An hour before jury selection in the slander trial of Penn Cage, the police blocked motor-vehicle access to the streets surrounding the Natchez courthouse. The television vans had already been let through, at least eight, despite the fact that only crews from CNN and the black-owned Jackson station would be allowed inside the courtroom.
Judge Franklin's decision to allow cameras in her court was a landmark in Mississippi jurisprudence, and she had carefully defended it in her pretrial order. Besides stating that Marston v. Cage was a civil case and that both parties to the suit had agreed to have the proceedings televised, Franklin observed that community interest in the Payton murder-which was the central issue of the trial-was at such a pitch that the "window into the court" provided by the news camera could go a long way toward fostering the perception of fair and impartial justice.
The police roadblocks did nothing to limit the crowds outside the courthouse. Caitlin's newspaper account of the deaths of Ike Ransom and Ray Presley had electrified the city. Black families laid out blankets beneath the oak trees on the north lawn, and endured without complaint the desultory showers that had fallen since dawn. The whites stood mostly on the south lawn, huddled under umbrellas with Calvinist stoicism. The division was not solely racial; there was intermingling at the edges of each crowd, but for the most part a natural segregation had occurred. Police officers milled through the throngs, watching for verbal altercations that could all too easily spark violence under the circumstances.
None of this concerned me as I entered the courthouse flanked by two sheriff's deputies. All I could think about was Dwight Stone. Except for the strange call Caitlin had received yesterday, saying that Stone's dead FBI partner would be at the trial, I'd heard nothing. This morning Caitlin picked up a story off the AP wire saying that four unidentified men had been found dead in the mountains near Crested Butte, Colorado. This buttressed my hope that Stone had at least survived our encounter by the river, but many hours had passed since then. I tried calling his daughter several times but had no luck. Dwight Stone seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth.
In a city with over six hundred antebellum buildings, more than sixty of which are mansions, one might expect the courtrooms to be marvels of architectural splendor, spacious and high-ceilinged, paneled with oak and smelling faintly of lemon oil. In fact, while the original Natchez courthouse was built in 1818, and has been expanded several times since, its second-floor courtrooms are small compared to those in Houston, and surprisingly functional in character.
The circuit court has seven rows of benches for spectators, with another six in an upstairs balcony at the rear, several of which have been co-opted today by the cameras of CNN and WLBT. Viewed from the rear door, the jury box stands against the right wall, with the door to the jury room in the far right corner. The witness box stands to the right of the judge's bench and, awkwardly, a little behind it, attached to the rear wall. The judge's bench is set on a dais at the center, with desks for the court reporter and circuit clerk extending forward into the room at right angles to the bench. The reporter sits on the right, the clerk and his deputy on the left. Beyond the clerk's desk on the left is a large, open space for the presentation of exhibits. The lawyer's tables stand just beyond the bar, not far separated from the clerk's and reporter's desks, with the podium beside the table on the right. The only touches of Southern atmosphere are the white capitals of the Doric columns visible through the windows behind the judge's bench, and the intertwining oak branches beyond them, which give an unexpected airiness to the otherwise close room. And then there is the clock on the wall. Symbolically enough, it has no hands, and I am reminded of Carson McCullers's dark and poignant novel. She would feel right at home in the midst of the strange and tragic case that has brought us here today.
Walking up the aisle toward my table to begin the voir dire phase of the trial, I receive one of the greatest shocks of my life. Seated at the plaintiff's table alongside Leo Marston and Blake Sims is Livy Marston Sutter. She doesn't look up at me, but any fleeting hope that she might be here for moral support is quickly banished by her appearance. From her pulled-back hair to her tailored navy suit and Prada shoes, she is every inch a lawyer. Every movement precise, every glance measured, Livy radiates a self-assurance that draws the eyes of everyone in sight of her, producing in both men and women a desire for her attention and approval.
