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One of the nice things about first-class air travel is immediate beverage service. Even before our connecting flight lifts out of Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport, a tumbler of single-malt Scotch sits half-empty on the tray before me. I never drink liquor in front of Annie, but she is conveniently asleep on the adjacent seat. Her little arm hangs over the padded divider, her hand touching my thigh, an early-warning system that operates even in sleep. What part of her brain keeps that hand in place? Did Neanderthal children sleep this way? I sip my whisky and stroke her hair, cautiously looking around the cabin.

One of the bad things about first-class air travel is being recognized. You get a lot of readers in first class. A lot of lawyers too. Today the cabin is virtually empty, but sitting across the aisle from us is a woman in her late twenties, wearing a lawyerly blue suit and reading a Penn Cage novel. It's just a matter of time before she recognizes me. Or maybe not, if my luck holds. I take another sip of Scotch, recline my seat, and close my eyes.

The first image that floats into my mind is the face of Arthur Lee Han-ratty. I spent four months convicting that bastard, and I consider it time well spent. But even in Texas, where we are serious about the death penalty, it takes time to exhaust all avenues of appeal. Now, eight years after his conviction, it seems possible that he might actually die at the hands of the state.

I know prosecutors who will drive all day with smiles on their faces to see the execution of a man they convicted, avidly anticipating the political capital they will reap from the event. Others will not attend an execution even if asked. I always felt a responsibility to witness the punishment I had requested in the name of society. Also, in capital cases, I shepherded the victims' families through the long ordeal of trial. In every case family members asked me to witness the execution on their behalf. After the legislature changed the law, allowing victims' families to witness executions, I was asked to accompany them in the viewing room, and I was glad to be able to comfort them.

This time it's different. My relationship to death has fundamentally changed. I witnessed my wife's death from a much closer perspective than from the viewing room at the Walls, and as painful as it was, her passing was a sacred experience. I have no desire to taint that memory by watching yet another execution carried out with the institutional efficiency of a veterinarian putting down a rabid dog. '

I drink off the remainder of my Scotch, savoring the peaty burn in my throat. As always, remembering Sarah's death makes me think of my father. Hearing his voice on the telephone earlier only intensifies the images. As the 727 ascends to cruising altitude, the whisky opens a neural switch in my brain, and memory begins overpowering thought like a salt tide flooding into an estuary. I know from experience that it is useless to resist. I close my eyes and let it come.

Sarah lies in the M.D. Anderson hospital in Houston, her bones turned to burning paper by a disease whose name she no longer speaks aloud. She is not superstitious, but to name the sickness seems to grant it more power than it deserves. Her doctors are puzzled. The end should have come long ago. The diagnosis was a late one, the prognosis poor. Sarah weighs only eighty-one pounds now, but she fights for life with a young mother's tenacity. It is a pitched battle, fought minute by minute against physical agony and emotional despair. Sometimes she speaks of suicide. It is a comfort on the worst nights.

Like many doctors, her oncologists are too wary of lawsuits and the DEA to adequately treat pain. In desperation I call my father, who advises me to check Sarah out of the hospital and go home. Six hours later, he arrives at our door, trailing the smell of cigars and a black bag containing enough Schedule Two narcotics to euthanize a grizzly bear. For two weeks he lives across the hall from Sarah, tending her like a nurse, shaming into silence any physician who questions his actions. He helps Sarah to sleep when she needs it, frees her from the demon long enough to smile at Annie when she feels strong enough for me to bring her in.

Then the drugs begin to fail. The fine line between consciousness and agony disappears. One evening Sarah asks everyone to leave, saying she sleeps better alone. Near midnight she calls me into the bedroom where we once lay with Annie between us, dreaming of the future. She can barely speak. I take her hand. For a moment the clouds in her eyes part, revealing a startling clarity. "You made me happy," she whispers. I believe I have no tears left, but they come now. "Take care of my baby, " she says. I vow with absolute conviction to do so, but I am not sure she hears me. Then she surprises me by asking for my father. I cross the hall and wake him, then sit down on the warm covers from which he rose.

When I wake, Sarah is gone. She died in her sleep. Peacefully, my father says. He volunteers no more, and I do not ask. When Sarah's parents wake, he tells them she is dead. Each in turn goes to him and hugs him, their eyes wet with tears of gratitude and absolution. "She was a trooper," my father says in a cracked voice. This is the highest tribute my wife will ever receive.

"Excuse me, are you Penn Cage? The writer?"

I blink and rub my eyes against the light, then turn to my right. The young woman across the aisle is looking at me, a slight blush coloring her cheeks.

"I didn't want to bother you, but I saw you take a drink and realized you must be awake. I was reading this book and well, you look just like the picture on the back."

