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CHAPTER 26

I drive the Fiat right into the yard, where my mother stands with Annie and a dozen neighbors, all pointing helplessly at the burning house, all in various stages of shock. I jump out of the car, run to my mother, and take Annie from her arms.

"Daddy, the house is on fire!" she cries, more amazed than frightened.

"The fire engine's right behind me," I tell Mom. "Is everybody okay?"

She grabs my arms, her eyes wide with terror. "Ruby's in there! We heard a boom and then smelled smoke when we saw the flames we ran but Ruby fell. Penn, I think she broke her hip. I couldn't drag her out. I brought Annie out, and by then it was too bad to get back in. But that off-duty policeman-Officer Ervin-he went in anyway. He went after Ruby, but he never came out!"

"How long ago was this?"

My mother is close to hyperventilating. I put my hands on her shoulders and squeeze hard enough for her to feel pain.

"Five minutes maybe more. I don't know."

As I stare at the house, a runner of flame races up the roof shingles. That's no kitchen fire. The whole house is burning. The house I grew up in.

"Where was Ruby when she fell?"

"By the back bathroom."

There's no exterior door anywhere near that bathroom. And going through the front door would be suicide. I wouldn't even make it to the bedrooms before being overcome by smoke. I hug Annie and pass her to Mom, then kiss them both.

"When the firemen get here, tell them to look for Ervin."

My mother blanches. "Penn, you can't go in there."

"I'm not leaving Ruby in there to die."

Livy grabs my arm from behind. "Penn, it's too late. Wait for the fire truck."

I yank my arm free and sprint toward the garage before either of them can say more. In the garage I grab a shovel, then race around to the back of the house. As I near it, I begin smashing windows, trying to give the trapped smoke as many outlets as possible. I may be feeding oxygen to the blaze, but if I don't get some smoke out of there, I'll never reach Ruby alive.

The back bathroom has no window, but the adjacent bedroom does. A high, horizontal one about five feet wide and eighteen inches tall. I smash the glass with the shovel and stand back as thick gray smoke explodes through the opening. After thirty seconds, the plume thins a little, and I put my hand through the window. The heat is intense, but when I stand on tiptoe and put my face to the opening, I see no flames.

Taking off my shirt, I soak it in water at the outdoor faucet, then tie it around my face. I am scraping the window sill clean of glass shards when the scream comes. The sound is an alloy of animal terror and human agony, a child's wail from the throat of an eighty-year-old woman. An eighty-year-old woman who showed me more love and kindness than anyone but my mother. I feel like someone stuck my fingers into a 220-volt socket.

"Ruby! Ruby, it's Penn! I'm coming to get you!"

Hooking both hands over the sill, I swing my right leg up into the window and pull myself into the frame. The smoke that looked thin from outside instantly scorches my eyes, throat, and lungs. Breathing is pointless until I get my face down to the floor. I roll off the window frame and drop to the carpet.

There's air here, but the smoke is still too thick to see through. Before I lose my nerve, I shut my eyes and crawl around the bed toward the door that leads to the hallway. If I hadn't lived in this house for fourteen years-and stayed here for the past few nights-I wouldn't have a chance of finding Ruby. That's why Officer Ervin didn't get out. He's probably lying unconscious in the hall, if he even made it past the den furniture.

At the doorway I pause and shout again.

"Ruby! Rubeee!"

All I hear is a living roar, the sound of fire devouring wood and carpet, curtains and glass, photos and china, silver and books- Books. My father's library is burning. If Ruby was not somewhere in this house, I would probably risk my life to save those books.

The bathroom, I remember. Ruby fell by the bathroom.

Thankfully, the heat is more intense to my right, toward the central hall. I put my nose to the carpet, take a breath, and crawl to my left, toward the bathroom. It's two rooms, really, a narrow dressing room and linen closet with the commode and bathtub in a smaller cubicle beyond. I go through the door on my belly, groping forward like a soldier clearing a minefield.

