The inside of the cruiser smells like a black man sweating. I know the odor from summer jobs digging ditches and riding in trucks with men who gave off a different scent than I did-no worse but harder somehow, distinctive enough for me to know it forever. I pull the door shut, closing myself into an oppressive square completed by the dashboard, a wire mesh screen, and Deputy Ike Ransom.
"Let's take a ride," he says.
"How about you tell me what I'm doing here?"
"You want the neighbors asking everybody what the sheriff's department was doing at your folks' house?"
I look up the street. There are still lights in a few windows. "How do I know you're not in with whoever shot at me tonight?"
"If I wanted you dead, your mama would be at the funeral home right now."
This is easy enough to believe. "Okay. Ride."
Ike Ransom drives up to the bypass and heads south. Most of the traffic is eighteen-wheelers bound north for the interstate junction sixty miles away, or west for the bridge over the Mississippi.
"What's this about, Ike?"
He glances at me. "You know me?"
"My friend did. What's the big secret?"
"It's about Del Payton."
"I told you I didn't want to hear about that."
"It's about you and Del both."
"Me and Del? I was only eight years old when the guy died."
He looks at me again, the yellow sclera of his eyes washed white by oncoming headlights. "He didn't die, college boy. He was murdered. There's a difference. You and him tied together, though. Ain't no doubt about that."
"How do you figure that?"
"First tell me why you said what you said in the paper."
"I was talking through my hat. I wasn't thinking."
"That newspaper bitch didn't pick Del's name out of the blue."
"I mentioned him."
"There you go."
I sigh in frustration. "I'm lost, Ike."
"That's for damn sure. Can't you see? Del died thirty years ago and nobody paid for it. His soul ain't never been at rest. It's been wandering 'round here all this time, looking for peace. But it can't get no peace. Not while his killers walk free."
Maybe Ike the Spike is some kind of religious nut.
"Now, here you come, thirty years later, and in one day you got more people talking about Del's killing than they was the day he died."
"That wasn't my intent."
"That don't matter. Don't you see? What goes around comes around! You just an instrument. An instrument of a higher power."
"I'm a guy with a big mouth. I'm not an instrument of anything."
Ransom shakes his head and laughs with eerie certainty. "You just sit tight. You gonna understand everything in a minute. You gonna thank old Ike for this one."
He turns right at the Ford dealership and crosses Lower Woodville Road near the paper mill, which glows fluorescent in the dark like a small city, churning white smoke into the night sky.
"Where are we going? The river?"
"The battery plant? What for?"
"Privacy. They closed right now. Asian market's down. They crank back up in thirty-six hours."
There are few lights on this road. Beneath the sulfurous odor of the paper mill drifts the thick, ripe smell of kudzu, sweetened by a breath of honeysuckle. The river is only six hundred yards away, and just a few feet below our present elevation.
The dark skeleton of the Triton Battery plant materializes to our right as Ike turns onto Gate Street, then right again into a parking lot lighted by the pink glow of mercury vapor. The Triton Battery Company came to Natchez in 1936 to build batteries for Pullman rail cars. In 1940 they retooled the line to manufacture batteries for diesel submarines. After the war it was truck batteries, marine batteries, whatever fit the changing market. The last I heard, Triton was using its ancient equipment to produce motorcycle batteries for European manufacturers.
Ike stops the cruiser on the far side of the parking lot. We're sitting on an acre of gravel packed into dirt by years of hard use, bordered on three sides by trees and unkempt grass. The west side faces the main gate of the battery plant, with Gate Street running between. I used to bring girls out here in high school.
"Is this where Del Payton died?"
"This it," Ransom says. "Come on."
He laughs harshly. "You a nervous son of a bitch, ain't you? Come on."
I get out of the cruiser and follow him across the gravel. A massive old pecan tree grows out of a clump of grass at the center of the lot. The spaces in its shade are probably coveted by everyone who uses the lot.
Ransom stops ten yards short of the tree, his back to me.
"Thirty years," he says. "Thirty years ago Del Payton parked his Fairlane right in this spot. When he came out of the plant, the bomb was in his car." He half turns to me and spits on the gravel. "I seen car bombs go off, man. It's a motherfucker. That fire burned forty minutes before they got it out. Del was sitting behind the wheel all that time."
I stand silent in the buzzing of the lights, wondering where Ike Ransom has seen car bombs go off. He squats on his haunches and picks up a piece of gravel.
"A man's soul left this earth right here."
I walk a few steps closer. "Look, Ike… I know what happened that night. And I'm damn sorry it did. But I don't see any connection to me."
