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I thought I was the last person to arrive in the witness room at Huntsville Prison until FBI Director John Portman walked in, flanked by two field agents who shadowed him like centurions guarding an emperor. Up to that point the preparations for the execution had proceeded with the tense banality that characterizes them all.

I had arrived to find the room nearly full. My old boss, Joe Cantor, motioned me to the empty chair beside Mrs. Givens, the closest relative of the victims. The curtain was drawn over the window of the extermination chamber, but I knew Arthur Lee Hanratty was already strapped to the gurney behind it, while a technician searched for veins good enough to take large-bore IV lines.

I hadn't seen Mrs. Givens for eight years, but the smell of cigarettes on her clothes brought back everything, a nervous woman who chain-smoked through every pretrial meeting and rushed for the courthouse door at every recess. She had a Bible in her lap tonight, open to Job. When I touched her hand, she clenched my wrist and asked if I'd seen many executions before, and if they were difficult to watch. In a quiet voice, I explained the procedure: sodium thiopental to shut down Hanratty's brain; Pavulon to paralyze him and stop his breathing; potassium chloride to stop his heart.

"You mean they put him to sleep before they give the bad chemicals?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Will he be able to say anything?"

"I'm afraid so. He'll be allowed to make a final statement for the record."

She patted the leather-bound book in her lap. "I'm not going to listen. I'm going to read the Good Book then."

"That sounds like a good idea." Killers often asked forgiveness at the end, but that wasn't Hanratty's style.

That was the moment that the door at the back of the room opened. Some reporters in front of me turned around, and recognition and amazement lit their faces. I turned and froze, confronted by the most unlikely vision I thought I would see at midnight in Texas.

John Portman looks like a walking advertisement for Brooks Brothers: thin and strong but a bit stiff, handsome with a longish face framed by hair gone gracefully gray. He was fifty-five when he and I crossed swords over Arthur Lee Hanratty, but he looked forty. He scarcely looks older now. I've always sensed a Dorian Gray aura about him, as though he were committing secret sins that never registered on his countenance.

I can't imagine what he's doing here. There's no upside for him. None that I can see, anyway. Maybe it's as simple as revenge. His experience with Hanratty almost derailed his juggernaut career, and Portman definitely knows how to carry a grudge. Watching Hanratty die might give him a great deal of satisfaction.

While his guards take up positions against the wall, he walks straight to the front row and sits in the empty chair next to Joe Cantor, who looks as surprised as the rest of us. I half expect Portman to turn and give me a grim smile, but he stares straight ahead at the curtain beyond which Arthur Lee Hanratty will soon take his last breath.

As we wait in silence, I realize I'm listening for the ring of a telephone. Conditioned by movies-and by a couple of real-life experiences-I run through the dramatic possibilities: the last-minute pardon, the hard-won stay courtesy of some crusading young lawyer from the ACLU. But that won't happen tonight. Even the mob of placard-bearing demonstrators outside the walls looked smaller and more subdued than usual as I passed through it. A few hundred people chanting dispiritedly in the Texas rain. Arthur Lee Hanratty is a poster boy for capital punishment.

Suddenly the curtain is drawn back, revealing a man in an orange jumpsuit on an execution gurney, which looks like a medical exam table that has been welded to the floor. Strapped to the gurney with IV lines running saline into his arms, Hanratty doesn't look much like the madman I remember-a killer with the bunched and corded muscles of the convict weightlifter-but like every other man I've seen on that table. Helpless. Doomed. He reminds me of Ray Presley, though Hanratty has the lamplike eyes of the fanatic, not the cold rattlesnake beads of Presley.

The warden retained a good venipuncturist tonight-or else Hanratty has good veins-because the execution is proceeding on schedule. The warden stands with two guards against the wall behind the gurney. At 11:58 he steps forward and asks Hanratty if he has any final words. I once watched a man sing "Jesus Loves Me" with tears in his eyes at this point, and die with the song on his lips. But I don't think that's what's coming now.

