The sheriff's office looks like an armed camp when we arrive. It's a modern, fortress-like building, with a state-of-the-art jail occupying its upper floors. Uniformed deputies swagger through the halls like cowboys in a western, stoked by the air of incipient violence blowing through the city. Ike disappears for a few moments, leaving Kelly and me in the entrance hall.
Five minutes later, he returns and escorts us into the sheriff's office. I sense immediately that we're going to benefit from the jurisdictional rivalry that exists between the police department and the sheriff's office. Had we reported the levee shootings to the police, the chief would have kept Kelly and me all night, mercilessly grilling me as payback for the constitutional lesson I gave him earlier in the day.
The sheriff is tan and fit-looking, with the watchful eyes of a hunter. He seems to view the death of the youngest Hanratty as a fortuitous event, though the timing could have been better.
"When those black kids shot Billy Earl Whitestone," he says, leaning back in his chair and folding his hands behind his neck, "they turned this town into a powder keg. The Sports Center sold out of ammunition at four o'clock. They sold mostly to whites. Wal-Mart sold out of everything but paintball rounds. They sold mostly to blacks. We may have a world of trouble coming down on our heads tonight. And all because of that newspaper story." He looks at me like a wise poker player. "You think going after Leo Marston is worth all this trouble?"
"The built-up resentment in this town is none of my doing, Sheriff. What's happening now would have happened eventually, whatever the cause."
"Maybe," he allows. "I sure hope you've got some evidence, though. Messing with Judge Leo ain't generally good for your health."
"Any leads on the Whitestone shooters?" Ike asks.
"The P.D. has an informer working it. They're not telling me squat, of course, but the word is, it's some kids from the Concord Apartments. Nobody's been arrested yet, though. And we need an arrest. Jailing those two might go a long way toward calming people down. Maybe you ought to take a ride over to those apartments, Ike. See if you can shake something loose."
"I'll do it."
The sheriff smooths his thinning hair. "Think you can give me some overtime tonight?"
"Glad to get it."
"I want you to stick to the north side, try to keep everybody indoors."
The sheriff is telling Ike to keep the black population inside their houses.
"I've given the white deputies the same orders for their parts of town," he adds for my benefit. "It's fear that drives all this nonsense. If we can get through this first night, we might just make it okay."
The sheriff's phone starts ringing, and he leans forward to shake our hands. "You boys try not to shoot anybody else, okay?"
Ike leads us out to the front steps of the building, where he takes a pack of Kool Menthols from the pocket of his uniform. He offers Kelly one, but Kelly declines. As Ike holds his lighter flame to the tip of his cigarette, his hand trembles, and Kelly shoots me a quick glance.
"You sleep with this boy if you have to," Ike tells Kelly, exhaling a long stream of smoke. "He's doing some good, even if he is doing it the hard way."
Kelly winks at Ike. "No sweat, Sergeant."
"How'd you know I was a sergeant?"
"It's like a sign around your neck, brother."
Ike's laugh is good to hear, but as we move down the steps toward our cars, Kelly leans toward me and says, "He's speeding like a racehorse, with bourbon underneath. Something's eating him. Bad. None of my business, of course."
I slap him on the shoulder. "You say whatever pops into your head, Kelly."
Since my mother's computer was destroyed in the fire, I planned to draft my answer to Marston's suit at the offices of the Examiner. They occupy an entire building in an old section of downtown, a long one-story structure with inadequate parking.
Even at this late hour the door is open, and we find Caitlin in the newsroom, sitting before a twenty-one-inch monitor, commanding her staff with a cell phone in one hand and a computer trackball in the other. She's dressed in jeans and a teal pinpoint button-down, which gives her the look of a college yearbook editor. She waves when she sees me but continues her phone conversation. The newsroom is forty feet long and twenty wide, with a half dozen computer workstations-all in use-and photos of distinguished Natchezians decorating the walls.
"Who's this?" Caitlin asks, sliding her cell phone into a belt holster as we approach.
"Daniel Kelly. Part of the security from Houston. Kelly, this is Caitlin Masters, fledgling muckraker."
Caitlin sizes Kelly up as she leads us down a hall, noting his average size and easy demeanor. Falling back beside me, she whispers, "Is he qualified? "
Kelly chuckles softly.
"He just saved my life," I say in a normal voice. "I'm sold. Have you put tomorrow's issue to bed?"
Her eyes flash with excitement. "Are you kidding? This town's about to pop."
She pushes us into a glass-walled conference room screened with Venetian blinds for privacy. "We're pushing back the deadline as far as we can. Two in the morning if we have to."
"Can you do that?"
"With computers we can reformat the whole paper and go to plate in thirty minutes. There's a rumor that the police are close to an arrest in the White-stone killing. And we must have gotten a dozen calls about people carrying guns in and out of their houses. They're saying it's just like it was before the riot in sixty-eight."
