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CHAPTER 22

Crested Butte, Colorado, is a tiny village nestled nine thousand feet in the Rocky Mountains, twenty-five miles from Aspen as the crow flies, three hours by car. The easiest way to get there is to fly into Gunnison and drive north up the valley for half an hour. But to get to former special agent Dwight Stone's cabin, you must leave the pastel storefronts of Crested Butte's old town behind and drive northwest into the mountains on a forest service road, past the summer homes of the rich, until the road turns into a jeep trail that follows the Slate River upstream between Anthracite Mesa and Schuylkill Mountain. A few hundred yards north of an eight-foot vertical drop in the river, situated in the thick fir and spruce between the jeep track and the narrow blue-black span of the Slate, stands a small but well-built cabin, facing southwest to catch the sun.

Dwight Stone likes his solitude.

When I called Stone from the Gunnison airport and asked if I could speak to him about the Payton case, he politely declined. I did not tell him where I was calling from.

That was an hour ago.

Now Caitlin and Annie and I approach his front porch like a lost family asking for directions. I'm glad we brought coats. When we left Natchez it was ninety degrees. Here it's less than fifty, and there are dark clouds glowering over the summit of Gothic Mountain to the east.

Before I can knock, a tall, fit-looking man in his late sixties clumps around the side of the cabin wearing hip waders, a Black Watch flannel shirt, and carrying a fly rod.

"You folks lost?" he asks in a deep, resonant voice.

"That depends on where we are." I've already recognized the voice, but I say, "Are you former special agent Dwight Stone?"

Stone has the eyes of a combat veteran, and they narrow instantly, assessing threat. A man with a woman and a little girl can't seem like much danger, but I don't know what his anxieties are.

"You're on my property," he points out, quite reasonably. "Why don't you introduce yourself first?"

"Fair enough. I'm Penn Cage."

His eyes relax, but he sighs wearily. "You've wasted your time, son. Flying up here to get told no to your face instead of over the phone."

"I hoped you might soften up a little when you saw us."

He shakes his head, climbs onto the porch, and leans the fly rod against the cabin wall.

"I'm not a journalist. I have no interest in sensationalizing this story."

"You're a writer, aren't you?"

"Yes, but that's not why I'm looking into this case."

"Why are you?"

My gut feeling about Dwight Stone is that if you want to get anywhere with him, honesty is the best policy. "I could say it was to help the victim's family. Althea Payton and her mother-in-law. And I do want to help them. But I also have a selfish reason. I'm trying to nail a man who hurt my father a long time ago."

Stone studies me for several seconds. "Who would that be?"

"Leo Marston. Judge Leo Marston. He was the district attorney back-"

"I know who he was." Stone eyes Caitlin. "This your wife?"

"No, a friend. Caitlin Masters. But this is my daughter. Say hello, Annie."

Annie waves her right hand while clinging to Caitlin's leg with her left.

"You bring her along for the sympathy factor?"

"I brought her to keep her out of harm's way. I've already been shot at. Not many people want the Payton case reopened."

A flicker of something in Stone's eyes. "You convicted Arthur Lee Han-ratty, didn't you?"

"That's right."

"I saw you on CNN last night, at the Walls."

I nod but say nothing.

"That'll buy you a half hour of my time, Mr. Penn Cage. How about some coffee?"

"Coffee would be wonderful," Caitlin says, lifting Annie into her arms.

Stone takes a trout bag from his shoulder, then wipes his hands on his shirt and reaches for the cabin door. "I don't get much company up here, but I think maybe we could rustle up some hot chocolate too."

Annie breaks into a wide grin.

Stone settles Caitlin and me on a sand-colored leather sofa with Annie between us. Before us is a huge fieldstone fireplace, and Stone quickly builds a roaring blaze in it. The cabin is full of hunting and fishing gear, snowshoes hanging on the walls, rifles over the mantel, a fly-tying bench littered with bright feathers. A large double-paned window faces the Slate, which runs flat and smooth thirty yards from the cabin's back door. Only a large white propane tank mars the illusion of virgin wilderness, and when there's snow it's probably invisible.

After putting the trout in his sink, Stone brings us mugs of coffee and chocolate heated on an old woodstove, then sits opposite us in a rough handmade chair. His waders hang on a hook by the door, dripping into a brass bucket with the sound of men making use of a spittoon.

"You've got a nice place," I tell him. "No neighbors at all. How'd you manage that?"

He smiles. "Everything you see around this place is government land. But this cabin sits on a mining claim that's been in my family for three generations. Grandfathered down to the present. The federal government can't do a thing about me."

