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CHAPTER 24

It takes less than ten minutes on my mother's computer to verify what Althea Payton told me on the cell phone. The FBI's official web page features a thumbnail biography of its new director. The bio boasts of Portman's first year as a field agent, one which he spent investigating race murders in Mississippi and Alabama. That year was 1968. A Time magazine writer hailed Portman's "year in the trenches" and stated that his "sterling civil rights credentials" were one of the major reasons the President had tapped the Republican federal judge to lead the FBI in a bipartisan gesture that shocked most Democrats. The Bureau had been wracked by racial problems for the past decade, and had been successfully sued by both African-American and Hispanic agents. Portman's Deep South experience sat well with minority political interests.

By my calculations, Portman was twenty-five when he visited Althea Payton's house with Dwight Stone. Fresh out of Yale Law. Stone was probably ten years older. Beyond this my facts are few. Portman rose swiftly through the Bureau's ranks while Stone was fired five years later. In Crested Butte I sensed that Stone felt his dismissal was related to the Payton case. But if that was true, why would Hoover wait five years to terminate him? Or had whatever happened in 1968 haunted Stone, fueling his alcoholism, until Hoover was finally left no choice but to fire him?

Unable to answer this question, I list the names of main players on the computer and stare at them a while. Payton. Presley. Marston. Stone. Portman. Hinson. One of the first things a writer learns is that the best way to solve a problem is to get out of the way of his subconscious and let it work. Following this dictum, I begin playing with the screen fonts and point sizes, switching from Courier to Bookman, from flowing Gothic to a tortured Algerian. As the fonts swirl and transform themselves before my eyes, it strikes me that men like Leo Marston and John Portman cannot be investigated by normal means, especially by a private citizen. Caitlin's status as a reporter lends us some theoretical authority under the First Amendment, but this means next to nothing in the real world. What is required is some creative thinking.

Kings and presidents can be brought down with the right weapons. The trick is to find their vulnerabilities. Men like Portman and Marston live for power. They hunger for it even as they wield more than most men will ever know. They act with certainty and dispatch, rarely allowing themselves the luxury of doubt. And so long as they operate from this fortress of psychological security, they are untouchable. Perhaps the way to bring them down is to breach that fortress, to turn their worlds upside down and force them into a reactive mode. The way to do that seems obvious enough. Re-introduce them to art emotion they have not felt in a great while.

Fear.

My first thought when my father comes through the pantry door is that he looks ten years older than he did two days ago. He kisses my mother and Annie, then motions for me to follow him into the library. I shrug at my mother and follow.

He sits in his leather recliner and switches on the television, apparently to mask our conversation.

"Somebody just tried to kill Ray Presley."

"What?" I exclaim, dropping onto the sofa to his left.

"His girlfriend was giving him the first few cc's of that Mexican chemotherapy he takes. He started complaining of angina and ripped the catheter out of his wrist. The girl called 911 and gave him CPR until the paramedics got there. He was having a coronary. He just checked himself out of the CCU against my orders."

"What makes you think it was attempted murder?"

"The girl brought in the IV bag, and one of our lab techs ran a few tests. He thinks there's some potassium chloride mixed in with the cocktail."

"Jesus. Did you call the police?"

"Ray told me not to. He was so goddamn mad he wouldn't let anybody but me close to him. He said he'd handle it himself."

"I'll bet he will. How much damage did his heart sustain?"

"I don't have enough enzyme tests back to tell." Dad drums his hands on the arms of the chair. "We've got another problem."

"What?"

"You talked to Betty Lou Beckham today?"

"How do you know that?"

"She showed up at my office at four o'clock, half in the bag. Said she had to talk to me."

I should have expected this. For years my father has acted as a confessor to countless souls, particularly women, who have no outlet for their sorrows and anxieties other than their ministers or local psychologists, as Natchez has attracted only one or two psychiatrists over the past two decades, and none has stayed. In this vacuum, a compassionate M.D. fills the void as no one else can.

"Was she in that parking lot when Del Payton died?"

"Yes. She and Frank Jones were having sex in his car when the bomb went off, if you can believe it. She saw Payton walk out to his car. She actually saw the damned thing explode."

"Christ. What else did she see?"

