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CHAPTER 29

I am parked in the alley between Wall and Pearl Streets, the legal center of the city. It's nearly dark and raining steadily, a drizzle with a breath of fall in it. The courthouse towers above me on its pedestal of earth, grayish-white and imposing amid the windblown oaks that surround it. Across the street, running down the block in a line, stand the offices of various law firms, all of them small, most very profitable. The most prestigious among them is Marston, Sims. Founded in 1887 by Ambrose Marston, Leo's great grandfather, the firm has handled everything from high-profile criminal cases to corporate litigation involving tens of millions of dollars. And I am parked in this alley to see whether the senior partner of the firm will commit a felony tonight.

I filed my requests for production this morning, and if Leo plans to hide or destroy any documentary evidence, the sooner he does it the better, at least from his point of view. I would like to be there when he tries. I've staked out his office because Tuscany-his fenced estate-does not lend itself to surveillance. Daniel Kelly is covering the back entrance for me, and we're in contact via handheld radios, which were among the toys he and his associates brought from Houston. Also among those toys was a Hi-8 video camera with a night-vision lens, which rests on the seat beside me. The rear entrance of the office is well lighted by a security lamp, so Kelly is using a standard camcorder borrowed from Caitlin Masters. The pistol he lent me last night lies on the seat beside the Hi-8 camera, its safety off.

"One-Adam-twelve, one-Adam-twelve." Kelly's voice crackles out of the radio. "Sitrep, please."

I laugh and press Send on my walkie-talkie. "Nothing out here but rain."

"It's like fishing. That's what my butt's telling me, anyway."

"Yeah. Maybe we'll catch something."

As I set the radio back on the passenger seat, something bangs against my window, nearly stopping my heart. I grab for the gun, knowing I'll never bring it up in time to save myself if the person outside the car means me harm.

When my eyes focus through the rivulets of water on the window, I see Caitlin Masters, her hair soaked from the rain. I let out my breath with a sigh of relief and motion for her to come around to the passenger side.

"I'm glad I wasn't trying to kill you," she says, sliding into the passenger seat. "You'd be dead."

She's wearing a windbreaker with Los Angeles Times stenciled on the chest. From the pocket she takes a barrette and puts the end in her mouth, then flips down the visor mirror above her seat. "Nothing yet?" she asks through her teeth.

"Nope."

She gathers her fine black hair and pins it in a loose bun behind her head. "There. I should have done that before I left."

She turns and gives me a dazzling smile. "Well, are you up on the day's events?"

"I'm up on my events. The rest of the world I know nothing about."

"Four TV vans covered the Whitestone suspects' walk to their arraignment. Jackson, Baton Rouge, Alexandria, and a Gulf Coast station. The courthouse looked like it was under siege. The wire services picked up all three of my stories, and they're being rerun in dozens of papers."

"That Pulitzer's getting closer every day. Which judge did the kids get?" Natchez has two criminal court judges, a white woman and a black man.

"The black one. And he gave them bail."

"On first-degree murder?"

"With a confession, no less. He set it at a million apiece, which is like a billion to those kids' families. But I heard the NAACP may put up the cash bond. Two hundred thousand."

"They might as well paint targets on the kids' backs."

Caitlin picks up the video camera, switches it on, and trains it on the polished mahogany door of Marston, Sims. It's set deep in a deep brick alcove; a brass plate on the street announces the presence of the office to the public.

"Night vision," she murmurs. "Nice. Where's Kelly?"

"Watching the back door."

She zooms in on the door, then pans the rain-slickened street. "How much are those bodyguards costing you?"

"Let's just say I'm going to have to hurry up and finish another book."

She laughs. "It's money well spent. That Kelly's been all over and done some wild things. He's cute too."

An irrational prick of jealousy irritates me. "I wouldn't know about that."

"Don't get all homophobic on me." She pokes my knee as she scans the street. "Well here comes a familiar face."

"Where?" I turn the ignition key and flip on the windshield wipers.

"Our side of the street."

Now I see. A woman is jogging up the sidewalk in tight lycra warm-up pants and a tulane T-shirt.

"It's the waitress with the crush on you," says Caitlin.

