Sometimes we think we are moving randomly. But random behavior is rare in humans. We are always spiraling around something, whether we see it or not, a secret center of gravity with the invisible power of a black hole. As a teenager, most of my "aimless" rides led me past Tuscany. Usually I would drive past the entrance, hoping to catch sight of Livy entering or leaving in her car. But a few times, at night, I would idle up the long driveway (it wasn't gated then) and look up at her lighted window, staring at it like a caveman at a fire, then turn around and continue my endless orbit, a ritual that left me perpetually unsatisfied but which I was powerless to stop.
After Ruby's funeral, I circumnavigate the county on its back roads, hurtling along gravel lanes with Kelly in my wake, driving his rented Taurus. Like a planet and its moon, we circle the town and the mystery that lies at the heart of it. Often the act of driving acts as a catalyst that allows the information banging around in my subconscious to order itself in a new way.
Today is different.
Today the emotional fallout from the funeral will not dissipate. Reverend Nightingale's portrayal of my "unselfish" motives shamed me in a way I've never felt before. As he stood there praising me, I felt like a soldier who ran from battle being mistakenly awarded a Silver Star. At the other extreme was my anger at Shad Johnson, who hijacked Ruby's funeral for his own political ends. And yet, if I were black, his suggestion that I retract my charges against Marston would make sense. My public statements may already have frightened liberal whites who might have voted for Shad into casting their ballots for Wiley Warren and the status quo.
After an hour of driving, the secret heart of my troubled orbit finally reveals itself. For the past week I've been acting like a writer. I was a prosecutor for twice as long as I've been a novelist, and I should have been thinking like one. At least my hands know where to take me, if my brain doesn't. I'm on the Church Hill road, less than a mile from Ray Presley's trailer. When I pull off beside the dilapidated structure, Kelly parks behind me, gets out, and jogs up to my window.
"What's up, boss? Who lives here?"
"The man who killed Del Payton. I think he killed Ruby too."
Kelly winces. "And what are we doing here?"
"What I should have done days ago."
He squints and looks up the two-lane road. "I didn't sign on to kill anybody. Or to watch it done."
"I'm just going to talk to him."
He gives me a skeptical look. "That sounds an awful lot like, 'I'm just going to put it in a little way.' "
"I mean it. I'm here to talk. But this asshole is dangerous. I assume you won't stand on ceremony if he tries to kill me."
"He makes the first move, I got no problem punching his ticket."
"Come on, then."
I get out and walk toward the trailer, Kelly on my heels. We're ten feet from the concrete steps when the front door bangs open and Presley yells from inside.
"That's far enough! What the hell you doing here, Cage?"
"I want to talk to you."
"Who's that hippie?"
"Is he carrying?"
"You bet your ass."
A long pause. "I got nothing to say to you. Except you're playing mighty fast and loose with your daddy's future, all that shit you're saying in the papers."
"You haven't heard my proposition, Ray. You might just save your life by listening. However much you've got left, anyway."
"Yeah? Fuck you. You could save your daddy from going to jail by shutting the hell up and going back to Houston."
"My father will never go to jail for the Mobile thing, Ray. But you will if you open your mouth."
A bluejay cries raucously in the silence, the sound like a rusty gate closing.
"You got two minutes," calls Presley. "But the hippie stays out there."
I look back at Kelly, who walks casually past me and up to the open door, his hands held out to his sides. I can't hear what he says, but when he's done, he walks back to me and gives me the OK sign.
"What did you say to him?"
"I made sure he understood that hurting you would be a bad idea. He understands. Watch the girl in the corner, though. She looks shaky."
Holding my hands in plain view, I walk up the three steps and into the trailer.
The stink of mildew and rotting food hits me in a wave, as though the trailer hasn't been opened for days. As my eyes adjust to the dimness, I see Ray standing by his wall of police memorabilia. He's dressed just as he was the other day: pajama pants, tank-top wife-beater T-shirt, and the John Deere cap pressed over his naked skull. He's also holding a shotgun, which is aimed in my general direction, and wearing a shoulder holster with the butt of a large handgun protruding from it. Deeper in the gloom, on the couch by the IV caddy, sits the pallid blonde I saw on my first visit. Her legs are folded beneath her, and she's clenching a rifle in her hands. She looks nervous enough to pull the trigger without provocation.
"So talk," says Presley.
"I've got three days to prove Leo Marston conspired to kill Del Payton."
