Caitlin Masters has the corner booth in Biscuits amp; Blues. She smiles and waves when she sees me walking through the tables. I speak to a couple of people I know, but there's no applause tonight. The restaurant is packed with diners absorbed in their own affairs.
"I'm sorry," Caitlin says, pointing at a shrimp cocktail before her. "I was starved. I couldn't wait. Have one."
"No, thanks," I reply, sitting down opposite her. She's wearing a white button-down oxford shirt and emerald drop earrings that bring out the color in her eyes. Each time I see her, I'm shocked by the way those green eyes are almost wrong for her face. The fine black hair and porcelain skin seem to call for something else. Yet the final result is a remarkable beauty.
The young waitress who asked me to sign False Witness the other day hurries over and asks if she can get me something to drink.
She blushes and nods.
"What happened to my waiter?" Caitlin asks.
"I switched tables with him. I'll take much better care of you guys."
Caitlin gives her a sidelong glance. "I'll bet you will."
"Jenny, I'd love a Corona with a lime."
"On the way." She disappears like a dark-complected elf.
"Jenny has the hots for you."
"A little starstruck, maybe. She's probably got a novel in progress upstairs."
"I don't think that's it. She watches you in a strange way." Caitlin drinks from a sweating martini glass. "Trust me. I have lethal instincts."
"You're not drinking gimlets tonight?"
"They're out of Rose's lime. So, how'd you spend this lovely day?"
"I'll tell you later. First, you owe me an explanation."
She gives me a wry look. "Why did I make such a big thing of Del Payton?"
"It's simple, really. My father."
"The one you grew up without?"
"That's him. When he took over the chain from his father, it was five dailies, all in Virginia. In twelve years he built that into thirty-four papers across the Southeast."
She raises a cynical eyebrow. "Do you know how he did that? He went into small cities that had only one or two newspapers. If there were two, he'd buy the dominant one, then institute John Masters's Commandments, the cardinal one being, 'Don't piss off the advertisers.' He printed every detail of little league games, weddings, society parties, high school graduations-everything but controversy. It didn't make for very informative newspapers, but it kicked profits into the stratosphere."
"Is it a public company now?"
Caitlin makes a fist and thrusts it toward the ceiling with mock fervor. "Never! Family-owned, down the line. Starting to get the picture?"
"You want to shake up Daddy's world."
"Yes. But not for some Freudian reason. Hard news is going unreported in every town where we have a newspaper. I'm instituting a new policy. At one paper, anyway." She takes another swallow of her martini, and her eyes flash with conviction. "From now on, hard news leads."
"The Payton murder wasn't news until you made it news."
"So, sue me. My gut tells me it's a big story, and I'm going with it."
"Good for you. It is a big story."
She freezes with a shrimp in midair.
I take my Corona from Jenny the waitress before she can set it down. "How would you like an exclusive on the solution?"
"Is that a trick question?"
"There's one condition. You print absolutely nothing until I give you the okay."
"You know who killed him?"
"Maybe. But even if I do, proving it could be difficult."
She pops the shrimp into her mouth and chews for a few moments. "I don't get it. If you don't want me to print anything, why bring me in at all?"
"Because I need your help."
"Research that I don't have the time or resources to do."
"What do you need to know?"
"You haven't agreed to my condition yet."
She mulls it over some more. "Why should I muzzle my paper to help you? How do I know you'll solve the case any faster than I could?"
"Do you have a copy of the original police file?"
"No. But I'm working on a request for his FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act."
"Don't bother. You won't get it. J. Edgar Hoover sealed the Payton file in 1968 for reasons of national security."
She shakes her head in disbelief. "I smelled a Pulitzer the minute you told me about this case. Okay, deal. Tell me what you want, I'll get it. Fast. But I want in on everything."
