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CHAPTER 23

When we reached Natchez the next afternoon, I found a fax waiting for me on my parents' kitchen table. It had been sent to my father's office just before lunch. There was no originating number at the head of the page, but the fax itself was a copy of a newspaper story clipped from the Leesville Daily Leader. Leesville, Louisiana, is a community located next to Fort Polk, a huge army training base, and a hundred and fifty miles from Natchez. Above the article was a copy of the paper's masthead, and it showed the date as May 19, 1968. Five days after Del Payton died.

The article recounted the capture of two men-a supply sergeant and a civilian-who one month previous had stolen armaments from a military arsenal at Fort Polk. While the troops were on maneuvers and the marching band was parading around the base in full dress uniforms, these two enterprising souls had filled a two-ton truck with M-16s, Claymore mines, hand grenades, and C-4 plastic explosive, then had driven off the base and sold most of the ordnance piecemeal throughout the southeast. The civilian half of this duo was named Lester Hinson. I noticed because his name had been circled, probably by whoever sent the fax.

There was also a note for me to call Althea Payton at St. Catherine's hospital. I tried, but someone in the nursery told me she couldn't come to the phone. I called Caitlin at the newspaper, explained the mystery fax, and gave her Lester Hinson's name so she could begin tracing him. She asked if I thought Dwight Stone had sent the fax. My guess was Peter Lutjens, but I didn't say his name on the telephone. I did make a mental note to call him again and make a pitch for him to take a run at Payton's FBI file before he woke up in North Dakota. Caitlin asked if I'd gotten started doing what Stone had told me to do: talk to the eyewitnesses of the Payton bombing. She recalled from her research that Frank Jones-the "sole" witness to the bombing-worked as a salesman at the local Pontiac dealership. Jones didn't know it yet, but he was about to take me for a test drive.

The Pontiac dealership is festooned with balloons and strips of colored foil, but the only customers are clustered around the service bay. The salesmen hover in a loose knot inside the air-conditioned showroom, watching for customers through the huge glass window like predators scanning a drought-burned plain. The sight of my father's BMW 740i brings them all to their feet, albeit with feigned aloofness. They probably know the car on sight, but hope that old Doc Cage has temporarily taken leave of his senses and decided to buy American for once.

After parking at the end of the main display line, I make a show of looking at price stickers as I walk toward the showroom door. I search the salesmen's faces through the glass, gambling that the oldest will be Frank Jones. It stands to reason, although in a tough economy retirees might be working jobs like this to supplement their Social Security. When I open the door, everyone is suddenly busy, as though I've blundered into a Labor Day blowout sale.

I nod to the nearest salesman, then walk over to a Trans-Am sitting on the display floor and study the price sticker. Twenty seconds of silence is all it takes.

"She's a beaut, ain't she?" A head has suddenly materialized from behind a wooden partition near the back wall. "You want two, or just the one?"

The face on the head is over seventy, and it splits into the forced grin of a man who always supplies the laughs for his own jokes. He comes out from behind the partition, right hand extended in greeting, revealing a baby blue polyester sports coat over a blue plaid shirt and brown tie.

"Frank Jones, sales manager!" he barks, pumping my hand. "What can we do you for today?"

"I want to take a test drive."

"That's why we're here. Which car?"

I drop the flat of my hand on the roof of the Trans-Am. "How about this one?"

"You bet." He looks vaguely to his left. "Open the big door, Jimmy Mac."

"Sure," says a young salesman by the window. "Can I talk to you a second first?"

"I got a customer here, son."

Jones has the gleam of money in his eye. He hasn't yet spotted the BMW, and he seems to have sized me up as an all-cash type. I sit in the passenger seat as he guides the Trans-Am out of the showroom and stops so we can trade seats. Once behind the wheel, I adjust the seat for my longer frame, then pull out to the edge of the highway.

"That looks like Doc Cage's car," he says, finally noticing the BMW.

"It is." I merge into traffic, make a U-turn, and head for the Mississippi River bridge. "I'm driving it."

He looks at me and starts to speak but doesn't.

"I'm Penn Cage."

"Shit. You're the book writer." He stares straight through the windshield for half a minute, then turns to me. "Did you say all that crap they printed in the paper?"

