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CHAPTER 17

"Daddy, look at the crawdads! They've got humongous claws!"

Annie races across the patio and leaps into my arms like a thirty-pound bullet. Though petite for her age, she is wiry and strong, like her mother.

"You'd better not let one get your nose!" I warn her. "It'll thunder seven times before he turns loose."

"Your daddy's lying to you, girl," Ruby calls from beside the pool. "That's a snapping turtle he talking 'bout. Crawfish can't hurt you none."

"One already pinched my finger!" Annie cries. "It didn't even hurt."

Dad is tending a five-gallon boiler near the house, and the roar of burning propane makes my stomach rumble, a Pavlovian response that remains automatic even after twenty years away. A cooler full of live crawfish sits beside the boiling water.

"Sam Jacobs brought these by," he explains. "He went over to Catahoula Parish to look at a stripper well and brought them back. They're good-sized. Pretty too."

"Did you ask him to stay?"

"He said he had to get home, but that you should call him one night and go get a beer."

"I could use one now."

"There's a six-pack of Corona in the fridge. Limes too. Bring me a Heineken while you're at it."

"On the way."

I walk over and hug Ruby, then go inside. My mother's in the kitchen, washing corn and potatoes for the crawfish pot. She asks how my day went, and I say something inane about how little the town has changed. During the past hour I photocopied the Del Payton police file, rented a safe deposit box and stored the original inside, bought packaging material at Fred's Dollar Store, and delivered the fragments of Del's engine to the UPS office five minutes before they closed. I also spoke to Huey Moak, whom Cilia tracked down in Lexington, Kentucky, where he is investigating an explosion at the university. Huey could not conceal his pleasure at the prospect of solving a bombing case the FBI had bungled, even if it was thirty years old. The engine fragments will arrive before noon tomorrow at the Holiday Inn where he and his BATF team are staying. All that activity left me only one task to complete: the felony I started this morning.

I carry a Heineken out to my father and sit in a lawn chair at the edge of the pool. Annie has taken two crawfish from the cooler and is trying to make them race across the patio. She quickly learns that the only direction crawfish will move under duress is backward. I sip the Corona and watch the crustacean derby while Dad purges the mudbugs in the cooler by dumping salt water over them. Mom brings out a huge bowl of new potatoes, corn, and onions, which she dumps into the steaming pot along with three bags of Zatarain's crab boil. The sharp aroma of spices fills the air, making my mouth water, and Annie stares with saucer eyes as Dad loads the wire-mesh inner boiler with brown crawfish and submerges them in the boiling water. When he hauls them out twenty minutes later, they are a flaming red-orange.

"Wow!" Annie marvels.

"Time to eat 'em!" Dad says.

Mom covers the wrought-iron patio table with newspaper, and Dad dumps the steaming crawfish onto the center, making a small mountain. I spear some potatoes and corn with a fork and make a plate for Annie, assuming she likes the look of crawfish better than she'll like the taste. But I'm wrong. She isn't strong enough to crack the tails efficiently, but with Dad peeling for her, she goes through a half pound of a pound of tails before she's done. As I watch her joyful eyes, the Payton case recedes in my mind. I should have brought Annie here right after the funeral. My mother's matter-of-fact attitude toward the mysteries of life has already brought her out of her melancholia. When Annie announces that her tummy is full, Mom leads her over to the faucet to wash the hot spices from her hands.

"Annie wants ice cream," Mom calls from the faucet. "Anybody else?"

"Y'all go ahead," Dad shouts back. "We'll clean up this mess and be inside in a minute."

He slides a cigar from his pocket and puts it in his mouth, but doesn't begin the ritual of lighting it. "You want another beer?"

"I'd better skip it. We need to take a ride."

He raises an eyebrow. "We do?"

I raise my hand and make a mock pistol with my thumb and forefinger, then drop my thumb like a hammer.

"I see. Let's clean this mess up for your mother first."

As he begins wrapping the crawfish shells in newspaper, I carry the heavy boiler to the edge of the yard to dump the water. The gun is only twenty feet away from me, in the pool house, preparing for its final journey.

I am standing in the stern of a rusty green johnboat, poling it across a cypress swamp south of town. The sky is aflame with orange and purple light, the dying sun turning the hanging moss into long black beards on the cypress limbs. The johnboat belongs to a pumper who monitors an oil well that stays underwater for much of the year. The well has been pumping for over twenty years, and the johnboat has been sitting in a thicket nearby for most of that time. Sam Jacobs pointed it out to me one summer during college.

Dad sits forward, facing me, smoking his cigar and keeping watch on the receding shoreline. Between us stands a five-gallon plastic paint bucket filled with rock-hard cement. Embedded somewhere inside it is the Smith amp; Wesson.38 I bought from Ray Presley this morning. Dad flips some ash into the water and speaks in a casual voice.