"Fair enough," I say, wondering if I mean it. A half hour ago Cilia called from Houston. After spending hours tracing the names on Peter Lutjens's list, and finding most retired or dead, she lucked into a fan of mine. He hadn't worked the Payton murder, but he remembered it. More important, he numbered Special Agent Dwight Stone, the field agent Althea Payton recalled so fondly, among his old friends. Stone is retired and living outside Crested Butte, Colorado. Cilia called him and found him friendly enough until she mentioned Del Payton, at which time Stone bluntly stated that he would not discuss the Payton case with me or anyone. I intend to test his resolution very soon.
"So, what do you want to know?" Caitlin asks.
"I need everything you can get on Leo Marston. You know who he is?"
"Sure. A big-time attorney everybody calls Judge because he served on the state supreme court. I tried to get a comment from him for my Payton story, but I couldn't get through. His secretary's a cast-iron bitch."
"You should meet his wife."
"The woman who baptized you at the cocktail party?"
"No, thanks. Why Marston?"
"You don't need to know that yet."
She doesn't like this response. "Who else?"
I'd like a detailed bio of Ray Presley, but Caitlin can't access the kind of information I need on him. "Just start with Marston. Companies he owns, whole or in part. Personal and political connections. His tax returns if you can get them."
Jenny reappears at our table, her dark eyes watching me with a disconcerting intensity. "Have you decided?"
"I'm not really hungry," I confess, handing her my unopened menu. "I had to eat before I came. My daughter helped cook."
"How old is she?"
"That's a fun age."
"Are they working on my ribs back there?" Caitlin asks.
"They'll be out in a minute." Jenny gives her a curt smile and heads back to her station.
"You owe me an answer too, remember?" says Caitlin. "You're the most liberal person I've met here, as far as race goes. You're a fascist on the death penalty, of course, but we'll skip that for now. How did you wind up so different from other people here?"
"It's simple, really. My father."
She puts her last shrimp in her mouth and chews slowly, her green eyes luminescent in the soft light. "Let's hear it."
"This never sees print. It's no big deal, but it's personal. That's something we need to get straight right now. If we're going to work together, some things never see print."
"No problem. It's in the vault."
"I remember three defining moments with my father when I was growing up. The first had to do with race. Most kids I grew up around used the word 'nigger' the same way they used 'apple' or 'Chevrolet.' So did their parents and grandparents before them. One night, at home, I used it the same way. My father got out of his chair, turned off the television, and came and sat beside me. He said, 'Son, I grew up working in a creosote plant right alongside colored people. And they're just like you and me. No better, no worse. We don't say that word in this house.' Then he turned the TV back on. And I stopped saying nigger.
"A couple of years later, the thing to be was a hippie, and I tried my best. Grew my hair down my back, smoked grass, the whole bit. I heard hippies on TV saying the 'pigs' this, the 'pigs' that. The cops, you know? So, one day, riding in the car, I said something about the pigs. My father pulled onto the shoulder, turned around, and said, 'Son, if we had to go three days in this country without police, it wouldn't be a place you'd want to live. We don't use that word.' And I never used it again."
Caitlin's eyes shine with fascination. "And the third moment?"
"I was fifteen, and I'd been sleeping with this older girl from the public school who went off to junior college. I stole the family car a couple of times to go see her. In the kitchen one night my mother told me I couldn't do that anymore. In my hormone-intoxicated state, I said, 'Mom, why are you being such a bitch about this?' "
"Oh, my God."
"My dad clocked me. This man of reason who had never lifted a finger to me slapped me an open-handed blow that damn near blacked me out. I was spiritually stunned. But it was the right blow at the right moment. The only one I ever needed. It drew the line for me."
Caitlin nods slowly, a smile on her lips. "Thank you for telling me that. You're lucky to have a father like that."
I wonder what she'd say if she knew that an hour ago my wonderful father and I sank a murder weapon in a swamp.
Her barbecued ribs finally arrive, and we run through a half dozen other subjects while she eats. Journalism, my law career, publishing. She grew up with money but worked hard to make her own mark. She did internships with the New York Times and the Washington Post, traveled extensively overseas, and worked a year for the Los Angeles Times. When she asks obliquely about the Hanratty execution, I change the subject.
"Where do you live? I don't picture you in an apartment."
