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CHAPTER 16

The Payton house is a typical rural home, built with cheap materials on concrete blocks, but better maintained than most. Lovingly tended flower beds border the front, concealing the dark crawl space beneath the structure. The cars in the driveway are probably worth more than the house, but at least the nearest neighbor is fifty yards up the road.

Georgia Payton sits beneath a large pin oak, rocking slowly in a white cotton dress. She lifts a hand as I pull into the driveway, but she does not get up.

I walk over to say hello before going to the front door. "Hot one, isn't it?"

She cackles at me. "I lived three-quarters of my life without no air conditioning. The Lord's breeze be good enough for me."

"Mr. Cage?"

Althea Payton is beckoning to me from the door. She wears navy shorts and a red blouse tied at the waist. She looks like she's been gardening.

"Come in out of that heat!" she calls. "Georgia's fine out there."

I smile at the old woman, then cross the drive and follow Althea into the house.

"Georgia's like an old loggerhead turtle sunning itself on a rock," she says. "I asked her to stay outside while we talk. She can be a little hard to handle. Have a seat."

I sit on a flame-print love seat, and Althea takes a cloth-covered easy chair to my right. The living room holds old but clean furniture, all of it arranged around a new television set. Dozens of framed family photos hang on the wall behind the TV. I look away when I realize I'm staring at a wedding photo of Del and Althea. They look young and happy, destined for anything but what happened to them in the spring of 1968.

"On the phone," she says hesitantly, "you said it was about my husband."

"Yes, ma'am." My next words are an irrevocable step. "I've decided to look into Del's death after all. I've already taken some steps in that direction."

She seems not to have understood. Then her eyes well up and her voice spills out in a reverent tone. "Sweet Lord Jesus, I can't believe it."

"I don't want us to get ahead of ourselves. There may not be anything to find out."

She nods, her hands clasped over her chest. "I realize that. I just it's been so many years. Do you have any idea what you need to charge me?"

"Yes. I'm going to need a retainer of one dollar. And I'll bill you for my time at the rate of one dollar per day."

She shakes her head in confusion. "You can't be serious."

"I'm deadly serious, Althea. Don't give it another thought."

She wipes tears from her eyes, and I look away. The wall to her left holds the sacred trinity of photographs I've seen in the homes of many black families: Martin Luther King, JFK, and Abraham Lincoln. Sometimes you see Bobby, or FDR. But the Paytons have only the big three. A plastic clock hangs above the photographs, its face painted with a rather bloated likeness of Dr. King. The words I have a dream appear in quotes beneath him.

"Georgia bought that clock from some traveling salesman in May of 1968," Althea says. "It stopped running before that Christmas, but she never let me get rid of it."

"Maybe it's a collector's item."

"I don't care. Those clocks probably put a million dollars in some sharpie's pocket." She grips her knees with her palms and fixes her eyes on me. "Could I ask you one thing?"

"Why did I change my mind?"

"Yes."

"I have a personal stake in the case now. I want to be honest with you about that."

"Are you going to write a book about Del? Is that it?"

"No. But if anybody asks you what I was doing here, that's what you tell them. And I mean anybody, police included. Okay?"

"Whatever you say. But what is your personal interest, if not a book?"

"I'd prefer to keep that to myself, Althea."

She looks puzzled, then relieved. "I'm glad you've got a stake in it. You having a child like you do. It would be too hard if I thought you were taking this risk only for me."

"I'm not. Rest assured of that."

"Thank you." She leans back in her chair and looks at me with apprehension. "What can you tell me? Have you learned anything yet?"

"We won't be getting any help from the district attorney. The police either, if my guess is right. I've managed to obtain some documentary information dating back to 1968 that could be helpful, but that's between us and God."

"Can you tell me what it is?"

"No. I won't expose you to potential criminal charges."

She nods soberly. "Just tell me this. Do you think there's any hope? Of finding out the truth, I mean."

I fight the urge to be optimistic. A lawyer has to make that mistake only once to learn what it costs. You give people hope; then the pendulum swings the wrong way and they're left shattered, as much by false hope as by misfortune.

"I wouldn't take the case if there wasn't hope. But I want to proceed cautiously. I promise to contact you if and when I learn anything of value. I understand that you've waited a long time for justice."