The dressing room is empty. As I crawl toward the commode, my nostrils start to whistle with each breath. Panic ambushes me, like a wild thing tearing around in my chest. Maybe Ruby isn't here at all. Maybe Ervin got her out.

Maybe the scream I heard was the sound she made as he dragged her out. I can't search the whole house. That's how firemen get killed, trying to save people who aren't there. I grope around the commode and inside the bathtub, then scramble back to the bathroom door.

The roar is closer.

"Ruby! It's Penn! Are you here? "

At first there is only the roar. Then a whimper floats out of the noise like a leaf from a bonfire. It came from the central hall. My lungs feel near to bursting, but I alligator along the carpet toward the corner, my eyes shut tight. The heat is nearly unendurable. Forcing my stinging eyes open, I look down the hall.

Dancing tongues of red and orange caper out of the black smoke like laughing demons. Primal terror seizes my muscles, paralyzing me long enough to fully comprehend the danger. Then my reptile brain shrieks: Death! Run!

But I don't run. I can't. When I was six years old, a German shepherd got out of a neighbor's backyard and trapped me in a corner of our carport. That dog weighed ninety pounds, and when it bared its teeth and lunged at my face, all I could do was throw up my arms. When its teeth ripped into my flesh, I was too panic-stricken even to yell for help. After a seeming eternity of gnashing teeth and blood, I heard a sound like a hatchet hitting a watermelon, and saw a black woman as tall as our house swinging a shovel like a broadsword, bludgeoning that monstrous animal within an inch of its life. Ruby Flowers was terrified of dogs, but when she saw "her baby" in danger, she pressed down her fear and charged out of our house like the wrath of God.

Fixing that image in my mind, I shut my eyes and crawl toward the flames. The frantic reptile voice whispers that the orange demons are flanking me, racing across the roof to close off my escape. But I hold Ruby's face in my mind, keep inching forward.

My hand touches flesh.

Bone.

An ankle.

The smell of cooked meat fills my nose and lungs, and I vomit up the wine I drank with Livy. Retching in the darkness, I take hold of the ankle and pull with all my strength. Something gives, and Ruby screams. At least she's alive. A broken hip can kill an old woman, but not as quickly as fire.

Switching ankles, I pull with both hands, dragging her far enough to get clear of the flames. She's moaning now, the sound like that of a wounded animal. I press my nose to the floor, take another breath of smoke, then get to my knees and heave her over my shoulder. As I struggle to my feet, dizziness pitches me against the wall, but somehow I right myself and stagger back toward the bedrooms.

The smoke is dense here too, but at the center of it is a dim, cool flicker of blue. I lean toward that blueness, trying to keep Ruby on my shoulder as I go forward. Move your feet, I yell silently. Move It's as though my nerve fibers are shorting out one by one, attenuating the signals firing from my brain. Again the stench of scorched meat gags me, but I'm almost to the light. With a last heave I lift Ruby onto the windowsill and hold her there.

I don't want to drop her, but I can barely stand, much less lower her the six feet to the ground.

Suddenly two bright yellow gloves appear and pull her from my grasp. Male voices are shouting through the window, but I can't make out the words. The world outside the window seems part of some other universe. More yellow hands reach out of the brightness, reaching for me, but they are too far away.

I am falling.

The sun is in my eyes, and the skin of my face is burning.

A teenager wearing a black fireman's hat is holding something over my mouth and nose, and something like cool ambrosia is laving the burning walls of my lungs. I try to suck in more of it, but the effort triggers a coughing fit, great wracking spasms like blades tearing at my ribs and trachea as smoke pours from my nose and throat.

"Penn, I'm here," says a woman's voice.

"Mom?"

"Livy."

I see her face beside the fireman's now, her hair still damp from the Cold Hole. She takes my hand and squeezes gently.

"Ruby?" I ask.

"She's right over there. Look to your left."