She smiles and wipes her mouth with a napkin, knowing I'm evading her question. "I pretty much live at the paper. But I did buy a house on Washington Street."
"Roughing it, huh?" Washington Street is old Natchez; most of the town houses there sell for over three hundred thousand dollars.
"I need my space," she says frankly. "You should come see it. It was completely restored just before I bought it."
A wave of warmth passes over my face. Is she hinting that I should go to her house after dinner? I've been out of circulation for years, and she's only twenty-eight. In the realm of dating, she is the expert, not me.
"Do you need to get home?" she asks. "I'll bet Annie's waiting up for you."
That is what she's suggesting. I look at my watch to conceal the fact that I'm blushing. "Annie's falling asleep about now. I'm okay for a bit."
"Well… would you like to see it? We could have some tea and talk. Or we could just take a ride. You could show me the real Natchez."
In the dark? But the automatic rejections I've practiced since Sarah's death don't come to me. "A ride might be fun."
My answer surprises her. More than that, it makes her happy. With a smile of anticipation she signals Jenny over, asks for two go-cups, and passes her a company credit card. Jenny meets us at the front door with the ticket, and while Caitlin signs it, I say hello to a couple of people at the bar. It's strange to be back in a place where I know someone every place I go.
Stepping from the air-conditioned restaurant to the street is like putting on a mildewed coat in the jungle. October in Mississippi. In Crested Butte they're skiing right now.
"We could take my Miata," Caitlin says, "but I don't advise it. I thought a convertible would be perfect for the South, but it's too damn hot down here to use it."
"My car's right down there."
I lead her across the street, then turn right on the sidewalk, heading toward the small parking lot where I left Dad's BMW. A country dance bar is going strong on this side, and knots of people line the sidewalk for the length of the block. The club draws mainly from the Louisiana farmland across the river, hard-shell Baptist country that birthed Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Lee Lewis. Caitlin and I weave carefully through boots and hats and clouds of cigarette smoke.
As we near the parking lot, I see four men who look a little rougher than the rest, passing around a bottle of Jack Daniel's. They're wearing oil-stained denim and caps instead of hats. Roughnecks who drove straight from the oil field to the bar, most likely. Lean, hard-muscled, burned brick red by the sun, they wear thin mustaches and suck dips of snuff while they drink. As Caitlin and I approach, one points at me.
"You oughta keep your goddamn mouth shut about the niggers in this town, Cage."
The use of my name surprises me, but I have no intention of stopping to discuss the issue. Feeling Caitlin slow down, I squeeze her arm and keep walking.
"You're fucking up the chemical plant deal," says another.
Now that we're closer, I recognize the man who spoke first. His name is Spurling. A year older than I, he attended the White Citizens' Council school on the north side of town. Spurling has the sullen expression of a man for whom life holds few happy surprises. He will fight me on the slightest provocation, and probably on none. These guys have never gotten past the emotional age of fifteen. They brawl over disputed calls at little league games, beat up homosexuals for fun, and shoot each other over marital infidelities.
"Keep walking," I whisper to Caitlin, and we pass them with only a brush on the shoulder.
"I'm talking to you, cocksucker," Spurling calls after me.
"That was the newspaper chick," says a slurred voice. "That stuck-up Yankee bitch."
Caitlin stops and turns. "Why don't you dickless Neanderthals find a gun to play with? Maybe you'll do the world a favor and shoot each other."
They hoot and run after us. This is exactly what they wanted. I admire Caitlin's courage, but she is writing verbal checks that I might have to cash with blood. In seconds the four of them have formed a line between us and the parking lot.
"She's a bitch," says the one with the slurry voice. "But she's a fine bitch." He jabs a finger toward Caitlin's crotch. "I'd sure like to get in those pants."
"I already have one asshole in my pants," she retorts in a voice like a saber's edge. "Why would I want another?"
The roughneck blinks, thrown off balance by the ricochet comeback. But Spurling has his Academy Award-winning line ready. "How about sitting on my face when you say that?"
"If I thought you'd know what to do once I sat down, I might."
