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CHAPTER 13

Driving through rural Mississippi with a hundred thousand dollars' cash in your trunk can make you nervous. Ray Presley's trailer is fourteen miles north of town, situated between Emerald Mound and the tiny rural community of Church Hill. The second-highest ceremonial mound in North America, Emerald Mound rises from the forest like a Mayan temple of earth. When I was a boy, we sledded down its great slope on pizza pans, on those biannual occasions when Natchez got its inch of snow. As teenagers we gathered there to watch the sun rise while we drank beer and cheap wine and howled over the treetops in the ecstatic tongues of adolescence.

The wooded road between Emerald Mound and Church Hill is dotted with trailers and small houses, but as I near the two-hundred-year-old Episcopal church that marks the settlement, the woods recede, and the landscaped grounds of splendid plantations stretch away from both sides of the road. Beyond moss-hung cedar trees and white fences, swans glide majestically across ponds that might be in England. But the only cathedrals near these estates are cathedrals of kudzu, arsenical green spires and buttresses which construct themselves at a terrifying rate, using oaks and pecans and elms as scaffolding, encroaching upon the old cotton fields with the stealth of new jungle.

The history here is not all antebellum. Andrew Jackson married Rachel Robards at the end of this road in 1791, but of late the neighborhood has entertained more eccentric visitors. When I was in high school, the actor George Hamilton purchased one of these homes and lived there for a while in opulent planter style. The fall of the Marcos regime in the Philippines brought to light the strange revelation that the "Hamilton" house was actually owned by Imelda Marcos. It then passed for a time into the hands of Hare Krishnas, a separatist faction which morphed into the Southern Vedic Life Association, stirring up the country with fears of brainwashing. Even in rural Mississippi nothing is what it seems.

Ray Presley's trailer is set a little way back from the highway, beneath a stand of pine trees, and beside an algae-covered pond that might be an oil sump. The trailer has seen better years, but there's a gleaming new satellite dish hammered onto the southwest eave, like a ribbon on a pig's ear. A shining Ford pickup and a rusted Chevy Vega sit out front.

I pull my mother's Maxima beside the Vega, set the burglar alarm, and walk up to the door, leaving the Wal-Mart briefcase holding the extortion money in the trunk. Before I can press the bell, the door is opened by a thin young woman I assume is Presley's nurse, though she is wearing a denim work shirt, not a uniform. Blonde and lank-haired, she could be twenty-five or thirty-five. She has the indeterminate look of hill people everywhere: sallow skin and hard angles, though she is pretty in the way waitresses at the Waffle House can be pretty at four a.m. She doesn't speak but leads me into the den of the trailer, which is a time capsule of blue shag carpet and dark, seventies-era paneling.

Presley himself sits on a sofa opposite a large color television tuned to a soap opera, a TV tray before him and a stainless steel intravenous drug caddy standing beside. He looks surprisingly fit for a fifty-six-year-old man with metastatic carcinoma. He has the stringy toughness of a laborer, the long, ropy muscles you see on men working shirtless on highways, shrimp boats, and oil rigs. He wears blue cotton pajama pants and a white tank T-shirt. A grease-stained John Deere cap covers his head, which has been burned bald by chemotherapy, the green bill shading browless eyes that smolder in their sockets.

I glance around the room so that he won't feel I'm staring. The walls are decorated with plaques and photos commemorating a career in law enforcement: certificates from various police societies, a couple of trophies sporting a man aiming a pistol. There's also the usual complement of stuffed deer heads and mounted largemouth bass, along with a fearsome compound bow hanging from a hook. Sliding glass doors open onto a small deck behind the sofa, where a gas grill and a smoker stand rusting in the sun.

"So you're Doc Cage's boy," Presley says. His voice is deep and rough as a wood rasp. "I recognize you from the paper. Excuse me if I don't get up."

"Please don't." It's odd how we revert to the basic courtesies, even when talking to killers, especially if they are ill. My seating choices are a cracked Naugahyde recliner and a pillowy velour monstrosity that looks like a Kmart special.

"Take the La-Z-Boy," Presley advises.

I sit on the edge of the chair so that I can keep my forward attitude. With men like Ray Presley, the critical subtext of any conversation is animal. Even in the silences, everything is territory and dominance, a battle for advantage.

"So you're the one shot his mouth off about Del Payton in the paper," he says, a half-humorous light in his eyes.

"That's right."

"You looking to make a name for yourself?"

"I already have that."