As I turn, I see two paramedics rolling a gurney across the lawn. A third is holding an IV bag at shoulder level as it drains fluid into Ruby's arm.

"I want to see her," I croak, rolling over and getting to my knees.

"Easy, sir," says the fireman. "You've been through a little hell in the past few minutes."

He's not really a teenager. He's probably in his mid-twenties, with a thin blond mustache and a hank of straight hair spilling from under his helmet.

"The cop?" I ask, recalling Officer Ervin's droopy beagle eyes. "The cop who went in after her?"

"We got him out. Take it easy."

"I'm okay really."

Livy slides under my right arm as I get to my feet, supporting me with surprising strength. I've never felt so jittery in my life. All my muscles are quivering and jerking as though exhausted by an overexpenditure of adrenaline, and my heart is laboring noticeably in my chest.

"The library," I remember. "My dad's books."

Livy shakes her head. "It's too late. The whole house is going up. It's a miracle you got out alive."

"That's a fact," says the fireman. "We pulled you out just as the flames came through the bedroom door."

"Thank you. I know I could have died in there."

He smiles and gives me a salute. "You done pretty good yourself, buddy."

With Livy's help I make my way around to the front yard.

It looks as though every neighbor for a square mile has come to watch the fire. The crowd fills the surrounding yards and much of the street. Two fire trucks have their hoses trained on the house, and a third on the old oak with the creeper vine.

My mother runs up to me, her face ashen. "Penn! I can't find Annie!"

I jerk erect and shake my head clear. "Where did you see her last?"

"After you went in. It was taking so long-I was looking for you. I just put her down for a second!"

"How long ago?"

"Three or four minutes!"

The area is so choked with people that Annie could be ten feet away and we'd still miss her. The only thing in our favor is that we know most of the people in the crowd. Within five minutes, everyone on the street is looking for her.

As I run shirtless through the throng, fighting down panic, all I can think is that this fire was no accident. The "boom" my mother heard had to be some kind of fire bomb. This whole disaster was staged to draw the attention of the cop watching the house. And it did. Officer Ervin bravely charged into the inferno to save Ruby's life, and in the process left my mother and daughter unprotected. My similar effort completed the kidnapper's work, by breaking my mother's concentration.

After five minutes of searching in vain, I realize I have to call the police. I prosecuted several kidnaping cases in Houston, and I learned one thing from the FBI agents who worked them. The first hour is the best chance of finding the victim, and every lost minute can mean disaster.

As I run across the street to use our neighbor's phone, a ripple of noise like the roar at a football stadium rolls through the crowd. I turn back to our house, expecting to see the roof collapsing, the spectacular climax of residential fires.

But it's not the roof. The crowd parts like the Red Sea, and my mother comes running through the open space.

She's carrying Annie in her arms.

Relief surges through me with such force that I nearly faint for the second time. But I run forward and hug them both as tightly as I dare. Annie's face is white with terror, and her chin is quivering.

"Someone dropped her off at Edna Hensley's," Mom gasps. "Edna answered her door and saw Annie standing there crying."

A heavyset, blue-haired woman I faintly recognize has appeared behind my mother, wheezing from her exertions. Edna Hensley.

"Where do you live?" I ask her.

"About a half mile away. You've been there before, Penn. When you were a little boy."

"Who dropped her off?"

Edna shakes her head. "I didn't see anyone. Not a car, not anything." Her gaze darkens. She reaches into her pocket, pulls out a folded sheet of construction paper, and hands it to me.

I unfold the paper with shaking hands. Printed on it in magic marker are the words: this is how easy it is. lay off, asshole.

Livy braces me from the side, making sure I keep my feet.

I am back in Houston, watching Arthur Lee Hanratty's brother carry Annie out of the house, a tiny bundle about to disappear forever. It's as though I missed him that night, and he has returned to try again. But he can't. He's been dead for four years. His youngest brother is alive, but this isn't his work. Whoever kidnapped Annie today could easily have killed her, and the last surviving Hanratty would have done so, taking his revenge for his two brothers. This is something else entirely. This is a warning. This is the Del Payton case.