"When the bomb went off, Jones panicked. He started to take off, but Betty Lou reminded him that he was supposed to be working inside the plant. She was off that day, so she got into her VW to leave. When she was almost out of the lot, she looked up and saw somebody watching her from a pickup truck."

"Who?"

"Ray Presley."

A fist closes around my heart. "Presley was there when the bomb went off?"

Dad nods once, very slowly.

"So he was involved in the actual murder."

"It looks that way."

"Did Betty Lou tell anybody she'd seen him there?"

"Not at first. Presley came to see her and explained that might not be good for her health."

This scene is all too easy to imagine.

"Then Frank Jones's wife found Betty Lou's stockings in his car and kicked Jones out of the house. I gather that Mrs. Jones then told the police her husband had lied about why he was in the parking lot, because Presley came to see Betty Lou again. Gave her a harsher warning."

"But she told the FBI, didn't she? Special Agent Dwight Stone."

"Not at first. When Agent Stone found out Jones's wife had kicked him out the morning after the murder, he talked to the wife, and she led him to Betty Lou. Stone offered her money, but Betty Lou wouldn't talk. She was too scared of Ray. Then somebody shot at those FBI agents on the highway. Stone came back and told Betty that if she withheld evidence, he'd make sure she did time in federal prison. He convinced her. She's basically a good girl. She wanted to tell the truth all along."

"She gave up Presley to Stone."

"Yes."

"Then what happened?"

"Nothing. Betty Lou kept waiting for Presley to be arrested, but he never was. Then the FBI pulled Stone out of town. Presley showed up again, beat the hell out of her, forced her to give him oral sex she was a basket case. She was about to skip town when Presley was arrested on the drug-trafficking charges that sent him to Parchman."

I sit back on the sofa, trying to process it all.

"She's still scared to death of Ray. She's been working herself toward a nervous breakdown since Caitlin Masters's article came out. When you called this afternoon, she lost it. I gave her a shot of Ativan and drove her home."

"Ray is the problem you were talking about. He's directly involved in the murder, but if I push him, he'll push back. He doesn't have your gun anymore, but he could still raise a hell of a stink if he wanted to."

Dad sighs and leans back in his chair.

"It doesn't matter," I decide. "Presley wasn't solely responsible for Payton's death. The fact that someone just tried to kill him proves that. Somebody's afraid he'll talk."

We both look up as my mother slides open the library door. I assume she is summoning us to supper, but she says, "You've got a visitor, Penn."

"Who is it?"

"Caitlin Masters."

I wasn't expecting Caitlin, so she must have news. "Bring her in."

"She's playing with Annie."

When Mom disappears, Dad says, "How much does Masters know?"

"Nothing about the blackmail."

"Don't tell her what happened to Ray. Not yet."

Caitlin comes to the door carrying Annie in her arms, then passes her off to my mother and promises to be back in the kitchen in a few minutes. She's wearing black jeans, sandals, and a white pinpoint button-down with her sable hair spilling around the collar. She looks harried but also ready to burst with excitement.

Dad stands as I make the introductions, and as soon as Mom closes the door, Caitlin says: "I just hit the jackpot."

"What are you talking about?"

"I traced Lester Hinson. The guy in the article from the Leesville Daily Leader?"

"What's his story?"

"He's a small-time crook who spent most of his life in Angola Prison. He lives in New Orleans now."

"You talked to him?"

Too excited to remain in one place, Caitlin begins pacing. "More than that.

I found out exactly how he ties in to the Payton case. In April of 1968 Lester Hinson and a supply sergeant named Earl Wheeler ripped off an arms depot at Fort Polk and started selling the stuff on the black market. A month later they were busted by the Army CID. That's what the article was about, right? Well, Hinson was a civilian, and he got a visit in jail from Special Agent Dwight Stone. Stone wanted to know if the pair had sold C-4 to anyone from Mississippi, particularly Natchez. They had. Stone had to get the charges pled down to find out who the buyer was, but he didn't mind that at all."

"The buyer was Ray Presley," I say in a monotone.

Her mouth drops open. "You're not guessing, are you?"

"No. We just placed Presley at the crime scene when the bomb went off."

"How did you do that?"

"You finish first. I can't believe Hinson just spilled his guts to you."

"He didn't. I did what cops do."

"What's that?"