"Jenny?" I lean forward and watch the dark-haired young woman approaching through the rain. It is Jenny. "Give me a break."

"I mean it. That chick is fixated on you."

Jenny jogs past the car at a good clip, not paying us the slightest bit of attention. The rain has soaked her T-shirt, leaving absolutely nothing to the imagination.

"She ought to wear a sign," Caitlin says drily. "Please stare at my tits."

"I'm surprised you'd comment, after the blouse you wore the day you interviewed me."

Caitlin takes her eye away from the viewfinder and gives me an elfin smile. "That was different. I was trying to distract you."

"It worked."

"It always does. I'm really rather modest."

"Modesty isn't what comes to mind when I think of you."

Her smile changes subtly. "You don't really know me very well, do you?"

She reaches over and switches off the engine, killing the windshield wipers. "Any word on when Ruby Flowers's funeral will take place?"

Her quick segues are hard for me to follow. "Mose-Mr. Flowers-is thinking of Sunday, but that's not set in stone."

"Sunday? But that's five days after she died."

"That's how the blacks do it. Haven't you read your own paper's obituary column?"

"Why do they wait so long?"

"Well, they usually have to wait days for relatives who live up North to get back to Mississippi. Sometimes they have to ride the bus. Ruby has two sons in Detroit, a daughter in Chicago, and another boy in Los Angeles."

"Can't you fly them in?"

"I'll do anything Mr. Flowers asks me to do, but he hasn't asked. My father already bought Ruby's coffin and headstone, which probably cost more than the church the funeral will be held in. Personally, I think he overdid it. Ruby never wanted to stand out from her own people in life, and I don't think she'd want to in death. Why do you care when the funeral is, anyway?"

"I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, Penn, but Ruby's funeral is going to be the epicenter of a media hurricane."

"What?"

"Shad Johnson is going to speak, and there are bound to be TV trucks there-"

"Damn it, that's all wrong."

"You should thank God for small miracles. Al Sharpton called Shad this morning and offered to come down and 'help out with the Movement.' Shad told him to stay in New York."

Even as I say a silent thank-you to Shadrach Johnson, bitter gall rises into my throat.

"Take it easy," Caitlin says, touching my arm. "Tell me what you did today."

"What I did? It isn't what I did. It's what the judge did."

"Which judge?"

"The white one. Franklin. Two hours ago she set our trial date."

Caitlin goes still. "Our trial date? The libel trial?"

"Just my part of it. You don't have to worry. But my slander trial is set for next Wednesday."

"Next Wednesday? That's only"-she counts swiftly on her fingers-"six days from now!"

"Yep."

"That's ridiculous."

"I expected a quick trial date, but I thought I'd get at least a month. Simply going through the materials I've requested under discovery could take a month."

"How can the judge set a date like that?"

"Easily. She's in Marston's pocket. Why do you think he picked her?"

"Picked her? I thought they assigned judges by drawing lots or something."

"In this district they match cases to judges by simple rotation. Theoretically, whichever judge's name is up when a suit is filed gets that case. But all the clerk has. to do to steer a case to a particular judge is hold on to it until that judge's turn comes up. One phone call from Marston to the clerk would do it."

"How do you know he has Franklin in his pocket? Maybe he just has the clerk."

"I talked to a local lawyer I went to school with. Marston was the heavy hand in getting Franklin elected. Big contributions, an endorsement, words in the right ears. That was eight years ago, but she won't have forgotten who put her on the bench."

"But how can she possibly defend that trial date? No one could build a defense that fast."

"In my answer to Marston's complaint, I stated that my defense would be truth. Truth is the oldest defense against a slander charge. By definition, truth cannot be slanderous. If Franklin is challenged about the trial date, she'll say, 'The defendant doesn't dispute that he uttered the alleged slander. He claims that his statements are true. Therefore, let him prove that without delay. Leo Marston's reputation should not suffer any more than it already has while Mr. Cage goes on a fishing expedition.' She can also cite the racial violence in the community resulting from my charges."

Caitlin is shaking her head. "Shit. You're in a deep hole."

"Will you help me wade through the materials I've requested in discovery?"