She is speaking softly so as not to wake Annie. Part of my mind is still with Sarah and my father, chasing a strand of meaning down a dark spiral, but I force myself to concentrate as the woman introduces herself as Kate. She is quite striking, with fine black hair pulled up from her neck, fair skin, and sea green eyes, an unusual combination. Her navy suit looks tailored, and the pulled-back hair gives the impression that Kate is several years older than she probably is, a common affectation among young female attorneys. I smile awkwardly and confirm that I am indeed myself, then ask if she is a lawyer.

She smiles. "Am I that obvious?"

"To other members of the breed."

Another smile, this one different, as though at some private joke. "I'm a First Amendment specialist," she offers.

Her accent is an alloy of Ivy League Boston and something softer. A Brahmin who graduated Radcliffe but spent her summers far away. "That sounds interesting," I tell her.

"Sometimes. Not as interesting as what you do."

"I'm sure you're wrong about that."

"I doubt it. I just saw you on CNN in the airport. They were talking about the Hanratty execution. About you killing his brother."

So, the circus has started. "That's not exactly my daily routine. Not anymore, at least."

"It sounded like there were some unanswered questions about the shooting." Kate blushes again. "I'm sure you're sick of people asking about it, right?"

Yes, I am. "Maybe the execution will finally put it to rest."

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to pry."

"Sure you did." On any other day I would brush her off. But she is reading one of my novels, and even thinking about Texas v. Hanratty is better than what I was thinking about when she disturbed me. "It's okay. We all want to know the inside of things."

"They said on Burden of Proof that the Hanratty case is often cited as an example of jurisdictional disputes between federal and state authorities."

I nod but say nothing. "Disputes" is a rather mild word. Arthur Lee Han-ratty was a white supremacist who testified against several former cronies in exchange for immunity and a plum spot in the Federal Witness Protection Program. Three months after he entered the program, he shot a black man in Compton over a traffic dispute. He fled Los Angeles, joined his two psychotic brothers, and wound up in Houston, where they murdered an entire black family. As they were being apprehended, Arthur Lee shot and killed a female cop, giving his brothers time to escape. None of this looked good on the resume of John Portman, the U.S. attorney who had granted Hanratty immunity, and Portman vowed to convict his former star witness in federal court in Los Angeles. My boss and I (with the help of then president and erstwhile Texas native George Bush) kept Hanratty in Texas, where he stood a real chance of dying for his crimes. Our jurisdictional victory deprived Portman of his revenge, but his career skyrocketed nevertheless, first into a federal judgeship and finally into the directorship of the FBI, where he now presides.

"I remember when it happened," Kate says. "The Compton shooting, I mean. I was working in Los Angeles for the summer, and it got a lot of play there. Half the media made you out to be a hero, the other half a monster. They said you-well, you know."

"What?" I ask, testing her nerve.

She hesitates, then takes the plunge. "They said you shot him and then used your baby to justify killing him."

I've come to understand the combat veteran's frustration with this kind of curiosity, and I usually meet it with a stony stare, if not outright hostility. But today is different. Today I am in transition. The impending execution has resurrected old ghosts, and I find myself willing to talk, not to satisfy this woman's curiosity but to remind myself that I got through it. That I did the right thing. The only thing, I assure myself, looking down at Annie sleeping beside me. I drink the last of my Scotch and let myself remember it, this thing that always seems to have happened to someone else, a celebrity among lawyers, hailed by the right wing and excoriated by the left.

"Arthur Lee Hanratty vowed to kill me after his arrest. He said it a dozen times on television. I took his threats the way I took them all, cum grano salis. But Hanratty meant it. Four years later, the night the Supreme Court affirmed his death sentence, my wife and I were lying in bed watching the late news. She was dozing. I was going over my opening statement for another murder trial. My boss had put a deputy outside because of the Supreme Court ruling, but I didn't think there was any danger. When I heard the first noise, I thought it was nothing. The house settling. Then I heard something else. I asked Sarah if she'd heard it. She hadn't. She told me to turn out the light and go to sleep.

And I almost did. That's how close it was. That's where my nightmares come from."

"What made you get up?"

As the flight attendant passes, I signal for another Scotch. "I don't know. Something had registered wrong, deep down. I took my thirty-eight down from the closet shelf and switched off my reading light. Then I opened the bedroom door and moved up the hall toward our daughter's room. Annie was only six months old, but she always slept through the night. When I pushed open her door, I didn't hear breathing, but that didn't worry me. Sometimes you have to get right down over them, you know? I walked to the crib and leaned over to listen."

Kate is spellbound, leaning across the aisle. I take my Scotch from the flight attendant's hand and gulp a swallow. "The crib was empty."

