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CHAPTER 11

Sam Jacobs drives a royal blue Hummer, the civilian version of the military Humvee. He claims it's the only way to travel in the oil fields. I cling to the window frame as the huge vehicle rumbles like a tank down State Street.

"Talk about a babe magnet!" he says, trying to hold his drink steady with his left hand. "More women come on to me in this thing than when I had my Mercedes."

I nod absently. Maude Marston has popped the cork on a dark vintage of memory.

"Did you give Caitlin Masters a tour of the garden?" Sam asks, giving me a bemused smile. "You two had that couple look when you came in."

"Did you hear what Maude said before she threw the drink in my face?"

"About ruining her daughter's life?"

"Yes. She had to be talking about Olivia, right?"

"Had to be."

"When did Livy's life get ruined? Isn't she still married to that sports lawyer in Atlanta?"

"Definitely fartin' through silk, on the money side."

I laugh, wondering whether the Jewish crowd in Manhattan would believe the Southern accent coming from Sam Jacobs's mouth.

"However," Sam adds, cutting his eyes at me. "My wife's sister was in Atlanta last month for some kind of Tri-Delt alumni ball, and Livy showed up without her husband."

"So?"

"The gossip of the party was trouble in paradise."

"Not exactly a reliable source. Do they have any kids?"

"Don't think so." He glances at me again. "It would be pretty strange, the two of you being available at the same time. It's like fate. Maybe history's reversing itself."

Not wanting to continue in this line, I stick my head out of the window as the Hummer roars up the bypass toward my parents' neighborhood. The wind is warm and wet in my hair. The downtown bars and riverboat casino will still be going great guns, but this part of town looks like Mayberry, R.F.D.

"Have you seen anybody?" Sam asks. "You know since Sarah died?"

I pull my head back inside and look him in the eye. "Lunch with Caitlin Masters tomorrow is my first date since the funeral. If you call that a date."

"Shit. I know it's tough, Penn. I joke about fooling around, but if I ever lost Jenny, I wouldn't know what to do."

I take his cup from his hand and gulp a sweat-inducing shot of Laphroig.

"That's the ticket," he says, slapping me on the knee.

The Hummer jerks as Sam hits the brakes, then lets off slowly. "Would you fucking look at this?"

"What?"

"A cop. Looks like a sheriff's deputy."

I turn slowly. A sheriff's department cruiser just like the one that tailed me from Shad Johnson's headquarters has settled in twenty yards behind the Hummer. The sight throws me back to the shooting, glass exploding inches from my face.

"Sam, what do you know about Ray Presley?"

"Ray Presley? He's sick, I heard. Bad sick."

"What's he been up to the last few years?"

"Same thing he was always up to. Being a sleazy coonass who'll do anything for money."

"Presley's no coonass. He's from Jones County. Who did he work for?"

"Old Natchez people, mostly." Sam's eyes keep flicking to the rearview mirror. "He did some things for a driller I know. Strong-arm stuff. I think Marston kept him on his payroll as a security consultant, if you believe that." Sam accelerates, as if daring the deputy to pull him over. "You know what? I'll bet the BASF deal is what set Maude off on you."

"What does Maude Marston care about a chemical plant? She has more money than God."

"But does she have enough? That chemical plant means more to the Mars-tons than anybody. Short term, anyway."

"Why?"

"The industrial park isn't big enough for the projected facility. You want to guess who owns the land contiguous to the park site?"

"Leo?"

"Yep. He'll squeeze blood out of BASF for every square foot of land, or kill them on usage and access fees."

"But that's got nothing to do with Livy."

Sam nods, then turns and looks hard at me. "Caitlin Masters's article said Ray Presley worked the Payton murder when he was a cop. Is that what this is about?"

"It's nothing to do with that."

Sam slams his hand against the Hummer's steering wheel. "Look at this asshole! I hate it when they follow you like that." He cranes his neck around and looks through the back windscreen. "You gonna stop me or what!"

"I don't think he is. I think it's the same guy who followed me from Shad Johnson's headquarters earlier tonight."

"Shad Johnson's headquarters?" Sam shakes his head. "I'm riding with a crazy man."

"Ten seconds after he passed me, somebody shot up my car with a rifle."

"What?"

"I'm just saying that if this guy passes us, watch him close."

Sam reaches under the seat, pulls out a holstered Colt.45, and sets it in my lap. "He's fucking with the wrong vehicle if that's his plan. This Hummer will drive right over that Crown Vic he's in."

"Take it easy. He's just tailing us."

"Why the sudden interest in Ray Presley?"

"I'll tell you in a couple of days. Do you think we could find anybody who could testify that Presley has committed murder for money?"

"A lot of people could. Would is another question."

Sam turns into my parents' neighborhood, watching his rearview mirror through the turn. "There goes our shadow. Bye, bye."

A minute later he pulls the Hummer into our driveway and leaves it idling. "I feel bad about mentioning Sarah. I guess time is the only thing that can get you past something like that."

I swallow the last of the Scotch. "I'll never get past it, Sam. I'm a different person now. Part of me is lying in that grave in Houston."

"Yeah, well. Most of you is sitting right here. And your daughter needs that part."

"I know. I keep thinking about Del Payton's widow. Race doesn't even come into it for me. For thirty years part of her has been buried wherever her husband is. We're both wounded the same way. You know?"

Sam shuts off the engine. "Listen to me, Penn. Whoever blew up Del Payton was in their twenties then, thirties max. Kluckers full of piss and vinegar. Those guys have got wives and grown kids now. And if you think they're gonna let some hotshit, nigger-lovin' writer take all that away, you're nuts. That's who shot at you tonight. And if you keep pushing, they'll kill you."