Althea's hands are clenched in her lap, the knuckles white.

"If you feel up to it, I'd like you to tell me what you can about what Del was doing at the battery plant before he died. For civil rights, I mean."

She takes a deep breath and closes her eyes, as though striving to remember with perfect accuracy. "Del wasn't any big civil rights worker. He was a workingman. He just saw things he thought were wrong and did what he could to change them. When he was a young man, he was carefree. You never saw a smile so full and happy. When he went to Korea, something changed in him. He still had that smile, but it didn't fill up his eyes the way it used to. He was different inside. He got shot over there, and I think he saw some pretty bad things. When he got back, he told me life was too short to spend it standing at the back of the line."

"When did he go to work at Triton Battery?"

"A couple of years after the war. He put in his time and saved his money back then. Said he didn't want to marry me till he could afford to take care of me like I deserved." Althea's voice cracks a little, but she smiles. "I sure got tired of waiting. Del bought this house in 1959, for cash money. Not many black men could do that back then."

"You got married in fifty-nine?"

She nods. "It was right around then that Del met Medgar."

"Medgar Evers?"

"Yes. Medgar heard how good Del was doing at the plant, and wanted to meet him. Medgar was building up the NAACP back then, pushing voter registration. Del loved Medgar. Loved his quiet way. Said he'd known men like Medgar in the army. Quiet men who worked hard and wouldn't back down for anything. Medgar took to Del too. He saw that Del didn't hate the white man. Del believed if we could help white people see inside us, see past the color, their hearts would change."

"So Medgar got Del into civil rights work?"

"Lord, yes. Medgar ate right in this house whenever he came through town." Althea shakes her head sadly. "When Beckwith killed Medgar in June of sixty-three, Del changed again. He said the war had come home to America.

Then President Kennedy was shot that November. Del had joined the NAACP by then, of course, and by 1965 he was in charge of voter registration for this area. Del was the highest-ranking black man at the battery plant. Even the white men liked him. They knew he knew his job."

"Who do you think planted that bomb, Althea?"

"Well the Klan, I guess. There were a lot of beatings out at the paper mill around then, Klan workers beating black workers. You know. Scaring them off. There was some Klan at the tire plant, and at the battery plant too."

"A car bomb is quite an escalation from a beating. Did Del have any personal enemies you know of?"

"Del didn't have an enemy in this world."

He had at least one, I say silently. But it's certainly possible that Payton was chosen at random, to send a warning to someone. "Did he seem any more worried than usual about going to work near the time of his death?"

She shakes her head. "We had some death threats, but we got those with every promotion Del had. He just kept on keeping on. He'd say, 'Thea, we can't let 'em get us down.' "

I remember the nightmarish weeks of the Hanratty trial, when death threats arrived almost daily. What courage it must have taken for Del Payton to get up every morning of his life and go to work with men he knew wanted him dead.

"He was depressed," Althea adds. "Over Dr. King's death. Martin was assassinated just five weeks before Del was killed. And Del was so saddened, by that, because already he saw the Movement being taken over by advocates of violence. Men with bitterness in their hearts. Stokely Carmichael and the rest. Black racists, he called them."

The more I learn about Del Payton, the more I feel that his murder was a terrible loss to the community in which I grew up. "Does anything else stand out?"

"No. The FBI asked me all this back when it happened, and I told them the same thing. One day Del went to work and just didn't come home."

I looked helplessly around the room. Del Payton has been dead for thirty years, but he is as alive here as a dead man can be. When Annie is a grown woman, will this large a piece of my heart still be reserved for Sarah?

"Do you remember the names of any of the FBI agents who talked to you?"

"I remember one, very well. Agent Stone. He was about Del's age, and he'd served in Korea too. Agent Stone really tried to help me. But he was the only one. He had a younger man with him who never said much. He didn't care nothing about us. Like all the rest."

"Do you remember his name?"

"No. Just a stuck-up Yankee. Agent Stone came by the house before he left town the last time. He apologized for not having gotten justice for Del. He was a good man, and I got the feeling he knew there was some dirty work at the crossroads on Del's case."

"Did he say anything specific?"

"No. He just seemed like he wanted to say more than he could."

