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CHAPTER 14

As soon as I hit the highway, I dial my father's office and wait for him to come to the phone.

"Dr. Cage," he says finally.

"It's me."

"What happened?"

"I have the package."

A long exhalation. An expression of relief I can only guess at. He's been waiting with the same anxiety his patients suffer through when awaiting a call from him about test results. "Jesus," he breathes. "Son, you don't know-"

"Forget it, Dad. It's all over. We'll talk tonight, okay?"

"I can't believe it."

"Believe it. It's a new world. I'll see you tonight."

I punch off and zoom south toward Natchez, profoundly aware of the gun in my pocket. I feel like a character from Poe, the symbol of guilt attached to my body and screaming for atonement. But there's no danger. Ray Presley is happy with his seventy-five grand. He isn't calling anybody about that gun. Not today, anyway. With every mile I put between myself and his trailer, the burden of my father's anxiety falls away, and my mind returns to its own selfish concerns.

Ike Ransom awakened a sleeping giant within me. The giant is anger. Anger so profound, complex, and deeply buried that I have never fully plumbed it. I have, in fact, spent years not thinking about it, which required that a constant portion of my life energy be devoted to denial. Yet the anger was always there, pulsing quietly beneath my surface life, affecting my judgment, my decisions, my very concept of justice and morality. For years I thought it was based on Leo Marston's attack on my father, but this was self-delusion. My anguish was not for my father's pain but for my own. The most devastating result of Marston's merciless legal persecution of my father was the end of any possibility that Olivia Marston and I would have a future together. And that altered my life in ways beyond measuring. Ultimately, it weakened my character, like a crack in the steel of a bridge. Because always, at the periphery of my existence, the unwalked road of my life with Livy stretched tangentially to infinity, to be reflected upon only in sadness, frustration, and regret. Last night Ike Ransom offered me a chance I never thought I would get: a chance to settle up with Leo Marston for all he did to me and my family. To put paid to two decades of resentment and confusion.

The sheer power of my desire to destroy the man disturbs me. As a prosecutor I tried to divorce myself from the concept of revenge. Justice, not punishment, was my ideal. I didn't always succeed, but I tried. This is different. I have no idea how Leo Marston could be involved in Payton's murder, but he is a complex man of vast appetites, and he has rarely been thwarted in his desires. I can easily envision a situation in which he let his temper get the best of him. Great wealth does not confer immunity to violent impulses.

I lift the cell phone and punch in the number of my Houston office, which occupies nine hundred square feet of our house. At least it did until I instructed my assistant to store my furniture and sell the place.

"Penn Cage's office," says Cilia Daniels.

Relief floods through me. "I'm glad to know I still have one."

She laughs. "I let the movers take everything but the office furniture and equipment."

"Good instinct. Leave it all set up for now." I swing the Maxima into the left lane and goose it around a pulpwood truck.

"What about the Hanratty execution?" Cilia asks. "Mrs. Givens called this morning. She's decided to witness the execution without her husband, and she wants you there."

"Any last-minute filings? Likely stays?"

"The usual desperation tactics, but they won't stop it this time. And George W. Bush isn't about to grant a pardon. Midnight tomorrow night, Hanratty gets the needle."

"Damn. Tell Mrs. Givens tell her I don't know yet whether I can make it."

"Please try, Penn. That woman needs you. You walked her family through the whole trial."

"Message received. Listen, do you remember Peter Lutjens?"

"Sure. The FBI analyst who helped on Presumption of Guilt."

"I need his phone number at the Bureau."

"Hang on I think the FBI switchboard is the best I can do on Lutjens."

"That'll do." I scrawl the number on my wrist. "Thanks, Cil. I've got to go."

"Not so fast. What are you up to? Have you resurrected the manuscript?"

"Just some research."

"That's what you always say when you're on to something."

"Bye, Cil."