"A patient told me she saw my car over at Willie Pinder's house today. She asked if the ex-chief was having heart trouble again."

"God can take a rest from watching sparrows fall in Natchez," I reply. "Nothing gets by anybody here."

He laughs mirthlessly. "And a rather strange fax arrived at my office this morning. A list of names with a note at the bottom saying something about Washington."

I forgot all about the fax. "I'm sorry about that. Where is it now?"

He takes a folded piece of fax paper from his pocket. "What's it about? This list?"

"Those are FBI agents who worked out of the Jackson field office in 1968. Did you see the name Stone on it?"

He unfolds the paper and scans it, then shakes his head. "No Stone. Where'd you get that name?"

"Althea Payton remembered a sympathetic FBI man."

"And the visit to Willie Pinder?"

"Pinder had the original police file on the Payton murder. He stole it when he lost his job as chief. I bought it from him."

My father looks out over the dark water. Already the ranks of cypress trunks screen us from anyone on shore. "I know what I said yesterday. About how justice needs to be done. God knows black people have had a shitty deal for a long time. I saw things growing up in Louisiana that I'd never want to say out loud. I understand why your blood is up. You and Althea Payton have experienced one of the worst tragedies there is. Losing a spouse, I mean. But I don't think you fully appreciate the danger of what you're doing."

"I think I do. Everybody I talk to tells me to watch my back."

"That's not what I'm talking about. I'm going to be candid, son. You're not my main concern here. If a man wants to risk his life for something noble, that's his lookout. But Annie's life is something else."

The undercurrent of fear in his voice gives me pause. "Do you really think whoever killed Payton would hurt Annie or Mom?"

"Anybody who'll hide in the shadows and bomb a man is capable of anything. They're scum. Dogs. And they have the dog's pack mentality." He gives me the cold eye. "You've already been shot at. You put these people at risk for the death house at Parchman, they'll come for you the way they're surest to get you. And that's through your family."

"Who is this 'they' you're talking about? Do you have any idea?"

My father sighs and looks at the bottom of the boat, then picks up a red and white plastic fishing bob and starts working the line mechanism with his thumb. "Natchez is a good town. I've practiced here thirty-five years, and I know. But towns are like people. Even the best of us has dark places in his soul. Fears, prejudices, appetites. The capacity for sin, I suppose. Whoever's behind this Payton business is an expression of that. It could be some white-trash asshole, or our next-door neighbor. The point is, you'll never see them coming."

"Dad, if you'll listen to me for one minute, I think you'll understand why I have to do this."

"Nothing to do out here but listen."

"Do you know a deputy named Ike Ransom?"

"Sure. Ike the Spike. I treated his mother for years."

"He followed me home last night after the party. He wants Payton's killer punished. And he knows who it is."

"Why doesn't he do something about it, then? He was a cop for twenty years."

"He's scared."

Dad shakes his head wearily. "Over the years at least three men I know of have claimed they killed Delano Payton. Drunk rednecks like to take credit for that kind of thing. Ransom probably overheard something like that and believed it. Who does he say did it?"

"Leo Marston."

Dad's mouth drops open. "Leo Marston? That's crazy. Marston's a lot of things, but he's no racist."

"That's what I thought too. But how do you know he's not?"

"Well I've seen pictures of him with Bobby Kennedy, for one thing. With Charles and Medgar Evers too. I think I even saw a shot of him with Martin Luther King."

"How do you know that wasn't just public relations?"

"In the sixties? A white man posing with the Evers boys and King?" Dad shakes his head again. "Is Livy Marston a racist?"

"No. But that doesn't prove anything."

"Sure it does. Apples don't fall far from the tree." He draws thoughtfully on his cigar. "Ike Ransom's a bad alcoholic, son. Has been for years. I think he's playing you. He knows Marston hurt our family, so that makes Marston the best way to suck you into the Payton case. He figures once you're into it, you'll go for the throat of whoever turns out to be guilty. That's what the blacks in this town want, and I don't blame them."

"I don't think blacks want that at all. Shad Johnson sure doesn't. They want that new chemical plant in here as much as anybody. I can't believe you're defending Marston."

He slaps himself like a madman as a horsefly the size of a small fighter plane attacks him, refusing to give quarter. Fearing that this battle will overturn the boat, I scramble forward and smash the insect against his shoulder.

"Thanks," he mutters. "I'm not defending that bastard. But Leo Marston destroys people. He doesn't murder them."

"You're thinking in a business context. What if it was personal? Maybe Payton and Marston had business dealings of some kind. Or maybe Payton was in a position to know something about Marston's personal affairs."

He dismisses this with a flip of his hand. "No way, no how. Different universes."

"Ike's anger felt personal to me. He hates Marston."

"That's a big club. Look, for all we know, Marston sent Ike Ransom's brother to jail. He could have any kind of grudge against Marston, and we wouldn't know it."