"Some of it. They didn't exactly stick to what I said."

Jones snorts. "Don't I know it. You can't trust a damn thing you read in that rag. They did the same to me back in sixty-eight."

"About your account of the bombing?"

"Not so much that. It was the little things. Hell, they misspelled my name. How the hell can you misspell Jones? By God, that takes some doing."

When we top the hill that runs down to the cut in the bluff, I remember that there are two bridges spanning the Mississippi now. Throughout my childhood there was only one, and I can't seem to keep the new one in my mind. As the Trans-Am ramps onto the main span of the westbound bridge, the mile-wide tide of brown river opens seventy feet below us. The vistas to the north and south look much as they did to Sam Clemens a hundred years ago: muddy water swollen into the forest and sandbars on both banks, pale blue sky blanked out at the center by a relentless sun. Ahead of us, Vidalia, Louisiana, is laid out like a toy town behind its levee, some buildings no higher than the river itself, the personification of provisional existence.

"You want to ask me about that killing, don't you? Hell, I've told the story a thousand times. A dozen times a day since that article ran."

"Did the police question you a lot about what you saw?"

Jones squints, his rather dull version of a cagey look. "Everybody questioned me a lot. I was the only person who saw that Fairlane blow."

This isn't the time to contradict him. "Did you get the feeling the police really wanted to solve the case?"

"What do you mean?"

I let the silence speak for me.

He licks his lips and looks out his window. "You writing a book about this?"

"No."

"Well, if you was it seems like my story might be pretty valuable to you."

"I'm not. I just want to know about the police. Do you remember who investigated the case?"

"Henry Creel and Ronnie Temple. And you're goddamn right they tried to solve it. Those guys had a hundred-percent clearance rate back then."

"They must be the only detectives in the world with that record."

"These days maybe. Back then they didn't have the goddamn ACLU breathing down their necks."

"But they didn't solve the case."

Jones rolls down the window and spits into the wind. "Somebody killed a nigger. Case closed."

"What do you know about Ray Presley?"

"Enough not to say a word about him."

I turn onto Deer Park Road, which follows the river south on the Louisiana side. Soon we're driving past cotton and soybean fields, the levee on our left, the monotony broken only by shotgun churches, house trailers, and tar-paper shacks.

"You seem to know a lot about Creel and Temple."

"Creel was my wife's cousin."

"Was?"

"Lou Gehrig's disease, over to Shreveport. Temple's dead too. Heart attack."

I swing the car up onto the road that runs atop the levee. Between the levee and the river lie the perpetually flooded "borrow pits" created by the dredging that built the levee. The blackwater pits teem with catfish, crawfish, gar, water moccasins, alligators, abandoned cars, and the occasional corpse.

"Good fishing down there this month," Jones offers.

"Do you think Payton was killed for doing civil rights work?"

He shrugs. "I don't know nothing from civil rights work. He was stirring up a pile of shit, I know that. He used the national union to get himself promoted to quality-control inspector, which was a white job up till then. That pissed off a lot of people. Then he started bucking for injection-mold foreman. What the hell did he expect? Wasn't nobody out there gonna tolerate a nigger foreman in sixty-eight. Next thing they'd be wanting the front office. Too far, too fast. It's that simple."

"Did the Klan kill him?"

Jones's cheeks redden. "I don't know nothing about no Klan. Payton just pissed off too many people. Anybody coulda killed him." He snaps his fingers nervously. "Turn this damn thing around. I gotta get back to work."

"I noticed you guys were pretty busy."

"Kiss my sanctified ass."

He turns on the radio, selects a country station, and adjusts the volume so that further conversation will be impossible. I make a U-turn and head back toward the twin bridges. A couple of minutes later, he surprises me by yelling over the roar of the stereo: "I can't stand this shit!"

"What?" I ask, turning down the volume.

"All this happy-ass, fake-rock, slicky-boy country shit. They don't play nothing good no more."

"What's good? Hank Williams?"

"Hank's all right, sure. But Jim Reeves, boy, that's the prime stuff."