She grins. "I paid him. I told him what I wanted, then wired five hundred dollars to a Western Union office in New Orleans. I told him I'd wire him another five hundred if he told me what I wanted to know. He would have talked all day for that money."

Dad gives Caitlin an admiring look.

"Forget that," she says. "How did you put Presley at the scene?"

"You were right about what Stone was trying to tell us. There was another witness to the murder. One who never made it into the police report."

"Who?"

"Her identity isn't important right now. What matters-"

"Not important!"

Caitlin isn't going to like this. "This witness can only implicate Ray Presley. Presley probably killed Payton, but he almost certainly did it for someone else. That's how he worked. And I don't want to move on Presley until we have the man who ordered the crime."

Caitlin is shaking her head. "But that's how you get to the top guy, isn't it? You squeeze the little fish until they talk."

"Usually, yes. But Presley's a special case. He's never scared easy, and now he has terminal cancer. He doesn't have a lot of fear of earthly punishment. So, he bought some plastic explosive in 1968. The statute ran out on that long ago. The witness who saw him in the Triton parking lot is a terrified woman who's now married and respectable, but who happened to be committing adultery in a car when the bomb exploded. I seriously doubt she would make a statement to the police, much less testify in open court."

"Penn, I can't believe I'm hearing this. We now have means and opportunity for Presley to have committed homicide. The motive could be racial prejudice. He's a lock for it. If we don't squeeze Presley, how can we get any further?"

"We've just been discussing that."

She looks from one to the other of us, her green eyes probing. "You guys know something I don't. Right? Something about Presley. Something that's keeping you from going after him."

"Yes."

"What is it?"

"I can't tell you. Not at this point."

The familiar pink moons appear high on her cheeks. "What kind of bullshit answer is that? Are we partners or not?"

I trust Caitlin implicitly, but I cannot trust her with my father's secret. "If I could tell you, I would. But I have to ask you to trust me for now."

"You ask me to trust you, but you don't trust me." She looks at my father, who is staring pointedly at the floor, then back at me. "You think Leo Mars-ton hired Presley?"

"Don't you?"

"There's no evidence of that."

"Ike Ransom says it's Marston, and Dwight Stone said the same thing in so many words."

"But neither of them will go public."

"There's been another development as well."

She sighs and looks at the floor. "I'm afraid to ask."

"Stone lied to us in Colorado. He knew John Portman a hell of a lot better than he led us to believe."

"How do you know that?"

I quickly explain Althea Payton's call about seeing Portman on CNN, and my subsequent verification that he worked in Mississippi in 1968.

Caitlin gropes backward for her chair and falls into it. "Holy shit. Do you realize what this means?"

"Tell me."

"This story just went national. This story is huge."

"Remember our deal. You print nothing until I say so."

"When I made that promise, I didn't know you were going to obstruct the investigation for reasons you don't see fit to tell me."

"There were no conditions on the promise. And I expect you to abide by it."

She purses her lips. "Could I please point out a couple of things? One, we have no real investigative power. Two, the files we need are under government seal, and we're unlikely to get that changed without a protracted court battle. Three, the Payton case somehow involves the director of the FBI, who has practically unlimited power to interfere with us. Four, the case also involves Leo Marston, the single most powerful man in this county, possibly in the state. Five, no one directly involved in the case wants to talk to us." She holds up her hands in desperation. "What do you want to do? I think the media is the only weapon we have."

"I agree."

"You do?"

"I simply want to use it in a different way than you."

"How?"

"To scare the shit out of Portman and Marston, and see which way they jump."

Now I have her attention. "How can you do that?"

"By making them think we can prove they're guilty of Payton's murder."

"And how do you propose to do that?"

"Simple. I state publicly that Leo Marston was responsible for the murder of Del Payton."

"What?" my father cries.

"With no evidence?" asks Caitlin. "Just slander him?"

"Exactly. I slander him."

"But why?"

"Because by doing that, I leave Marston no option but to sue me."

Dad snorts in amazement. "What the hell does that accomplish?"

"The minute Marston sues me, I'll answer his charge by stating that truth will be my defense. I will then be free under the rules of discovery to request Marston's business records, personal papers, tax returns-all kinds of things from the years surrounding the crime."

