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A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z


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CHAPTER 36

I am standing at the Continental Airlines gate in Baton Rouge, searching the crowds of travelers for Daniel Kelly as fear slowly devours me from the inside. A week ago I stood a few yards from here, entranced by the sight of Livy Marston. Now I stand shaking from adrenaline and lack of sleep, wondering whether Dwight Stone survived the night, and whether I will live to defend myself at my slander trial, which is scheduled to begin in less than twenty-four hours.

Kelly should have been here hours ago, but I've seen no sight of him. A dozen businessmen who could be FBI agents have passed me, stared at me, even bumped into me, but none has tried to stop me. So far, anyway. If Kelly doesn't show in the next five minutes, I'm going to try to reach Natchez on my own.

Last night Tiny McSwain drove me all the way to Denver and dropped me at an airport motel. I paid cash and checked in under a false name, then lay in the chilly darkness, unable to sleep. Twice I lifted the phone to call the Colorado state police and send them up the mesa after Stone. I had visions of him lying wounded beside the Slate River, his attackers dead, him dying but savable if he reached a surgeon in time. But Stone's orders came back to me, and each time I set the phone down.

Instead I called Sam Jacobs in Natchez, being fairly sure that his phone would not be tapped. The geologist promised to visit Caitlin Masters first thing in the morning and, through her, instruct Kelly to be at the Baton Rouge airport by ten a.m. and to meet every plane arriving from Dallas after that time. I know Jacobs well enough to know he followed through.

But Kelly isn't here.

When I did finally close my eyes last night, I saw nightmarish images of Leo Marston raping Livy as a child, forcing her into a conspiracy of silence, raising her in a schizophrenic world of material bounty and spiritual agony, somehow maintaining such a hold on her that she still allowed him sexual access at the age of eighteen. When I pondered the nature of that hold, I felt the dread and horror I felt the first time I saw Roman Polanski's Chinatown.

The dread came when Faye Dunaway told Jack Nicholson that the young woman she had been hiding was her daughter and her sister. The horror arrived with the next line when Jack, reaching for a thread of sanity, asked about her father: "He raped you?" and Dunaway looked up and slowly shook her head. All sanity spun away with this terrible confession. I remember something similar from reading Anais Nin in college, that Nin had seduced her father several times; but Nin had been profligate in her sexual adventures, and besides, she was French. The idea of Livy Marston voluntarily having sex with her father simply would not set in my mind as reality.

"Continental Airlines passenger Penn Cage, please pick up the nearest white courtesy phone."

It takes a moment for my name to sink in, but when it does, my fear escalates to alarm. The caller could be Kelly or Caitlin, but it could also be someone who means me great harm.

"Continental Airlines passenger Penn Cage, please pick up the nearest white courtesy phone."

There's a white phone across the concourse from me, near a bank of pay phones, but I can't make myself walk over to it. What if Portman's people are waiting to snatch whoever walks up to answer that call? On the other hand, what choice do I have? The caller could be Daniel Kelly.

"This is Penn," I say, picking up the phone.

"It's Kelly."

"Jesus, are you in the airport?"

"Yes, but we can't meet. Listen to me, Penn, we only have a few seconds."

Kelly's use of my first name rather than the facetious "boss" brings my inner self to attention. "What is it?"

"Portman's men are in the airport right now. You're going to have to get home on your own. I'm going to divert these guys, but you have to move fast."

"I'm listening."

"My Taurus is parked in sight of the terminal, in the short-term lot, space A-27. The keys are under the mat, and there's a cell phone under the seat. You got that?"

"A-27."

"Right. Next: downstairs, near the baggage carousels, there's an Infiniti Q45 on display. I left a gun sitting on the left inside lip of the rear bumper."

"Jesus-"

"Listen. You get that gun, get to the car, and haul your ass back to Natchez."

"What are you going to do?"

"Buy you some time. But you've got another problem. I haven't been straight with you. Nobody at the company has. They've reported every move you've made to Portman."

My chest goes hollow. "How do you know that?"

"Because we 're reporting every move you make back to the office. And we don't usually do that. Our CEO is former FBI, you know. And John Portman could swing a lot of corporate business to Argus any time he feels like it."