"Sweet Jesus."

"The deputy was out front, so I ran to the French doors at the back of the house. When I got there, I saw nothing but the empty patio. I felt like I was falling off a cliff. Then something made me turn to my left. There was a man standing by the French doors in the dining room. Twenty feet away. He had a tiny bundle in his arms, like a loaf of bread in a blanket. He looked at me as he reached for the door handle. I saw his teeth in the dark, and I knew he was smiling. I pointed my pistol at his head. He started backing through the door, using Annie as a shield. Holding her at center mass. In the dark, with shaking hands, every rational thought told me not to fire. But I had to."

I take another gulp of Scotch. The whites of Kate's eyes are completely visible around the green irises, giving her a hyperthyroid look. I reach down and lay a hand on Annie's shoulder. Parts of this story I still cannot voice. When I saw those teeth, I sensed the giddy superiority the kidnapper felt over me, the triumph of the predator. Nothing in my life ever hit me the way that fear did.

"He was halfway through the door when I pulled the trigger. The bullet knocked him onto the patio. When I got outside, Annie was lying on the cement, covered in blood. I snatched her up even before I looked at the guy, held her up in the moonlight and ripped off her pajamas, looking for a bullet wound. She didn't make a sound. Then she screamed like a banshee. An anger scream, you know? Not pain. I knew then that she was probably okay. Hanratty the bullet had hit him in the eye. He was dying. And I didn't do a goddamn thing to help him."

Kate finally blinks, a series of rapid-fire clicks, like someone coming out of a trance. She points down at Annie. "She's that baby? She's Annie?"


"God." She taps the book in her lap. "I see why you quit.

"There's still one out there."

"What do you mean?"

"We never caught the third brother. I get postcards from him now and then. He says he's looking forward to spending some time with our family."

She shakes her head. "How do you live with that?"

I shrug and return to my drink.

"Your wife isn't traveling with you?" Kate asks.

They always have to ask. "No. She passed away recently."

Kate's face begins the subtle sequence of expressions I've seen a thousand times in the last seven months. Shock, embarrassment, sympathy, and just the slightest satisfaction that a seemingly perfect life is not so perfect after all.

"I'm sorry," she says. "The wedding ring. I just assumed-"

"It's okay. You couldn't know."

She looks down and takes a sip of her soft drink. When she looks up, her face is composed again. She asks what my next book is about, and I give her the usual fluff, but she isn't listening. I know this reaction too. The response of most women to a young widower, particularly one who is clearly solvent and not appallingly ugly, is as natural and predictable as the rising of the sun. The subtle glow of flirtation emanates from Kate like a medieval spell, but it is a spell to which I am presently immune.

Annie awakens as we talk, and Kate immediately brings her into the conversation, developing a surprising rapport. Time passes quickly, and before long we are shaking hands at the gate in Baton Rouge. Annie and I bump into her again at the baggage carousel, and as Kate squeaks outside in her sensible Reeboks to hail a taxi, I notice Annie's eyes solemnly tracking her. My daughter's attraction to young adult women is painful to see.

I scoop her up with forced merriment and trot to the Hertz counter, where I have to hassle with a clerk about why the car I reserved isn't available (although for ten dollars extra per day I can upgrade to a model that is) and how long I'll have to wait for a child-safety seat. I'm escalating from irritation to anger when a tall man with white hair and a neatly trimmed white beard walks through the glass doors through which Kate just departed.

"Papa!" Annie squeals. "Daddy! Papa's here!"

"Dad? What? What are you doing here?"

He laughs and veers toward us. "You think your mother's going to have her son renting a car to drive eighty miles to get home? God forbid." He catches Annie under the arms, lifts her high, and hugs her to his chest. "Hello, tadpole! What's shakin' down in Disney World?"

"I saw Ariel! And Snow White hugged me!"

"Of course she did! Who wouldn't want to hug an angel like you?" He looks over her shoulder at me. For a few uncomfortable moments I endure the penetrating gaze of a man who for forty years has searched for illness in reticent people. His perception is like the heat from a lamp. I nod slowly, hoping to communicate, I'm okay, Dad, at the same time searching his face for clues to the anxiety I heard in my mother's voice on the phone this morning. But he's too good at concealing his emotions. Another habit of the medical profession.

"Is Mom with you?" I ask.

"No, she's home cooking a supper you'll have to see to believe." He reaches out and squeezes my hand. "It's good to see you, son." For an instant I catch a glimpse of something unsettling behind his eyes, but it vanishes as he grins mischievously at Annie. "Let's move out, tadpole! We're burning daylight!"

CHAPTER 1 | The Quiet Game | CHAPTER 3