Sam has the Jew's special fear of fanatics. During the civil rights era this anxiety caused many Mississippi Jews to keep as low a profile as possible. Some gave heroic support to the Movement; others, primarily in the Delta, actually joined the White Citizens' Councils, for fear of the consequences if they didn't. Sam's parents chose the difficult middle ground.

"Don't worry, Sam. Caitlin Masters has given everybody the idea I'm a crusading liberal, ready to drag the town through the mud. Nothing could be further from the truth."

"Bullshit. I know you when you sound like this. You'll pull down the temple to find the truth."

"I remember you sounding like this once. That time in junior high, when your dad hired us to clean out his attic?"

Sam gives no sign that he's heard, but I know he has.

"Going through all those boxes," I remind him. "We found that list. Two hundred names, all handwritten."

He reaches out and toys with the Hummer's ignition key. The papers we found had listed most members of Natchez's Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens' Council. The Jewish community had maintained the list as a security measure, and more than a few names on it belonged to fathers of kids we went to school with.

"You remember how you felt when you saw those names?"

He picks up the drink cup and nervously shakes the ice. "Scared."

"Me too. But it pissed me off more. I wanted to expose those assholes for what they were. So did you. Have you ever done business with anybody on that list?"

He looks up, his eyes hard as agates. "Not a fucking one. And I spiked them where I could."

A side spill of headlights washes across my parents' house.

"Would you look at this?" Sam mutters, looking over his shoulder. "It's the same car."

The sheriff's cruiser sits idling in the street, fifteen yards behind us.

Bolstered by the confidence of being on my father's property, I set the.45 in Sam's lap, climb out of the Hummer, and walk toward the car. The passenger window whirs down into the door frame. It's the black deputy who followed me before. I put my hands on the door and lean into the window.

"Can I help you?"

The deputy says nothing. He has a bald, bullet-shaped head dominated by black eyes set in yellow sclera shot with blood. He's at least fifty, but he fills out his brown uniform like an NFL cornerback. Even at rest he radiates coiled energy.

"You were following me earlier tonight, right?"

The black eyes burn into mine with unsettling intensity. "Could have been," he says in a gravelly voice.

"Ten seconds after you passed me, somebody shot up my car. You stopped. Why didn't you help me?"

"I didn't hear no shots. I saw you stop. I waited to make sure you started again. Why didn't you report it if you was shot at?"

"What the hell is this about, Deputy? Why are you following me?"

He purses his lips and taps the steering wheel. "Get rid of your friend. Tell him I warned you off the Payton case, then go inside. After he leaves, meet me back out here."

"Look, if this is about Del Payton-"

"This is about you, Penn Cage." He spears me with a chilling stare. "And unfinished business."

Unfinished business? A needle of fear pushes through my gut. Could he be talking about Ray Presley? Could he know something about what happened in Mobile in 1973? "Do you know a man named Ray Presley, Deputy?"

His jaw muscles flex into knots. "I know that motherfucker."

"Does this have anything to do with him?"

"It might. You just be out here when I get back."

He presses the accelerator, spinning me away from the car. After regaining my balance, I watch the cruiser disappear, then walk back to the driver's window of the Hummer.

"What the hell was that about?" Sam asks.

"How many black sheriff's deputies are there?"

"Nine or ten, I think. That was one of them?"

"Yeah. Fiftyish, but tough. Bald-headed."

"Had to be Ike Ransom. You know him."

"I do?"

"Ike the Spike. Remember?"

I do remember. Ike "the Spike" Ransom was a legendary football star at Thompson, the black high school, in the mid-sixties. He was so good that his exploits were trumpeted in the pages of the Examiner despite his skin color, and the records he set had held until Sam and I played ball ten years later.

"What the hell did Ike Ransom want here?" Sam asks.

"Same as everybody else. Warned me off the Payton case. I can't believe Ike the Spike is a deputy. I figured he played pro football or something."

Sam shrugs. "He was a cop first. After he put in his twenty there, he went to the sheriff's department. He's a bad son of a bitch, Penn. Even the blacks don't like him."

"What do you mean? He was a hero."

"Ransom was one of the first black cops. I heard those guys had to prove they'd be tough on their own people to keep their jobs. Some people say Ransom was worse than white cops."

"Great."

Sam cranks the Hummer. "Forget Del Payton. Take care of your own. And if somebody fucks with you, give me a call. I can still pull your slack if you need me."

I squeeze his shoulder. "Sounds like a plan. Thanks."

He backs out of the driveway and roars away, the echoes reverberating off the houses on the silent street.

I walk into the garage and lean against the trunk of my mother's Maxima. The high whistling cheeep of crickets rises to a manic drone, overpowering the buzz of the streetlight overhead and giving me a strange sense of peace. Our street looks almost exactly as it did thirty-five years ago, when we moved in. A few houses have changed color, some trees have disappeared, others have grown. But for the most part it's the same.

In the corner of our yard stands a huge oak. When I was a boy, a wisteria vine grew around its trunk, spiraling around and around until it reached the high branches. My friends and I used to splay our bare feet on that vine, spread our arms wide around the trunk, and see how high we could work our way up and around the tree before we fell. I never won those contests; I had too much imagination to successfully block out my fear. Back then the vine was the thickness of a boy's wrist. Now it's thicker than my thigh and looks as though it will soon strangle the old oak like a boa constrictor.

The drone of an engine cuts through the hot night air. As promised, Ike the Spike's cruiser turns the corner and rolls to a stop at the end of our driveway.

I push off the Maxima and walk toward the street.


CHAPTER 10 | The Quiet Game | CHAPTER 12