He snorts. "Maybe you can find out who killed the Kennedys before Wednesday too."
"I know you killed Del, Ray."
Not even a tremor in the narrow face.
"I know you lied about the dynamite. You planted those blasting caps. I also know the murder wasn't your idea."
The eyes blink slowly in the shadows, like a snake's. "You don't know shit."
"You'll find out different on Wednesday."
The shotgun barrel moves closer to me. "You can't prove I killed that nigger, because I didn't kill him."
"Come on, Ray. What's the point in lying now?"
He chuckles softly. "You know how people say, 'That boy don't know nothing'? Well, you don't even suspect nothing."
"If you'll tell the D.A. how the Payton murder really went down-if you'll give up Marston-I'll get the D.A. to grant you full immunity."
"Immunity for murder."
"Your testimony would force Marston to plead guilty. If Leo cuts a deal, it saves the city the embarrassment of a public trial for a race murder. That's what the powers-that-be want."
"Rat out Judge Marston."
"And John Portman."
A short bark of a laugh. "Boy, you're so goddamn stupid I'm surprised you made it through law school. What you think Portman had to do with anything?"
"I don't know. But I know he's scared enough to try to kill you to keep you quiet."
The nerve in Presley's left cheek twitches. "That weasel. He wasn't shit in sixty-eight."
"He is now. And he'll try again. He's got too much to lose. Cut a deal, you short-circuit the whole trial. It'll all be over before Portman knows what hit him."
Presley waves the shotgun furiously. "You think I give a fuck if that trial happens? What do I care if the niggers run wild in the streets? Let the goddamn bleeding hearts see what happens when there ain't nobody like me around to keep the jungle bunnies in line."
He turns his head and spits through a narrow door, which I hope is the bathroom. Then he says, "You're working with a nigger on this, ain't you?"
"You mean Althea Payton?"
"Shit, no. That nigger deputy. Ransom."
"Don't know him."
"Don't try to lie, boy. You ain't had the practice. That Ransom ain't right in the head. Never has been, since the army. He did dope and turned on his own people. He sucked that bottle like a tit for twenty years. The boy can't hardly function without a football in his hand. You ever ask yourself why he wants Marston so bad?"
I say nothing.
"I knew Ike when he was with the P.D. His old shit will drag him down quick as it will me."
"You're not listening, Ray. If I'm forced to put on my case, you'll be indicted for murder before sundown Wednesday. I guarantee it."
Presley squints at me as though measuring me for a shroud. "You keep pushing for that trial, you won't live to see Wednesday. And that fag bodyguard you got out there won't be able to help you none."
"Who's going to kill me? You?"
"Me? I ain't leaving this trailer."
"Do the deal, Ray. It's your only chance."
"Me and the judge go back thirty years. I ain't no punk to roll over on my friends."
"You think Leo Marston is your friend?"
He jabs the shotgun at me. "I know you ain't."
The blonde's eyes track me over the sights of her rifle, all the way to the door. I shouldn't say another word, but Ruby's blood is calling to me from the ground.
"Where were you Tuesday afternoon, Ray?"
He cuts his eyes at the blonde, then looks back at me, a smug light in his eyes. "I believe I was delivering a message in town."
"A message," I repeat, recalling the flames eating through the roof of our house, the smell of Ruby's cooking flesh. My hands ball into fists at my sides.
"I don't think it got received, though," he says.
I step within two feet of him. "I'm going to settle that score, you piece of shit. You're going to die in the Parchman infirmary. They don't stock your Mexican cocktail there. And there aren't any blondes to take the edge off, as you like to put it. Not girls, anyway."
His thin lips part in a predatory smile, revealing small white teeth. "You'll be dead before I will. It's coming now, and you don't even see it."
When I open the door, the sun hits my eyes like a flashbulb, but it feels good to get out of the stinking trailer.
Kelly is standing by the cars. "Accomplish anything?" he asks.
When I reach the cars, he pats me on the shoulder. "Let's go back to town, boss."
One of the things that has always separated Natchez from other Mississippi towns is that if you want a drink you can get it, no matter the day or hour.
Kelly suggests the Under the Hill Saloon (a national treasure of a bar), but a big crowd gathers there on Sundays to watch the sun set over the river, and they start celebrating early.
A crowd is not what I want right now.