I almost laugh. I'm no Jim Reeves fan, but whatever differences separate me from this redneck, he and I are bound together by manner, rites, and traditions imprinted deep beneath the skin. That's why Caitlin's newspaper story didn't stop him from talking to me. I am white and Mississippi-born, and at bottom Jones perceives me as a member of his tribe. I wonder how wrong he is. If push comes to shove, and I'm forced to choose between white and black, will I realize there is no choice at all?

"Did the FBI question you?"

"Shit. Federal Bureau of Integration, we called 'em back then." Now that we're headed back, Jones has regained some of his old swagger. "Had 'em an office up in the City Bank building. A dozen Yankees with blue suits and ramrods up their butts. Agents came down from Jackson special just to question me. I think Bobby Kennedy sent 'em. Hoover wouldna sent assholes like these were."

"They were tough on you?"

"A pack of pussies, more like. They didn't do no better with the case than Creel and Temple did. And Kennedy got what he deserved a couple weeks later."

Robert Kennedy deserved a bullet in the head? "What about an agent named Stone? Special Agent Dwight Stone?"

Jones's face goes as dead as though someone zipped it shut. "Never heard of him."

"He was lead agent on the Payton murder."

The ex-Triton man sets his jaw and stares straight ahead like an obstinate mule. He remembers Agent Stone, all right. And not fondly.

We're approaching the arched midpoint of the eastbound bridge. Above us, Natchez stretches across the horizon like a Cecil B. De Mille movie set, sweeping up from the cotton-rich bottomland to the spires and mansions on the great bluff, then back down again to the Triton plant and the sandbars where the river rolls on toward New Orleans and the Gulf. It's the first time in years that I've seen the city from this aspect, and it's breathtaking. Below us, two steamboats are docked at Under-the-Hill, grand anachronisms that now carry tourists rather than cotton merchants and gamblers. As we roll off the bridge and top the first long incline, the Pontiac sign appears in the distance. Jones's posture instantly relaxes. This will be my last chance to speak to the man with any hope of a candid answer.

"What were you doing out there in the parking lot by yourself at eight o'clock that night?"

Something in his reaction telegraphs that he is about to lie. He does not squirm in his seat or make a sharp exclamation. Rather, a new stillness settles over him, one that sits heavily on a man unaccustomed to it.

"My wife called me," he says. "She wanted me to get some bread and eggs and such. I was on night shift and the Pik Quick was about to close."

This is the story recorded in the police report. But hearing Jones repeat it aloud, I sense the wrongness of it. "You were coming back from getting groceries when you saw the explosion?"

"I never got to leave." He shifts in his seat, finally giving release to his nervous energy. "Had a problem with my battery. Or I thought it was my battery. Turned out to be my solenoid."

A strange elation takes hold of me. Eight years of questioning hostile witnesses honed my intuition to a pretty fine point. Frank Jones is lying. He's been lying for thirty years. And any cop worth a damn would have seen it as easily in 1968 as I saw it today. Dwight Stone would have seen it a damn sight quicker.

I pull onto the edge of the Pontiac lot and stop, then catch Jones's left wrist and hold it tight. "Who else was in that parking lot that night?"

His eyes go wide with surprise. "What? Nobody."

I squeeze harder. He tries to pull away, but he hasn't the strength.

"Nobody, I tell you!"

"You saw the killer."

"That's a goddamn lie!"

"Then who was it? Who else was there that night?"

Jones jerks his arm free and rubs his wrist. "You don't know shit!"

"I'm going to blow this case wide open, my friend. And the longer you lie, the harder it's going to go on you."

He glances nervously at the showroom window. He actually looks like he wants to talk, but he has stuck with a lie for thirty years, and he won't abandon it easily now. He grabs the key from the ignition, killing the engine. "Get out of this goddamn car."

I start to get out, then stop. "You don't mind if I call your wife to confirm that story, do you? About her calling you to go get groceries?"

"Do what you want. I divorced that bitch thirty years ago. Just get the hell out of this ride."

I climb out and walk to my father's car. The other salesmen are lined up against the showroom window, staring openly now. As Jones switches seats and pulls the Trans-Am toward the building, I start the BMW and drive quickly off the lot.