I hang up, dial the Hoover Building, and ask for Peter Lutjens, giving my name as Special Agent Jim Gates. During my time with the D.A.'s office, I became friends with several Houston-based field agents, one of whom was Jim Gates. Most of those friends are now stationed around the country and globe, and occasionally prove excellent sources for my books, despite a standing order from FBI Director Portman to give me no assistance. Peter Lutjens is better at research and analysis than chasing bank robbers, and because the FBI knows this as well as I do, they keep him buried in the massive archive of past Bureau case files.

"Gates?" asks a surprised voice. "What are you doing in Mississippi?"

Lutjens is obviously looking at some sort of caller-ID readout. "This isn't Jim Gates, Peter. It's Penn Cage."

"Penn Cage? Jesus, you've got some nerve. What kind of trouble do you want to get me into now?"

"Did I get you into trouble before?"

"Well the acknowledgment in your book made me semi-famous up here. And the new director is no fan of yours, as you well know."

"The new director's an asshole, Peter, as you well know."

"No comment. What's going on?"

"I need a favor. It's right up your alley, historical stuff."

"Save the Vaseline. What is it?"

"I'm looking into a thirty-year-old murder case in my old hometown. A civil rights murder. I know the Bureau worked the case. Somebody took a shot at a couple of your agents on Highway 61 during the same time frame."

"You've sure got piss-poor timing."

"Why?"

"Since the opening of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission files, we've been deluged with requests for records from that period. I'm talking about requests by law enforcement, i.e., legitimate requests."

"I really need this, Peter. It's personal."

Lutjens doesn't reply. There's no reason for him to bend any rules on my account-other than the goodwill resulting from a few enjoyable lunches, the easy rapport of kindred spirits-and all the reason in the world for him not to. "I know a guy who's processing those requests," he says in a cautious voice. "We worked together on the internal history of the Bureau."

"Peter-"

"Give me the victim's name."

"Delano Payton. Killed Natchez, Mississippi, fourteen May 1968."

"Was anyone convicted of the crime?"

"No one even arrested."

Lutjens clucks his tongue in admonishment. "You'll never get a file on a case that's technically open. Not under the Freedom of Information Act."

"I just want names. The agents who originally worked the case."

"These guys worked for J. Edgar Hoover, Penn. They're not the talkative type."

"Somebody always wants to talk. Nobody'll ever know how I found them."

"Portman would boil my balls for this." He hesitates a moment longer. "Stay by your phone. I'll know all I'm ever going to know within five minutes."

"I'm at-"

"I've got the number."

I hang up and hit the accelerator, feeling a burst of adrenaline as I eat up the miles between Emerald Mound and the city limits. Lutjens's willingness to help me says a lot about the success-or lack of it-that John Portman has had since taking over the Bureau. When he was appointed to the directorship seven months ago, great things were expected from the former field agent, both within the Bureau and without. But according to the reports I've heard, Portman has displayed the same traits in the Hoover Building that brought him into conflict with me when he was a U.S. attorney. He masks coldness as competence, manipulation as management, and megalomania as superachievement. The simple fact that he still carries a grudge against an ex-assistant district attorney from Houston tells me that he is a pygmy in his soul.

Lutjens calls back as I pull into the drive-through line at Hardee's Hamburgers for some breakfast.

"Call me back from a land line," he says.

Two pay phones stand at the edge of the gas station lot next to Hardee's. "Give me thirty seconds."

I pull out of the line of cars and use my credit card to call Lutjens back. He answers his line in a near whisper.

"This is the only conversation we're going to have on this matter. Don't use names."

"Okay."

"You're not the only interested party. A request for the same file came in forty-five minutes before you called. From your local D.A.'s office. An A.M. made the request. You know him?"

Austin Mackey. "Yes. This case is political dynamite down here. He's probably got the mayor pushing him, trying to cover their asses. Is there any way you can-"

"No copy of the file. No way, no how. Anyway, it's forty-four volumes."

"Forty-four volumes! How many pages in each?"

"Two to three hundred."

"Jesus, I wish I could get a look at that."

"You're not alone in your disappointment. A.M. won't be seeing the file either."

"Why not?"