"I love it," Caitlin says.

"Thank you. Now, I heard the story Mr. Cage told me on the telephone. Tell me what you really know about the Payton case. And why you care."

"We've read the original police file," I begin. "Informant reports, interviews, interrogations, theories."

"What did you learn from that?"

"The report was wrong about the bomb that blew up Payton's Fairlane."

If this rings a bell, Stone has one hell of a poker face. "Wrong how?"

"It said the bomb was made of dynamite, based on a patrolman discovering fragments of blasting caps, plus lab analysis."

"So?"

"I located Payton's car. It's still in decent shape, believe it or not. The damage looked more characteristic of C-4 to me. A lot of metal shearing, small shrapnel. I sent a fragment of the engine to an expert for analysis. Last night he confirmed it. C-4."

Stone nods thoughtfully. "C-4 was damn hard to come by in 1968. And your Klan boys didn't know shit about using it."

He has not directly refuted my assertion. "You're saying the expert is wrong?"

"It's happened before. But that's not what I'm saying."

"Then you're saying the Klan wasn't behind the murder."

"I didn't say that either. What kind of theories were in the report?"

"Mostly rumors. I thought one story was plausible. Someone thought Payton's death was a mistake. That the real target was the president of the local NAACP. He apparently rode to and from work with Payton a good bit."

Stone nods with familiarity. "What about the one where a black button man was hired from New Orleans to come up and pop Payton? Strictly a money hit."

This scenario had been reported to the police by a Louisiana woman. Her story was given credence because she turned down the full fifteen-thousand-dollar reward rather than give more details. She claimed she'd never live to spend the money. No further information was recorded in the file.

"Is that what you think happened?" I ask.

Stone smiles. "It could have happened. How old are you, Mr. Cage? Thirty-five?"

"Thirty-eight."

"Do you have any idea what things were like in 1968?"

"In Mississippi?"

"In America."

"Well the country was turning against Vietnam. LBJ was being ground down by the war. Civil rights hit its high-water mark, with Martin Luther King at his peak before he-"

"I'm glad you passed your civics course," he interrupts. "I'm talking about reality, son. Behind the scenes. In 1968 a few powerful and paranoid men were trying to hold their vision of this country together in the face of social revolution. It was a tide they had no prayer of stopping, but they didn't understand that, and they used every method at their disposal to try."

As Stone speaks, I glimpse a furnace of anger seething behind his eyes. He has tight control over it, but he's been holding in that anger for years.

"The Constitution meant nothing to these men. Richard Nixon was one of them, but he was bush league compared to them."

"You're talking about J. Edgar Hoover?"

"Hoover was one of the more visible."

"How does this tie in with Del Payton?"

Stone looks from my face to Caitlin's, as though deciding whether we have earned the right to any of his hard-won knowledge. Now that I think of it, he's probably seventy years old, but his tanned, weathered face and soldier's eyes convey the strength of a much younger man.

"A lot of blacks were killed in Mississippi in the nineteen-sixties," he says in a deliberate voice. "Del Payton was one. But he was killed later than most. Have you thought about that? A lot of the race murders happened around sixty-four. Payton came later."

"What's the significance of that?"

"Just something for you to think about."

Everything's riddles with this guy. "Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968," I point out.

He shakes his head. "I'm talking about grassroots murders."

Caitlin looks ready to pop; she obviously has a hundred questions, but I hope she won't ask them. The harder we push Stone, the more he'll resist us. From lawyerly instinct, I move away from Del Payton and ask a question to which I already know the answer.

"Did you serve your full term of service with the Bureau? That is to say, did you retire at full pension?"

He takes a deep breath, and a little more anger spills through his eyes. "I'm going to answer that because you're going to find it out anyway, if you don't already know. And because I'm not ashamed to answer. I was asked to resign in 1972. Officially for alcoholism."

Caitlin nods with empathy. "Did your drinking have anything to do with the Del Payton case?"

"That I won't answer. But I'll tell you this. If every alcoholic in the Bureau in 1972 had been asked to resign, Hoover couldn't have mounted a raid on a cathouse. You had to drink just to stomach what was going on back then."

"What kind of things are you talking about?" I ask.

"You ever read American Tabloid, by James Ellroy?"

"No."

"Give it a look. Things weren't quite that crazy, but they were damn close."

"How did you earn a living after leaving the Bureau?"

A sour look wrinkles his face. "Worked as a private dick for a while. Big firm. That was sleazier than Hoover's Bureau, so I quit. Worked as an insurance investigator. I drank professionally for a few years. I was close to dying when my daughter pulled me back up to the light. I finally hung out my shingle here and started helping the locals fight the government and the mining companies. That suited my temperament."

