The trip to Baton Rouge airport takes eighty minutes, just enough time for Annie to adopt Caitlin as a big sister. Caitlin seems to know every TV character Annie does, outlandish names I can never keep up with but which Caitlin rattles off like the names of old friends. When I asked my mother if she thought Annie was ready for a trip to Colorado with Caitlin and me, she said, "Annie's ready. Just make sure you are." When I asked what this meant, she gave me one of her looks and said, "Am I wrong, or is this the first extended time you've spent with a woman since Sarah died?" I told her she wasn't wrong. "Just don't rush it," she advised. "Even chitlins smell good to a starving man." Caitlin Masters is a long way from chitterlings, but there's no point in trying to explain this to my mother.
The short-term parking lot is easy walking distance from the Baton Rouge terminal. I carry the suitcases, Caitlin the carry-ons, and Annie her pink backpack. We check our bags at the door and go straight to our gate, only to find that our plane, which is parked at the gate, is running twenty minutes behind schedule. As irate passengers begin to deplane, Annie announces that she has to tee-tee, and Caitlin escorts her off to the ladies' room. I'm absently watching the gate when Olivia Marston walks through it.
I know it's Livy because of the sudden tightness in my chest. Also because the plane just flew in from Atlanta, her home for the past thirteen years. As soon as she clears the gate, she steps out of line and starts past the other passengers, not rushing but somehow overtaking businessmen who have five inches on her. Southern belles are notorious for traveling heavy; Livy travels light. Yet the single overhead-sized suitcase rolling behind her will contain a color-coordinated ensemble versatile enough to get her through every social event from a luau to a formal ball.
A belle by birth, Livy matured into something altogether different. The beauty of belles is a soft beauty: pliant curves and shapely baby fat. Livy is leaner, with enough sculpted cheekbone to separate her utterly from the peach-skinned debutantes who fill the ranks of the Junior League below the Mason-Dixon line. Her eyes are a deep and brilliant blue, and the tailored jacket and skirt she's wearing bring out their color just as she intended.
Her name is actually Livy Sutter now, but I live in such denial about her marriage that the name Sutter never really registered. I remember it only on those rare occasions when I pass through Atlanta on business and in the tipsy midnight of a lonely hotel room pick up the phone book and flirt with the idea of calling. Of course, I never have. Oh, John, that was Penn Cage, the writer. He's an old friend from Natchez… I'd rather die than be another "old friend" of Livy Marston's. Have good old John think of me with pity, knowing that every heterosexual man who ever met his wife fell in love with her to some degree. As far afield as Montreal and Los Angeles, I've had lawyers-upon learning that I'm originally from Natchez-come alive with questions about the fantastic Livy Sutter. Do I know her? Isn't she remarkable? Unique? Different somehow? That was certainly the opinion of the Pulitzer prize-winning writer-in-residence who made a fool of himself (in his sixties, no less) and ruined his marriage over Livy when she was a junior at UVA.
Twenty yards away from me, Livy slows and pans the concourse. She has her father's survival instincts. Her eyes pass over me, then return.
"Penn Cage," she says, without the slightest doubt that it's me.
She walks toward me with a smile that cuts right through resentment and regret. Her hair is the color of winter wheat in summer and just touches her shoulders, looking much as it did during high school. The last time I saw her (at Sarah's funeral) she had a short, severe, lady-lawyer cut. She must have been growing it out ever since. I like it much better this way. Probably because it fits the images that haunt my dreams.
"My God, what happened to you?" she asks.
For a moment I'm confused, but it's the bruises she's noticed. Last night's altercation left me looking quite a bit worse for wear.
"I ran into the welcome wagon."
She shakes her head as though this is about what she would expect from me, then leans forward. Livy is a big hugger, but I have never submitted to this. Her hugs somehow put you at a remove even as they seem to pull you in. Remembering my aversion, she drops one hand and squeezes my wrist with an intimate pressure, her eyes already working their subversive spell upon me, blurring my critical faculties, creating a juvenile desire in me to please her, to make those blue eyes shine.
"What are you doing here?" I ask.
"I'm on my way home. To Natchez, I mean. My mother's having health problems. Dad's been after me to come visit, so when he called this time, I decided to spend a few days with them."
Her health was good enough to toss a drink in my face two nights ago, I think. Maybe "health" is a euphemism for alcoholism. If they intend to try an intervention with Maude, I don't want to be within a hundred miles of it. In fact, I'd recommend Kevlar body armor to the participants.
"What about you?" Livy asks.
"I'm on my way to Huntsville Prison."
"Oh, God, the Hanratty thing. It's all over the news. Midnight tonight, right? Are you required to be there?"
"No. The victim's family wants me there."