Spurling sticks out his tongue and flicks it up and down like a snake. He's trying to force me to throw a punch, which I do not especially want to do, considering the odds. Chivalry is a wonderful concept, but just now it doesn't seem the most prudent of options.
Spurling is still wiggling his tongue when Caitlin pops him across the mouth with a closed fist. He's more surprised than hurt, but he must have bitten his tongue, because he's spitting blood on the concrete.
"You thucking cunt!" he gurgles.
"Let's all take it easy!" I say, holding up my hands. "We were minding our business, walking along a public street-"
"Nobody wants you on this fucking street!" yells the one with the Jack Daniel's bottle. "Go back to Beverly Hills or wherever the fuck you live. We gotta make a living here, unlike you."
A few club patrons have noticed our exchange and are moving toward us, but they don't look like ready sources of aid. I take Caitlin's arm, spin her around, and walk her toward the BMW. She hisses something indignant, but I'm not listening to her. I'm listening for the scuff of boots on gravel.
Soon enough, I hear it.
I shove her to my right and dart left, feeling a breeze as the whiskey bottle arcs through the space my head occupied a split second ago and smashes on the gravel of the parking lot. Guessing that someone will follow the bottle forward, I whirl and throw a blind punch.
Luck is always better than skill. I hear bone crack, or maybe nasal cartilage, then a strangled scream of agony as someone hits the gravel. Throwing the car keys at Caitlin, I yell, "The black BMW!" then whirl to face the other three, who jump me simultaneously.
We're wrestling more than fighting, but once they get me on the ground, they'll remove my teeth two at a time.
"She bit me!" someone screams. "She bit my fucking ear off!"
I would probably laugh had not serious blows begun landing on my skull. My thoughts instantly evaporate into survival instinct as I cover my head and try to keep my feet.
A wallop to my right temple obliterates my sense of balance, and I drop to my knees, glimpsing the silver toe cap of a boot just before it savages my ribs. Another head blow puts me on my back, and the fists come down in a steady hail. I see white flashes of light, and my ears are roaring. You hope you black out at a time like this, but I'm not that lucky. Every fist feels like I walked into a steel pole.
Suddenly a new sound breaks through the fog in my jiggling brain. A brief, percussive pock. Again: pock-pock. At first I think it's the sound of something hitting my skull, but no one is hitting me anymore, yet the sound goes on. Pock! Pock-pock!
Rolling onto my side, I see three men cowering against a brick wall. A large uniformed man stands over them, hammering them mercilessly with a stick.
Deputy Ike Ransom.
Ike the Spike is beating Spurling and his redneck posse like willful dogs, his baton cracking shins, shoulders, elbows, and skulls with surgical precision. The flashing lights I saw must have been the arrival of his squad car.
"Penn? Penn, can you hear me?"
It's Caitlin. Soft hands try to pull me to my feet, but they haven't the strength to lift my frame.
"Count to five!" she orders, her voice electrified by fear.
"Is that what they teach you at Radcliffe?" I croak, wobbling to my feet. "I'm surprised you're not over there screaming about police brutality."
"Screw them. They need to learn some respect for women."
Two roughnecks have fallen facedown, but Ike shows no inclination to stop what he's doing. Spurling makes the mistake of lunging at the deputy and screaming "nigger," which earns him a sweeping baseball-style lick that lays him out flat on the ground.
"Ike!" I yell. "Stop it, man!"
Caitlin and I run toward him, but I'm not about to try to grab his baton. In his present state he might not be able to distinguish between white faces quickly enough to spare me a concussion. Caitlin isn't so timid. She steps between Ike and his targets and holds up both hands, creating a sight arresting enough to paralyze the deputy. Ike lowers his baton and turns to me, his eyes filled with sweat.
"You'd best get out of here quick. Police won't be long."
Now isn't the time for extended thank-yous. I take Caitlin's arm and hobble toward the driver's door of the BMW.
"You're not driving," she says. "Give me the keys."
"You took at least ten blows to the head. Your nose is bleeding. I'm driving you to the hospital."