"Absolutely. I'll get my reporters and interns going through the stuff as soon as you get it."

She digs into her windbreaker pocket, pulls out a Snickers bar, and tears open the wrapper. After two bites she freezes and looks guiltily at me.

"Sorry." She offers me what's left.

"That's okay. You eat it."

"Come on. It's not like we haven't already exchanged germs. Though that seems quite a while ago."

I take it from her hand. "Thanks. I haven't eaten for hours."

The chocolate seems to be absorbed directly though the lining of my mouth, giving me an instant sugar buzz.

"Stakeouts are the worst," Caitlin grumbles. She glances toward the law office, then looks back at me. "Was your wife from a wealthy family?"

"Sarah? No. Why?"

"Well Livy Marston is from a wealthy family."

"So?"

"And I'm from a wealthy family. And I felt that you were attracted to me. Until Livy showed up, anyway. I just wondered if something about that background draws you in some way."

"No. Sarah's father was a carpenter. That's probably how she stood the years when I was an assistant D.A. When we got rich, she wasn't sure how to react. At first she insisted that I put every penny in the bank, not spend any of it. Save it for the kids. But after my third book hit the list, she loosened up. When we bought our house in Tanglewood, she thought she'd died and gone to heaven."

Caitlin is watching me with a strange intensity. I reach out and touch her wrist. "Hey. I'm still attracted to you."

She looks vulnerable, yet ready to withstand a hard truth. "But you're sleeping with Livy Marston. Right?"

I know it's a mistake to look away, but I can't meet her eyes in this moment. "Did Kelly tell you that?"

"No. I just felt it. I shouldn't say anything about it. I don't have any right to. But I care about you. And Livy is just trying to keep you from hurting her father."

"She hasn't asked me to do anything like that. You don't really know her. In some ways she hates her father."

"Some ways. But not all." Caitlin's eyes hold wisdom far beyond her years. "And she's too smart to be overt. Maybe she just wants to distract you. Maybe she doesn't even admit her real motives to herself. But that's what she's doing. Protecting her father."

"Message received, okay?"

"May I ask one more question?"

"All right."

"Did your wife like her?"

A hollow feeling spreads from the pit of my stomach. "No."

Caitlin looks away as though embarrassed by forcing me to admit this. I am about to speak when she grabs the video camera, zooms in on the office door, and begins recording.

"What is it?"

"The object of your obsession is parking in front of her father's office."

Peering through the rain, I see a silver Lincoln Town Car parked in front of Marston, Sims. A woman with shoulder-length hair sits behind the wheel. She could be Livy, but I'm not sure. Until she gets out. She walks briskly through the rain to the mahogany door, her regal carriage as distinctive as a fingerprint.

After Livy unlocks the door, Leo's huge frame emerges from the passenger door of the Town Car, his close-cropped hair gleaming silver under the light of the street lamp.

"What the hell are they doing?" Caitlin whispers.

"Let's wait and see."

Livy holds the door open for Leo, scanning the dark street as she waits. I want to believe the best of her, but even from this distance her eyes look full of purpose. She lays a hand on Leo's shoulder as he passes through the door, then takes one more look up the street, seeing us but not seeing. I am suddenly back in the motel room last night, being led through a carnal labyrinth with Livy as my guide, dissolving and reforming inside her until I lay inert, my mouth dry as sand, my skin too sore to touch-

"Shit," Caitlin hisses. "We can't see anything now. We should call Judge Franklin."

"Calm down. They could be doing legitimate work. Preparing his case. Livy is an attorney, you know."

"I'll bet they're shredding the files you asked for right this minute."

"Let's just sit tight, okay? See what happens."

The seconds pass in tense silence, with Caitlin tapping the door the entire time. My walkie-talkie crackles from the edge of Caitlin's seat.

"I've got lights in the building," Kelly says.

"We've got visitors. We're not sure what they're up to. Just stay put."

"I'm here if you need me."

Suddenly the mahogany door opens, and Leo backs out of the alcove with two large file boxes in his arms.

"Would you look at that?" Caitlin breathes. "The son of a bitch is guilty."

"Is the time-date stamp working?"

"I think so. It's displayed in the viewfinder."