"That wasn't much of a riot. Everybody was scared to death, but nobody got killed. Just a bunch of broken store windows."
"Let's hope that's all that happens this time."
"I'm glad to hear you say that."
She gives me an icy look. "You think I want the town to explode so I can sell papers?"
She doesn't look convinced. "Three hours ago a CNN crew yelled a question at John Portman as he was leaving the Hoover Building. He walked over and told them on camera that the Del Payton case involved matters of national security, and that the FBI was looking into the question of whether you or I had violated any laws in our pursuit of the case."
"The best defense is a good offense, I guess. Anything else I should know?"
"Leo Marston's attorney gave me a phone interview. He said your charges are ridiculous and they're going to cost both of us seven figures. I'm running it tomorrow."
"I expected that."
Caitlin smiles like a child hiding a cookie. "I also have some good news. My father called back and told me that if I was sticking by my story, there must be something to it. He's going to help."
"By committing the full resources of the media group to investigating Marston and Portman. He's already spoken to Senator Harris from Virginia. Tomorrow, Harris is going to the Senate Intelligence Committee to ask for a special resolution authorizing the opening of the Payton file. Failing that, he'll ask that it be moved from FBI custody to a place where it can't be tampered with, at least until Director Portman's involvement in the case can be clarified. If that doesn't work, he'll stand up on the Senate floor and ask the same things on C-Span."
I feel the relief of a man trying to push a car uphill when four strong backs join him in his effort. But the feeling vanishes quickly. "Asking that the file be opened is good. But if he can't get that, it's best that the file stay where it is. At least until Sunday."
For a moment Caitlin looks confused. Then she grabs my wrist. "Lutjens is going to try for the file?"
"I'll tell my dad to call the senator back."
"It's nice to have powerful friends."
Her eyes twinkle with irony. "Isn't it?"
Kelly laughs. He's not sure what he's gotten into, but he's clearly enjoying it.
"How did Mr. Kelly here save your life?" Caitlin asks.
"He killed two guys who were trying to kill me. One was Arthur Lee Hanratty's brother."
"Jesus. Did this happen near the river? We heard some kind of call on the scanner, but it was coded."
"That was it."
"Can I print this story?"
"Absolutely. The more public this thing gets, the safer we are."
"We ought to be very safe, then. I'm getting nonstop calls from the major papers, the networks, everybody."
There's a sharp knock at the door, and Caitlin walks into the hall for a hurried conference. When she returns, her face is flushed pink with excitement. "The police just trapped the Whitestone suspects in the Concord Apartments. I'm going over to cover the arrest."
The Concord Apartments are a low-income housing development, and a center of drug and gang activity in Natchez. "The residents over there aren't big fans of the police," I warn her. "They're probably as volatile as old dynamite right now."
"That's why I'm going. You want to come along?"
"I can't take the time. I've got to file my interrogatories and requests for production along with my answer. That'll keep Marston off balance, make him think I'm ready to go to court on a moment's notice."
"Speaking of Marston, where's your other friend?"
"My other friend?"
She gives me a sidelong glance. She means Livy.
"Oh. I have no idea. With her father, I guess."
Caitlin obviously wants to say more, but she's unwilling to do so in front of Kelly. "I've got to get going, guys."
"Wait. Go with her, Kelly."
Kelly looks at Caitlin, then back at me. "I think you're the one who needs protection, boss."
"I'll have a photographer with me," she protests. "I'll be fine."
"Kelly's worth ten photographers. I'll be here for at least two hours, then I'm going straight back to the motel. He can tell you how he saved my life on the way."
Caitlin is wavering.
Kelly bends over, lifts a cuff of his jeans, and pulls out a small automatic, which he passes to me. "Safety's on."
I slip the gun into my pocket and look at Caitlin. "Satisfied?"
"Okay, I'll take him. But you go straight to the motel from here. No side trips."
"I need a computer. And coffee. Lots of coffee."
"We've got plenty of both."
Kelly and Caitlin still haven't returned when I leave for the motel. While typing my discovery requests, I overheard enough newsroom conversation to follow the situation unfolding at the Concord Apartments. The two teenagers who allegedly shot Billy Earl Whitestone had holed up in the apartment of their grandmother. Somehow, Caitlin managed to get them on the telephone, and during that conversation one of the boys admitted to the shooting. He claimed he'd shot Whitestone because Ruby Flowers's death had so upset his grandmother that he had to do something. He chose Whitestone as his victim because he'd often heard an uncle talk about how Whitestone had run the Klan during the "bad times." An hour after this confession, the grandmother talked the boys into giving themselves up, on the condition that Caitlin be allowed to accompany them to the police station to ensure their safety. I assume Caitlin is still at the station now, running the police crazy and keeping Kelly jumping.