The bar at Biscuits and Blues is oak and runs a good thirty feet down one wall, with a mirror behind it and glittering bottles and glasses stacked in front. The restaurant is empty but for a couple eating in a booth against the wall opposite the bar. Clanks and clatters filter through the heavy kitchen doors, but otherwise the atmosphere is perfect.
I order Scotch, Kelly the same. Our reflections watch us from the mirror behind the bar like solemn relatives visiting from a cold northern country. When the whisky comes, I swallow a shot big enough to steal my breath, then wipe my mouth on my jacket sleeve. Kelly sips with a deep centeredness, like a man who has known life without luxuries and wants to savor them while he can. He doesn't talk. He doesn't look at me. He stares through the bottom of his glass, as though pondering the grain of the wood beneath. Yet I am certain that every movement in the restaurant-even on the street outside-registers on his mental radar. Kelly is covering me even now.
"Did you have a maid when you grew up?"
His head bobs once. Then I hear soft laughter, an ironic chuckle.
"My mother was a maid."
He glances at me from the corner of his eye, then looks back into his glass. Embarrassment is not exactly what I feel. It's more like mortification. I'm trying to think of how to apologize when he says, "Nothing wrong with being a maid. It's honest work. Like soldiering."
I want to hug him for that.
"How long did Ruby work for your family?"
"Thirty-five years. She came when I was three."
"That's a long time."
"And she burned to death. Because of what I'm doing, she burned to death."
Kelly rotates his stool and puts his foot on a crosspiece of mine. "Can I ask you something?"
"Why are you doing what you're doing?"
"The truth? I don't know. In the beginning I wanted to nail a guy who hurt my father a long time ago. And me." I take another shot of Scotch, and this one brings sweat to my skin. "That's a bad reason, I guess."
"Not so bad."
"It's not worth Ruby's life."
"No. But that's not the only reason you're doing it. You're trying to set a murder right. And from what I can tell, it needs setting right. I've watched you these last few days. You're a crusader. I knew some in the service, and you're one of them. I've got a feeling you saw some horrible atrocity when you were young. A race murder or something. Something that's weighed you down a long time."
"No. I never saw anything like that. Not much of that happened around here, to tell you the truth."
I swallow the remainder of my Scotch and signal the bartender for a refill. "What I do remember… it probably won't sound like anything. I was in the fourth grade when integration started here. I was in the public school then. The first semester they sent twenty black kids into our school. Twenty. Into an all-white school. The black kid in my grade was named Noble Jackson. Nobody was horrible to those kids. Not overtly. But every day at recess, we'd be out there playing ball or whatever, and Noble Jackson would be standing off at the edge of the playground by himself. Just standing there watching us. Excluded. I guess he tried to play the first couple of days, and nobody picked him for anything. Every day he just stood there by himself. Staring, kicking rocks, not understanding. The next semester my parents moved me to St. Stephens."
The Scotch has soured in my stomach. "Now that I'm older, I know that kid's parents made a conscious decision to do something very hard. Something my parents wouldn't do. They risked their child's education, maybe even his life, put him into a situation where it would be almost impossible for him to learn because of the pressure. They did that because somebody had to do it. When I think of that kid, I don't feel very good. Because exclusion is the worst thing for a child. It's a kind of violence. And the effects last a long time. I think maybe Noble Jackson is part of the reason I'm doing this."
"What happened to him? Where'd he end up?"
"I have no idea. I've often wondered. Wherever he is, I'll bet he got the hell out of the South as soon as he could."
We return to our drinks, both lost in our own thoughts. As the bartender returns to refill his glass, Kelly says, "Got a phone book, chief?"
The bartender turns around and takes one from beneath the telephone. The Natchez phone book is only a half-inch thick, including the yellow pages. Kelly flips through it, then runs his finger down a page. "Here's your man. Noble Jackson."
A strange tightness constricts my chest. "That's probably his father."
"Let me borrow that phone," Kelly says to the bartender.
"You bet." Kelly takes the phone and dials the number, watching me in the mirror. "Hello, I'm calling for Noble… It is? This is Sergeant Kelly, Noble. Daniel Kelly… You don't recognize my voice? From Bragg?… Fort Bragg. I'm trying to track down some members of our old unit… You're kidding me, right?… Never been in the service? You're shining me, man. Well, Noble always said he was going to get out of Mississippi as soon as he could… Yeah? How old are you?… Well, that's the right age. What you do for a living?… Ha. Noble sure didn't know nothing about engines. You married?… No kidding. Man, I'm sorry I bothered you. My mistake all the way. You have a good Sunday, chief."