The implications of Kelly's revelation ricochet through my mind. "Is my family safe?"

"Argus doesn't kill people. Other than in defense of a client, like the other night. But I'd find myself some new security, just to be on the safe side. Local boys maybe. Buddies are good, family's better."

"Kelly how do I know I can trust you?"

"Because you're alive. And because I'm telling you this."

"Why are you telling me?"

A brief silence. "I think it's got something to do with the way you buried your maid. Now, get your ass out of here. Walk fast, but don't run. And if you hear shooting, don't look back."

His order is an exact echo of Stone's. "Kelly-"

"We'll be sharing a Scotch again before you know it. Move out."

Reluctantly hanging up the phone, I scan the concourse like a tailback picking holes in an offensive line, then start through the crowds at a rapid walk, looking back frequently for signs of pursuit. After clearing the metal detectors, I dodge a golf cart carrying a handicapped woman, then bound down the escalator to the baggage-collection point where Annie and I said goodbye to Caitlin Masters, before we knew who she was.

Parked in the middle of the floor is the Infiniti Q45. Midnight blue. I look around once, then crouch down and reach under the bumper, feeling along the inside lip for Kelly's gun. My fingers collide with something hard, but as I try to close them around it, the gun clatters to the floor. Glancing around at the people waiting for luggage, I drop to my stomach and sweep my hand across the tile, and the gun skitters into my chest.

It's Kelly's Browning Hi-Power.

I jam the pistol into my waistband beneath my shirt and trot past the rental car desks to the glass doors leading to the outdoor parking lot. I've heard no shots or even shouts since my conversation with Kelly, but this actually increases my anxiety. Did he manage to divert whoever was waiting for me? Or is he lying dead beneath a pay phone, the slug from a silenced pistol in his head?

The Taurus is parked sixty yards from the terminal. I can see it from the doors. Exiting the terminal with a group of LSU fraternity guys, I fall in with them until they stop near a Blazer thirty yards from the door, then break for the Taurus at a flat-out sprint. To my surprise, the wind cuts through my jacket with a cold bite. Maybe fall has come to Mississippi at last.

Laying Kelly's pistol on the seat beside me, I retrieve the keys, crank the engine, and force myself to drive normally as I leave the lot. In ten minutes I'm on Highway 61. Natchez lies eighty miles to the north, but much of the road is two-lane blacktop and heavily traveled by log trucks. The trip can be agonizingly slow during the day.

I reach under the seat for the cell phone, switch it on, and dial the Natchez Examiner. Caitlin has been handling the transportation of my out-of-town witnesses. Huey Moak and Lester Hinson are scheduled to arrive in Baton Rouge tonight, and we'd planned to have one of the Argus men pick them up.

"Penn?" Caitlin asks, after a minute of hold music.

"Yes. Remember, your phone's tapped."

"What's going on? I've been freaking out here."

"Have you asked any of the Argus guys to pick up the witnesses yet?"

"Not yet. I can call them now."

"Don't."

"Why not?"

"Just don't. Don't even mention it. I'll be there soon, and I'll handle it. Hang tight until then. Stay inside the newspaper building if you can."

"Penn, Kelly was acting a little strange before he left. Like I might not see him again."

You might not. "Things are pretty fluid right now. I'm on my way."

"Listen. An hour ago my receptionist told me I had a call from the editor of the Rocky Mountain News. When I got to the phone, he told me he was sending a reporter down to cover your trial, and he wanted to know if the guy could use our office facilities."

"And?"

"He said the reporter's name was Bookbinder. Henry Bookbinder."

Bookbinder. Stone's dead partner. And the Rocky Mountain News is based in Denver. I want to scream with joy, but I just say, "Did he say when this reporter would arrive?"

"Only that he'd be here in time to cover the trial. And there's something else."

"What?"

"CNN, Court TV, and some others have been pressing Judge Franklin to allow the trial to be televised."

"Cameras aren't allowed in Mississippi courtrooms."

"I know, but this is a civil case. Apparently if both parties agree, the judge could allow it."