Kelly's pistol is on my lap as I drive toward the motel. There's no traffic on the streets, or even the highway. Fear has worked its way into the fabric of the town.
A police car screams out of the empty darkness, siren blaring, going in the opposite direction. Halfway to the motel, a jacked-up pickup filled with white teenagers roars alongside me, pauses as its occupants peer in at me, then roars off again. Night riders looking for a fight? Or kids trying to figure out what all the excitement's about? I won't know until I read tomorrow's paper.
The single-story buildings of the Prentiss Motel remind me of the motor courts of my childhood vacations. But viewed without the kaleidoscopic lens of wonder, they are a mean and depressing sight. The thought of my parents forced to live here because of my actions is hard to bear. Yet they have not uttered one word of complaint since the fire, not even my mother, who urged me to avoid the Payton case from the beginning. Now that events have proved her right, what is she doing? Making the best of things. I feel like dragging some realtor out of bed and buying her the biggest goddamn house in the city.
Orienting myself by the greenish glow of the swimming pool, I park and start walking toward our rooms with Kelly's gun held along my leg. Halfway there, I feel a sudden chill.
There's someone sitting in one of the pool chairs. Fifty feet away, a dark silhouette against the wavering light of the water. As I walk down the long row of doors, the figure rises from the chair. I put my finger on the trigger of the pistol and quicken my steps.
The voice stops me cold. It's Livy.
I slip Kelly's gun into my waistband and jog toward the pool fence. Livy opens the gate and waits just beyond it. She's wearing a strapless white evening dress that looks strangely formal beside the deserted swimming pool. The moonlight falls lustrous upon her shoulders but is somehow lost in her eyes, which look more gray than blue tonight.
"What are you doing here? What's the matter?"
"I wanted to see you," she says. "That's all. I had to see you."
"Is everything all right?"
"That depends on what you mean by all right. Things are a bit tense at our house. More than a bit, really. But I'm sure your house was like that when my father went after yours."
She has no idea how bad things got at our house during the year leading up to that trial. But soon she might. Before she can say anything else, I ask what I've been wanting to ask since I saw her at the airport in Baton Rouge.
"Livy, a few nights ago, at a party… your mother threw a drink in my face."
"She told me I'd ruined your life."
Livy's expression does not change. She holds her eyes on mine, attentive as a spectator at the opera. But I sense that she's expending tremendous effort to maintain this illusion of normalcy.
"What was she talking about?" I ask.
"I have no idea." She looks away from me. "Mom probably doesn't either. She's a hairbreadth from the DTs by five o'clock every day. Daddy's talking about sending her to Betty Ford."
"She was referring to something specific. I saw her eyes."
Livy turns and peers into the cloudy water. "My divorce has upset her quite a bit. Divorce isn't part of the fairy tale. If it were, she'd have left my father long ago."
"I thought you were only separated."
"Pending divorce, then. It's just semantics." She looks at me over her bare shoulder, an injured look in her eyes. "You think I'd ask you to make love to me if there was a chance my husband and I would get back together?"
This is one of those moments where we make a heaven or hell of the future, by choosing honesty or deception. "I don't know. You weren't that discriminating in the past."
She flinches, but she can endure much worse than this. "The past, the past," she says. "The damned sacred past. Can't we try living in the present for once?"
"Yesterday was the only free ride we're going to get."
She looks back into the depths of the pool. "I have a room," she says in a deliberate voice. "It's two doors down from yours. Why don't we talk there?"
A room. Part of me wants to slap her for assuming so much. I move sideways so that I can see her face. "Will you really talk?"
She pulls her hair back into a thick ponytail, as though to feel the breeze on her neck. Her collarbones are sculpted ivory, creating shadowy hollows at the base of her throat.
"About what? Everything. Why you did what you did twenty years ago."
"What do you mean?"
This is Kafkaesque. Can she really have edited the past so completely that she no longer remembers how badly she betrayed our dreams? "Why you disappeared for a year. Where you went. Why you ran off to Virginia. Why you treated me like a stranger when I flew up to ask you to get your father to drop the suit."
She turns to me and lets her hair fall, and whatever mask she was maintaining falls with it. She looks more vulnerable than I have ever seen her, and when she speaks, her voice is stripped of all affect. "Penn, I can't do it."
"Livy, if I understood some of those things, I might… well-things might not have to happen the way they are."
"What do you mean? If I answer your questions, you'll withdraw the charges you made against my father?"
I don't know what I mean. I started into the Del Payton case to destroy Leo Marston, but compared to understanding the mysteries that shaped my life, revenge seems meaningless. Of course, there is still Del Payton. And Althea. And the small matter of justice-
"I can't pull out of the Payton case now. It's too late for that. But I can pursue it a different way. If your father's part was only-"
"Stop," she says, shaking her head. "I can't talk about twenty years ago. Not even to make things easier on my father."