He stands and points at me, his black eyes smoldering. "I'm gonna say two words, college boy. After that you gonna be in this thing up to your neck."
He watches me as though waiting for me to guess a riddle.
"Leo Marston? I don't get it. What-"
"Judge… Leo… Marston."
My palms tingle. "Are you saying Marston was somehow involved in the Payton murder?"
"Involved?" Ike the Spike laughs quietly in the dark. "Oh, yeah."
"That's impossible. What could Leo Marston possibly have had to do with Del Payton?"
"He was D.A. back then, wasn't he?"
My head is swimming. "Leo Marston was district attorney in 1968?"
"You didn't know that? It was in the article this morning."
I see my father jerking the paper from my hands and wadding it up. "I didn't read the whole thing."
"That wasn't too smart, was it?"
"You're saying Marston covered something up? Buried evidence while he was D.A.?"
Ike fires his rock across the street like a major league outfielder. It flies over the cyclone fence bordering the plant and strikes something metal, silencing the crickets for a few seconds. "I'm saying all these years that motherfucker been handing out jail time and making millions, he should have been rotting at Parchman Farm."
A dark thrill ripples through my chest. "You're saying Marston was involved in the actual crime?"
"I done said all I got to say."
"You can't drop a bomb like that and then shut up! How do you know any of this?"
"You a cop in this town for twenty years, even a black cop, you get to know some things."
The hair on my arms is standing erect. I cannot interpret my emotions. Fear? Excitement? I walk the ten yards to the pecan tree, unzip my pants, and urinate on its trunk as I try to get my mind around what Ransom has told me.
"Shook you up, huh?" he says, laughing.
I zip up and turn back to him. "You've known for thirty years that Leo Marston was guilty of a felony and you've done nothing about it?"
"What says I knew for thirty years? I wasn't on the job thirty years ago. What I'm gonna do anyway, man? A nigger cop on the bottle gonna go up against the judge? That's why you here, man. Takes somebody like you to do it."
"You're white, famous, and you make your money someplace else. They can't hurt you much here."
"That's what you got to find out."
"Christ. Just tell me what you know. I'll take it and run with it."
Ike gives me a knowing smile. "You want Marston's ass bad, don't you?"
"Tell me, goddamn it!"
"That don't play, college boy. You gotta work your way to it. Then you'll understand."
"Why tell me this, Ike?"
"Why me, Ike? " he mocks in a woman's voice. "Don't play that shit with me! Everybody knows the judge went after your old man. Damn near got him too."
This stings me to the quick. "That's bullshit. My father was unanimously exonerated by a jury."
"I ain't talking 'bout that. I'm talking about damage. Doc Cage had a heart attack while he was waiting for that trial, didn't he?"
I nod slowly.
"Hey, I love your daddy, man. He took care of me when I was a kid. Took care of my mama till she died. That's why I'm telling you this. It's what the hippies used to call karma. What goes around comes around. That's what brought you back here. You the chicken coming home to roost. Right on Marston's ass."
"So give me what I need to nail him."
Ike shakes his head. "Gimme, gimme, gimme. I told you, it don't play that way. I can point you in the right direction. But that's it."
"I don't like playing games."
Ransom snickers. "That's what they do here, college boy. You ain't been gone so long you forgot that yet. Right now they playing their favorite game of all."
"The quiet game."
"The quiet game?" Memories of Sarah flood into my brain, of her trying to trick Annie into being silent long enough for us to eat dinner in peace, by seeing who could go the longest without talking. "Who's playing the quiet game, Ike?"
"Everybody, man. White and black both. Everybody keeping quiet, making like things is sweet and easy, trying to fish that new plant in here. Nobody wants nobody digging into Del's killing. Nobody 'cept you. You got a reason."
"What about you? What's your reason?"
His grin vanishes as though it never existed. Hatred comes off him like steam. He extends his forefinger and taps his powerful chest with it. "That's between me and me. Del's killers is playing the quiet game too. They been playing it thirty years. Not even sweatin'. You got to make people nervous to win the quiet game. And I got a feeling you pretty good at that."
Something is coiling within my chest, something I have not felt for years. It's the hunter's tension, wrapped like the armature of an electric motor, tight and copper-cored, charged with current and aching for resolution, for the frantic discharge of retribution.
"A lot of people think poking into this case would be damned dangerous," I tell him.
Ike the Spike closes the distance between us and squeezes my right shoulder, his grip like the claw of a wild animal, like he could close his hand a little tighter and snap the bone.
"That's where I come in. Boy, you lookin' at dangerous. Ask anybody."