"A fishing expedition?" asks Caitlin. "You think you'll find some documentary proof that Marston ordered Payton's murder?"

"Not really. My primary goal is psychological. Ike Ransom says everyone around here is playing the quiet game. He says the way you win that game is by making people nervous. So, that's what I'm going to do. Marston won't believe I'd make a public charge like that without hard evidence. He'll panic. His first thought will probably be Ray Presley. After Presley, who knows? Portman maybe. We don't know who else was involved. But Marston does."

"You think he does. What if you're wrong? What if you have no evidence by the time the slander case comes to trial?"

"Then I'll lose a great deal of money. Maybe everything I have."

"How long would that be? From the time of the slander till the trial?"

"Hard to say with someone like Marston. The deck would be stacked against me from the start. He'd want a quick trial, and he'd get one. Everybody in this town owes him favors, especially in the judicial system."

"He's got his share of enemies too," Dad points out. "You might get some unexpected help."

"I'll tell you what would scare the shit out of him," I think aloud, feeling excitement building inside me. "A jury trial. In this town the jury might be fifty percent black. We might even get a black judge."

Dad actually cackles. "Marston would be apoplectic! After a lifetime of moderation on race, he gets hauled before a black jury on a case like this?"

"How would you do it?" Caitlin asks. "The slander, I mean. Walk into a bar, pound on a table, and accuse him of murder?"

"No. I'd have to make it impossible for him not to sue."

"Talk radio?"

"Maybe. But the ideal medium is print. It carries the most authority."

She blanches. "You mean my newspaper? Not a chance in hell."

I smile. "Hey, are we partners or what?"

She stands and jabs her forefinger at me. "Marston would sue the paper for libel. He'd sue my father!" She shakes her head violently. "My father will tolerate a lot. But a libel suit? Do you know what kind of damages people have been awarded in libel cases? Tens of millions of dollars. He'd jerk my butt out of here so fast my feet wouldn't touch the ground."

"Caitlin-"

She shakes her head again and walks quickly to the door. "I'm going to forget I ever heard this. And I suggest you think long and hard before you put everything you have up for grabs. You have a daughter to raise."

"Not a word in the paper about any of this," I remind her.

She closes her eyes and sighs angrily.

"Unless you want to print my accusations of Marston's guilt. Then you can blow the story wide open. You can take it national tomorrow morning. The more noise, the better."

She stands in the door with her hands on her hips, nostrils flared, eyes burning. "Damn you, Penn Cage." She glares at my father. "If I were you, I'd try to talk some sense into my son." Then she steps through the sliding door and shuts it with a bang.

Dad looks at me with a glint in his eye. "That's some woman." He takes a cigar from his shirt pocket, unwraps it, and sticks it between his back teeth. "Desperate times call for desperate measures?"

"What choice do we have? Even if Betty Lou would go public, she might never get the chance. Presley could kill her. And even if we somehow turned Presley, Marston could have him killed. But as soon as I go public, any suspicious accidents make Marston look guilty."

"I agree. Not only that, I like it."

"There's only one problem," I murmur, fighting the fear germinating in my gut.

"What's that?"

"Leo is one cool customer. What if I can't spook him?"

By nine p.m. I've pretty much decided to go forward without Caitlin's help. Finding a newspaper reporter or radio talk-show host who will let me spout off about Leo Marston and a race crime shouldn't be too difficult. In the current media climate, where celebrity and controversy are the benchmarks of ratings, they'll probably fight over the story. But Caitlin's apprehension still worries me. What I need now is positive confirmation that I'm right to go after Marston.

Dwight Stone answers his phone after five rings, but as soon as I identify myself, he hangs up. I try once more, in case he made a mistake, but the result is the same. More curious than discouraged, I take out my wallet and fish out the card with Ike Ransom's cell phone number. The deputy answers instantly.

"This is your buddy from the Triton plant," I tell him.

He asks if I'm home, then says he'll call back from a land line. A minute later, he tells me to meet him at an abandoned warehouse by the river, in the industrial park. This doesn't strike me as a good way to spend the evening, so I suggest that he pick me up in the Wal-Mart parking lot. He reluctantly agrees.

Fifteen minutes later, I climb into his cruiser, the claustrophobic little world of anger and guns and cigarettes. He looks just as he did the other night, only more nervous. He looks, in fact, like he might be wired on speed.