"Do you know a deputy named Ike Ransom? Some people used to call him Ike the Spike."

A strange stillness comes over Althea. "They still call him that. Ike was a good boy who turned out bad. He got on that dope over in Vietnam and drank all the years after that. He hurt a lot of black people to impress his bosses. Why you asking about Ike Ransom?"

"It's not important." I stand. "I think that's enough questions for now."

Althea studies me for a few moments, then stands and presses her shorts flat against her thighs. "Come out to the garden and let me get you some tomatoes."

"Oh, no. But thank you."

"Nonsense. Your daddy loves my tomatoes. I been paying him in tomatoes for years."

I follow her to the kitchen, where she picks up a Piggly Wiggly sack and goes out the back door.

The backyard is bordered by woods, and most of the yard is taken up by a vegetable garden laid out with architectural precision. The vines along the ground are bursting with squash and rattlesnake watermelons, and the tomato plants stand four feet tall. Toward the back rows I see butter beans, corn, collards, and pole beans. The only eyesore is a rusted, weed-grown husk of a car sitting up on blocks on the near side of the garden.

Althea pulls a red bandanna from her back pocket, ties it around her head, and walks between two rows of tomato plants. I check the junker for obvious wasp nests, then climb onto its trunk and watch Althea pick prize specimens for her sack.

"This is some garden," I call after her.

"Daddy always had a garden. Drove Mama crazy. We had mason jars stacked to the ceiling at canning time."

The low rumble of a truck passing on the road breaks the stillness, then fades. I wish Annie were here to see the garden.

"I don't know why I keep that old wreck," Althea says from among the plants. "It makes me sad more than anything. But sometimes it reminds me of the times me and Del went riding out by the river, when we were young. We'd roll down the windows and cruise up the levee road, listening to Nat Cole. Del would have his arm around me, and it was like nobody could touch us. We could do anything we wanted, you know? Go anywhere. It was just a dream, but it was a good one."

I feel a strange heat at the back of my neck. For the first time I really look at the car I am sitting on. It's a Ford Fairlane. A white sedan, maybe a '61.I slide off it slowly.

"Is this?"

"I thought you recognized it when you first saw it," Althea says, stepping out of the rows. "From the newspaper picture."

"I guess it's the rust," I say distractedly.

The Fairlane's hood is lying crossways over the engine compartment. I put my hands under the hot metal and flip the hood off the car. Several dessicated wasp nests cling to the fender wells, but it's not the wasp nests that send a chill through me. The Ford's engine is a mass of mangled metal. The bomb that killed Del Payton was set between the engine block and the firewall. The explosion blew the motor forward, breaking the mounts, tore the transmission away from the bell housing, and cut a fissure through the lower part of the firewall. I can't believe Payton survived two seconds after that blast. Even the engine block shows signs of shearing, and the whole compartment is littered with tiny metal fragments. The exhaust manifold was sliced in two like a length of salami. This image tickles something at the back of my mind.

"It sat rusting behind the jail for a year," Althea says. "I thought they were keeping it in case they got a clue about the bombing, but they'd just forgot about it. So I had my father tow it out here. Nothing but a home for birds and wasps now."

As I bend over the wrecked engine, something else strikes me. This car burned. I knew that, of course, from Caitlin's article, and also from the picture, but it never really registered. Rust has eaten away the charring on the exterior of the car, but the passenger compartment is a nightmare of blackened metal and melted plastic. This too has hidden significance.

"What do you see?" Althea asks.

"I'm not sure."

Alarms are ringing now. I don't know the significance of what I am seeing, but I know with utter certainty that it is significant. And I know a man who can tell me why. While researching my third novel, I spent two days with a BATF explosives expert named Huey Moak. Huey showed me a lot of photographs and even more pieces of stretched and twisted metal. What I'm seeing now, I saw in some of those photos.

"Do you mind if I borrow a piece of this engine?"

"Take the whole car if it will help."

Reaching down into the mass of metal debris, I pull out a flat piece about two inches square, sheared off as cleanly as if it had been cut by a blowtorch. I slip this into my pocket, then rake a handful of tiny shrapnel off the top of a smashed and corroded Triton battery. Like his coworkers, Del Payton got his batteries at a sixty percent discount from the company.