"But why would Leo agree? Portman would tear him a new one if he did."

"CNN and the other networks have been saying publicly that if Marston and Portman have nothing to hide, they should have no problem with cameras. It's a PR nightmare for Portman. It's extortion, basically. I assume you'd have no objection to cameras?"

"Of course not."

"Good, because I already told a CNN reporter that you didn't."

"That's fine. Listen, if that 'reporter' you mentioned shows up, keep him inside the building until I get there."

"I will."

"Thanks. I'll be there before you know it."

As I hang up the phone, I yell, "You tough old son of a bitch!" Though he is probably a thousand miles away right now, Dwight Stone is almost certainly alive. If he can reach Natchez by tomorrow morning without being killed, my slander trial will provide more fireworks than the city has seen in decades. And Leo Marston will be indicted for murder. Only now that prospect does not offer even a shadow of the satisfaction it would have two days ago. If I'm right about Leo being Jenny Doe's father, every judgment I ever made about Livy Marston was wrong. In my mind she has already been transformed from a privileged princess into a tragic figure, a lost girl trying to find her way.

I try to keep the Taurus under the speed limit. A state trooper has haunted this stretch of road for years, handing out tickets like confetti. As the hardwood forest drifts past, I lean back in the seat and force myself to ponder one of the connections that came to me last night in the darkness of the Denver motel. Sometime near dawn a remarkable and frightening idea struck me. A possible link between Del Payton and Leo Marston. Dwight Stone believes Ray Presley randomly chose Del Payton to be murdered. But if my theory of paternal incest is true, there could be a secret link joining the Payton and Marston families, one which Dwight Stone would have known nothing about.

Althea Payton.

Althea is a nurse now. She works in the hospital nursery. But where did she work in the 1960s? Could she have worked for a private physician? A pediatrician perhaps? Is it possible that she noticed some physical evidence of sexual abuse while handling Livy Marston and reported it to the doctor? If she had, what would have been the likely result? In the 1960s sexual abuse of children was grossly underreported, and became public only in the most egregious cases. A man as powerful as Leo Marston would have had little to fear from a doctor, especially if the evidence was equivocal. And even if it wasn't, would the doctor have the nerve to confront Leo? To bring in the police to investigate the district attorney?

Of course, Leo Marston would never have been to the pediatrician's office.

He wouldn't have taken time out of his day to carry his daughter to the doctor. Maude would have done that. A pediatrician might have been more comfortable bringing certain suspicious symptoms to the mother's attention. But if he wasn't, a compassionate nurse certainly might have. Mother to mother. I can see Althea Payton doing that. Pulling Maude aside and pointing out a couple of things. In the interest of the child.

What would Leo have done if Maude had confronted him with such a thing? Denied it, of course. Deny, deny, deny. Then he would have demanded to know the source of Maude's suspicions. If she told him it was Althea, what then? Killing Althea would certainly silence her. But it was Del who had died, not his wife. Perhaps Leo had initially taken no action. But later, when the necessity arose to kill a black man to make an example for the Georgia carpet magnate, had Leo chosen Del Payton out of some perverse desire to strike back at the woman who had threatened him? A wild scenario perhaps. But Leo long ago demonstrated his penchant for holding grudges. Whatever the case, unraveling the truth of this low tragedy will be a nightmare for everyone involved. The idea of confronting Livy with my deductions leaves me numb.

A few miles before I reach town, I call Sam Jacobs at work, tell him my family might be in danger, and ask for his help. Jacobs is thirty-eight years old, with a wife and two kids, but by the time I arrive at the Prentiss Motel, he is parked outside with a.357 Magnum sitting on the front seat of his Hummer. When I see that, I know I am looking at the Jewish boy who discovered the list of Klansmen and White Citizens' Council members in his father's attic with me twenty-five years ago.

With Sam beside me, I inform the three remaining Argus security men that their services are no longer required. It's an awkward moment, but they say little and leave the motel with expressionless faces. I'm tempted to tell them to pass a message to their boss when they get back to Houston-that he should look forward to a multimillion-dollar lawsuit-but I don't want to do anything that might hurt Daniel Kelly in the future.