"My father can check me out when I get home. Get in the car!"
She scrambles over the driver's seat to the other side. I crank the car and pull slowly out of the lot. Ike's cruiser is already gone.
One circuit of the block takes me to Caitlin's green Miata, and I park in the street beside it. Double-parking is an old Natchez tradition.
"I can't believe you bit that guy," I tell her, rubbing the back of my skull. "You fight more like a bar girl from Breaux Bridge than a blueblood from Boston."
"When in Rome, right?" She slaps her thighs and yells, "Whoooooo, what a rush! That's the most fun I've had with my clothes on in a long time."
"Yeah, loads of fun," I mutter, but her excitement is contagious. Her face is flushed like a sprinter's, and her breath comes in short gasps.
"I assume that deputy was a friend of yours?"
"I'd say he's a friend of ours." I give her a hard look. "We still have a deal, right? No story about that little altercation in tomorrow's paper?"
"Absolutely. No story." She pokes me in the shoulder. "I told you I could hold my own."
"I'm afraid that was just the first round. It'll get a lot worse."
Her smile doesn't waver. "We can handle it." She gets out of the car and closes the door, then leans into the open passenger window. "Would you be furious if I asked a personal question?"
"Have you thought much about our kiss since last night?"
I'm glad for the dark. The black veil of her hair gleams in the window, framing her porcelain face, setting off her lips and eyes.
"Please tell me to drop dead if I'm out of line," she says quickly. "It's just… I've been thinking about it. It literally curled my toes. And I wanted you to know that."
A pulse of pure pleasure spreads outward from my heart. How do I answer? Yes, I've thought about it a hundred times, in a way that's not even thought but a constant awareness of how your mouth opened to mine, the coolness and knowingness of it-
"Would you like to go to Colorado with me tomorrow?"
She opens her mouth but makes no sound.
"I'm flying up to talk to the lead FBI agent on the Del Payton case in 1968. But part of your job will be baby-sitting Annie. She's coming along."
Caitlin is shaking her head in confusion. "Is this trip business or pleasure? Or a baby-sitting job?"
"I'm sorry-I didn't put that very well. It's business, but I'm taking Annie along for her safety, and we have a stop to make on the way. A place I can't take her."
"Huntsville, Texas. The Hanratty execution."
Her eyes go wide. "Are you serious?"
"Yes. You can be there when I interview the agent, but I need you to stay at the hotel with Annie during the execution."
"The hottest ticket in journalism this week, and I'm going to be babysitting?"
"They wouldn't let you in the witness room anyway. It's your call."
She purses her lips in thought. "I'm still not sure how to think of this. Do you want me to come?"
"Then I will. But what if Annie won't stay in the hotel without you there?"
"Then I'll skip the execution. I don't really want to see it anyway."
"She'll be fine with me. We got along great on the plane. Hey, what's this FBI agent's name?"
Caitlin's mention of that flight makes me remember her deception about her identity, and this makes me hesitant to confide Stone's name. I wipe my bloody nose on my shirtsleeve and look through the windshield.
"Penn, I could have the guy's life story before we ever talk to him."
She has a point. "Dwight Stone. Crested Butte, Colorado."
"That wasn't so hard, was it?" Her eyes are almost mocking, but they hold more understanding than I have seen in a long time.
"The answer to your earlier question is yes. I've thought about it since last night."
A serene smile lights Caitlin's face.
"And I'd like to kiss you again."
Her smile broadens.
She leans through the window and across the passenger seat, her eyes not closed like last night but open, inviting me into them. Our lips touch, and a perfect echo of the warmth I felt last night rolls through me. This kiss is passionate but more intimate, the crossing of another boundary together. She pulls back and peers into my eyes, then closes hers and kisses me once more.
When she pulls away this time, she has a Charlie Chaplin mustache.
"You've got blood on your lip."
"My first war wound," she laughs. "It'll wash off. What time do we leave?"
"Seven-thirty for the drive to Baton Rouge Airport."
She touches her forefinger to my nose, then pulls back through the window. "Pick me up at the paper. I'll be ready."