"Where the hell have you been?" he demands.

"Colorado. I talked to an FBI agent who worked the case in sixty-eight."

Ransom hits the brake, then catches himself and continues up the bypass. "I thought I told you to stay away from the FBI."

"You did. And I'm curious as to why."

He ignores the comment. "What's this guy's name?"

"Stone."

He taps the wheel impatiently. "Couple of people I talked to remembered him. They said it seemed like he really tried to solve the case."

"He did more than try. He solved it."

Ransom looks over at me, his speed-pinned eyes distant. "He tell you that?"

"In so many words."

"No details?"

"He won't talk about it."

Ike laughs humorlessly. "What did I tell you? The quiet game. Everybody's playing it."

"What are they so scared of? Marston?"

"Judge Leo got some serious juice, man."

"Is that all?"

"What you mean?"

"Did you know John Portman was here in 1968?"

"John who?"

I hesitate before answering. I have a feeling Ike knows exactly who I'm talking about. "The director of the FBI," I say, watching him.

He accelerates and whips around the car ahead of us, but I can't tell whether he did it to buy time or not.

"What you mean, he was here?"

"It was his first year as an FBI agent. He was working the Payton case with Stone."

Ike shrugs. "That's the first I heard of it. But I told you to stay away from the FBI, didn't I? You can't trust no Feds, man."

"Never mind. Look, I've thought of a way to go after Marston. But it's risky. I've got to know more than I know now. You understand? You've got to give me something more."

"Like what?"

"How about some evidence?"

"Shit, man, if I had evidence, I'd get that motherfucker my own self. Finding evidence is your job."

"Why do you think he was behind Del's murder?"

"I just know, okay?"

"It's not okay, damn it. It doesn't make sense. Why would Marston want Del Payton dead?"

"That's what you're supposed to find out."

My father's original doubts about Ike's motives are coming back to me. "Why do you hate Marston so much, Ike?"

He turns to me, his eyes smoldering. "I done told you once. It's personal."

"That's not good enough anymore."

"Fuck you, then!"

I say nothing for the next mile. Ike's respiration is heavy and erratic, as though so much energy is consumed by his anger that he has to remind himself to breathe.

"Were you and Ray Presley cops at the same time?"

He keeps his eyes on the road. "Presley was in Parchman when I joined the force. But I knew that motherfucker later on. We were like two bad dogs on a street. We always stayed on different sides. Still do."

"Well, somebody just tried to kill him."

An eerie stillness comes over Ike. Then he turns his head toward me, and the intensity in his eyes is frightening. "Tried to kill him how?"

"Poison."

"Take more than poison to kill that bastard."

"I think Presley planted the bomb that killed Del Payton."

Ike rolls his tongue around his cheek, his eyes moving on and off me. "Why you think that?"

"I've got reasons. What do you think?"

"I think all the evidence in the world against Ray Presley ain't gonna get you no closer to Marston."

"Why not?"

" 'Cause Presley don't know shit about the reason. You got to find the why of it."

"Take me back to my car. You want me to fight your battles for you, but you don't give me shit for help."

He spins the wheel and turns the cruiser back toward Wal-Mart, his anger making his knuckles pale. "Marston fucked up my family," he says through clenched teeth. "Fucked up my whole life. That's all I'm gonna tell you. It's got nothing to do with Del Payton, but I knew you could bring Marston down behind the Payton thing. That's why I went that way. I want that bastard destroyed. In public. That's what'll hurt him the most. If it wasn't for that, I'd have killed his ass a long time ago."

I settle back on the seat and let my eyes go out of focus, which turns the oncoming headlights into slow white meteors. "Ike I want you to swear on the soul of your mother that Marston ordered Del Payton's death."

He doesn't hesitate. "On the soul of my mother. If it wasn't for Leo Marston, Del Payton would be alive today."

I guess that's all the certainty I'm going to get.

When I get home, Caitlin's Miata is parked in the driveway. She is standing in the garage, talking to Officer Ervin.

"What's the matter?" I ask as she walks out to meet me.

"Dwight Stone just called me at the newspaper. He thinks his phone is tapped. He gave me the number of a pay phone and told me to get you to call him back. He said you should use a pay phone too. One far from your house."

