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CHAPTER 15

The district attorney's office is in a three-story building near the courthouse, and there are open parking spaces out front. I take one, then trot up the stairs beside the brass plaque with Mackey's name on it. There is no receptionist, only a long hall with offices on both sides and a black custodian working in a broom closet at the far end. I walk past partly open doors until I see Mackey sitting behind a desk, wearing one of those striped oxford shirts with a white collar that I always found a little too precious.

Pushing open the door, I see a heavyset woman sitting across from Mackey's desk. "I'm sorry. I'll wait."

As I close the door, I hear Mackey say, "Excuse me just a moment, ma'am." He steps into the hall, looking put upon by the unannounced visit. "What do you want, Cage?"

"I came to see if you have any files on the Del Payton murder."

His fair-skinned face goes red, making him look like a pissed-off fraternity boy. "Do you have wax in your ears? I told you last night there was no file. I also said I'd give you no assistance unless you're the attorney of record for a member of the Payton family."

"Let's say I am."

He swallows, brought up short. "Are you or aren't you? I checked with the bar association this morning. They told me you're licensed to practice in Mississippi."

"Put it this way, Austin. If you insist on being a pain in the ass, I'm a lot more likely to be."

His lips disappear into a tight seam.

"What about the file?"

"There is no file. After the party last night I stopped by here and checked, just to be sure. All the records from 1966 through 1968 were destroyed in a fire when you and I were still in grade school."

This throws me. My first instinct is to ask whether Leo Marston was still district attorney during that fire, but I don't. Mackey isn't Clarence Darrow, but if I appear too interested in Marston, he'll zero in on my real motive quickly enough. And Marston will instantly hear about it.

"What about the police department?"

"The chief won't show you files on an unsolved murder case."

"Is he actually investigating the case?"

"What do you think?"

"I think he may be investigating it before the week is out, whether he wants to or not. What about the sheriff?"

Mackey reaches backward and pulls his door completely shut. "Why do you have a bug up your ass about this? I don't remember you as a flaming liberal."

"I'm not. I'm a flaming humanist. I happen to care that some poor son of a bitch was blown to pieces and his family never saw justice done."

A strange light comes into Mackey's eyes. "I've got it now. You don't give two shits about Del Payton or his family. You want a best-seller out of this. Maybe get yourself on Oprah's book club? Penn Cage, whitebread crusader for justice."

"Yeah, that's it."

Mackey draws himself to his full height, positive that he's divined my true motive. Greed is something he can understand. "You may be willing to drag this town through the mud for a dollar. I've got more loyalty than that. Don't come back here unless you've got new evidence in your hands."

He goes back into his office and softly closes the door.

As I turn toward the stairs, I hear footsteps closing quickly on me from behind. I whirl and find myself staring at the black custodian who was standing at the broom closet before. He's over sixty, with bluish skin and pink blemishes like freckles below his eyes, and he reeks of cigarettes.

"Keep walking," he says.

I move toward the staircase, the custodian on my heels.

"I heard you ask about Del Payton. Mackey tell you all them files burned up in a fire?"

"Yes."

"Some did, some didn't. Everything that's left is down in the basement. Five, six boxes."

I stop on the landing. "Is the basement locked?"

"Yep." He looks up and down the empty stairwell. "The door's out back. If you was to check there in about five minutes, you might find a key. When you done, leave it where you found it."

He shuffles down the stairs without another word.

I wait a few moments, then walk out onto the street and stare across at the oak-shaded courthouse. Sifting through old legal files could take some time. I need to move my father's car in case Mackey comes out before I'm done. When I stopped at my parents' house to take care of the Smith amp; Wesson, I found that the glass in the BMW had been repaired. I gave the Maxima back to Mom, so that if anyone targeted the BMW again, it would be me, and not my mother and daughter, who took the risk. I also transferred the remaining $25,000 into the trunk of the BMW, meaning to get it back to my father before the end of the day. Climbing inside the car, I pull around the corner, call directory assistance for the number of the Examiner, and have them connect me.