"May I borrow your bandanna?"

Althea unties the red cloth from her head and hands it to me. I lay it on the roof of the Fairlane, set the shrapnel in it, and tie the cloth into a tight sack.

"Thanks. I'd better get going."

"You've seen something," she says. "You're excited. I can tell."

"Yes, but I don't know what it means. I'll let you know as soon as I do."

She looks into my eyes, then nods. "All right. I'll walk you to your car."

As we round the house, a battered pickup pulls into the drive. Three black kids stand in back, looking over the roof of the cab. Two girls and a boy. The truck wheezes to a stop, and a black man a few years younger than I gets out wearing a grease-stained jumpsuit. As he approaches, I see a white patch on his breast pocket. The word del is stenciled on it in red. Over his shoulder, Georgia Payton continues her purposeful rocking.

"Penn," says Althea, "this is my son, Del Junior. Del, this is Mr. Penn Cage."

I offer my hand, but the man makes no move to shake it.

" You shake this man's hand," Althea snaps in a voice crackling with maternal authority. "This the man who's going to find out who killed your daddy."

Del Jr. grudgingly holds out his hand, and I shake it. You'd have to cut a quarter inch into his palm to draw blood.

"Take the kids inside," Althea tells him.

Del Jr. jerks his head toward the house, and the children walk backward to the front door, staring at me as they go. Del looks at my father's BMW, and it's painfully easy to read his face. The money that car cost would keep his family fed and sheltered for five years. He turns and follows his kids into the house.

"He's got a lot of bitterness in his heart," Althea says.

"He's got reason to. I sure thank you for the tomatoes."

"Any time, Penn."

I get into the car and lay the bandanna on top of the police file, then wave at Georgia Payton as I drive away. She doesn't respond.

As I clear the first turn, the significance of what I saw in Del Payton's charred Fairlane bursts into my conscious mind with the brilliance of a flare. I pull onto the shoulder, park, and with shaking hands pick up the file I bought from Willie Pinder. Caitlin's article said Del's car was destroyed by dynamite. That fit with the story I'd heard all my life. But if I remember Huey Moak's drawled lectures correctly, much of what I saw five minutes ago contradicts that version of events.

For one thing, dynamited cars almost never burn. Payton's did. But it's the shearing that's important. Whatever exploded in that Fairlane attacked both engine and firewall with tremendous cutting force, like an acetylene torch completing its job in a fraction of a second. It left shrapnel no bigger than thumbtacks. And it created a flash hot enough to set fire to a car constructed with only a fraction of the plastic used in modern vehicles. I can still hear Huey's voice in my mind: Those are characteristics of a uniquely stable, versatile, and powerful explosive that the Army calls C-4. The Russians call it Semtex. The French, plastique. Civilians call it good old plastic explosive

Fifteen pages into the Payton file, I find the crime-scene report. Near the middle of the page a handwritten sentence reads "Bomb constructed of unknown material" in black ink. But a blue line has been drawn through the words "unknown material" and the words "commercial-grade dynamite" written above them. At the bottom of the page, a note in blue reads, "One day following the initial scene investigation, Patrolman Ray Presley discovered fragments of civilian blasting caps and wire fragments in the wooded area one hundred feet from the vehicle. Subsequent lab analysis showed traces of nitroglycerine." Nitroglycerine is one of the main ingredients in dynamite. Beneath that final note are two signatures: Detective First Grade Henry Creel and Detective Ronnie Temple.

One day after a bomb destroyed Del Payton's Fairlane, Ray Presley discovered "proof" that the bomb was made of dynamite. Thirty years later I glance into the same car and find evidence that seems to indicate something quite different. I could be wrong, of course. I know of no reason why Presley should lie about the type of bomb that destroyed Del Payton's car. And speculation is pointless until I know that he did. But that's the beauty of physical evidence. I'll get my answer. All I have to do is get that sheared fragment and sack of shrapnel to Huey Moak, then convince the BATF agent that it's in his interest to help me. And the surest way to do that is to let him know that a quick analysis could put a great deal of egg on the face of the FBI.

Though I can't see how, I am strangely certain that I've taken one step closer to Leo Marston.


CHAPTER 15 | The Quiet Game | CHAPTER 17