He leans back and regards me with disdain. "I guess you do. But you'd have to go a long way to outdo your daddy." He reaches down and eats a crust of toast from the egg-stained plate on the TV tray. "How come you didn't go to medical school? Grades not good enough?"

This is the ultimate baiting question for any doctor's son who didn't follow his father into the profession. "They were too good. The medical school thought I'd be bored there."

I let Presley chew on this a minute, and it takes him about that to finally decide I am joking. His primitive instincts are finely honed, but his grasp of the larger world is limited.

"I remember you in high school," he says. "You was porking Livy Marston."

I keep my face impassive.

"That was one fine bitch," he goes on, watching my reaction. "Had too much of everything, that was her trouble."

The skin of my face seems to stretch and burn, but I say nothing, unwilling to be drawn into this game. After an interminable wait, he says, "You here to ask me about Del Payton?"

"I'm here because I heard you had a gun for sale."

He picks up a remote control and flips through several channels, finally settling on a fishing program. "You heard wrong."

"I don't think so."

"What kind of gun did you hear it was?" His eyes remain on the screen. "This gun you're talking about, I mean."

"A featherweight thirty-eight. Smith and Wesson."

"That's a damn good piece. Good for close work. How much would you be looking to spend on a gun like that?"

I take a piece of paper from my wallet, write 50,000 on it, then lean forward and pass it to him.

He studies it for a few seconds. "That's a piece of money."

"Cash."

He hands the paper back to me. "Too bad I don't have what you're looking for. I could use a piece of money like that."

"I think you need some air. Why don't we step outside?"

"I don't get around so good anymore."

"I didn't realize you'd lost so much strength."

His pride thus goaded, Presley puts down the remote and stands almost as easily as he must have at age twenty. He walks to the double glass doors, slides one open, and steps onto the little square redwood deck.

I follow.

Presley stops at the rail, surveying the modest lot left him in life: a few weed-choked rows of exposed earth where a garden once grew; a small barn stripped of its walls, rotted, and collapsed inward, leaving a modernist sculpture of rafters and tin. The wall boards were probably bought by some itinerant New England artist. Beyond the barn the land falls abruptly into the woods.

"Take your shirt off," Presley says in a peremptory tone he probably used with prisoners in the days before he was one himself.

Had he not demanded this ritual, I would have, but it irks me that he beat me to it. "I'll show you mine if you show me yours," I reply.

He actually grins at this. We pull off our shirts and turn in a circle. My body is lean but smooth as a lamb's, the legacy of my generation, which was never shipped overseas to do battle, and has done less manual labor than any generation before it. Presley's torso is marked by multiple knife scars, at least two bullet wounds, and what might be the scar of a central venous line for chemotherapy.

"Pants too," I tell him.

We both strip our pants halfway down our thighs. Like me Presley still wears jockey briefs, and my father's comment about his anatomy is readily borne out. Satisfied that neither of us is wired, we button and zip back up.

"I don't like bullshit," I tell him. "So I'll get right to it. You killed a man named Don Hillman in 1973 in Mobile, Alabama. You did that on your own hook, no matter what you thought. I'm prepared to offer you a substantial price for the pistol used in that crime, but it's a one-time offer. An outright purchase. You can take what I'm offering, or we can go to Plan B."

"You fixing to threaten me, sonny?" Presley sounds more amused than angry.

"If we don't come to terms over this, I'm going to go straight to the district attorney-whom I went to school with-and use every bit of influence at my disposal to have you indicted for capital murder and extortion. That's a risk for my father, but it's one he's prepared to take. He's been more than generous with you, and he's tired of living in fear."

Presley looks off into the trees.

"He deserves better. And you know it."

"I can't help the way things turned out," Presley says bitterly. "Fact is, Doc has money and I don't. And I need some."

"My father treated your family free for years, just like he did a lot of others. What he's got now is patients who think he's a saint and not much else. He's in bad health himself. He deserves to retire in peace."

Presley scratches his ratty pajamas. "The way I figure, that gun's worth a lot more than fifty thousand."

"Or nothing. It could simply be evidence sitting in the D.A.'s office."

"A hundred grand. Cash money."

Relief trickles through my veins like cool water. "You've committed other murders in the past. I suspect you're blackmailing other people as we speak. Right now 1 haven't the slightest bit of interest in those crimes. But that could change. You could spend what little time you have left in jail. And you know what that's like, Ray." I spit off the deck. "Sixty-five thousand."

He doesn't like me using his first name. And though he hasn't moved, something changed in him at the mention of prison. "Eighty," he says in a taut voice.

"Is the gun here?"

"Could be."