"Were you in charge of the Payton investigation?"

"I was."

"How did you like Natchez?"

"It wasn't much like the rest of Mississippi. Better in a lot of ways. More liberal, the people more educated. But in a way that made the things that happened there worse. You know? Because there were people there who knew better."

Stone goes to the stove and returns with the coffeepot, talking as he refills our cups. "When I was assigned to that case, I was only a couple of years younger than Payton was when he died. I had a wife and two kids, and I still had a few illusions. That case knocked them right out of me."

He sets the empty pot on the stone hearth of his fireplace and takes his chair. "Do you have any illusions left, Mr. Cage?"

"Not many."

He studies me as if judging the truth of my statement.

Caitlin takes this chance to jump in. "How do you feel personally about J. Edgar Hoover?"

Stone examines his fingernails, a seemingly casual gesture calculated to hide inner turmoil. "I don't care if the man wore Frederick's of Hollywood to bed every night. I don't care if he wanted to marry Clyde Tolson, that pompous ground squirrel. But the man presented himself to this nation as a paragon of law and order. A champion of right. And the son of a-" Stone winces like Humphrey Bogart-"the man didn't know the meaning of the words. He stole from the government, misused agents for personal gain, colluded with mobsters, broke the securities laws Human beings just weren't meant to have that much power. Jesus, I need a drink."

"Go right ahead." It's barely two p.m., but I feel like I could use one too.

Stone shakes his head. "Four months sober. It's a daily battle."

Watching him get control of his craving is like watching a man fight a malarial fever. As a younger man Dwight Stone did what most Americans never do-peered behind the curtain at the men running the machine-and he is a different man because of it. America isn't the same country now, of course. It's better in a lot of ways. But I can see how this wouldn't matter to Stone. We are, all of us, men of our own eras.

"You want to destroy Leo Marston?" he asks, his eyes hard.

The name flows easily from his lips. He has thought about Marston since 1968. "Do you think that's possible?"

"Put it this way. I think it's a noble goal."

Caitlin presses her knee hard against mine. I can feel her excitement, but I don't look at her. It's suddenly as clear to me as the mountain air outside Stone's cabin: the man sitting across from us knows who killed Del Payton, and why, and probably why that knowledge was never made public.

"But it won't be easy," he adds.

"That's what someone else told me."

"Who?"

Stone is playing it so close to the vest that I decide to keep Ike Ransom's name to myself. "You wouldn't know him. He came along after your time. But he's interested in the case, and he hates Leo Marston. What can you tell us about Marston's involvement?"

"Nothing more than I have already."

"Will you help us with this case?"

A deep conflict is playing itself out behind the old agent's eyes, one only hinted at by the tension in his muscles and the tightness of his lips. "I can't," he says finally.

"Why not?"

"Because despite what you see here, I'm not alone in the world. There are people I care about. I'm thinking of getting married, believe it or not. And I won't put innocent lives at risk for something that can't make any difference now."

"Do you really think there's that much danger?" asks Caitlin.

Stone rakes a hand along his jaw. "Make no mistake about it. You are already swimming with sharks."

His baleful eyes linger on mine, trying to impress his seriousness upon me. He reminds me of an old homicide cop I knew in Houston, a guy who'd been shot twice in the line of duty. When he told you to start worrying, it was time to put on the Kevlar.

"What about the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission files?" Caitlin asks. "Payton's is sealed. Do you think we could learn anything significant from it?"

"Those were state files. I never saw them."

"The FBI file is sealed as well. Does that surprise you?"

He barks a laugh. "I'd be surprised if the damn thing exists at all."

"It exists, all right," I tell him. "Forty-four volumes. The question is, what's in it?"

"Forty-three volumes of nothing, and my final report."

"What was in your final report?"

He sighs and looks past us, to the front windows of his cabin. "I can't tell you that."

Caitlin glances at me, her lower lip pinned by her teeth, her gesture of concentration. "The file was ostensibly sealed for reasons of national security," she says. "Can you give us any hint as to what the Payton case could have to do with national security?"

Stone taps his fingers nervously on the arm of his chair. "Del Payton was killed five weeks after Martin Luther King was assassinated, and three weeks before Robert Kennedy. Have you considered that?"

Caitlin and I share a look.

"Are you saying Payton's death was somehow connected to those assassinations?" I ask.

"Kings climb to eminence over men's graves, Mr. Cage."

"Who said that?"

"A very wise man."

"Who is the king you're referring to?"

