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My father served as an army doctor in West Germany in the 1960s, and it was there he acquired a taste for dark beer and high-performance automobiles. He has been driving BMWs ever since he could afford them, and he drives fast. In four minutes we are away from the airport and roaring north on Highway 61. Annie sits in the middle of the backseat, lashed into a safety seat, marveling at the TV-sized computer display built into the dashboard while Dad runs through its functions again and again, delighting in every giggle that bursts from her lips.

Coronary problems severely reduced my father's income a few years ago, so last year-on his sixty-sixth birthday-I bought him a black BMW 740i with the royalties from my third novel. I felt a little like Elvis Presley when I wrote that check, and it was a good feeling. My parents started life with nothing, and in a single generation, through hard work and sacrifice, lived what was once unapologetically called the American Dream. They deserve some perks.

The flat brown fields of Louisiana quickly give way to green wooded hills, and somewhere to our left, beyond the lush forest, rolls the great brown river. I cannot smell it yet, but I feel it, a subtle disturbance in the earth's magnetic field, a fluid force that shapes the surrounding land and souls. I roll down the window and suck in the life smell of hardwood forest, creek water, kudzu, bush-hogged wildflowers, and baking earth. The competing aromas blend into a heady gestalt you couldn't find in Houston if you grid-searched every inch of it on your hands and knees.

"We're losing the air conditioning," Dad complains.

"Sorry." I roll up the window. "It's been a long time since I smelled this place."

"Too damn long."

"Papa said a bad word!" Annie cries, bursting into giggles.

Dad laughs, then reaches back between the seats and slaps her on the knee.

The old landmarks hurtle by like location shots from a film. St. Francisville, where John James Audubon painted his birds, now home to a nuclear station; the turnoff to Angola Penitentiary; and finally the state line, marked by a big blue billboard: welcome to Mississippi! the magnolia state.

"What's happening in Natchez these days?"

Dad whips into the left lane and zooms past a log truck loaded from bumper to red flag with pulpwood. "A lot, for a change. Looks like we've got a new factory coming in. Which is good, because the battery plant is about dead."

"What kind of factory?"

"Chemical plant. They want to put it in the new industrial park by the river. South of the paper mill."

"Is it a done deal?"

"I'll say it's done when I see smoke coming from the stacks. Till then it's all talk. It's like the casino boats. Every other month a new company talks about bringing another boat in, but there's still just the one."

"What else is happening?"

"Big election coming up."

"What kind?"

"Mayoral. For the first time in history there's a black candidate with a real chance to win."

"You're kidding. Who is it?"

"Shad Johnson. He's about your age. His parents are patients of mine. You never heard of him because they sent him north to prep school when he was a kid. After that he went to Howard University. Another damn lawyer, just like you."

"And he wants to be mayor of Natchez?"

"Badly. He moved down here just to run. And he may win."

"What's the black-white split now?"

"Registered voters? Fifty-one to forty nine, in favor of whites. The blacks usually have a low turnout, but this election may be different. In any case, the key for Johnson is white votes, and he might actually get some. He's been invited to join the Rotary Club."

"The Natchez Rotary Club?"

"Times are changing. And Shad Johnson's smart enough to exploit that. I'm sure you'll meet him soon. The election's only five weeks away. Hell, he'll probably want an endorsement from you, seeing how you're a celebrity now."

"Papa said another bad word!" Annie chimes in. "But not too bad."

"What did I say?"

"H-E-L-L. You're supposed to say heck."

Dad laughs and slaps her on the knee again.

"I want to stay low-profile," I say quietly. "This trip is strictly R-and-R."

"Not much chance of that. Somebody already called the house asking for you. Right before I left."

"Was it Cilia, my assistant?"

"No. A man. He asked if you'd got in yet. When I asked who was calling, he hung up. The caller-ID box said 'out of area.' "

"Probably a reporter. They're going to turn the South upside down trying to find me because of the Hanratty execution."

"We'll do what we can to keep you incognito, but the new newspaper publisher has called four times asking about getting an interview with you. Now that you're here, you won't be able to avoid things like that. Not without people saying you've gone Hollywood on us."

I sit back and assimilate this. Finding sanctuary in my old hometown might not be as easy as I thought. But it will still be better than Houston.