As Leo loads his boxes into the backseat of the Town Car, Livy emerges from the office carrying another one.

"She's helping him!" Caitlin cries. "You've got to call the judge."

"We don't know what's in the boxes. They could be using those records to prepare Leo's case."

She shakes her head with manic exasperation as Leo returns with another box. Livy soon does the same, and one more trip by Leo makes six. Livy locks the door behind them.

Caitlin takes her cell phone from the holster on her belt and shoves it at me. I push it back at her.

"No. Let's see where they're going first."

"Jesus. She's got you wrapped around her little finger."

"Enough!"

I start the car and wait for Livy to pull out.

"What about Kelly?" Caitlin asks.

I pick up the walkie-talkie and press Send. "I'm following Livy Marston, Kelly. You keep watching the back. I'll call if I need you." I drop the radio on the floor and glance at Caitlin. "Less for them to notice."

I stay several car lengths behind the Town Car, but I needn't have worried. Livy drives straight to Tuscany. The mansion is set far back from the road, with eight acres of trees shielding it from sight and sound of passing traffic. A motorized gate closes after the Lincoln passes through, leaving us locked outside.

Caitlin jumps out of the car even before I've stopped, video camera in hand. I shut off the engine and follow her, which requires some fast footwork, as she has already scaled the gate and run on by the time I reach it. My feet crunch on the wet pea gravel as I race after her up the long, curving drive.

Tuscany was built in 1850 by a retired English general who imported the Italianate craze to Natchez from London. Three stories tall, the mansion is a splendor of northern Italian design, with an entrance tower, front and side galleries, marble corner quoins, huge roundheaded windows with marble hood moldings, and balustrade balconies on the second floor. Yet despite its grandeur, the overall effect of this transplanted villa is surprisingly tasteful.

The great door of the mansion closes just as Caitlin and I come within sight of it. From where we stand-beneath a dripping oak with a trunk as thick as ten men-Tuscany looks like an epic film set, floodlit, surrounded by trimmed hedges, azaleas, moss-hung Southern hardwoods, and luxurious magnolias. The broad, waxy leaves of the magnolias glisten with beads of rainwater.

"Do you know your way around the house?" Caitlin whispers.

"I used to."

"I'll bet. Come on."

She starts toward the house in a running crouch. Soon our faces are pressed to the panes of a ten-foot-tall window, with spiky hedges pricking our backs. The window glass is more than a century old, full of waves and imperfections, but Caitlin is videotaping through it anyway. Through the distorting medium I see Leo Marston standing before an enormous marble fireplace. Above the fireplace is a portrait of Livy as a teenager, or perhaps Maude. Leo bends, obscuring part of the fireplace, then straightens up and puts his hands on his hips. Beyond his knees, yellow flames billow up from a gas jet.

"He's building a fire," Caitlin says in a tone of disbelief. "It's seventy-five degrees and he's building an effing fire."

My last resistance crumbles. "Give me your cell phone."

I call directory assistance for Judge's Franklin's number, then let the computer connect me. The judge herself answers, and it sounds like cocktail hour at her house.

"Penn Cage, Judge Franklin. The lawyer Leo Marston is suing for slander."

"Oh. Why are you calling me at home?"

Leo lifts one of the file boxes and sets it squarely on the andirons. The flames lick their way up the sides of the cardboard, burning it black.

"Judge, at this moment I am watching Leo Marston destroy what I believe is the evidence I requested today in my requests for production."

A stunned pause. "Is he in the room with you?"

"No, ma'am. A few minutes ago I observed him removing file boxes from his office in a surreptitious manner. I followed him home, and I am now watching him burn those file boxes in his fireplace. Watching through a window."

"You mean you're trespassing on his property?"

"Is that really the point, Judge?"

I hear the clink of ice against glass, a hurried swallow.

"Judge, I have the publisher of the Natchez Examiner with me, and the events I described are all on videotape. She's taping right this minute."

"Christ on a crutch. What do you want me to do, counselor?"

"Call the police and have them come straight to Marston's house and confiscate those files. And I'd like you to come with them. You might just prevent bloodshed."