One cell phone call to my mother tells me all I need to know. Frank Jones's ex-wife still lives in Natchez. After a messy divorce she married the president of a local oil company, quite a trade up from Frank Jones. The "messiness" involved affairs Jones had trailed with several secretaries at the battery plant. I dial the oilman's home and ask for the ex-wife by her new name: Little.

"This is Mrs. Little," says a rather prim voice.

"Mrs. Little, this is Penn Cage."

"Dr. Cage's boy?"

"That's right. I-"

"I remember when you used to take the blood and X rays at your daddy's office."

At least she didn't hang up. "Yes, ma'am. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions, if you don't mind."

"What about?"

"The day Del Payton died."

A hesitation. "What about it?"

"I just talked to your ex-husband, and-"

"Sweet Jesus. What did that no-count say about me?"

Her anger sounds fresh, even after thirty years. "He used you for an alibi, Mrs. Little. He said he went out to the Triton parking lot on the night Del Payton died because you asked him to pick up some groceries."

"That's a damn lie, pardon my French. He was in that parking lot because he was diddling one of his floozies."

This remarkable statement stops me for a moment. "Are you you're saying you think someone was in the lot with him that night?"

"Are you hard of hearing? That no-good tomcat came home that night and asked me to tell the police same story he told you. And I did, numbskull that I was."

I'm not sure I'm breathing.

"The next morning I took the car to the grocery store-for real that time- and as I was loading the bags into the backseat, I found a pair of stockings. They weren't mine, and they were not in pristine condition-if you know what I mean. When I got home, I kicked that sorry sack right out of the house. For good."

"Have you ever told this to anyone before today?"

"Sure. The police. I called them back and told them I hadn't been straight with them. That my husband made me lie."

A car horn honks behind me. I pull into the right lane and accelerate to the speed of the cars around me. "What did the police say?"

"Not to worry. That I wouldn't get into any trouble. Everything was under control."

Under control. "Do you remember which officer you told?"

"Yes. He came out to the house. It was that cop they sent to Parchman later on. Ray Presley."

No account of this meeting made it into the case report. "Was Presley alone when he came to see you?"

"Yes. He gave me the creeps, that Presley. Always did."

"Did anyone from the FBI question you about this?"

Mrs. Little says nothing, but not because she has nothing to tell.

"Mrs. Little, do you remember an FBI agent named Dwight Stone?"

"Well, actually I do, yes. But that's all I have to say. Good-"

"Please wait! Do you have any idea who your husband was with on that day? Which floozie, I mean? I know this is painful, but it's terribly important. The faster I get to the bottom of this, the less chance anyone is going to get hurt."

"I don't like talking about this." Her breaths are shallow, anxious. "If you get to the bottom of it, my ex-husband is going to come out of it smelling like a cowpie, isn't he?"

"Probably."

"Betty Lou Jackson."

"Ma'am?"

"That's the slut's name. She's married to some electrical contractor now. Beckham, her name is. Acts like she's as good as anybody, but she's a tramp through and through."

"Thank you, Mrs. Little."

"Don't thank me, because I never told you anything."

The phone goes dead.

The nice thing about small towns is that it's easy to find people. Directory assistance has only one Beckham listed. I'm starting to feel like I might solve the Payton case without ever leaving the car.

"Hello?" A woman's voice.

"Is this Betty Lou Beckham?"

"Yes. I don't use the 'Lou' anymore, though. It's just Betty. Betty Beckham. Who is this?"

"This is Penn Cage, Mrs. Beckham."

Deafening silence.

"Mrs. Beckham?"

"I'm real busy right now, Mr.-"

"I just wanted to ask you a couple of quick questions."

"I can't help you. I'm sorry."

"You don't know what I'm going to ask you." Or do you?

"I saw the paper the other day." Her voice is so tight that her vocal cords must be near to snapping. "It's about that, isn't it?"

"Mrs. Beckham, I realize this might be a delicate matter. I'd be glad to speak to you in person if you'd feel more comfortable."

"Don't you come around here! Somebody might see you."

"Who are you worried would see me?"

"Anybody! Are you crazy?"

"Mrs. Beckham, I really only have one question. Were you in that parking lot when Del Payton's car exploded?"

