article. When I catch up to Sam at the bar, he's chatting with two other men waiting for drinks.
"Hell's bells!" cries a gravelly female voice behind me. "If it ain't the Houston representative of the N-Double-A-See-P."
Dread fills me as I turn, certain that I'm about to endure a public dressing-down for my comments in the paper. The speaker is Maude Marston. Leo's wife is obviously drunk, as she has been for as long as I can remember. In response to the judge's amorous adventures, Maude developed a sort of battleship manner, charging through her daily social round with prow thrust forward and guns primed for combat. Anyone who whispers malicious comments within her hearing risks a withering broadside salvo or, worse, depth charges dropped with stealth and unerring aim, that detonate days or weeks later, leaving the offender shattered and forever outside the inner social circle. I hate to guess what she has in store for me.
"Whassa matter, hotshot?" she drawls. "Cat got your tongue?"
I force myself to smile. "Good evening, Maude. It's nice to see you."
She stares with blank rage, as though the synapses behind her eyes have stopped firing. Maude was once a great beauty, but her two daughters are the only remaining testament to that fact. Her hair should be gray, but it has been bleached and hennaed and sprayed so often that it has acquired a sort of lacquered-armor look. The cumulative effect of that hair, the gin-glazed eyes, combative stance, and scowling avian face stretched taut by various plastic surgeries is enough to send any but the most stalwart running for the exits.
She pokes a grossly bejeweled finger into my chest. "I'm talking to you."
"You're drunk," I say quietly.
She blanches, then pokes me again, harder.
"You gonna have me arrested, hotshot?"
Over Maude's shoulder I see Caitlin watching from the hall, her eyes flickering with curiosity. "No. I'm going to ask your husband to take you home."
A harsh cackle bursts from Maude's lips, and she wobbles on her feet. "You appointed yourself special protector of the nigras in this town or what?"
Sam Jacobs reaches between us and takes hold of my forearm. "Got the drinks! Let's roll! Great to see you, Maude!"
As Sam pulls me away, Maude speaks softly but with a venom that makes me pause. "You ruined my daughter's life, you bastard."
Then she throws her drink in my face.
A collective gasp goes up from the nearby guests. The drink is mostly ice. It's Maude's words that have stunned me. I have no idea what she's talking about. It has to be Livy, but that makes no sense at all. Before I can gather my thoughts for a question, Lucy Perry appears and gentles Maude away from the bar the way a trainer gentles a wild mare.
"Let's blow this joint before somebody gets killed," Sam whispers.
As we depart, Caitlin leans toward me. "I can't wait to hear the story behind that."