Kelly hangs up, and the bartender puts the phone back in front of the mirror.
"Noble Jackson works as a mechanic for Goodyear. He's thirty-eight years old, married with four kids, and he's lived in Natchez his whole life. He sounds happier about it than a lot of people would be."
This knowledge, mundane as it sounds, somehow eases my grief over Ruby. "Kelly, you're a funny guy."
His eyes twinkle. "That has been said."
He looks past me, and I hear the restaurant door open behind me. His expression tells me that whoever came in is a woman, an attractive one. I find myself hoping it's Caitlin.
"Female inbound on your six," he says. "You know her?"
I rotate my stool and watch a tanned brunette walk toward me. It's Jenny, the waitress. She's wearing black jeans and a T-shirt that says lilith fair. Her dark hair is swept back from her neck, and her large brown eyes are shining. She gives me a shy wave as she reaches us.
"Jenny, this is Daniel Kelly."
She smiles and shakes Kelly's hand, then looks back at me. "I'm surprised to see you here. Isn't the funeral today?"
"We just came from there."
"Oh. Um, could I talk to you for a minute?"
She looks furtively at Kelly. "Alone, I mean?"
Kelly starts to slide off his stool, but Jenny takes his arm and holds him there. "I didn't mean for you to leave."
"How about one of those booths?" I suggest.
"Well… I was hoping you'd come upstairs. To my apartment. Just for a minute."
My mental alarm is ringing now, soft but steady. Even modest fame can attract some strange people and propositions, and legal complications often follow. Caitlin pegged Jenny as having a fixation on me the first time she saw her. Maybe she's right.
"It's practically deserted in here," I say. "Let's just grab a booth."
Jenny suddenly looks on the verge of tears. "It's nothing weird, I promise. It's… personal. It has to do with what you're working on. Your case."
Curiosity muffles the alarm in my head. "The Payton case? What do you know about that?"
She glances at the bartender, who's totaling numbers on a calculator a few feet away. "It has to do with the Marston family."
I'm convinced. "Okay. Upstairs it is. Have another on me, Kelly."
"Glad to, boss. Keep your pants on."
Jenny leads me to the rear of the restaurant, where a spiral staircase winds up to the second floor. We pass some long tables set up for a party, then climb a short flight of stairs to a small landing and a red door. Jenny takes a key from her pocket, opens the door, and waits for me to go through.
Her apartment is as spartan as the cell of a lifer. You could bounce a quarter off the bed, and the linens are surprisingly masculine. A tall set of shelves stands against the wall to my right, and it's filled from top to bottom with books. Literary novels mostly, though the familiar spines of my books are among them, along with Martin Cruz Smith, Donna Tartt, and Peter Hoeg. There's no television, but a boom box sits beside the bed, an Indigo Girls concert flyer tacked to the wall above it. Caitlin's suspicion that Jenny has a crush on me is looking less accurate by the second.
With careful steps Jenny crosses the room to the far corner, where a microwave oven and coffeemaker stand on a table beside a lavatory. She pours water from a Kentwood bottle into the coffee carafe, then from the carafe to the coffeemaker. Her back is to me, but she appears to be concentrating on her movements.
"Is green tea okay?" she asks.
A spoon jangles loudly in a cup. Jenny's hands are shaking.
"Are you okay?" I ask.
She nods quickly, still facing away from me. "Just nervous."
"How do you know the Marston family? Are you originally from Natchez?"
"No." She turns and faces me, revealing the anxiety in her eyes. I have a sudden intuition that she's about to tell me Leo Marston forced her to commit some sexual act, or perhaps got her pregnant. She's far too young for him, but if an impoverished killer like Ray Presley can rob the cradle, why can't Leo Marston?
"But you know the Marstons," I press her.
"I know Olivia."
Olivia. "Does Livy have something to do with the Payton case?"
"I don't know."
"Jenny, why don't you just tell me what you know? Start at the beginning, and let me decide how important it is."
She shakes her head. "You've got the wrong idea. I mean-I misled you a little. This isn't about your case."
My alarm is ringing again, full volume now. "Then what's it about?"
"This is so hard for me." She wrings her hands and looks at the ceiling, then focuses her glistening eyes on mine. "I think-I mean, I'm pretty sure- Mr. Cage, I'm pretty sure you're my father."