My parents are stunned by my action, but as soon as I explain what Kelly told me, my father gets on the phone and speaks to two patients of his-avid hunters-and they promise to arrive within the hour, loaded for bear. Dad then makes my day by informing me that while I was in Crested Butte, he finally persuaded Betty Lou Beckham to take the witness stand tomorrow and tell the jury that she saw Ray Presley in the Triton Battery parking lot only seconds after Del Payton died.

What we need now is a new place to stay, a secure location, and it's my mother who solves this problem. When our house burned, a friend of Mom's offered us rooms in her bed-and-breakfast, which occupies the slave quarters of her home, Aquitaine, a massive Greek Revival mansion completed in 1843. Not wanting to impose on her friend's hospitality, Mom declined. But these are special circumstances, and the fall Pilgrimage has just ended, so our staying there won't cost the chatelaine her peak season fees. One phone call secures us lodgings in the slave quarters of Aquitaine.

Since the fire destroyed most of our things, moving from the motel to the mansion is relatively painless. The two-story slave quarters was sited across the ornamental gardens from the main house, which occupies most of a city block on the north side of town, near Stanton Hall. Once we're settled in our rooms, I order out for pizza and spend the forty-minute wait playing with Annie in the garden. She dances around the rim of the central fountain like a gymnast, oblivious to the anxiety mounting in the adults as the hours tick down to tomorrow's trial. That she does not pick up on our feelings shows me just how far she has come in her journey from the hypersensitive state that followed Sarah's death.

After devouring my share of pizza, I deal with the messages that came in while I was in Crested Butte. Althea Payton called several times, but the most persistent caller was Ike Ransom. Dad says Ike is desperate to talk to me, and that he sounded both angry and afraid during their conservations. I call Althea and give her an encouraging update, editing the violence into a less frightening picture. Nevertheless, she tells me that Del Jr. wants to help me any way he can, and that she's going to send him over to "help keep the no-goods away" until the trial. In less than an hour, Del arrives carrying a sawed-off shotgun, and takes up a post on the balcony of the slave quarters, overlooking the street.

Which leaves me Ike.

I am not particularly anxious to talk to him after the way he acted at Ruby's funeral. Whatever the source of his hatred for Leo Marston, it has pushed him into unstable territory. Ike clearly has both a drug and alcohol problem, and since he is unwilling or unable to provide me with any facts that will help prove Marston guilty of murder in a court of law, I see no urgent need to call him.

I call Ray Presley instead. Dwight Stone's revelation that Marston gave up Presley to the Feds as part of his deal with J. Edgar Hoover was music to my "lawyer's ear." Presley considers Leo Marston his friend, and loyalty is the supreme virtue to men of Presley's ilk. But if Ray was to learn that the five years he spent in Parchman were courtesy of Leo Marston, his attitude toward the judge might change fast. But whether he will or not remains a mystery, because Presley doesn't answer his phone.

I am working up the courage to call Livy when the telephone rings in my room. Somehow Ike Ransom has discovered that we've moved to Aquitaine, and he wants to see me. He got my phone number from the main house. I start to beg off, but he stops me cold. He has, he says, what we've been looking for since day one. Hard evidence linking Leo Marston to Payton's murder. He will say no more, and he refuses to come to the B amp;B. He insists on a face-to-face meeting and says I must come alone. When I ask why, he tells me that no one can know he is the source for what he's about to tell me.

"Where do you want to meet?" I ask, recalling the feeling of being shot at in the warehouse by the river and not liking it too much.

"You're three blocks away from it," he replies.

"Where are you talking about?"

"The old pecan-shelling plant."

An image of a hulking brown brick building where I sold the pecans I collected as a boy comes into my mind. It is set right on the edge of the bluff, and as Ike said, it's only three blocks west of where I am now.

"What about the surveillance on me here?"

"Slip out the back alley on foot. They lookin' for that BMW. Or you could send your Jew buddy out first in the BMW, then come on in that Maxima your mama got."