She shakes her head. "You always were one for duty." In a lighter voice she says, "I still see your books in all the airports. And it still makes me jealous."
"I mean it. I make great money, but I'm compromising every day for it. You're living the life you always talked about."
"You talked about that kind of life too."
She blushes, but before she can reply Annie is tugging my trouser leg. I reach down and scoop her into my arms. "Hey, punkin! You remember Miss Livy?"
Annie solemnly moves her head from side to side. I was stupid to think she'd remember anyone from the funeral.
"My hair was shorter then," Livy tells her. Like Caitlin, she makes no attempt to talk baby talk. "I sure remember you, Anna Louise."
I can't believe she remembers Annie's full name. The female memory defies explanation.
Suddenly something brushes my shoulder. It's Caitlin, holding out her hand to Livy.
"Caitlin Masters," she says, cutting her eyes at me as she gives Livy a professional smile.
"I'm sorry," I apologize, far too late.
"Liv Sutter," Livy says, giving Caitlin's hand a firm shake.
Liv Sutter. Another thing I'd forgotten: Livy's name metamorphosed as she progressed through life. She wasn't like a Matt who suddenly insisted on being called Matthew to be taken more seriously. Her name actually got shorter with each incarnation: "Olivia" in grade school; "Livy" in high school; and just plain "Liv" in college and law school. And there was never any question of people not taking her seriously-Livy Marston Sutter is as serious as a garrote.
"You two obviously know each other," says Caitlin.
"Oh, we go way back," Livy explains, laughing. "Too far back to think about."
"We only go back a couple of days," Caitlin replies. "But we're looking forward to Colorado."
There's nothing quite like the meeting of two beautiful women of the same class. I would never have guessed that Caitlin had a catty side. Livy is ten years older but gives up nothing in any department. The friction is automatic.
"How's John?" I ask as Livy studies me with new interest. "Her husband," I add for Caitlin's benefit.
"We're separated. Six weeks now."
So, Sam Jacobs's gossip was accurate. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be. I should have gotten out of it five years ago."
This bombshell leaves me tingling with a sense of unreality. We all stand around feeling awkward until Caitlin takes Annie from my arms, points at the broad picture window, and says, "Let's go look at those big airplanes!"
They're quickly swallowed by the crowd, but not before Caitlin gives me a reproving look over her shoulder.
"Who was that?" Livy asks.
"The new publisher of the Examiner."
"Her father owns the chain."
"Ah." Livy feels comfortably superior again. "Nepotism run amok. She doesn't seem your type."
And what's my type? Dead saints and ghosts from my youth? "I think my type is changing. Rich heiresses seem like a good place to start."
Livy gives me a look intended to make me feel guilty, but we share too much history for me to be taken in by that.
"How long will you be in Colorado?"
"A couple of days."
"Call me when you get back. We should get together and talk."
We should? "Why don't you call me? Then I can skip speaking to your father."
She lets this pass. "I will. Wait and see."
"I'd better find Annie. We'll be boarding soon."
She reaches out and takes my hand. "It's strange, isn't it?"
"Twenty years after high school, and suddenly we're both free."
I can't believe she said it. Gave voice to something I would not even allow myself to think. "There's a difference, Livy. I didn't want to be free."
She pales, but quickly recovers and squeezes my hand. "I know you didn't. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to put it that way."
I take back my hand. "I know. I'm sorry too. I've got to run."
I turn to go in search of Annie and Caitlin, but after ten steps I stop and look back. I don't want to. I have to.
Livy hasn't moved. She's looking right at me with a provocative expression of both regret and hope. She holds up her right hand in farewell, then turns and disappears into the crowd.
"Daddy, was that lady a movie star?"
Annie and Caitlin have reappeared at my side.
"No, punkin. Just someone I went to school with."
"She looks like somebody on TV."
She probably does. Livy is a living archetype of American good looks: not a Mary Tyler Moore but a warmer, more accessible Grace Kelly. A Southern Grace Kelly.
"I didn't think she looked like a movie star," Caitlin announces.
"What do you think she looks like?" I ask, not sure I want to hear the answer.
"A self-important B-I-T-C-H."
"Hey," Annie complains. "What's that spell?"
"Witch," says Caitlin, tickling her under the arms, which triggers explosive giggles. "The Masters intuition never fails," she adds, looking up at me. "You've got it bad for her, don't you?"
"What? Hell, no."
"Daddy said a bad word!" Annie cries.
"Daddy told a fib," says Caitlin. "And that's worse."
"I think I need a drink."
The ticket agent announces that first class will begin boarding immediately.
"First love?" Caitlin asks in a casual voice as we move through the mass of passengers funneling toward the gate.
"It's a long story."