"It's sealed."

"Sealed how?"

"There are several exceptions to the Freedom of Information Act. Reasons we can refuse to release documents. The most common ones exist to safeguard the lives of informants or to protect the privacy of citizens involved in investigations-"

"I know all that. But A.M. is a law enforcement official."

"We can also refuse to release documents that pose a risk to national security. Under this exception we can refuse to release documents to anyone, even other law enforcement agencies."

"This is a thirty-year-old Mississippi murder. It's got nothing to do with national security."

"Nevertheless, the file was sealed on grounds of national security in May 1968. The order was signed personally by the director."

A faint buzzing has started in my head. "J. Edgar Hoover?"

"The man himself. The file can't be opened for nine more years. Not without a vote by Congress. There's no telling what you've stepped into. Hoover used the rubric of Vietnam to conceal a multitude of sins during the sixties."

I'm so lost that I don't even know what questions to ask. "What about the names? The agents."

"I'm going to send a fax to your office. A list of agents working out of the Jackson, Mississippi, field office in the summer of sixty-eight. I don't know how complete it is, but it's the best I can do. Personal memoirs from the period might help you narrow it down."

"I owe you big-time for this."

"Yes, you do. Listen, the Bureau has been very supportive of Mississippi prosecutors this year, providing files on these old civil rights cases. Even if the files embarrassed us a bit. This file is obviously different. I'd think long and hard about pursuing it."

"I will."

"Watch your back, buddy."

And with that he is gone.

I pull back onto the highway, heading toward my parents' house. I suddenly have a lot to do today, but I can't do it with a murder weapon in my car. Accelerating through the bypass traffic, I punch in my office number and get Cilia, who tells me Lutjens's fax is already coming through.

"No cover page. It looks like a list of some kind. Sixty or seventy names. Social Security numbers too."

I say a silent thank-you to Peter Lutjens.

"There's a handwritten note at the bottom. It says, 'If you telephone anyone on this list, you've announced your interest to Washington.' Penn, what's going on?"

"You don't want to know. Those names belong to FBI agents, probably all retired. Find phone numbers for every one you can. Then start calling them. Give them the usual line: you're working for me, researching a novel. I need to know which agents worked in Natchez, Mississippi, in the summer of 1968. Particularly on the Delano Payton case. Okay?"

"Delano Payton. No problem."

"Fax a copy of the list to my father's medical office."

"Right."

"And, Cil?"

"Yes?"

"Use a fake name on these calls."

"I will. I'll- My God, a KHOU truck just pulled into the driveway. Got to be about the Hanratty execution."

"You can handle them."

"You got that right. I'll call you."

She rings off.

As I punch End on the cell phone, I see my hand shaking. I am crossing a line I have crossed only a few times previously, and always with a sense of euphoria mingled with dread. In the great train of cases that crossed my desk as a prosecutor, a few engaged not merely my mind or my talents or even my heart. A few penetrated the deepest springs of my being: my fears, my prejudices, and my desires. When that happened, I became more than a lawyer. I became a personification of justice. And not justice as the law defined it, but as / did.

That is how I feel now.

Last night, when Ike Ransom told me Leo Marston was involved in a thirty-year-old capital murder, I wanted to believe it, but some part of me refused. I could see no possible connection between Marston and his supposed victim. But when Peter Lutjens said the words "J. Edgar Hoover" and "national security," a circuit closed somewhere in my brain, sparking the faintest glimmer of understanding. Leo Marston is a political man from a political family, and if the Delano Payton murder had a political angle sensitive enough for the file to be hidden from public view, then a connection to Leo Marston no longer seems impossible.

Twenty years ago, that ruthless bastard wronged my father, hurt my mother, and stole my future. He did not suffer one moment for doing that. He lived as men of his kind always have: exempt from justice, untouchable. But now, far in the distance, he has come into sight, like a buck on a high ridge line. And this time I have a weapon in my hands. That weapon is a dead man. Del Payton.


CHAPTER 13 | The Quiet Game | CHAPTER 15