It's nearly dark, and I want to refuse, largely out of fear. But Ike is offering something of which I have precious little: hard evidence. Dwight Stone's testimony could be powerful, but without his FBI files to back him up, it will be his word against Marston's (and Portman's too, if the FBI director decides to honor my subpoena). Hard evidence is worth a three-block trip.

"When?" I ask.

"Thirty minutes. The place is an equipment-storage yard now. Drive around to the left side of the building. The chain on the gate'll be cut."

"I'll be there."

I hang up and speak to Sam Jacobs on the balcony, and Sam declares himself ready to draw off the surveillance long enough to get me clear of Aquitaine.

The old pecan-shelling plant stands on prime real estate in Natchez's old warehouse district, a sort of no-man's-land between the town proper and a sleepy residential area filled with Victorian gems. It has an unobstructed view of the river, and one day will probably be the site of a luxury hotel. At the moment it is an eerily lighted compound surrounded by a high fence and razor wire, with the rigid arms of great cranes jutting against the night sky.

As Ike promised, the chained gate on the left side of the building has been cut open. I nose the Maxima through it without getting out, and negotiate my way through backhoes, draglines, and D-9 bulldozers parked like Patton's army marshaling for a campaign. I can't see the river, but forty yards to my left, the bluff drops away to a vast dark sky, leaving the impression that I'm driving along the edge of a mountain.

Out of the blackness to my right, a pink and blue light bar strobes like a carnival, then vanishes. I slow nearly to a stop, trying to place the location of Ike's cruiser.

There.

I turn right and idle toward the main building. As the black silhouette looms over me, the lights flash again. In their light I see that Ike has opened the old truck door of the plant and is parked in it. As I approach, he starts his engine and pulls forward, leaving me plenty of room to pull inside the building. I park the Maxima beside his cruiser and shut off the engine. Kelly's Browning is in the glove box, but I don't want to cause any kind of reflex reaction in Ike, especially if he's wired on speed.

Ike is standing by my passenger door, between his car and mine. I get out and walk around the trunk of the Maxima, extending my hand to shake his.

"What have you got, Ike?"

He holds out his hand, but instead of shaking he grabs my wrist and jerks me to my knees on the concrete floor. As I try to look up, something slams into the top of my skull. The blow drives every thought out of my head, leaving only white noise. My first coherent perception is of something cold and hard pressed against my hairline.

"That's a gun," he says. "Don't fucking move."

The terror generated by the gun barrel is absolute, paralyzing. If any muscle in my body is moving, it's the sphincter of my bladder. "Ike? What the hell are you doing?"

His breath is ragged above me, like a sick animal's.

"Ike?"

"Where the fuck you been?" he shouts, and the reek of cheap whiskey rolls over me like steam. "Answer me, goddamn it!"

"Ike, what's wrong? Let's talk face to face, man."

"I said, where the fuck have you been?"

"Colorado! I went back to see Stone."

"I knew it! You sneaky son of a bitch. You been holding out the whole time. What that motherfucker tell you?"

"He told me what we want to know. He told me what happened here in sixty-eight. I've got Marston nailed, man."

He twists around me and jabs the gun into my cervical spine. "What did Stone say happened?"

"He told me why Marston wanted Payton dead. It was a land deal Marston stood to make a lot of money off some land, but he had to make an example of a black union worker first. He paid Presley to do it for him. Presley chose Payton."

"Bullshit!" Another fog of whiskey blows over me.

"What do you mean, bullshit?"

"Don't lie to me, goddamn it! Don't you lie!"

He jerks back the slide on the gun, and everything inside me goes into free fall. My thoughts, my courage, my blood pressure. "Ike, please I've got a little girl, man. Just tell me what the problem is and-"

The gun barrel rakes around my neck, under my jaw, up my right cheek to my eye. All I can see now is the taut belly of Ike's brown uniform.

"Get up," he says coldly. "Get up!"

The gun barrel stays screwed into my eye socket as I rise, but my terror abates slightly. The prospect of dying on my knees was as debasing as it was frightening.

Ike's gun is shaking. As he pulls it out of my eye socket and lays the barrel against my forehead, I see his eyes, bloodshot and jerky, the eyes of a man in agony.