"Oh, my God. Oh, dear Jesus____________________"

"I have absolutely no interest in what you might have been doing there, Mrs. Beckham. I just want to know about the bombing."

How stupid did that sound? If Betty Lou was doing what Mrs. Little suspected she was doing in that parking lot, it might end up on the network news.

"Don't call back," she pleads. "You'll get me in bad trouble. Yourself too. You don't know. You just don't know!"

She's hung up, but the fear in her voice was real enough to raise the hair on the back of my neck. She is afraid of more than memories. She's been living in dread ever since Caitlin's story ran in the paper.

As I turn into my parents' neighborhood, the cell phone rings. It's Althea Payton.

"I tried to call you earlier, Althea, at the hospital. But you were busy."

"I know. I got this number from your father." She sounds out of breath. "I think I've remembered something important."

"Take it easy. I'm not going anywhere. What is it?"

"I was visiting an adult patient this morning, and his TV was tuned to CNN. I really wasn't paying attention, but then I heard your name. They were talking about that execution in Texas. How you were the lawyer who convicted that man."

"Right"

"They showed you walking into the prison. And then, right after that, they showed another man. They said he was the head of the FBI. I didn't hear his name, but I watched again an hour later to see if they'd run the same thing, and they did."

"I don't understand, Althea. What did you remember?"

"I knew that man. Mr. Portman. John Portman."

"You knew him? From where?"

"From here. Right here in Natchez."

"You've seen John Portman in Natchez?"

"That's what I'm trying to tell you. Remember I told you about Agent Stone? How he was nice and really wanted to help us?"

"Yes."

"And I told you some of them didn't. How Mr. Stone had another man with him, a young Yankee man, who was cold and never said anything?"

My chest feels hollow. "Yes"

"That was him. That John Portman on the TV was him."

"Althea, you must be mistaken. John Portman would have been very young in 1968."

"It's him, I tell you. His hair's a little grayer, but that's the only difference. The second time they ran the story, I watched close. Ain't no doubt about it. It was him. A young Yankee man, cold as February. Chilled me right to the bone."

Somewhere in my mind Dwight Stone is saying, / knew Portman. He came into the Bureau a few years before I got out

"Don't say anything else, Althea. I'm on a cell phone. I'm going to check on this and get back to you."

"What do you think it means?"

"I don't want to speculate. Don't talk to anyone about this. I'll get back to you."

"I'll be waiting."

I hit End, then turn into my parents' driveway and park, leaving the engine running. Of all the things I could possibly have learned about this case, this is the most astonishing. If John Portman was in Natchez in 1968, a lot of things suddenly make sense. Dwight Stone's personal hatred of him. Stone's unwillingness to talk about the case. Maybe even the national security seal on the Payton file, although this is probably going too far. No one could have known in 1968 that Special Agent John Portman would wind up director of the FBI thirty years later. So that wasn't the reason Hoover sealed the file. But Portman almost certainly knows why the file was sealed, as does Stone. Given Stone's hatred of Portman-and Stone's dismissal from the Bureau while Portman rose through its ranks-that reason must have been something Stone could not stomach but which Portman went along with. He was a good little German, Stone had said of Portman. He followed orders. The question is, what was he ordered to do?

As I get out of the car, a middle-aged black cop in uniform walks around the corner of the house, one hand on the gun at his hip.

"Are you Penn Cage?"

"Yes, sir."

He smiles and nods. He has the sad, drooping eyes of a beagle. "I'm James Ervin. Just keeping an eye on things for you and your daddy."

"I'm glad to see you, Officer Ervin." I reach out and shake his hand. "That gun loaded?"

He taps the automatic on his hip. "You bet."

"Good man."

"You sure got a pretty little girl in there. Reminds me of my girls when they was little."

"Thank you. Do you know what all this is about?"

Ervin sucks in his upper lip and looks at the ground. "You trying to get whoever killed Del Payton, ain't you?"

"That's right. Did you know Del?"

"My daddy knew him." He raises the beagle eyes to mine, and they are full of quiet conviction. "Don't you worry none. You ain't gonna have no trouble. Somebody come messin' 'round here, they on the wrong side."


CHAPTER 22 | The Quiet Game | CHAPTER 24