Hanratty cranks his neck around and searches our eyes one witness at a time, like a brimstone preacher trying to put the fear of Hell into his congregation. I've always felt that the window here should be one-way glass, to prevent the killer from making eye contact with the spectators. But the families of murder victims don't want it that way. Many of them want their faces to be the last thing the condemned sees before he dies. When Hanratty finds my eyes, I give him nothing.

"Well, well, well," he croons from the gurney, "everybody's here tonight. We got Mr. Penn Cage, who got famous killing my brother and convicting my ass. We got Joe Cantor, who got reelected off Mr. Cage convicting my ass. And we got former U.S. Attorney Portman, head of the FBI. I'm flattered you came to see me off, Port. Ironic, ain't it? If you could have covered up me killing that Compton nigger like you wanted to, none of us would have to be here tonight."

The reporters devour this unexpected windfall like starving jackals. Surely, Portman must have known something like this could happen. The warden takes a step closer to the gurney. The word "nigger" has got him thinking about gagging Hanratty, though legally the condemned man is allowed to speak freely.

"After tonight," Hanratty goes on, "there'll only be one of us Hanrattys left. But that's all right. My brother knows what to do. Some of you folks are gonna get a visit real soon. Some warm night when you least expect it, a deer slug's gonna plow right through your brain. Or maybe through your kid's brain-"

The warden motions to his guards.

"I got a right to speak!" Hanratty shouts, neck muscles straining.

The warden raises his hand, stopping the guards. He'd like to avoid being branded a fascist by the media if he can avoid it.

"Evening, Mrs. Givens," Hanratty says in a syrupy voice. "I'll be thinking 'bout your sister and your niece when they send me off to Jesus. I've thought about them many a night when I'm falling asleep. Yes, ma'am."

Mrs. Givens's shivering hand clenches my wrist like a claw.

"The black man is a mongrel creature," Hanratty says with a tone of regret. "But the good Lord knows a nigger wench is heaven between the sheets."

"Gag the prisoner," orders the warden.

"All you motherfuckers gonna die worse than me!" Hanratty shouts. "This ain't nothing! Nothing!"

Two guards seize Hanratty's head and fasten a black leather restraining device over his mouth and chin. The warden checks his watch and motions for the guards to follow him out of the room. Mrs. Givens isn't reading her Bible anymore. She's gripping my left wrist like it is the handrail on a cliff, her eyes riveted to the gurney.

"Are the chemicals going in?" she asks.

"Yes, ma'am. He's got about five minutes to live."

Mrs. Givens says something under her breath.

"I beg your pardon?"

"I said, he ought to be awake while it happens. My people was." Mrs. Givens doesn't notice when I lift the Bible from her lap with my free hand and take up reading where her bookmark lies.

Now, there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them. And the Lord said to Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the Lord and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it. And the Lord said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil? Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, Doth Job fear God for nought? Hast Thou not made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face

As God takes Satan's suggestion and puts forth his hand, I recall with soul-searing clarity the feeling of being singled out for suffering, of sitting in a plastic chair in the oncologist's office and hearing the white-coated doctor say to my wife that most terrible of words: malignant. Later I would learn more arcane terms, like daughter cells and highly refractory-

Suddenly everyone in the witness room is standing around me, shuffling, speaking in hushed tones. The prison doctor stands beside the gurney, listening to Hanratty's chest through a stethoscope, double-checking the leads that run to the EKG monitor. The reporters are wired-they always are at this point-unsure of their reactions even as they try to record them. No first-timer is ever ready for the banality of execution. Only we functionaries of the justice system know how depressing it really is. The doctor nods to the warden, and the warden motions for the curtain to be closed.

Mrs. Givens thanks me for coming, then moves purposefully toward the door.

"You switched to prizefighting for a living?" Joe Cantor is standing beside me, a glint of humor in his eyes.

My hand instinctively goes to my bruised eye. "I fell."

"We still miss you at the office," he says, shaking my hand with a grip reminiscent of Shad Johnson's. "Nobody works a jury the way you did, Penn."