Natchez is unlike any place in America, existing almost outside time, which is exactly what Annie and I need. In some ways it isn't part of Mississippi at all. There's no town square with a lone Confederate soldier presiding over it, no flat, limitless Delta horizon or provincial blue laws. The oldest city on the Mississippi River, Natchez stands white and pristine atop a two-hundred-foot loess bluff, the jewel in the crown of nineteenth-century steamboat ports. For as long as I can remember, the population has been twenty-five thousand, but after being ruled in turn by Indians, French, British, Spanish, Confederates, and Americans, her character is more cosmopolitan than cities ten times her size. Parts of New Orleans remind me of Natchez, but only parts. Modern life long ago came to the Crescent City and changed it forever. Two hundred miles upriver, Natchez exists in a ripple of time that somehow eludes the homogenizing influences of the present.

In 1850 Natchez boasted more millionaires than any city in the United States save New York and Philadelphia. Their fortunes were made on the cotton that poured like white gold out of the district and into the mills of England. The plantations stretched for miles on both sides of the Mississippi River, and the planters who administered them built mansions that made Margaret Mitchell's Tara look like modest accommodations. While their slaves toiled in the fields, the princes of this new aristocracy sent their sons to Harvard and their daughters to the royal courts of Europe. Atop the bluff they held cotillions, opened libraries, and developed new strains of cotton; two hundred feet below, in the notorious Under the Hill district, they raced horses, traded slaves, drank, whored, and gambled, firmly establishing a tradition of libertinism that survives to the present, and cementing the city's black-sheep status in a state known for its dry counties.

By an accident of topography, the Civil War left Natchez untouched. Her bluff commanded a straightaway of the river rather than a bend, so Vicksburg became the critical naval choke point, dooming that city to siege and destruction while undefended Natchez made the best of Union occupation. In this way she joined in a charmed historical trinity with Savannah and Charleston, the quintessentially Southern cities that survived the war with their beauty intact.

It took the boll weevil to accomplish what war could not, sending the city into depression after the turn of the century. She sat preserved like a city in amber, her mansions slowly deteriorating, until the 1930s, when her society ladies began opening their once great houses to the public in an annual ritual called the Pilgrimage. The money that poured in allowed them to restore the mansions to their antebellum splendor, and soon Yankees and Europeans traveled by thousands to this living museum of the Old South.

In 1948 oil was discovered practically beneath the city, and a second boom was on. Black gold replaced white, and overnight millionaires again walked the azalea-lined streets, as delirious with prosperity as if they had stepped from the pages of Scott Fitzgerald. I grew up in the midst of this boom, and benefited from the affluence it generated. But by the time I graduated law school, the oil industry was collapsing, leaving Natchez to survive on the revenues of tourism and federal welfare money. It was a hard adjustment for proud people who had never had to chase Northern factories or kowtow to the state of which they were nominally a part.

"What's that?" I ask, pointing at an upscale residential development far south of where I remember any homes.

"White flight," Dad replies. "Everything's moving south. Subdivisions, the country club. Look, there's another one."

Another grouping of homes materializes behind a thin screen of oak and pine, looking more like suburban Houston than the romantic town I remember. Then I catch sight of Mammy's Cupboard, and I feel a reassuring wave of familiarity in my chest. Mammy's is a restaurant built in the shape of a Negro mammy in a red hoop skirt and bandanna, painted to match Hattie McDaniel from Gone With the Wind. She stands atop her hill like a giant sculptured doll, beckoning travelers to dine in the cozy space beneath her domed skirts. Anyone who has never seen the place inevitably slows to gape; it makes the Brown Derby in L.A. look prosaic.

The car crests a high ridge and seems to teeter upon it as an ocean of tree-tops spreads out before us, stretching west to infinity. Beyond the river, the great alluvial plain of Louisiana lies so far below the high ground of Natchez that only the smoke plume from the paper mill betrays the presence of man in that direction. The car tips over on the long descent into town, passing St. Stephens, the all-white prep school I attended, and a dozen businesses that look just as they did twenty years ago. At the junction of Highways 61 and 84 stands the Jefferson Davis Memorial Hospital, now officially known by a more politically correct name, but for all time "the Jeff" to the doctors of my father's generation, and to the hundreds of other people, both black and white, who worked or were born there.

"It all looks the same," I murmur.

"It is and it isn't," Dad replies.

"What do you mean?"

"You'll see."