"Caitlin Masters, please."

"Ms. Masters is in a meeting. Would you like me to transfer you to her voice mail?"

"Tell her Penn Cage is on the phone."

"Sir-"

"Please just do it."

Thirty seconds later, Caitlin says, "You'd better not be standing me up for lunch."

"I do need to postpone. Something's come up."

"What could be more important than me?"

"Actually, I was going to suggest dinner tonight."

"Who says change is bad? Does eight o'clock work for you?"

"Yes. Thanks, Caitlin."

"You can repay me with information."

I hang up laughing, then lock the car and hurry into the inner square of the block. It harbors parked cars, dumpsters, and fire escapes, but thankfully no people. At the rear of Mackey's building, eight concrete steps and a green handrail descend to a steel door. There's no key in the lock. I go down the steps and feel beneath the crack of the door. Nothing. In the lee of the bottom step lies a broken, rust-colored brick. I bend and lift it.

The key is there.

The basement is lighted by bare hanging bulbs, and it stinks of mildew. I feel like I'm breathing fungus. What I first perceived as walls are stacks of boxes, hundreds of them, old bellied cardboard things that look like they were stolen from a grocery store trash pile. Thankfully, there are dates scrawled on them in black magic marker.

There seems to be no organizing concept. Files from the 1920s have been stacked next to files from the 1970s. I scan the wall of dates as though searching for my size in a display of blue jeans. No luck. But after twenty minutes of digging through rat droppings and dust, I find a short stack of boxes labeled '73 fire.

Dragging the stack into the nearest pool of light, I open the top box and riffle through its contents. The files inside are charred, stained, and mildewed, and all date from 1966. I set that box aside and open the next one. My pulse quickens. The files inside are dated 1968.

Starting at the front of the box, I examine the first page inside each folder. Marston's name is all over the files, but none deals with Delano Payton. When I get to the end of the box, I go back to the beginning and flip through every sheet in every folder, but again I find nothing. One by one I go through each folder in the boxes dating from the fire with painstaking care, but I find nothing related to Del Payton.

It looks like Mackey was telling the truth.

After restacking the boxes, I lock the door, put the key back under the brick, and climb back into the sunlight. The custodian is standing thirty yards away, smoking a cigarette in the shadow of a nearby building. I walk straight up to him like a tourist asking for directions.

"Mackey was right."

He spits on the concrete. "Shit."

"You don't happen to clean the police station, do you?"

He shakes his head.

"I guess that's it, then. I appreciate your help." I start to leave, but he reaches out and touches my elbow.

"You know, we had a couple of black police chiefs. The first one was back in 'eighty-one. I knew him pretty good. He didn't mind stepping on toes to get the job done, so they fired him after a few months. He might know something."

"What was his name?"

"Willie Pinder."

"Does he still live in town?"

"He stay over to Gaylor Street. Blue house. Drives a old Dodge pickup."

"Would he be home during the day?"

"I believe he 'tired. You could see."

"I'll call him. Hey, I never got your name."

"That's right. You watch your ass, Penn Cage. And tell your daddy Zoot say hello."

He grinds his cigarette beneath the heel of a cheap work boot and walks back toward the D.A.'s office.

As soon as I reach the car, I dial directory assistance again. There's a listing for a Willie Pinder on Gaylor Street. This time I dial the number myself.

"Yeah?" says a coarse voice.

"Is Willie there?"

"This Willie."

I hang up.

Gaylor Street is in a black neighborhood off the road that leads up to the city cemetery. It takes several trips through blocks of small, brightly colored houses, but I finally find the ex-chief's Dodge pickup parked on the street. A cracked pad of cement leads to the rear of the house. I drive around and park near Pinder's back porch. It's fully screened, with rust eating the black wire in big orange patches.

"Who the hell are you?" shouts a hostile voice. "You just call me on the telephone?"