"I'll do it, Mr. Cage. But you get your tail off Leo Marston's property right this minute, before he puts a load of rock salt in your butt. Or worse."

"Yes, ma'am."

I click End and touch Caitlin's arm. "She's sending the police."

"They won't make it in time. The gate's closed, and they won't be able to get through."

"What do you want to do?"

"Make Marston want them to get here."

She pulls free of my grip and bulls her way through the hedge. Seconds later, the sound of shattering glass reverberates across the floodlit lawn.

Leo goes rigid before the fireplace, his ears pricked. Caitlin's rock smashed the window of another room, and he is unsure of what he heard.

Then another hundred-fifty-year-old pane smashes, this one less than ten feet from Marston. He stares at the broken window, looks back at the fireplace, then hurries out of the room.

Caitlin is standing in the drive like a pitcher on the mound, right arm cocked, a rock in her hand. She may not know what Leo is going after, but I do. And from the gallery Marston could pick her off firing from the waist.

I charge through the prickly hedge and run onto the lawn. "Get your ass under cover!"

Her cocked arm fires, and another pane shatters into irreparable shards. I sprint the last few yards and grab her arm, dragging her toward a thicket of azaleas. Just as we plow into the bushes, the front door of Tuscany crashes open and Leo bellows into the night:

"Where are you, you gutless sons of bitches? Come out and fight like goddamn men!"

I have to give him credit, At this moment most Natchezians are huddled in their houses, terrified of a race war. For all Leo knows, a gang of crazed rioters smashed his windows and is now waiting to pick him off from the bushes. Yet there he stands, shotgun in hand, defending his castle like Horatius at the bridge. He shouts twice more, then fires blindly into the night. I cover Caitlin with my body as the shotgun booms through the trees like a cannon. After five shots Leo shouts a final curse, then goes back inside, slamming the door behind him.

God only knows what Maude and Livy are thinking. Surely one of them must have called the police and opened the gate by now.

"Get off," Caitlin groans from beneath me. "/ can't breathe."

I roll off and scrabble to my knees in the azaleas.

She smiles up at me, breathing fast and shallow. "That wasn't exactly how I've pictured us getting horizontal together."

"Me either."

The smile vanishes. "Marston can still burn those files before the cops get here."

"There's nothing we can do to stop him."

"Give me your gun."

"No way, no how. You're a menace."

She sighs in frustration and rolls over to watch the mansion while we wait for the police.

Before long, three uniformed cops come racing up the driveway on foot. They rap on the great door, which Leo answers shouting at full volume, condemning the police department as a useless bunch of fools and high school dropouts. From their body language, the responding officers do not appear to be reacting favorably to his words. As he continues his tirade, two squad cars roar up the drive and stop before the front steps, which are bookended by Negro lawn jockey hitching posts. A black patrolman gets out of the first cruiser and opens his passenger door.

Circuit Judge Eunice B. Franklin emerges, looking like hell warmed over. She's wearing boxy blue jeans, an Ole Miss sweatshirt, hair curlers tied beneath a blue scarf, and she looks pissed. I pull Caitlin to her feet and hurry toward the gallery. When we arrive, Leo is lambasting Judge Franklin in the same superior tone he used with the police. Franklin seems to be enduring it with remarkable equanimity.

When Leo recognizes me standing behind the judge, his face flushes bright red. There's murder in his eyes, and everyone on the gallery sees it.

"Did you smash my windows, Cage?" he yells.

"Don't say anything, counselor," Judge Franklin orders me. She turns back to Marston. "Leo, the issue tonight is files. Did you remove any files from your office tonight and attempt to burn them?"

At last comprehension dawns in Marston's eyes. "Did that bastard tell you that?"

Caitlin aims the video camera at Leo's face. "I have it all on tape, Judge Franklin. You can watch it right now, if you'd like."

Franklin looks back at Marston. "You want to rethink your answer, Leo?"

Marston draws himself up like a feudal lord being forced by a priest to deal civilly with serfs. "I brought some files home from my office. Old junk. Tax records, bad-debt files."

Franklin nods patiently, but her jaw is set. "Then you won't mind if these officers take them down to my chambers for safekeeping. I'm sure this is all a misunderstanding, but it'll save you the trouble of hauling away the ashes."