"I wasn't working them, Joe. I was speaking from the heart."

"That's what I'm talking about. They don't teach that in school. You were also the only assistant with the balls to argue with me. I kind of miss that too, believe it or not." He leans closer. "Watch out for Portman. That prick's had a hard-on for you ever since Hanratty's trial. And call me if you ever get tired of writing books."

Then he is past me, shaking hands with someone else, working the crowd even here.

As I pass into the hall beyond the door, I find myself face to face with John Portman. His guards stand two feet behind him, their jackets unbuttoned to provide easy access to their weapons. Portman studies me with gray eyes set in his windburned face, a badge of privilege he has cultivated since youth. I decide to fire the first shot in this skirmish.

"I can't figure out what you're doing here, Portman. You must have known you were exposing yourself to something like what just happened."

"I can absorb what just happened," he replies, his voice edgier than I remember. "It was worth it to see that genetic debris put down."

A couple of reporters stop to question the FBI director, but the guards hustle them through the door.

"You're friends with Special Agent Peter Lutjens, aren't you?" Portman says.

A cold wind blows through my soul. "Just tell me."

"He's being transferred to Fargo, North Dakota. Lovely winters, I hear."

"The guy is blameless, John."

"Internal security is one of the hallmarks of the new Bureau," he replies in a PR voice. "Agent Lutjens didn't understand that."

As I wonder how Portman learned of my contact with Lutjens, he says, "Stick your nose into Bureau business, you get rhinoplasty. It's that simple."

I usually try to avoid confrontations like this. They profit no one. But John Portman has a special place in my pantheon of dark spirits, and my guilt for what happened to Lutjens already weighs on me like a heavy stone.

"I go where the cases take me," I tell him. "And you'd do well to remember what happened the last time you went up against me."

After years of near omnipotence as a federal judge, a man becomes unused to resistance. FBI directors must enjoy similar insulation from unpleasantness, because Portman's thin lips narrow to a white line, and his eyes blaze. Before he can threaten me further, I simply walk past him and down the hall. A rush of footsteps comes after me, and a hand jerks me around.

It's Portman, his face livid. "You fucking dilettante-"

"You're not a judge anymore, Portman. You're a civil servant, serving at the pleasure of the President. And presidents are pretty sensitive to negative publicity."

His grimace morphs into a twisted smile. "You don't know what power is, Cage. But if you keep pushing, you're going to find out."

"All this over a little Mississippi murder," I murmur. "I push in Natchez, you feel it in Washington. I find that very interesting. I think a lot of people will."

This time when I walk away, Portman doesn't follow.

As I descend the staircase and cross the dark pavement outside the death house, I feel my pulse pounding in my temples. There's nothing quite like threatening the director of the FBI to get the blood circulating. I quicken my steps toward the parking lot, wanting to get out of the prison as swiftly as I can. Life is back at the hotel with Annie and Caitlin, not here at the Walls.

But Portman won't leave my thoughts. I can't shake the feeling that he came to Huntsville specifically to see me, and not Arthur Lee Hanratty. He knew he could speak to me here without appearing to have sought me out. His ruthless punishment of Peter Lutjens proves that my interest in the Pay-ton murder has touched a bureaucratic nerve, at the very least. And at worst? I can't even guess. Anything is possible.

As I near my rental car, a couple of reporters from the witness room start shouting questions at me. Do I really believe the death penalty is a deterrent? Am I absolutely convinced of Hanratty's guilt? What were John Portman and I talking about? What was the FBI director doing here at all? I climb into the car, resisting the temptation to pour gasoline onto the fire of the Payton case. I need to think. I need to see Annie and Caitlin.

As I drive through the gate of the Walls, passing the now silent crowd standing their candlelight vigil in the rain-swept darkness, one thing comes clear to me. This is the last trip I will make to this prison. The yellow glow of the candles grows smaller in my rearview mirror. Three more men pass their days on death row because I put them here.

They will die without me present.

CHAPTER 19 | The Quiet Game | CHAPTER 21