We do not speak as Ransom drives back to my parents' house. I watch the dark streets drift by, lost in memory. I think mostly of the malpractice trial, of Marston's savage cross-examination of my father just five weeks after his triple coronary bypass surgery. It required a supreme concentration of will on my part not to jump up in the courtroom and attack the man. In all my years as a prosecutor, I never stooped to the tactics Marston used that day.
"You got any FBI contacts?" Ike asks.
"A few. Why?"
"You might not want to use them on this."
"Free advice. Take it or leave it."
"You know Ray Presley worked the Payton case, don't you?"
Ike glances away from the road long enough to give me a warning look. "Presley was dirty from the day he was born. That motherfucker crazy as a wall-eyed bull and mean as a snake. You don't talk to him unless I'm somewhere close."
This does not bode well for my meeting tomorrow morning.
The radio chatters over a low background of static. There's a domestic-violence call in the southern part of the county, followed by a disturbance at the gangplank of the riverboat casino. As we roll into my parents' neighborhood, I glance over at Ransom. The man is too old to be doing the job he has.
"Can I ask you a question, Ike?"
He takes a Kool Menthol from his shirt pocket, lights up, and blows a stream of smoke at the windshield.
"How'd you wind up a cop?"
"That's what college boys ask whores. How'd a girl like you end up here?"
"I remember the stories about you playing ball. Ike the Spike. You were a hero around here."
He sniffs and takes another drag. "Like the man said, that was my fifteen minutes."
"You must have played college ball."
"Oh, yeah, I was the BNOC."
"The Big Nigger On Campus." His voice is laced with bitterness. "I got a full scholarship to Ohio State, but I went to Jackson State instead. First quarter of the first game, a guy took out my shoulder. Back then doctors couldn't do shit for that."
"You lost your scholarship?"
"They gave me my walking papers before I even caught my breath. I was good enough for the army, though. I'd been drafted in early sixty-six, but I had a college deferment. When I lost my scholarship, I couldn't afford to stay in school. Next thing I knew, I was landing at Tan Son Nhut air base in DaNang."
I am starting to perceive the twisted road that led Ike Ransom to this job. "I'd like to hear about it sometime."
Another drag on the Kool. "You one of them war junkies?"
"You get off on other people's pain, though. That's what writers do, ain't it? Sell other people's pain?"
"Some do, I guess."
"Well, this is your big chance. There's a heap of fucking pain at the bottom of this story."
I try to gauge Ransom's temper, but it's impossible. "Sam says you've got a bad rep. Even with black people."
He stubs out his cigarette and flips it out the window. "I was the third black cop on the Natchez P.D. Back then a lot of the force was Klan. I didn't take that job to make no civil rights statement. I'd been an M.P. in Saigon, and that was the only thing I knew how to do. The first time I got called to a black juke, I had to go alone. When I walked in the door, everybody thought it was a big joke. Patting me on the back and laughing, handing me beer. But this big field nigger named Moon had a machete in there. He'd already cut the guy who was dicking his old lady, plus the first nigger who said something about it. He was sitting by hisself at a corner table. I'd seen lots of guys lose it overseas, and this guy was like that. Gone. I told him he had to give up the blade. He wouldn't do it. When I held out my hand, he jumped up and charged me. I shot him through the throat."
"I didn't want to waste that brother. But I didn't have no backup. And that pretty much set the tone for the next twenty years. I had the white department on one side watching me like a hawk, making sure I was tough enough, and my people on the other, always fucking up, always begging for a break. I cut slack where I could, but goddamn, it seemed like they never learned. It got to where I hated to pull a nigger over, knowing he'd be drunk or high. Hated to answer a domestic call. Couple years of that, I was an outsider. It fucked with me, man. That's what got me on the bottle."
"Why didn't you resign?"
Ransom rolls down his window, hawks and spits. "I didn't come here to give you no Jerry Springer show." He pulls something out of his shirt and hands it to me. It's a card. On it are printed Ransom's name and rank, and the phone numbers of the sheriff's department. "My cell phone's on the back. When you call, don't use names. I'll know you, and I'll pick a place for a meet."
"You're the only person not named Payton who seems to want the truth told."
The radio crackles again, this time about a theft of guns from a hunting camp in Anna's Bottom. Ike picks up the transmitter and says he'll respond to the call.
"You gonna do this thing?" he asks, putting the transmitter back in its cradle.
I think of my father and his trouble, of Ray Presley and the gun I hope to have in my possession by tomorrow. "I don't know yet."
His eyes flash with dark knowledge. "You know you lying. Get out of my fucking car."
Before I can close the door, the cruiser screeches off into the night.
My father is waiting in the kitchen with a bowl of melted ice cream in front of him, smoking the last of a cigar in his boxer shorts and a tank T-shirt. Beside the ice cream lies the pistol he wore to the party, a 9mm Beretta.