She nods, her eyes knowing. "If short stuff here goes to sleep on the plane, that's a story I wouldn't mind hearing."
Airplanes work like a sedative on Annie. After drinking a Sprite and eating a bag of honey-roasted peanuts, she curls up next to Caitlin and zonks out. At Caitlin's suggestion, I move her across the aisle to my seat and, when she begins to snore again, move back across the aisle beside Caitlin.
"You're going to make me drag it out of you?" she says.
I say nothing for a moment. Certain relationships do not lend themselves to conversational description. Emotions are by nature amorphous. When confined to words, our longings and passions, our rebellions and humiliations often seem melodramatic, trivial, or even pathetic. But if Caitlin is going to help me destroy Leo Marston, she needs to know the history.
"Every high school class has a Livy Marston," I begin. "But Livy was special. Everyone who ever met her knew that."
"Marston? She said her name was Sutter."
"Her maiden name was Marston."
"Marston… Marston. The guy you asked me to check out? The D.A. when Payton was killed? Judge Marston?"
"He's Livy's father."
"God, it's so incestuous down here."
Caitlin calls the flight attendant and orders a gimlet, but this is beyond the resources of the galley. There seems to be a nationwide shortage of Rose's Lime Juice. She orders a martini instead.
"So," she says, "what made her so special?"
"How many people were in your graduating class?"
"About three hundred."
"Mine had thirty-two. And most of those had been together since nursery school. It was like an extended family. We watched each other grow up for fourteen years. And those thirty-two people did some extraordinary things."
"Well, there's high school, and then there's life. Out of thirty-two people we had six doctors, ten lawyers, a photographer who won the Pulitzer last year-"
"And you," she finishes. "Best-selling novelist and legal eagle."
"Every class thinks it's special, of course. But in a town as small as Natchez, and a school as small as St. Stephens, you have to have something like a genetic accident to get a class like ours. Our football team had eighteen people on it. Everyone played both ways. And we were ranked in the top ten in the state in the rankings of public schools. That's ranked against schools like yours, with seventy players on the squad. Our baseball team was the first single-A team in the history of Mississippi to win the overall state title."
She rolls her eyes. "So you were big-time in Mississippi sports. Let's call CNN."
"Sports means a lot in high school."
"What about academics?"
"Second-highest SATs in the state."
"When do we get to Miss Perfect?"
"Livy was the center of all that. The star everyone revolved around. Homecoming queen, head cheerleader, valedictorian… you name it, she was it."
Caitlin groans. "Gag me with a soup ladle."
"If you plop most high school queens down at a major university, they'll disappear like daisies at a flower show. Not Livy. She was head cheerleader at Virginia, president of the Tri-Delts, and made law review at the UVA law school."
"She sounds schizophrenic."
"She probably is. She was born to a man who wanted sons, in a decade when the cultural dynamic of the fifties was still alive and kicking in the South. She was a brilliant and beautiful girl with a mother who thought in terms of her marrying well and a father who wanted her to be president. She killed a ten-point buck when she was eleven years old, just to prove she could do anything a boy could."
"Spare me the body count. I suppose she graduated, won the Nobel prize, and raised two-point-five perfect kids?"
I can't help but laugh at the animosity Livy has inspired in Caitlin; it can only be based on the degree to which Livy has intimidated her. "Actually, she sold out."
Caitlin cringes in mock horror. "Not the head cheerleader of the law review?"
"She took the biggest offer right out of law school and never looked back. Chased money and power all the way."
"Who did she marry?"
"This is the part I like. She had this Howard Roark fixation. You know, the architect from Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead? She wanted the absolute alpha male, an artist-logician who wouldn't take any shit off her or compromise once in his life."
"Did she find him?"
"She married an entertainment lawyer in Atlanta. He represents athletes and rap singers."
"There is justice," Caitlin says, laughing. "Though I guess he made a lot more money than a Houston prosecutor."
"Twenty times more, at least."
"Why did you stay in the D.A.'s office so long? I thought most lawyers only did that for a couple of years to prep themselves for private defense work."
"That's true. Most people who stay are very different from me. Zealots, moralists. Jesuits, I call them. Military types who like to punish criminals. My boss was a lot like that."
"So, why did you stay?"
"I was accomplishing something. I felt I was a moral counterweight to those people. Some liberals even said I had an overdeveloped sense of justice. And that may be true. I convicted a lot of killers, and I don't apologize for it. I believe evil should be held accountable."
"Whoa, that was Evil with a capital E."
"It's out there. Take my word for it."
"An overdeveloped sense of justice. Is that why you're investigating the Payton case?"
"No. I'm doing that because of Livy Marston."
Caitlin looks like I hit her in the head with a hammer. "What the hell are you talking about?"