"Mom, take this piece of paper to the Lewises' house and put it in a Ziploc bag. I'll take care of Annie."

She is reluctant to go, but she does. I thank Edna Hensley, then carry Annie through the crowd to Livy's borrowed Fiat and sit in the passenger seat, hugging her against me, rocking slowly, murmuring reassurances in her ear. She is still shivering, and her skin is frighteningly cold. I need to find out everything she can remember about her kidnapper before she starts blocking out the trauma, but I don't want to upset her any more than she already is.

"Annie?" I whisper, lifting her away from me enough to look into her hazel eyes. "It's Daddy, punkin."

Tears spill down her cheeks.

"Everything's all right now. I love you, punkin."

She opens her mouth to speak, but her quivering chin ruins the words before they emerge.

"Honey, who took you to the lady's house? Did you see?"

She nods hesitantly.

"Who was it? Did you know them?"

"Fuh fire. Fire man," she stammers. "Fire man."

"A fireman? With a red hat?"

She shakes her head. "A black and yellow hat."

"That's good, punkin. He was just making sure you were all right. Did you see his face?"

"He had a mask. Like a swimming mask."

A respirator. "That's good. Did he say anything to you?"

"He said he had to get me away. Get me safe."

"That's right, that's right. He was just getting you away from the fire. Everything's fine now."

Her face seems to crumple in on itself. "Daddy, I'm scared."

I crush her to my chest, as though to protect her from the threat that has already passed. "I love you, punkin. I love you."

She shudders against me.

"I said, I love you, punkin." I pull her back and look into her eyes, waiting.

"I love you more," she says softly, completing our ritual, and my anxiety lessens a little.

Livy climbs into the driver's seat, squeezes Annie's shoulder, then takes her silk scarf from the glove compartment and begins wiping soot from my face.

"Where do you want to go?" she asks.

"Let's just sit for a minute."

"Do you think it's safe here? Your mom told me about the note."

Instead of answering her question, I lift the Fiat's cell phone, call Information, and ask for the number of Ray Presley. Livy takes her hand from my knee and watches me with apprehension. Presley's phone rings twenty times. No one answers.

"Is he there?" she asks in a quiet voice.

"No."

Her face is strangely slack. "Penn, why did you call Ray Presley?"

"There's no time to go into it now."

"Penn? Where are you, son? "

It's my father. "Over here, Dad!"

Livy looks back over the trunk of the convertible. "He's seen us. He's coming."

"Olivia!" Dad cries, rushing up to the car. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine, it's Penn and Annie who need help. I'm so sorry about this, Dr. Cage. It's just unbelievable."

Dad leans over the passenger door and hugs Annie and me. Annie keeps her head buried in my neck.

"Is she all right?"

"I think so. Considering what just happened. Somebody-"

"I already heard. The story's spreading like-" He laughs bitterly. "Like wildfire. Where's your mother?"

"I told her to go across the street and put the note in a Ziploc. There might be fingerprints." I reach up and take his hand. "I should have listened to you. You told me they'd stoop this low."

He squeezes my hand hard. "It's just a house. We'll build another one."

"I was crazy to get involved in this case."

He shakes his head, his eyes on the great column of smoke rising into the sky. "Gutless sons of bitches laid hands on my granddaughter. If I find the man who did this, I'll flay him alive."

"Do you know anything about Ruby's condition?"

He sighs heavily. "They carried her to St. Catherine's Hospital. Peter Carelli's in the ER with her now. It doesn't look good. Massive third-degree burns, a broken hip. The helicopter's on its way from Jackson. I'm about to go over there."

"We'll follow you as soon as Mom gets back."

He nods absently, watching the water pour onto the ruin that sheltered our family for thirty-five years.