I wave broadly at the dark screen. For all I know, I'm looking into the barrel of a shotgun. "I'm Penn Cage. I'm looking for the former chief of police, Willie Pinder."

"Who you work for, chump?"

The screen door opens with a screech of protesting springs, and a big black head appears in the opening. The sleepy-eyed face says late fifties, with some rough years on the back end.

"Car like that, you ain't no process server. Must be a lawyer. You work for my ex-old lady?"

"No. My name's Penn Cage. If you're Willie Pinder, I want to ask you about the Del Payton murder."

At the words "Del Payton" the sleepy eyes wake up. "I'm Willie," he says, looking closely at me.

"You got my name, right?"

"Trouble. That's your name."

"Will you talk to me?"

"Sure." Pinder laughs. "I might be hearing your last words. Come on up."

He holds the door open for me. Three steps lead up to the porch, the kind of weed-grown slat steps that snakes like to lie under in the heat. In one bound I am up and through the door, which slaps shut behind me with a bang like a pistol shot.

"Porch is far enough," says Pinder. "Hotter inside anyway. AC's busted. You want a beer?"

"Sure." I try not to glance at my watch; it can't be eleven a.m. yet.

Pinder goes inside and returns with two sweating cans of Schaeffer. He hands me one, then sits beside me in a green iron lawn chair, pops the top off his can, and drinks.

"So you're retired now?" I say, opening my beer.

He laughs again. "That don't quite seem to say it. I'm fucked now. How about that?"

I'm not sure how to proceed. I don't want the man's life story, but neither do I want to offend him. Thankfully, Pinder spares me.

"You the crazy man who popped off about Del Payton in the paper?"

"I mentioned the case."

"Case? Ain't no case on Del Payton."

"What about a file, then? There must have been a police file."

He takes another long swig of Schaeffer. "I was pretty busy back then. It was all I could do to hold the goddamn place together."

"I'm sure. Still, I'd think you might have wanted to check some things the white chiefs had let slide for too long."

Pinder sniffs and looks through the rusted screen. "I worked in that department eleven years, and I never saw no Payton file. Didn't think there was one. But when the old chief gave me the combination to the station safe, and I opened it up, there it was. Sitting on the bottom of a stack of insurance policies. Just like that. First day on the job."

"Did the police seriously investigate the case in sixty-eight?"

He smiles. "In 1968 the city slogan was 'Natchez, Where the Old South Still Lives.' It looked like they investigated. There was lots of confidential-informant reports, rumors tracked down, stuff like that."

"Any suspects?"

"A couple."

"Who?"

He smiles enigmatically. "You know, I might ought to check the file. My memory ain't what it used to be."

Something quivers in my chest. "How can you check the file?"

"Easy. I got it inside."

Jesus. "You made a copy?"

"Nope. I got the original. Took it when they screwed me out of my job."

I feel like hugging him. "May I see it?"

"I ain't no loan library, boy. I think we're talking about a rental situation here."

"How much?"

Pinder's face goes blank as he computes a price. "Five hundred," he says finally, a note of challenge in his voice. "And you read it right here in front of me."

When I think of what I just paid Ray Presley for my father's.38, I feel like laughing. "A thousand," I counter. "But I take the file with me. I'll photocopy it and get the original back to you within twenty-four hours."

Pinder has lost a little of his studied calm. "How 'bout two thousand?"

"What's in the file? How long is it?"

"About twenty-five pages. Plenty of names in there, if that's what you're after."

"Any mention of Judge Marston in it? He was D.A. back then."

Something ticks in the ex-chief's face. "That motherfucker in there."

"Two thousand it is."

His head slides back on his neck, his eyes full of suspicion. "I don't want no check, now."

"You get the file, I'll get the cash."

"You got it here?"

"Oh, yeah. Get the file."