I lean into the aisle and signal the flight attendant; it's time for a Scotch. "Twenty years ago Livy's father used very bit of his power to try to destroy my father. He didn't succeed, but he separated Livy and me forever. And I never knew why."
"And you think Marston is involved in the Payton murder?"
"God, I'm trapped in a Southern gothic novel."
"You asked for it."
She finishes off her martini in a gulp. "I hope nobody's going to ask me to squeal like a pig."
I laugh as she orders another martini, amazed by how quickly the age difference between us has become irrelevant. I wonder how far apart we really are. Does she know that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were the greatest songwriters who ever lived? That the pseudo-nihilism of Generation X was merely frustrated narcissism? That I, at thirty-eight years old, am as trapped in my own era as a septuagenarian humming "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree With Anyone Else But Me" and dreaming of the agony of Anzio is trapped in his?
"Back up," Caitlin says. "You and Livy were high school sweethearts?"
"No. For most of high school we were competitors. She only dated older guys, and no one steadily. She was her own person. She never wore a boy's letter jacket or class ring. She needed nothing external to define her or make her feel accepted. But at some point we both realized we were destined for bigger futures than most people we knew. We were going to leave that town far behind. That awareness inevitably pulled us together. We both loved literature and music, both excelled in all our classes. We dated for four months at the end of our senior year. We were both going to Ole Miss in the fall, but she was going to Radcliffe for the summer-"
"Oh, my God," Caitlin exclaims. "That magnolia blossom actually darkened the door of Radcliffe?"
"Aced every class, I'm sure. She wouldn't let Yankees feel superior to her for a second."
Caitlin makes a wry face, then sips her martini and looks out her window. "Was she good in bed?"
"A gentleman never tells."
She turns and punches my shoulder. "Jerk."
"What would you guess?"
"Probably. She has the intensity for it."
"How did her father split you up?"
"He took a malpractice case against my father and pressed it to the wall. My dad was exonerated, but the trial was so brutal it nearly broke him. There was no way Livy and I could work through that."
Caitlin is watching me intently. "You're leaving a lot out, aren't you?"
Of course I am. How do we explain the abiding mysteries of our lives? "Livy never showed up at Ole Miss," I say softly. "She disappeared. Fell off the face of the planet. Her parents told people she'd gone to Paris to study at the Sorbonne, but I called to check, and they had no record of her. A year later word filtered out that she'd just entered the University of Virginia as a freshman. I have no idea where she spent the previous year, and neither does anyone else."
"Maybe she got pregnant. Went off and had the baby somewhere."
"I thought about that. But this was the late seventies, not the fifties. Her older sister had gotten pregnant a few years before, and she had an abortion, even though they were Catholic. Livy would have done the same thing. She wouldn't have let anything slow down her career." There's another reason I'm sure pregnancy is not the answer, but there's no point in getting clinical about it.
"Why did she go to the University of Virginia?"
"I think because it was far from Mississippi but still the South. She got an unlisted number, cut herself off from her old friends. By the time my father's trial got going, I didn't care anymore."
"You didn't ask her why her father was going after yours?"
This memory is one of my worst. "I flew up to Charlottesville a week before the trial, to try to get her to make Leo drop the case. My dad had already had a heart attack from the stress. She said she thought it was just a normal case, and that her father wouldn't listen to her opinion anyway. She was back in her high school queen mode, winning hearts and minds at UVA. It was like talking to a stranger." I take a burning sip of Scotch. "I wanted to kill her."
"Yes, but you loved her. You're still in love with her."
Caitlin smiles, not without empathy. "You are. You always will be."
"That's a depressing thought."
"No. Just recognize it and move on. Livy's not the person you think she is. Nobody could be. And you'd better be careful. She just separated from her husband, and you're still grieving over your wife. She could really mess you up."
"I'm no babe in the woods, Caitlin."
Her smile is timeless. All men are babes in the woods, it says. "You're trying to destroy her father now. How do you think she'll react to that?"
"I don't know. She has a love-hate relationship with him. It's like something out of Aeschylus. She knows he's done terrible things, but in some ways she's just like him."
"You should try very hard to keep that in mind."
She takes a pair of headphones from her lap, plugs them into the seat jack, and starts flipping through her channel guide. "How long has it been since you've seen her?"
"She came to my wife's funeral. We only spoke for a moment, though."
"A long time. Maybe seventeen years."
"You pull the lid off something that might get her father charged with capital murder, and suddenly she shows up like magic?"
"What are you saying? That her father called her to Natchez to… to influence me somehow? Because of your newspaper story?"
Caitlin shrugs. "I don't want to upset you, but that's what I'm saying."
She gives me a sad smile and puts on the headphones.