"Dad, the library-"

"I know. No point thinking about it now. Right now we worry about the living." He looks down at me, his eyes flinty and cold. "This is the crossroads, son. We back off or we go forward. It's your call. I'll back you either way."

Go forward? After this? "Let's just find Mom and get to the hospital."

He nods. "I'll see you there."

The treatment room in the ER is crowded but quiet. The muted beeps of monitors punctuate the hushed voices like metronomes. Ruby lies at the center of the room, a technological still life surrounded by doctors, nurses, a respiratory therapist, and my father. I move closer, straightening the scrub shirt a nurse brought me to replace the shirt I lost in the fire. Two large-bore IV lines are pouring fluids into Ruby's arms, and oxygen is being pumped into her lungs through a mask. Her mostly nude body is exposed to the air, the parts ravaged by fire-her right arm, shoulder, trunk, and both legs-bathed in Silvadene ointment. She was apparently wearing some sort of synthetic dress that caught fire and melted into her skin. The helicopter ambulance summoned from Jackson is under orders to whisk her to the burn center in Greenville as soon as it arrives, but my father doubts she'll survive to make the flight.

"Let my son in here," Dad says, and the white coats part for me.

My first reaction is horror. Ruby's dentures have been removed and this makes her face look like a sunken death mask. Her black wig is also gone, leaving a thin snowy frizz atop her head. Her eyes are closed, her respiration labored. She looks like a dying woman photographed in some plague-stricken African village.

"Is she conscious?"

"She was until a minute ago," Dad replies. "She's in and out now. Mostly out. In her condition, it's a blessing."

One of Ruby's hands is undamaged, and I move around the table and take it, squeezing softly. "Did Mom talk to her?"

"A little. Ruby had a panic attack, and Peggy calmed her down."

The thought of Ruby in terror makes it difficult for me to breathe. As I look down at her, her lips tremble, then move with purpose. She's trying to speak. But what comes from behind the mask is only a ragged passage of air. I lean closer and speak into her ear.

"Ruby? It's Penn, Ruby. I hear you."

At last the rasps forms words. "fine blessing. You give a fine blessing, Dr. Cage. You go on go on, now."

A chill races over my neck and arms. "Dad? I think she wants you to say something religious."

"She's obtunded, son. She doesn't really know what she's saying."

"She knows. She wants you to say something over her."

My father looks around at the ring of expectant faces. "Jesus. I don't remember much."

"Anything. It doesn't matter."

He takes Ruby's hand and leans over her.

"Ruby, this is Dr. Cage. Tom, by God, though you refused to call me that for thirty-five years." He chuckles softly. "You're the only one in the world who could get me reciting from the Bible. Haven't done it since I was a boy."

Ruby's lips move again, but no sound emerges.

"The Lord is my shepherd," Dad says quietly. "I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul. He leadeth me he-" Dad stops and picks up further on. "Yea, though I walk through the shadow of through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thy" He looks over at me. "Damn it, what's the rest of it?"

I lean down beside Ruby's ear and continue for him. "Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies. Thou anointest my head with oil. My cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever."

Ruby has stopped trying to speak. Her face is placid.

Dad lays a hand on my shoulder. "Well, between us we managed it. She's got two atheists praying over her. Pretty pathetic, I guess."

"It was good enough."

Looking around, I notice expressions of shock and awe on the faces of the assembled doctors and nurses. "What's the matter?"

"They've never seen me do anything like that before."

"She's trying to speak," says a nurse.

Ruby's jaw is quivering with effort, her wrinkled, toothless mouth opening and closing behind the mask like that of a landed fish. Dad and I lean over her and strain to hear. At first there is only a lisping sound. Then three words coalesce from the shapeless sounds.

"Thank you Tom."

Ruby's eyes flutter open, revealing big brown irises full of awareness. She seems to see not only us but beyond us. I suppose this is the look of faith.