While Pinder goes inside, I go to the car and open the spare tire well, count two thousand dollars from the remaining twenty-five, and return to the porch. Shuffling and sliding sounds come from inside the house, as though Pinder is moving furniture. Then the door bangs open and he reappears with a worn manila folder in his hand. I hand him the cash, and he takes it, but he doesn't pass me the file. He sits down again and drinks from his beer can.

"You ain't asked me if I solved the case or not."

"Did you?"

"No." He looks at me out of the corner of his eye. "But not because it ain't solvable. I kept that file close to my vest, man. Didn't tell no white officers nothin' 'bout it. Told a couple of black ones I trusted I was gonna be working the case real quiet. One week later somebody sent me a message."

"What kind of message?"

"They sent a man to talk to me. A man I hated but wasn't about to ignore."

"Who was he?"

"Ray Presley."

I try to keep my composure, but Pinder cannot fail to notice the thunderous effect the name has on me. "I know Presley," I say carefully. "He was somehow involved in the original case."

"That's right. And that son of a bitch'll kill a man like picking off a scab. He's killed for less than what you just give me."

"Did he threaten you over the Payton case?"

"Not the way I expected. If he had, I'd have thrown him in a cell. He'd been to Parchman by then, and I was still riding my high horse. He didn't say, 'Stay out of this or you might wind up dead.' No, he said, 'I hear you're thinking about looking into the Del Payton murder, Willie. I worked that case myself in sixty-eight, worked it hard, and just about the time I thought we was getting somewhere, somebody told me to leave it alone. And I did. I left it alone. I was white and I wanted to solve that bombing, but I let it go. You ought to think about that.' "

"What do you think he meant? Who was he talking about?"

"Don't know." Pinder's voice softens, becomes vulnerable. "But anybody who could put fear into Ray Presley scared me plenty. My kids was still living with me then, and I wasn't about to watch them die for my pride. Or black pride, or whatever you want to call it. I couldn't even trust the brothers in my own department. How far was I gonna get? Del Payton was gonna be just as dead either way."

"Was it the Klan, you think?"

"The Klan? Shit. Klan wouldn't scare Ray Presley. Those kluckers scared of him. He did shit them crackers only talked about."

"Could it have been the FBI?" I ask, recalling Lutjens's story of the sealed file.

A funny gleam comes into Pinder's eyes. "Why you ask that?"

"Is it possible?"

"Anything's possible. The feds and the local cops didn't get on too good then. Not much better now, really. But why they'd warn Presley off don't make no sense. Hoover hated Martin Luther King. But Del didn't have nothing to do with no big-time peoples like that." Pinder stands suddenly and drops the file in my lap. "We finished here."

Despite this strong hint to leave, I open the file. The first page is headed: supplementary investigation report, and dated 5-15-68. Beneath this is typed: Delano Payton Murder Bombing. Then come four handwritten paragraphs that appear to detail an anonymous phone call. The signature beneath them reads, Patrolman Ray Presley.

"You can do your reading at home," Pinder says. "I'm goin' fishin'. Gonna spend the afternoon forgettin' I ever saw you."

I stand and shake his hand. "I appreciate the help, Chief. Don't spend it all in one place."

He chuckles. "Hey, I got an old bulletproof vest I can sell you. Wanna take a look?"

"I don't plan to need it." I push open the screen door and walk quickly down the steps. "I'll drop the original back tomorrow."

"Keep it. I don't want no part of that no more."

"I never saw you." I put one leg into the BMW. "Hey if you really gave up on the case, why'd you steal the file when you left?"

Pinder stands motionless in the open doorway. "Get a little of my own back, I guess. I knew I'd be the last black chief for a long time." He smiles oddly, as though he has just seen something in a new light. "Maybe that file's been waiting here for you all this time. Mysterious ways, right? Maybe the bastards won't get you after all."

I give Pinder a salute. "Hope they're biting today, Chief."

He winks at me. "They biting every day, if you know where to look."


CHAPTER 14 | The Quiet Game | CHAPTER 16