"If you get it now, I'll go seventy-five. That's all I brought with me."

Presley's facial muscles flex. He's grinding his teeth. He wants that money. But as badly as he does, he hates to give up the gun. He's like a miser sitting on his last nickel. His eyes burn beneath the bill of the cap, hating me for who I am, for the life I've had. He rolls his tongue around his inner cheek, wanting to tell me to fuck myself. But at last he breaks eye contact and walks toward the glass doors of the trailer. His growl floats back to me on the humid air.

"Get your money, boy."

I hurry down the dry-rotted stairs of the deck and around the trailer to the Maxima. I parked so that I could open the briefcase in the trunk without being seen from the trailer. Popping the trunk, I move the sack of quick-setting cement behind which I concealed the case and count out twenty-five thousand dollars, which I stuff into the spare tire well. Then I snap the case and shut the trunk.

Before going back to the trailer, I get in the car. Inside the glove box is Dad's 9mm Beretta. I slip the automatic into my waistband at the small of my back, tuck my shirt over it, and head up the front steps.

Presley is waiting for me on the sofa. The sallow blonde is attaching a plastic saline bag to the IV stand, and her back is to me. Her motions are quick and efficient. Presley points at the TV set. Lying atop it in a Ziploc bag is a small.38-caliber revolver, Smith amp; Wesson. I take a card from my wallet. On it is written the serial number of the pistol my father has not seen for twenty-five years. I remove the.38 from the Ziploc and compare its serial number to the one on the card.

They match.

Resealing the pistol in the bag, I slide it into my trouser pocket and toss the case containing the money onto the sofa. Presley tugs it onto his lap, unsnaps it, and counts the packets with methodical care. As the blonde waits, she glances over her shoulder at me, her eyes vaguely accusatory. Presley finally snaps the case shut, drops it on the floor, leans back on the sofa, and extends his right wrist toward the blonde woman, dorsal side up.

"Time for my poison," he says, the corners of his mouth turned up with black humor.

The girl removes a heparin-lock catheter from its packaging, swabs Presley's wrist with Betadine, and pops it through the skin in the time it would take most lab techs to locate a vein. As she tears off some white tape and fixes the catheter in place, Presley leans up and slaps her on the rump with the familiarity of a lover. The blonde does not complain or make any move to stop him. She doesn't even look embarrassed.

"You'd best get going, sonny," he says. "Crystal's gonna take the edge off the nausea for me."

The girl half turns to me, a resentful gleam in her eye. The top three buttons of her work shirt are unbuttoned, revealing the clasp of a black bra beneath it. She's at least twenty years Presley's junior-probably thirty-and for some reason this offends me. My Puritan morals, I suppose. I'm not one to deny a dying man what pleasure he can get, but something about this arrangement seems wrong. The woman doesn't strike me as a hooker, but Presley is paying her in some way. Probably not much either. When you're poor, a little money looks like a lot. Or maybe he's not paying her. Maybe she's here because she wants to be here-or needs to be. That bothers me even more.

"I didn't know nurses could administer chemotherapy at home."

Presley laughs darkly. "This is my Mexican cocktail. They UPS it up here from Tijuana. My New Orleans cancer doc says it'll kill me, but I've outlived that bastard's prediction by a year already."

Bootleg chemotherapy. Is that what's keeping him alive? Or is it just brute redneck stubbornness?

"They cut out my damn prostate," he mutters, "but I made 'em leave the nerves in. I can still go like a Brahma bull."

The blonde sits on the floor at his feet, waiting for me to leave.

"Just remember something, Ray. You've got all you're going to get from this particular well."

"Nice doing business with you, son. Let me give you a piece of advice before you go."

"What's that?"

"Leave Del Payton in the ground. You start messing with business that old-especially nigger-business, it makes a lot of people nervous."

"I figured that out already."

"You're a smart boy, ain't you?"

The blonde checks Presley's IV line for bubbles, then leans back against his legs.

I walk to the door, but something makes me turn. "Let me ask you something, Ray. How did Judge Marston get involved in Payton's murder?"

Presley goes as still as a snake poised to strike, his eyes locked on mine. "Maybe you ain't so smart after all."

"There's a lot of guys on death row who think different."

I shut the door, leaving him to his bootleg chemo and his blonde. My stomach is fluttering like the wings of a hummingbird, but the Smith amp; Wesson is a hard bulge in my left front pocket. I have the gun. / have the gun. Seventy-five thousand dollars is a small price to pay to have a spike removed from your heart.


CHAPTER 12 | The Quiet Game | CHAPTER 14