"But if Marston's not involved in the Payton case, how would putting me on it hurt Marston? You see? You can't have it both ways."

He groans in exasperation.

"You're looking for logic," I continue. "But Marston went after you for malpractice in 1979, and we never learned why. Motives aren't always obvious."

Now he's listening.

"Leo Marston was D.A. when Payton was killed. I think that's how he's tied into it. When Willie Pinder became police chief, he started looking into Payton's murder. Very quietly, using only black officers. But before he got far, somebody warned him off the case."

"Who?"

"Ray Presley."

Dad tosses his cigar into the water, where it hisses and sputters out. "Why am I not surprised?"

"Ray told Willie that he'd tried to solve the case in sixty-eight, but that he'd been warned off too. He wouldn't say by whom, but it was enough to scare him off."

"That would take some doing."

"That's what Willie said. He dropped it. Didn't Presley do a lot of work for Marston in the seventies?"

"I believe he did."

"Think about it. We've got Ray Presley, a blatant racist, investigating a politically sensitive race murder while Leo Marston is D.A. I don't think it's outside the realm of possibility that Marston could have committed criminal acts under those circumstances."

"But why? That's what I can't see."

"I don't know."

"Wouldn't the statute of limitations have run out on anything short of murder?"

"That's right. Anything short of murder."

He looks like a sculpture in the bow of the boat, frozen in contemplation. We're two hundred yards from shore now, far enough that even a severe drought would be unlikely to uncover the swamp bottom. Even if it did, there would only be the cement-filled pail lying in the baking mud among the dead fish and loggerhead turtles. A lost anchor. Nothing else.

I lift the long pole out of the water and lay it along the gunwale of the boat. Dad starts to get up, but I motion for him to stay seated. The last thing we need is to capsize in water teeming with water moccasins, and perhaps even alligators.

I drag the heavy bucket toward the stern and lift it onto my seat, then sit beside it, flex my arms, and roll it over between my legs. After a deep breath, I slip my hands under it and stand up, using my legs for power. In seconds my arms are quivering from the weight.

"Throw it!" Dad cries.

I heave the bucket to my left and into the black water, heeling the boat hard to starboard and almost losing my balance. The splash sounds like a cannonball and showers both of us with slimy water.

"God almighty!" Dad exults. "I thought we were going over!"

"That gun is history," I say quietly. "Let's go to the house."

I pick up the pole, plunge it to the muddy bottom, and work the bow back around until it points to the dirt road where we parked Dad's pickup. High above us, a hawk circles over unseen prey. As it sails through the falling dusk, Dad says: "Could it have been the feds who warned Ray off the Payton case?"

Despite the heat, I feel a shiver deep in my chest. Willie Pinder's remarks are playing in my head. "What makes you ask that?"

"I remember a picture from somewhere. It showed Marston and J. Edgar Hoover together. Both of them glaring into the camera like junior G-men. Marston always claimed to be a personal friend of Hoover's. That's not fashionable now, of course. But thirty years ago it was quite a coup."

I had thought I might be able to keep my father on the periphery of this case, but that's simply not practical. The fact is, I need his help. "Dad, the guy who sent me that list of FBI agents is Bureau himself. He told me a couple of disturbing things."

"Like?"

"This morning Austin Mackey requested the FBI file on Del Payton, and he was turned down. The Payton file was sealed by J. Edgar Hoover in 1968 on grounds of national security."

His eyes narrow in disbelief. "What? "

"Now you tell me Marston was a personal friend of Hoover's. I've already determined that Presley probably lied about the bomb that blew up Payton's car. The FBI had to know that. I don't know how it all adds up, but as district attorney, Marston had to be right in the middle of all this."

He looks toward the shore, as though trying to spot his truck against the darkness of the trees. When he answers, his voice is so soft it seems to drift out of the lap of water against the bow.

"Leo Marston put our family through hell for a year and a half. The stress damn near killed me, and it changed your mother forever."

I say nothing, wondering if he's talking to me or himself.

"The things he's done to other people compromised them, bullied them. You don't know half of what he's done. I'm not a vindictive man. But to make that bastard pay for some of that God, that would be justice."

He is taking himself where I wanted to take him all along.

"We'd have to find a way to protect Annie and Peggy," he says. "Around the clock."

"We can do that."

He looks back at me. "You're not in Houston anymore. You have no authority here. You can't investigate secretly. Half the town already knows what you're doing."

"The more people who know, the safer we'll be."

"Marston can apply pressure from angles you never dreamed of. But physical safety is the first priority. I know a couple of good men. Cops. Patients of mine."

"Do you really think you can trust them? Cops, I mean. Ray Presley was a cop."

Dad chuckles softly in the shadows. "They're both black. What do you think?"


CHAPTER 16 | The Quiet Game | CHAPTER 18