"You a goddamn liar," he says. "I shoulda known a white boy wouldn't go against his own in the end. You been dicking that Marston bitch all along. You in with 'em all the way." He shakes his head as though at his own stupidity. "Setting up to get the nigger. Like always."

"Ike, I have no idea what you're talking about. I'm setting up to get Leo Marston, and I'm going to use Ray Presley to do it. If I can find him. Dwight Stone and Ray Presley are going to send that bastard to the extermination chamber at Parchman."

But Ike isn't listening. At the word Presley, his eyes glaze over with blind rage. "That fucking Presley he told you, didn't he?"

"Told me what? Talk to me, Ike! Something's been eating you up since we started this. What is it?"

He bites his lip and presses the gun harder against my forehead. Then suddenly he lets it drop to his side. "I didn't know what I was doing, man," he says in a desolate voice. "Hadn't been back in the World but three months. Couldn't get no kind of job. I applied with the police three times. They wouldn't even talk to me. Had all the Negro cops they needed, they said. Didn't have but three. Same with the sheriff. I'd done more police work in Saigon than them mother-fuckers done their whole lives, and they wouldn't even give me a chance."

I'm more confused than I've been since the start of this mess, but I'm not about to interrupt him.

"What else could I do, man?" he almost wails. "Wasn't gonna go on no welfare! I had to deal." He slaps at a mosquito on his sweating face. "Presley got me on a traffic stop. Just speeding, but he pulled his weapon and made me open my trunk. He found half a pound of white lady. Illegal search if I ever saw one, but you think that mattered back then? In them days he coulda sent me to Parchman for fifty years behind that much heroin."

A dark perception is blooming in the corner of my brain. A fetid, cloying orchid of a thought. "What did he want you to do, Ike?"

"Don't play that shit! You already know!"

The pain in his eyes is terrible to behold. I hold up both my hands. "I know what you tell me. That's all."

"What you think happened, man? Motherfucker put it to me right there on the side of the road. Said he had somebody needed killing. Said I'd been killing for Uncle for two years, what was one more? I knew what one more was. But what could I do, man? He had me. I didn't want to die on Parchman Farm. Presley took my dope and told me if I tried to back out, he'd plant it on me and bust me all over again."

"He wanted you to kill Del Payton?"

"What you think I been saying? "

The nausea of a roller coaster that hurtles in only one direction-down- sweeps over me as the whole sick plan falls together in my head.

"You asked Presley to get the C-4, didn't you?"

He stares at me with strangled emotion. "Presley wanted the car blown up. I didn't know nothing about dynamite, but I'd worked with C- 4 in 'Nam. I told him if he could get me some plastic, I could do the job."

"Jesus, Ike. Did you know Del?"

"No. He was ten years older than me. Grew up out to Pine Ridge."

"Did you know about his civil rights work?"

"Hell, no. I thought he was dicking a white woman or something. Didn't matter, though. I was so fucked up, I didn't know nothing 'bout nothing."

"Ike, listen what you did was terrible, but-"

"Don't you judge me!" he cries, the whites of his eyes making him look wild in the dark. "Don't you cast no stone! I been torturing myself thirty years. After I realized the work Del was doing, I just about went crazy. The whole town was marching for him. I wanted to scream out what I'd done, what Presley made me do. But I didn't have the guts. I couldn't face my own sin."

The diabolical irony of Ray Presley's plan leaves me cold. He actually blackmailed a black man into committing a civil rights murder. He and Marston must have laughed for weeks over that one. They've been laughing for thirty years.

"Does Stone know this? Or does he really believe Presley killed Payton?"

"Stone? 'Course he knows. He came to see me back then. He had the whole thing dogged out."

"Why didn't he arrest you? Why didn't he tell me about you?"

Ike seems only partially aware of what I'm saying. "I don't know why. He was different, I guess."

"Why didn't you tell me all this at the start?"

"What could I tell you, man? I knew what I'd done. I knew about Presley. But that's all. I knew what happened, but I didn't know why. And that was the only way you were gonna get Marston."

"But how did you know Marston was involved? Did Presley tell you?"