"I'm just quoting an old poet, son."

"Last night I was threatened by the present director of the FBI. Why should John Portman be concerned with a thirty-year-old civil rights murder?"

"Why do you assume Payton's death was a civil rights murder?"

At this echo of Ike Ransom, my heart twitches in my chest. "You're saying it wasn't?"

"I'm just thinking aloud."

"Have you ever met Portman?" I ask, my pulse racing.

"I met him." Stone's distaste is plain. "He joined the Bureau a few years before I got out."

"What did you think of him as an FBI agent?"

"He was a brown-nosing, manipulative, Ivy League rich boy with the moral sense of a cat. A good little German with obsessive ambition. After seven years in the field they promoted him to the Puzzle Palace."

"The Puzzle Palace?" Caitlin asks.

"The Hoover Building. FBI Headquarters. The guys who work there call it SOG. For 'Seat of Government.' It's the perfect environment for devious, back-stabbing sons of bitches. I apologize for the profanity. I forgot about your little girl."

Annie didn't hear him. She's busy examining a rock collection displayed in a glass-box end table. If she had heard him, she would have yelled, Mr. Stone said a bad word!

"Did you keep any personal notes from the Payton investigation?" I ask, recalling the habits of that cop Stone brought to mind a moment ago. "Something you didn't turn in to your superiors, maybe?"

His gaze wanders to the rear window, where the stream rushes along the rocks. "You want to learn what I learned back in 1968?" He looks back at me, his eyes burning into mine as though striving to communicate something he cannot say aloud. "Do what I did. Talk to the eyewitnesses. Have you done that? Have you talked to the eyewitnesses?"

I admit that I haven't.

"You didn't convict Arthur Lee Hanratty by sitting in your office, did you? Pound the bricks. Talk to everybody who'll talk and pressure those who won't. That's what we did back then. And we learned the truth."

This statement hangs in the air like a volatile gas.

"Then why didn't anyone go to jail?" Caitlin asks softly.

Stone's jaw muscles clench in an effort to control his rage. "For the same reason this country is going to hell in a handbasket. And don't ask me that again."

"What was your partner's name?"

"We didn't have partners," he says, his eyes still on me. "Not like municipal police. I worked a lot with Henry Bookbinder. He died of cirrhosis back in seventy-four."

"I know you're fond of quotes. Have you heard this one? 'You yourself are guilty of a crime when you do not punish crime.' "

Stone's right hand squeezes into a fist. "I think your half hour's up, pardner."

"May I ask you one more question?"

He stands and stretches his back muscles. "What is it?"

"Do you remember a cop named Ray Presley?"

Just before Stone's eyes glass over, I glimpse an anger even more personal than that which I have seen to this point.

"I remember him," he says in a flat voice.

"Do you think the police made an honest attempt to investigate the case?"

"That's two questions." Stone turns to Annie, who's now touching a clay pot that looks like Pueblo work. "How'd you like that hot chocolate, little darling?"

"Mmmm. It was great!"

He walks to the door, leaving us little choice but to follow. I take Annie's hand and lead her after him.

"Sorry you folks had to come all this way for nothing," he says, opening the door to the dark vista of Gothic Mountain rising above the mesa. "Rain coming. That's October for you."

We're on the porch now. The sibilant sound of the Slate beckons from the edges of the cabin.

"I don't think it was for nothing," Caitlin says, turning to Stone with a look of absolute frankness. "I think something evil happened in Natchez in 1968. I think you know what it was. I realize we sort of ambushed you here, and I apologize for that. But we want justice for Del Payton. I think you do too." She takes a card from her pocket and passes it to Stone. "You're going to do a lot of thinking after we leave. You can reach us at this number."

His jaw tightens as he examines the card. "You're a goddamn reporter?"

"A publisher. An honest one."

He looks at me, his eyes brimming with outrage.

"She won't print a word you said," I assure him. "She won't even print your name. She prints nothing at all until this whole mess is resolved."

Stone shifts his gaze to Caitlin.

"I want the truth," she says. "The truth, and justice. Nothing else. Thank you for your time, Agent Stone."

As we walk to the Cherokee, he stands in his doorway looking-for the first time since we've seen him-a little unsure of himself. It strikes me that he liked Caitlin using his old rank. Despite all his deep-rooted anger, Stone is still proud to have been an FBI agent.

Unlocking the door, I hear the scuff of boots behind me. Stone has come down off the porch. He puts his right arm on my shoulder in a fatherly way and looks into my eyes.

"You've got too much to lose to dig into this mess, son. The world has already changed too much for it to make any difference."

"I don't agree."