My parents still live in the same house in which they raised me. While other young professionals moved on to newer subdivisions, restored Victorian gingerbreads, or even antebellum palaces downtown, my father clung stubbornly to the ash-paneled library he'd appended to the suburban tract house he bought in 1963. Whenever my mother got the urge to move to more stately mansions, he added to the existing structure, giving her the space she claimed we needed and a decorating project on which to expend her fitful energies.

As the BMW pulls up to the house, I imagine my mother waiting inside. She always wanted me to succeed in the larger world, but it broke her heart when Sarah and I settled in Houston. Seven hours is too far to drive on a regular basis, and Mom dislikes flying. Still, the tie between us is such that distance means little. When I was a boy, people always told me I was like my father, that I'd "got my father's brain." But it is my mother who has the rare combination of quantitative aptitude and intuitive imagination that I was lucky enough to inherit.

Dad shuts off the engine and unstraps Annie from her safety seat. As I unload our luggage from the trunk, I see a shadow standing motionless against the closed curtain of the dining room. My mother. Then another shadow moves behind the curtain. Who else would be here? It can't be my sister. Jenny is a visiting professor at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.

"Who else is here?"

"Wait and see," Dad says cryptically.

I carry two suitcases to the porch, then go back for Annie's bag. The second time I reach the porch, my mother is standing in the open door. All I can see before she rises on tiptoe and pulls me into her arms is that she has stopped coloring her hair, and the gray is a bit of a shock.

"Welcome home," she whispers in my ear. She pulls back, her hands gripping my upper arms, and looks hard at me. "You're still not eating. Are you all right?"

"I don't know. Annie can't seem to get past what happened. And I don't know how to help her."

She squeezes my arms with a strength I have never seen fail. "That's what grandmothers are for. Everything's going to be all right. Starting right this minute."

At sixty-three my mother is still beautiful, but not with the delicate comeliness that fills so many musket-and-magnolia romances. Beneath the tanned skin and Donna Karan dress are the bone and sinew and humor of a girl who made the social journey from the 4-H Club to the Garden Club without forgetting her roots. She could take tea with royalty and commit no faux pas, yet just as easily twist the head off a banty hen, boil the bristles off a hog, or kill an angry copperhead with a hoe blade. It's that toughness that worries me now.

"Mom, what's wrong? On the phone-"

"Shh. We'll talk later." She blinks back tears, then pushes me into the house and takes Annie from Dad's arms. "Here's my angel! Let's get some supper. And no yucky broccoli!"

Annie squeals with excitement.

"There's somebody waiting to see you, Penn," Mom says.

I pull the suitcases inside. A wide doorway in the foyer leads to the dining room, and I stop dead when I see who is there. Standing beside the long table is a black woman as tall as I and fifty years older. Her mouth is set in a tight smile, and her eyes twinkle with joy.

"Ruby!" I cry, setting the bags on the floor and walking toward her. "What in the world?"

"Today's her day off," Mom explains from behind me. "I called to check on her, and when she heard you were coming, she demanded that Tom come get her so she could see you."

"And that grandbaby," Ruby says, pointing at Annie in Peggy's arms.

I hug the old woman gently. It's like hugging a bundle of sticks. Ruby Flowers came to work for us in 1963 and, except for one life-threatening illness, never missed a single workday until arthritis forced her to slow down thirty years later. Even then she begged my father to give her steroid injections to allow her to keep doing her "heavy work"-the ironing and scrubbing-but he refused. Instead he kept her on at full pay but limited her to sorting socks, washing the odd load of clothes, and watching the soaps on television.

"I'm sorry about your wife," Ruby says. " 'Cept for losing a child, that the hardest thing."

I give her an extra squeeze.

"Now, let me see that baby. Come here, child!"

I wonder if Annie will remember Ruby, or be frightened by the old woman even if she does. I should have known better. Ruby Flowers radiates nothing to frighten a small child. She is like a benevolent witch from an African folk tale, and Annie goes to her without the slightest hesitation.

"I cooked your daddy his favorite dinner," Ruby says, hugging Annie tight. "And after tonight, it's gonna be your favorite too!"

At the center of the table sits a plate heaped with chicken shallow-fried to a peppered gold. I've watched Ruby make that chicken a thousand times and never once use more than salt, pepper, flour, and Crisco. With those four ingredients she creates a flavor and texture that Harland Sanders couldn't touch with his best pressure cooker. I snatch up a wing and take a bite of white meat. Crispy outside and moist within, it bursts in my mouth with intoxicating familiarity.