"Lord Jesus," she says, as clearly as if she were talking to me across the breakfast table. "Ruby going home today. Home to glory."

Seconds later her eyes close, and the monitors that were so muted before begin clanging alarms.

"She's coding," Dad says.

"Crash cart!" cries one of the other doctors.

A hurricane of activity erupts around us, everyone rushing to his appointed task.

"Cardiac arrest," Dad says in a calm voice.

"Tom?" says Dr. Carelli, a lean dark man in his late forties. "Clear, Tom."

Dad holds up his right hand. "Everyone listen to me. This case is DNR."

The alarms go on ringing with relentless insistence.

"Do you know that for a fact?" asks Carelli, standing anxiously over the cart with a laryngoscope in his hand. "Tom, you know the rules."

"This woman is eighty years old, she's got third-degree burns over sixty percent of her body, and a broken hip."

"Tom, for a DNR we need it on paper."

"She also has carcinoma of the lung," Dad says softly. "No one knows that but me. There's nothing on paper, but she's discussed it with me on several occasions. No extraordinary measures. Do not resuscitate. Turn off those alarms."

The whole apparatus of technology stands poised on the edge of action, and my father has ordered it to stand down.

"Tom, are you sure?" asks Carelli.

"I take full responsibility. Turn off those goddamned alarms."

One by one the alarms go off. Dad looks at me, his eyes weary. "Go on out, Penn. Check on Annie and your mother. You don't want to see this."

"Not until she's gone."

He nods slowly. "All right." He turns to the assembled staff. "Thanks for the effort, everybody. We'd like to be alone with her."

I squeeze Ruby's good hand, kiss her forehead, and wait for the end. Looking at this ravaged shell of a woman, I find it hard to believe that she was the towering figure who saved me from that German shepherd. But she was. She is. As the last nurse files out, the drumbeat of rotor blades descends over the hospital, announcing the helicopter that will return to Jackson without its scheduled passenger.

Ruby Flowers is leaving Natchez by another route.

Our family has gathered in the small chapel provided by the hospital for patients and their families. It's a small, dim room, with electric candles, two pews, an altar, and some "new" Bibles full of undistinguished prose. I'm not a believer myself, but in time of death you can do a lot worse than the King James Bible for comfort.

My mother is praying quietly at the altar. Dad sits beside me in the front pew, with Annie on his lap. This is the first time we have been together in anything like a church since Sarah's funeral. My older sister was with us for that, but she's been teaching in Ireland ever since. Today was a good day to be there and not here.

I have never seen my father this angry. Not even during the malpractice trial. He is by nature a gentle and even-tempered man, and his medical experience has taught him to be calmer as situations deteriorate. But right this minute he has blood in his eye, and I understand the feeling. If I knew with certainty that Ray Presley set that fire, or that Leo Marston had ordered it, I would shoot them both without a second thought.

Mom rises to her feet, then walks over and takes Annie from Dad. "We'd better check into a motel," she says. "And we need to think about getting some clothes. I'm sure everything is ruined."

"The insurance will cover most of it," Dad replies. "The police are waiting to talk to me in the ER."

Mom looks at him and shakes her head. "The things I cared about in that house, no insurance can replace."

"I know that, Peggy."

"Mom, I'm sorry," I say uselessly. "I know this happened because of me."

She reaches out with her free hand and squeezes my arm. "Let's just get checked in somewhere. We need to take care of this little girl."

Dad follows her to the door, then shuts it and comes back to me. "We're going to need some protection, son. Real protection. Off-duty cops aren't up to this. Who do we call?"

"I know some people in Houston. Serious people. An international security company. I'll call the CEO right now."

"I want them here tonight. I don't care what it costs."

"They'll be here. And I'm paying."

He sighs and looks at the altar. "Who do you think set that fire?"

"First guess? Ray Presley. I called his trailer while the house was burning. He wasn't home. Could he have managed it after that poisoning attempt? After his heart attack or whatever?"