A strange recognition lights his eyes, and I am suddenly sure that in me he sees a shadow of the man he was years ago. "I'd like to give you one more quote," he says. "If you don't mind."

"Whatever."

"The hour of justice does not strike on the dials of this world."

I look away from his sad eyes, wondering what could possibly have driven a man of his strength and experience into such a miasma of defeatism. "No offense, Agent Stone, but I think you've been doing too much reading and not enough soul-searching."

To my surprise, this does not anger him. He squeezes my shoulder. "You have more illusions than you think. I wish you luck."

"I wouldn't need it if you'd tell me what you know."

He shakes his head and takes a step back. "Whatever you do, you send that little girl someplace safe before you take another step. You hear?"

"That I'll do."

As he retreats to his porch, I buckle Annie into her safety seat and join Caitlin in the front. She looks at me with fire in her eyes.

"Did you catch what he said inside?"

"About Payton's murder not being about civil rights?"

"No. When you asked him if he had any personal notes he kept from his superiors."

Stone is still watching us from the porch.

"He said if we wanted to learn what he did, we should do what he did."

She nods excitedly. "Talk to the eyewitnesses, right? That was the first thing he said. He looked at you real hard. Remember?"

"Yes. Like he was trying to communicate something nonverbally. Do you know what it was?"

She gives me an almost taunting smile. "Talk to the eyewitnesses."

"What is it, for God's sake?"

"Penn he used the plural. According to all accounts, there was only one eyewitness to the Payton bombing."

She's right. Frank Jones, the scheduling clerk. Had Dwight Stone tried to tell me-without telling me-that there was more than one witness in the Triton parking lot on the day Del Payton died?

"I told you I was good at this," she says, smiling with triumph. "Let's get out of here."

I start the Cherokee and wheel it around until we're pointed back toward the jeep track. "What did you think of Stone?"

"I think he's scared."

"Me too."

We spent the night in Gunnison. We might have rushed and made our flight, but none of us really wanted to race back to the heat of Mississippi. We took a suite at the Best Western and ate a long meal in a local steak house. Caitlin and I tried to list every possible reason Del Payton could have been murdered besides civil rights work, but Annie didn't cooperate with this effort, which made it virtually impossible.

Back in the suite, we rented The Parent Trap on the in-house movie channel and watched it from the big bed. Annie lay between Caitlin and me, facing the TV, while we leaned back against the headboard, the pillows from both beds padding our backs. When Annie allowed it, which wasn't often, we speculated about Stone and his cryptic statements. But watching TV with a four-year-old means watching it.

Lying in bed with Annie and Caitlin catapulted me back to a time so innocent and wonderful that I could hardly bear to think about it. Before Sarah got sick. Before the hospitals. Just us and our baby, laid up on Sunday mornings watching Barney with no fear of the future. When our biggest problem was deciding where we wanted to go for dinner.

When The Parent Trap ended, Annie said she wanted another movie. As I punched in the code for Beauty and the Beast and Caitlin called room service for ice cream, I wondered if Annie was experiencing the same memories I was, or at least the safe warm feeling she once knew with her mother and me. I thought perhaps she was, because two minutes after she finished her ice cream, she began snoring at the foot of the bed.

With this background of Disney music and snores, Caitlin asked me about Sarah. I sat silent for a while, but Caitlin didn't apologize or ask if I was all right. When she interviewed me, I had told her this subject was off limits. But that interview seemed a long time ago. As I sat there watching Belle confront her beast, I felt Caitlin's hand close around mine, tentative at first, then firm and warm. After a few moments I looked over at her. She gave me a smile that asked nothing, assumed nothing. A sense of pure goodness flowed from her.

Sarah would like this woman, I thought. For the first time since the previous day, the ghost of Livy Marston receded in my mind. I began to speak, and I did not stop until I had told Caitlin all of it, the pleasure and the pain, the joy and the grief, the beginning and the end. She asked to see a picture of Sarah, and I showed her the snapshot I carry in my wallet. It could have been an awkward moment, but it wasn't. Caitlin made it natural.

After I put the picture away, I tried to be as natural as she but found it impossible. The sadness that had been accreting in my soul for the past seven months began to break loose, and I found myself doing what I never allowed myself to do in front of Annie. I remember Caitlin holding my head against her breast, speaking soft words that escape me now. I must have fallen asleep that way, for I awakened to find light streaming through the curtains and Annie lying beside me, with no idea how we got beneath the covers. Caitlin was not in the bed, but she had taken good care of us before she left it.


CHAPTER 21 | The Quiet Game | CHAPTER 23