Blake Sims looks dowdy beside her. He wears the traditional uniform of the Ole Miss lawyer: blue blazer, white pinpoint button-down, striped tie, dress khakis, and cordovan wing tips. His face is pink and fleshy, the face of a student council president, with sandy blond hair and blue eyes. The more I think about Sims, the more obvious it becomes why Leo wants Livy here.
Leo himself sits facing the bench with imperious detachment. He is a head taller than Blake Sims, and his close-cropped silver hair and chiseled features give him the look of a wise but austere judge, which he was. Four decades spent roaming the corridors of power have served him well. His tailored English suit was made for the television cameras, and no one looking at him this morning would suspect that he executed a man last night.
Moving toward my table, I scan the faces of the spectators who have managed to get into the packed courtroom. This morning I arranged with the bailiff that my parents be allowed in, with Sam Jacobs escorting them, and also Althea and Georgia Payton, with Del Jr. All are seated in the second row on the right, behind my table. The first row was roped off for city officials, who have turned out in force. Mayor Warren and District Attorney Mackey shoot me glares whenever I look their way. Beyond them are many faces from my youth and, peppered among these, the characters who have populated my life for the past two weeks. Ex-police chief Willie Pinder. Reverend Nightingale. Some of the neighbors who helped search for Annie on the day of the fire. Charles Evers. What sobers me is my awareness of those who aren't here. Ruby. Ike. Ray Presley. Dwight Stone.
I shake hands with my father over the bar, then take my seat. As I begin reviewing the notes I made last night about questioning potential jurors, someone touches my shoulder. It's Caitlin Masters. For the first time since the cocktail party, she has abandoned her informal uniform of jeans and button-downs for a dress. A blue sleeveless one that emphasizes her lithe body. The effect is so profound that I simply stare at her.
"I do own dresses," she says, obviously pleased by my reaction.
"You look very nice. Any word from Stone?"
She bites her lip and shakes her head, then pats her pocket. "He has the number of the paper. They'll call me the second he or his daughter calls in."
"If he calls. Is Portman here?"
"They've got him in a room upstairs with five FBI agents." She reaches out and touches my forearm. "Hold on to your hat. They've got the governor up there too."
"The governor of what?"
"Mississippi. He's here as a character witness for Marston."
I feel my face flushing. "He's not on the witness list."
She gives me a "get real" look. "Do you think Judge Franklin is going to tell the governor to go back to Jackson without letting him take the stand?"
"Damn." I fight the urge to tear out a handful of my hair.
"Take it easy. African Americans hate the governor. Did you get any sleep?"
Sleep. Last night, after the police and the sheriff's department took turns grilling me for hours over the shootings at the pecan plant and at Tuscany, I met with Betty Lou Beckham and her husband. Mr. Beckham is totally against his wife testifying, but she promised my father she would, and she means to go through with it. Considering the embarrassment she will suffer when the circumstances that allowed her to witness the crime come to light, she is doing a brave thing indeed. After meeting the Beckhams I went to the Eola Hotel and woodshedded with Huey Moak and Lester Hinson, whom Kelly had delivered safely from Baton Rouge. When we finished, I spent the few hours before dawn trying to build a convincing case against Marston that did not rely on the testimony of Dwight Stone.
"Hang on as long as you can," Caitlin says, squeezing my hand. "If Stone is alive, he'll be here."
"Do you think Portman would be here if he thought there was any chance Stone would show? With TV cameras?"
"Don't second-guess yourself. You've got a murder to prove, and that's what you're good at. Pick your jury and forget the rest."
She gives my hand a final squeeze and walks back to the benches.
Judge Franklin enters the court wearing a black robe with a white lace collar, looking very different than she did the night she confiscated Leo's files from Tuscany. She's obviously had her hair done, and her makeup looks television-ready. She takes her seat on the bench, and the bailiff calls the court to order.
Blake Sims rises and informs the judge that Livy Marston Sutter has been retained as co-counsel, and with the court's permission will occupy the second chair at the plaintiff's table during the trial. Judge Franklin makes a show of asking if I have any objection, but she clearly expects me to go along. I could point out that Livy is not licensed in Mississippi, but with her considerable trial experience and Sims acting as lead counsel, I don't really have a leg to stand on.