She takes a step toward me. I want her to stay back, because the closer she gets, the more I want to go to her room with her. She is achingly beautiful in the moonlight.
"How did I ruin your life?" I ask.
She shakes her head, absolving me of any possible sin. "You didn't." Another step. "But you can save it."
"Come with me," she pleads. "Right now."
If she had kissed me then, I would have walked away. But she didn't. She picked up her purse from the pool chair, took my hand, and led me across the parking lot toward the motel, a purposeful urgency in her stride.
The deja vu of walking beside the numbered doors is powerful enough to dislocate time. If I were to close my eyes and open them again, I would see the eighteen-thousand-dollar gown flowing behind her like a trail of mist. The lifetimes of water that have passed under the bridge since that night have all flowed back in a span of moments.
When she opens the door and closes us inside, I pull her to me and kiss her with the thirst of a binge drinker returning to the bottle. My questions fade to dying sparks, made irrelevant by the absolute connection of our lips and hands. I don't even know I am backing her toward the door until she collides with it, the unyielding wooden face holding her as I continue forward, pressing against her, my hands groping at her dress, searching for the hem.
"That's right," she says hoarsely. "That's right… that's-"
The moment my hand finds her sex, she is breathing like a sprinter in the last few yards of a race. She kisses me with almost desperate passion, then pushes down the front of the strapless dress and pulls my mouth to a breast. In seconds both her arms are outstretched, fingers splayed and quivering, discharging the frantic energy pouring from her core. Touching her this way is rapture, at once within her and without, needing no other thing, no friend, no thought-
The knock at the door reverberates through our bodies, stunning us from our trance. Yet still Livy presses herself down against my hand, unwilling to let the world back in. I jerk her away from the door and onto the bed, fearing someone might shoot through the thin metal.
The knocking comes again. This time, with the distance to the bed and with half my faculties restored, it sounds reasonably discreet.
"Who is it?" I call, digging in my pocket for Kelly's gun, hating the ragged edge of fear in my voice.
Relief cascades through me. I turn to tell Livy everything's all right and find her standing with both hands pointed rigidly at the door, a pistol clenched between them. She must have taken it from her purse.
"Whoa!" I say, holding up my hands. "I know this guy. He's with me."
She lowers the gun slowly, as though unsure whether to trust my judgment. I turn back to the door and open it a crack.
Daniel Kelly's sandy blond head leans toward mine.
"I saw you go in here as I pulled up. I just wanted you to know I'm back."
I nod. "I heard about what happened at the apartments. You must be tired. You can go ahead and get some sleep."
"I'm fine. Wired, really."
I hesitate to ask the next question, but I want to know. "Is Caitlin with you?"
An ironic smile, there and gone. "She's back at the paper, writing the story. She's a tough lady, man."
Coming from Daniel Kelly, this is high praise indeed. "Thanks for looking out for her. And thanks again for the levee thing."
He nods, but there's a curious hesitancy in his face.
"What is it, Kelly?"
"Well, I thought maybe you and Caitlin were… you know." He looks past me, through the crack in the door. "I guess not, huh?"
"I guess not," I reply, feeling a strange hollowness in my chest.
He makes a clicking sound with his tongue. "I'm gonna get some eggs over at Shoney's. One of the other guys'll be watching this door."
"Oh, and your little girl is fine. No worries."
His words hit me like a blow. Maybe he meant for them to. My cheeks burn with self-disgust.
" 'Night, boss," he says, and disappears from the crack.
I shut the door and bolt it.
Livy is sitting on the bed, her face composed, the gun nowhere in evidence. Only her tousled hair hints at our brief encounter at the door.
"Why are you carrying a gun?"
She shrugs. "The town's gone crazy, hasn't it? And Daddy insisted."
Livy's shoes, hose, and panties lie on the floor beside her bare feet. She looks at me like she can't understand why I'm still standing where I am. Like what happened against the door was the opening movement of a symphony.
I glance at my watch. Twelve-twenty. Annie is almost certainly asleep, but Kelly's words have left me with a guilty longing, like an unresolved chord. I need to see my daughter sleeping.
"I need to check on Annie."
Livy stands and takes my hand, pulls me toward her. "I know."
"I mean it."
"I know." She puts her arms around my waist and pulls me against her.
She kisses my nipple through my shirt. The sharp edges of her teeth pull at flesh and wet cloth, sending a delicious current of pain through me.
"It'll only take a minute," I tell her. "I'll be right-"
With three or four quick movements she unbuckles my pants and pushes them far enough down to free me, then entwines her fingers behind my neck. When I try to speak, she takes my right hand and lifts it to my mouth, cutting off my words. Her scent on my fingers is overpowering.
"Me first," she whispers.
Even as I despise myself for it, in one violent motion I reach beneath her dress, lift her into the air, and set her down upon me.