"Let's go."

I drive us up to the bypass, then north to Highway 61. There's a pay phone at a convenience store, but I go a little farther to a grocery store parking lot, where there won't be so much noise. Caitlin stands beside me as I dial the number.

"Yes?" Stone says in a gruff voice.

"It's Penn Cage."

"Listen to me, Cage. My phone is tapped. So are the phones at your father's house and medical office. Probably the lines at the newspaper as well. You should also assume physical surveillance. I'm being watched right now."

"Jesus. Someone just tried to kill Ray Presley."

Caitlin tenses beside me, but I ignore her.

"How?" asks Stone.

"Poisoned his IV bag. He had a coronary, but he's still ambulatory and mad as hell."

Stone says nothing, but I can sense the conflict raging within him. "I know you worked with Portman on the Payton case in sixty-eight," I tell him. "Why did you lie about that?"

"I was trying to protect people."

"Who?"

"You, for one. Others too."

"Well, I took your advice. I talked to the eyewitnesses, and I've placed Presley at the crime scene."

"And?"

"I want Leo Marston, not Presley."

"Squeeze Presley."

"That's easier said than done."

Stone laughs softly. "Ray's not very squeezable, is he? Son of a bitch tried to kill us on the highway to Jackson."

"You're the agent who got shot at on Highway 61?"

"Portman and me, if you can believe it. The world would be a lot nicer place if Presley had hit Portman that day."

"Why? Goddamn it, what's the big secret? What was so terrible that Hoover had to bury it under a national security seal? What's Portman hiding? What could still scare you after thirty years?"

"Do you really expect me to answer that?"

"You're damn right I do. It's time you listened to your conscience, Stone."

"Don't preach to me, son. You haven't earned the right."

"If Ray Presley shot at you, why didn't he go to jail for it?"

"He did."

"Presley went to Parchman for drug trafficking. That's a state prison."

"Justice doesn't always happen in a straight line. You should know that."

I grip the phone with exasperation. "I've thought of a way to go after Marston without Presley's help, but it's a gamble. A big one. I can't afford to be wrong."

"What are you asking me, counselor?"

"Am I wrong about Leo Marston being behind the murder of Del Payton?"

Just as I decide Stone is not going to answer, he says, "You're not wrong."

A wave of triumph surges through me.

"But that doesn't mean there's evidence lying around waiting to be picked up," he adds. "I don't know how much I'd gamble on being able to prove it."

"Did you prove it in sixty-eight?"

"Yes."

"Then why wasn't the son of a bitch prosecuted?"

"Oldest reason in the world. You just be damn sure about every step you take. This road doesn't end where you think it does."

"Hold on. Why are you willing to warn me, but not to help me?"

"I thought I just did. Good hunting, counselor."

When I hang up, Caitlin grabs my arm, her eyes furious. "Why didn't you tell me someone tried to kill Presley?"

"No one knew but my father, and he asked me not to tell."

She takes a deep breath and expels it slowly. "What did Stone say?"

I glance around the dark parking lot, searching for suspicious vehicles. Would I even see surveillance if it was there? Surely the FBI is better than that. I pull Caitlin to me and put my mouth to her ear. She stiffens.

"What are you doing?"

"Stone says we're probably under surveillance. Act like we're lovers."

After a moment her arms slip around me and her breasts flatten against my chest, but her eyes are anything but romantic.

"We've got to go with my slander plan," I whisper. "We don't have time for anything else, and the more public this is, the safer we are."

She slides her cheek past mine and answers in my ear. "I won't do that. Don't ask me to."

"It's the only way."

She pulls away from me, her eyes bright. "Take me back to my car."

"You told me you wanted to shake up your father's business."

"Not like that. I have no right to put him in jeopardy that way."

We get into the car, and I cross the highway to 61 South. "You think Marston's going to stand on ethics?" I ask her. "He'd kill us in a second if he thought he had to."

She turns to me with a defiant look. "As far as I know, the worst thing Leo Marston has ever done is sabotage your love life. And that's not against the law."

"The danger is real, Caitlin."

"Give me a break. Nobody killed Woodward and Bernstein."

"They weren't working in Mississippi."


CHAPTER 23 | The Quiet Game | CHAPTER 25