Dad nods. "Physically, he could do it. He's a lot more able than I am. What about Marston?"

"Leo Marston knows everything that goes on in this town. He wouldn't dirty his hands with the actual deed, but he'd order someone to do it."

"I hate to think Ray would go that far. Kidnapping Annie my God. What do you want to do?"

"Let's get settled somewhere first, get the security in place. Then we'll talk about it."

He opens the chapel door and nearly walks over Livy, who's standing in the hall. She backs up so that we can exit, and as we do I see my mother and Annie waiting at the end of the hall, by the wide ER doors.

"Tell me what I can do," Livy says. "Your mother said you're going to a motel."

"For now. We need to get Annie settled. She-"

Suddenly the ER doors swing open, and Caitlin Masters runs up the corridor with a camera swinging around her neck and her black hair flying behind her.

"I just came from your house," she says. "Penn, I'm so sorry."

"Caitlin-"

"I need to talk you and your father. Right now."

"What is it?"

She looks at Livy. "Could you excuse us for a moment, Mrs. Sutter?"

Livy bristles and looks at me, expecting me to tell Caitlin she can stay.

"Why don't we go in the chapel?" I suggest. "We'll just be a minute, Livy."

Livy starts to say something to Caitlin but doesn't. Instead she bites her bottom lip and watches us walk into the chapel.

Caitlin's energy is like a flame inside the little room. She can't remain still, and her eyes simmer with anger. "Someone kidnapped Annie?" she asks. "Is that right?"

"Yes."

"And they brought her back? With a warning note?"

"Yes."

"The same person who set the fire?"

"Almost certainly."

"Okay okay." She nods furiously, then paces out a tight circle. "That's all I wanted to know."

"Caitlin, what's going on? Why are you so worked up?"

"I'll print the story."

"The story. About the fire?"

She blinks in confusion. "The fire? Hell, no. The slander. Marston being behind the Payton murder. You say it, I'll print it. In type big enough to give him a coronary over breakfast."

I simply stare at her.

"Maybe that's the answer," Dad says. "Last night we thought it was."

"Last night you had a house," I remind him. "What changed your mind?"

Caitlin stops pacing and looks me dead in the eye. "Annie, for one thing."

"This girl is good people," Dad says, squeezing her shoulder.

"For another, my instincts have started humming. Don't ask me why, because I don't know. Maybe because this happened two days after we went to see Stone, and Stone says Marston was behind Payton's death. Maybe because John Portman threatened you, and we know he worked the Payton case in sixty-eight. And we know Marston and J. Edgar Hoover were friends. Maybe it's because I get a funny vibe from Marston's daughter. All I know is that I'm not sitting still while these bastards go after people I care about. They want to play hardball? They're going to get the game of their goddamn lives."

My father looks like he wants to kiss her.

"What time is your deadline?" I ask.

"Just call me after you guys get settled somewhere. I'll come to you."

"I don't know what to say. Just thank you."

When we leave the chapel, Caitlin walks past Livy without a word. She hugs my mother by the ER doors, kisses Annie, then slips through the doors and disappears.

Livy keeps pace with Dad and me as we walk down the hall and join my mother and Annie.

"Where do you think we should go, Tom?" Mom asks.

"The Prentiss Motel is right up on the highway. Let's stay there tonight. We'll worry about the long term tomorrow."

As Dad opens the ER doors, Mom follows him through with Annie on her hip, leaving Livy and me alone on this side. The awkwardness between us is palpable. Two hours ago we were in each other's arms. Now

"What can I do?" she asks. "I'll help with Annie, go out for food. Whatever you need."

"I think it better just be family tonight," I say gently. "Thanks for offering, though. Thanks for today too."

Her eyes cloud with frustration and confusion. "Penn, for God's sake what's happening here?"

"Maybe you should ask your father."


CHAPTER 25 | The Quiet Game | CHAPTER 27