"Go slap your daddy's hand!" Ruby cries, and Annie quickly obeys. "Ya'll sit down and eat proper. I'll get the iced tea."

"I'll get the tea," Mom says, heading for the kitchen before Ruby can start. "Make your plate, Ruby. Tonight you're a guest."

Our family says grace only at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and then almost as a formality. But with Ruby present, no one dares reach for a fork.

"Would you like to return thanks, Ruby?" Dad asks.

The old woman shakes her head, her eyes shining with mischief. "I wish you'd do it, Dr. Cage. You give a fine blessing."

Thirty-eight years of practicing medicine has stripped my father of the stern religious carapace grafted onto him in the Baptist churches of his youth. But when pressed, he can deliver a blessing that vies with the longest-winded of deacons for flowery language and detail. He seems about to deliver one of these, with tongue-in-cheek overtones added for my benefit, but my mother halts him with a touch of her hand. She bows her head, and everyone at the table follows suit.

"Father," she says, "it's been far too long since we've given thanks to you in this house. Tonight we thank you for the return of our son, who has been away too long. We give thanks for Anna Louise Cage, our beautiful grandchild, and pray that we may bring her as much happiness as she brings to us each day." She pauses, a brief caesura that focuses everyone's concentration. "We also commend the soul of Sarah Louise Cage to your care, and pray that she abides in thy grace forever."

I take Annie's hand under the table and squeeze it.

"We don't pretend to understand death here," Mom continues softly. "We ask only that you let this young family heal, and be reconciled to their loss. This is a house of love, and we humbly ask grace in thy name's sake. Amen."

As we echo the "amen," Dad and I look at each other across the table, moved by my mother's passion but not its object. In matters religious I am my father's son, having no faith in a just God, or any god at all if you shake me awake at four a.m. and put the question to me. There have been times I would have given anything for such faith, for the belief that divine justice exists somewhere in the universe. Facing Sarah's death without it was an existential baptism of fire. The comfort that belief in an afterlife can provide was obvious in the hospital waiting rooms and chemo wards, where patients or family members often asked outright if I was saved. I always smiled and nodded so as to avoid a philosophical argument that would benefit no one, and wondered if the question was an eccentricity of Southern hospitals. In the Pacific Northwest they probably offer you crystals or lists of alternative healers. I have no regrets about letting Sarah raise Annie in a church, though. Sometimes the image of her mother in Heaven is all that keeps my daughter from despair.

As Dad passes around the mustard greens and cheese grits and beer biscuits, another memory rises unbidden. One cold hour before dawn, sitting beside Sarah's hospital bed, I fell to my knees and begged God to save her. The words formed in my mind without volition, strung together with strangely baroque formality: / who have not believed since I was a child, who have not crossed a church threshold to worship since I was thirteen, who since the age of reason have admitted nothing greater than man or nature, ask in all humility that you spare the life of this woman. I ask not for myself, but for the child I am not qualified to raise alone. As soon as I realized what I was thinking, I stopped and got to my feet. Who was I talking to? Faith is something you have or you don't, and to pretend you do in the hope of gaining some last-minute dispensation from a being whose existence you have denied all your life goes against everything I am. I have never placed myself above God. I simply cannot find within myself the capacity for belief.

Yet when Sarah finally died, a dark seed took root in my mind. As irrational as it is, a profoundly disturbing idea haunts me: that on the night that prayer blinked to life in my tortured mind, a chance beyond the realm of the temporal was granted me, and I did not take it. That I was tested and found wanting. My rational mind tells me I held true to myself and endured the pain as all pain must be endured-alone. But my heart says otherwise. Since that day I have been troubled by a primitive suspicion that in some cosmic account book, in some dusty ledger of karmic debits and credits, Sarah's life has been charged against my account.

"What's the matter, Daddy?" Annie asks.

"Nothing, punkin."

"You're crying."

"Penn?" my mother says, half rising from her chair.

"I'm all right," I assure her, wiping my eyes. "I'm just glad to be here, that's all."

Ruby reaches out and closes an arthritic hand over mine. "You should have come back months ago. You know where home is."

I nod and busy myself with my knife and fork.