Leo blocks the door with his considerable bulk, his arms outstretched from post to post. "Eunice, I think you and I should have a private word."

Franklin glances at the video camera. "Turn that off, Ms. Masters."

"I'm sorry, Judge, but the First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees my right to do what I am doing now."

Judges do not react well to defiance. Eunice Franklin reddens a shade, and for a moment I fear she is about to order Caitlin's arrest. To my surprise, she turns to Marston and says, "Clear that door, Leo."

Marston's hard blue eyes lock onto Franklin's. "Eunice, you'd better think about what-"

"Officer Washington," she cuts in, "go in there and confiscate whatever files you find. Take them straight to my chambers."

Two cops push past Marston, whose only choices are to stand aside or defy the orders of a judge by assaulting police officers. He stands aside, his face red with fury. Eunice Franklin will pay a heavy price for this, but my sympathy is limited. Dilemmas like these are the price of backroom politics. With a final savage glare in my direction, Marston stomps back into the dark reaches of his mansion.

Judge Franklin pokes me in the chest, her eyes cold. "I want you in my chambers at nine a.m., mister." She points to Caitlin. "I want that videotape there as well."

"Will Marston be there?" I ask.

"That's not your concern."

"Destroying evidence is a felony, Judge."

Franklin's lips tighten until all I can see is the spiderwork of lines around her mouth, the result of years of smoking cigarettes. As we stare at each other, a patrolwoman carries a charred box of files through the front door.

"Go home, Mr. Cage," orders Judge Franklin. "And you will pay restitution for any physical damage to this property."

I am about to follow her advice when Livy walks through the front door of Tuscany. In a voice that could shave a peach, she says, "Judge, my name is Livy Marston Sutter. I'm here as counsel for my father, Leo Marston. Those boxes contain files of Marston, Sims clients, and thus enjoy the protection of attorney-client privilege."

Judge Franklin is momentarily taken aback, but she recovers quickly. "They'll be as safe in my chambers as they will anywhere."

Livy looks past her to me. "Penn? Would you please tell me what's going on here?"

I stand mute before her. Tonight's events have cast us as enemies, but even at this awkward moment part of me remains inside her, linking us in the most primitive way.

"You tell me, Livy."

"Who broke our windows?"

"I did," Caitlin says, as though she would welcome another lawsuit.

Livy gives her a glance of disdain. "What's Lois Lane doing here?"

Caitlin holds up the video camera. "Making home movies, sweet cheeks. I don't think you're going to like them."

"That's it," says Franklin. "Get out of here, both of you. Go back inside, Ms. Sutter."

"Your father was trying to destroy evidence, Livy. I couldn't let that happen."

"Evidence? You mean those old tax records? Daddy told me the day I got back that he needed to clean out his old files. I helped him because of his bad back."

Is she really trying to convince me that her motives are pure? Or is she using my presence as an opportunity to try to mitigate her culpability in the presence of Judge Franklin?

"I said this meeting is over," snaps Franklin.

I take Caitlin's arm above the elbow and lead her away from the house. Soon we're in darkness, surrounded by the smells of wet grass and decaying leaves. The pulse in her brachial artery is pounding like a tom-tom.

"What do you think?" she asks.

Instead of answering, I turn back and gaze through the dripping trees at Tuscany. What was once a temple of memory is now alien to me. The gallery that once hosted so many lawn parties now creaks under the tramp of police boots, and the sweet air of the grounds carries the tang of gunpowder. After five generations of seclusion, the world outside the gates has crashed through to Tuscany with a vengeance.

My gaze drifts upward, to the third floor, where a solitary light glows in a high window. Framed in that window is an amorphous shape that confuses me at first, but at last resolves into something human. It's the harridan head of Maude Marston, once a celebrated beauty, now a wreck, ravaged by emotional pain and by the alcohol she uses to blunt it. As Caitlin takes my arm and pulls me along the drive, I remember Dwight Stone's penchant for quotes, and I think, What havoc hath he wrought in this great house?


CHAPTER 28 | The Quiet Game | CHAPTER 30