"Everything okay?" I ask.
"Are you sure you want to try to buy that gun from Ray? I'd rather throw myself on the mercy of the court than get you involved in this."
I shake my head. "It's the only way. You just call Presley in the morning and set up the meeting."
"You'll have to go to his trailer. He lives out toward Church Hill, past the Indian mound. It won't be pretty. He's a bitter son of a bitch."
"You say he gets around okay?"
"Yeah. The home-health people see him a good bit. And I hear he's got a private nurse now. I've made a couple of house calls to give him shots for pain. Trailer calls, I should say."
"Fifteen-mile house calls for Ray Presley?"
"I've treated the man for thirty years, Penn. He doesn't call unless he's hurting bad. And if Ray says it's bad, it's bad."
This is vintage Tom Cage, making house calls on a man who is blackmailing him, not out of fear but because he feels he should.
"Prostate cancer was about the worst thing for Ray to get," he reflects. "He's got the biggest dick I ever saw on a white man, and he likes to brag about it. I think the surgery probably made him impotent. He says no, but he's twice as surly as he ever was. More dangerous, if anything."
"Worrying won't help. Come on. We both need some sleep."
He stubs out his cigar, then stands looking at me, his eyes unreadable. I long to tell him what Ike Ransom said about Leo Marston, but this isn't the time. Get the gun first. Without quite meaning to, I step forward and put my arms around him. The embrace surprises him, and he stiffens. Age has changed the shape of him, this body that once lifted me as though I weighed nothing.
"Dad, tomorrow you're going to find out what being born again really means."
He pulls back and looks me in the eye. "I'll let you go see Ray. But by God, you're going armed." He picks up the Beretta. "And if he gets squirrelly, you shoot first and ask questions after. Okay?"
My mother is curled up in bed beside the smaller lump of Annie in my old room. My old baseball trophies gleam in the dark on the shelves above them, like little watchmen. I creep in and touch Mom on the shoulder, and she stirs in the shadows.
"It's Penn, Mom. Go on to bed. I'll sleep with her."
She rubs her eyes. "All right, honey."
I reach out and stroke Annie's hair. Mom is already asleep again. I gently push her leg with my knee. "Mom?"
She opens her eyes again and smiles blankly, then gets up and sleepwalks toward the hall.
I quickly brush my teeth, strip to my shorts, and climb into bed beside Annie, who is already stirring. In seconds her hand finds my shoulder, reestablishing her early-warning system.
As I lie in the dark, her shallow breathing troubles rather than soothes my heart. Sleeping with Annie always brings memories of Sarah. After the funeral I had to move Annie's bed into my room because she couldn't fall asleep alone, and still she wound up in my bed most nights. The pulse of her life so near always stirs my dreams. I dream of Sarah before the diagnosis, before fear entered our lives and took away the most precious gift, which is not hope but youth. Immortality. The sense of unlimited possibility. It's an illusion, of course, the most precious illusion of life.
Sometimes my dreams are linear, like movies, other times disconnected, like fragments of film snatched at random from an editing room floor. As Annie breathes steadily beside me, fatigue deadens the signals flashing through my brain, the anxiety about meeting Presley, the delicious prospect of revenge on Leo Marston. Consciousness tries to hold me with the terrifying jerk of a perceived fall, but I catch myself. Soon the darkness above me tunnels into light, and I see the silver surface of a pool surrounded by lush ferns and massive cypress trees. The wind-rippled surface slowly stills to glass, opening the water to my gaze. There are plants below the surface, green fronds reaching up from unknown depths, gently waving in an invisible current. Among the fronds something moves, pale against the green. A person. A woman. She turns lazily, gracefully among the water plants, like a swimmer synchronized to unheard music. Her hair floats around her head in a bright corona, obscuring what must be extraordinary beauty. Ceasing her languid motion, she lifts her arms and pulls toward the surface. I recall the Lady of the Lake, who gave Excalibur to Arthur. This woman is like that. She has something to give me. But even as she fights her way to the surface, she somehow recedes, like reality rewinding. I reach down to help her, but I am far too high. Slowly the storm of hair parts and reveals her face, and she opens her mouth to speak. I cannot hear her words, but her face nearly stops my heart. Something pure and cold courses through me as the translucent eyes seek mine in mute desperation. That face once haunted me like an inner shadow, a secret sharer watching, judging, holding me in thrall until at last the light of Sarah and Annie shone into the hidden chambers of my heart, and it receded into memory. Receded but did not die. Once, long ago, that face taught me what it was to be alive.