"You think too much to be left alone," Ruby adds. "You always did."

"Amen," Dad agrees. "Now let's eat, before my beeper goes off."

"That beeper ain't gonna ring during this meal," Ruby says with quiet certainty. "Don't worry 'bout that none."

"Did you take out the batteries?" Dad asks, checking the pager.

"I just know," Ruby replies. "I just know."

I believe her.

My mother and I sit facing each other across the kitchen counter, drinking wine and listening for my father's car in the driveway. He left after dinner to take Ruby home to the black section north of town, but putting Annie to bed took up most of the time I expected him to be away.

"Mom, I sensed something on the phone. You've got to tell me what's wrong."

She looks at me over the rim of her glass. "I'm worried about your father."

A sliver of ice works its way into my heart. "Not more blockage in his coronary vessels?"

"No. I think Tom is being blackmailed."

I am dumbfounded. Nothing she could have said would have surprised me more. My father is a man of such integrity that the idea seems utterly ridiculous. Tom Cage is a modern-day Atticus Finch, or as close as a man can get to that Southern ideal in the dog days of the twentieth century.

"What has he done? I mean, that someone could blackmail him over?"

"He hasn't told me."

"Then how do you know that's what it is?"

She disposes of my question with a glance. Peggy Cage knows more about her husband and children than we know ourselves.

"Well, who's blackmailing him?"

"I think it might be Ray Presley. Do you remember him?"

The skin on my forearms tingles. Ray Presley was a patient of my father for years, and a more disturbing character I have never met, not even in the criminal courts of Houston. Born in Sullivan's Hollow, one of the toughest areas of Mississippi, Presley migrated to south Louisiana, where he reputedly worked as hired muscle for New Orleans crime boss Carlos Marcello. He later hired on as a police officer in Natchez and quickly put his old skills to use. Brutal and clever, his specialty was "vigorous interrogation." Off-duty, he haunted the fringes of Natchez's business community, doing favors of dubious legality for wealthy men around town, helping them deal with business or family troubles when conventional measures proved inadequate. When I was in grade school, Presley was busted for corruption and served time in Parchman prison, which to everyone's surprise he survived. Upon his release he focused exclusively on "private security work," and it was generally known that he had murdered at least three men for money, all out-of-town jobs.

"What could Ray Presley have on Dad?"

Mom looks away. "I'm not sure."

"You must have some idea."

"My suspicions have more to do with me than with your father. I think that's why Tom won't just tell Presley to go to hell. I think it involves my family."

My mother's parents both died years ago, and her sister-after two tempestuous marriages-recently married a wealthy surgeon in Florida. "What could Presley possibly know about your family?"

"I'm not sure. Even if I knew, Tom would have to be the one to tell you. If he won't-"

"How can I help if I don't know what's happening?"

"Your father has a lot of pride. You know that."

"How much is pride worth?"

"Over a hundred thousand dollars, apparently."

My stomach rolls like I'm falling through the dark. "Tell me you're kidding."

"I wish I were. Clearly, Tom would rather go broke than let us know what's going on."

"Mom, this is crazy. Why do you think it's Presley?"

"Tom talks in his sleep now. About five months ago he started eating less, losing weight. Then I got a call from Bill Hiatt at the bank. He hemmed and hawed, but he finally told me Tom had been making large withdrawals. Cashing in CDs and absorbing penalties."

"Well, it's going to stop. I don't care what he did, I'll get him out of it. And I'll get Presley thrown under a jail for extortion."

She laughs, her voice riding an undercurrent of hysteria.

"What is it?".

"Ray Presley doesn't care about jail. He's dying of cancer."

The word is like a cockroach crawling over my bare foot.

"Which is almost convenient," Mom goes on, "but not quite. He's taking his sweet time about it. I've seen him on the street, and he doesn't even look sick. Except for the hair. He's bald now. But he still looks like he could ride a bull ragged."

I jump at the sound of the garage door. Mom gives me a little wave, then crosses the kitchen as silently as if she were floating on a magic carpet and disappears down the hall. Moments later, my father walks through the kitchen door, his face drawn and tired.

"I figured you'd be waiting for me."

"Dad, we've got to talk."

Dread seems to seep from the pores in his face. "Let me get a drink. I'll meet you in the library."

CHAPTER 2 | The Quiet Game | CHAPTER 4