"He didn't tell me shit. A year after it happened, somebody called me on the phone. Wouldn't say nothing. I was about to hang up when they started playing this tape. It was Marston and Presley, talking about Del being killed. Talking about me. I figured it was Stone. Had to be."

Stone must have called and played Ike Ransom the copy he'd made of the evidence tape he'd sent to J. Edgar Hoover. And his reason, I suspect, was a dark one. "Thirty years, Ike. Thirty years. Couldn't you figure a way to trade what you knew for immunity, or-"

"Who was I gonna go to, man?" Spittle flies from his mouth. "The FBI already knew what had gone down. And they didn't arrest nobody! A few years later I tried to find Stone, but the Bureau had fired his ass. Portman was a U.S. attorney, and I knew better than to trust that Yankee piece of shit. And Marston was on the state supreme court! What's a drunk nigger cop from Mississippi gonna do against people swingin' that kind of weight? You tell me."

"Then why tell me? Why try at all after thirty years?"

His broad shoulders sag as though under a great weight, and he speaks toward the floor. "I didn't have no choice. It ate at me so long I thought it would get better over time, but it got worse. A few months back, I found myself going to church. Not wanting to needing to. You know? Being raised Catholic, I guess. Don't matter if you stop goin'. You can give up on God, but it don't matter. 'Cause He don't give up on you."

The tortured paths this man has pushed himself down are beyond any imagining. "Ike, you came to me knowing you could go to jail for the rest of your life. That you could be executed. That means a lot. And I've figured a way to turn Presley against Marston. If you'll get on that witness stand tomorrow and tell the truth-"

"Is Stone gonna testify?"

"Yes."

"Is he here in town?"

This isn't the time to lie. "No. But he's on his way here. Some people tried to kill us last night. Portman's guys probably. We got split up."

Ike starts pacing back and forth, patting the Sig-Sauer against his leg. "But he's alive?"

"You can't let your decision be based on what Stone does. This thing's eating you alive because you know you did wrong. Terrible wrong. It's got nothing to do with you or me. You owe it to Althea Payton to tell the truth. You owe it to Del. You owe it to yourself, man."

"I don't owe nobody but God!" The Sig jerks up again, aimed at my chest now. "You don't know how close it's been. At first I thought maybe you could nail Marston without me having to go down. But that was stupid. Crazy. The closer you got to the truth, the more I saw I was gonna have to pay the piper, no matter what. One night I got so drunk I thought about killing you, just to stop it all. That night you left the newspaper by yourself I was right behind you."

My heart feels like a ball of lead.

"I couldn't do it, though. Part of me just wanted to pay, I guess. Father Tom says you got to. But I can't go to Parchman Farm. I done sent too many brothers there myself. I can't die in them cotton fields up there."

"You won't have to, Ike. CNN will be covering that trial tomorrow. You get on the stand and tell the story you just told me, you'll have Johnnie Cochran down here begging to defend you. What you did was wrong, but you're the least guilty of the three by far. I think Stone believed that too. You know what the right thing is. That's why you came to me in the first place."

He lets his gun fall again, then half turns from me and murmurs in the dark. "I started out all right. But I turned off somewhere. That day my shoulder got hurt, everything started going down."

He holsters his pistol and walks past me, toward the wide door, and looks out at the luminous clouds scudding over the river. Beyond him I can see a few stars, infinitely small on this first cool night. He turns back to face me, but since he's silhouetted in the door, I cannot see his features.

"I'll do it," he says. "Father Tom gonna think I'm the best man he ever knew. But he gonna be the only one. Every black man, woman, and child in this country gonna curse my name."

He half turns again, and a dim shaft of light illuminates his face. In eight years as a prosecutor, I never saw a man look so lost.

Ike opens his mouth to say something, then flings an arm out as though to grab me, but he can't because he's flying backward, snatched like a puppet on a string. Before he hits the floor, a peal of thunder booms through the warehouse.

"Ike!"

He doesn't answer. He's lying facedown on the dirty floor, blood pumping from a fist-sized hole where his left shoulder blade used to be.


CHAPTER 35 | The Quiet Game | CHAPTER 37