Livy meets my eyes only once during the entire voir dire process, which turns out to be a surprise in itself. I had always assumed I would enjoy the advantage of a largely black jury. White professionals tend to use their jobs and influence to avoid jury duty, but this morning that tradition goes out the window. Not one white in the first group taken from the venire, or pool of potential jurors, tries to evade his civic responsibility. The usual excuses about job and health problems are not voiced, nor are distant blood relations to trial principals invoked. Every juror in the pool wants a front-row seat.
Blake Sims handles voir dire for Marston, pacing before the jury box in a rather annoying fashion while he questions the potential jurors about their backgrounds and what they've read in the newspapers. Most admit that they've read about the case (how could they have avoided it?) but claim they have formed no opinion as to the guilt or innocence of either party. Most of them are lying, of course. That's the way these things go. You can't keep human nature out of a human process.
As the voir dire progresses, I notice that Sims is avoiding direct questions about racial views. At first I thought this was circumspection; with cameras in the courtroom, he would want to avoid any hint of racial bias. But as he exercises his peremptory challenges, his strategy becomes clear. He has seen that he has a shot at a predominantly white jury, and he means to get it, even if it means breaking the law.
After Sims rejects the fourth black juror, I stand and make my first objection of the day, citing Batson v. Kentucky and the line of subsequent cases extending the prohibition against excluding potential jurors on the basis of race to civil cases. Judge Franklin immediately sustains my objection, and Livy finally turns in my direction. Her eyes hold nothing for me. They are merely the eyes of opposing counsel, acknowledging my small victory in a war that will see many more skirmishes before the issue is decided.
After this point the voir dire passes more quickly than any in my career. I judiciously exercise my peremptories, culling on the basis of instinct. When my mental radar picks up echoes of blue-collar or rural backgrounds combined with religious fundamentalism, I pull the trigger. I challenge some whites for cause after tripping them up on questions about prejudice, but most racists quickly figure out how to conceal their true beliefs. Nearly every potential juror admits knowing Leo Marston to some degree, so many that I cannot realistically disqualify them on this basis. By eleven-forty-five a.m., we have empaneled twelve jurors (seven white, five black) and two alternates. Judge Franklin recesses for lunch and instructs the lawyers to be ready for opening statements at one.
I eat a quick lunch with Caitlin in an empty conference room near the chancery court, gobbling deli sandwiches from Clara Nell's between calls to the newspaper to see whether they've heard anything from Stone or his daughter. They haven't. Then I hurry downstairs through a crowd of courthouse employees and rubbernecking lawyers to give my witnesses one last pep talk, paying particular attention to Betty Lou Beckham, who looks as though she might come apart at any moment. Admitting on the stand that she was fornicating in a car with a married man must be akin to donning a scarlet letter in the village square. If it wasn't for my father's influence, Betty Lou wouldn't be coming near this courthouse today. After holding her hand for a few minutes, I return to the crowded courtroom, sit at my table, and wait for one o'clock to tick around on the clock without hands.
Judge Franklin brings her court to order with a stern look, and Blake Sims rises from the plaintiff's table and walks to the podium to make his opening statement. Sims is the son of Leo Marston's former law partner (now deceased) and was raised in Greenville because of a divorce. He speaks with a cultured Delta accent rarely heard in Natchez, and though Greenville-the home of Hodding Carter's Delta Democrat-Times-was perhaps Mississippi's most liberal city during the civil rights era, Sims's accent might evoke some negative responses in the black jurors.
"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury," he begins. "My client needs no introduction. But allow me to say a few words about him. Leo Marston is one of the most distinguished figures in Mississippi jurisprudence. He is a former attorney general of Mississippi and former justice of the state supreme court. He is a friend and adviser to Mississippi congressmen, and has been for more than thirty years. He's a powerful business force for the city of Natchez, bringing industry and jobs to Adams County. He is also a pillar of the Catholic church, and a major supporter of charities in our area."
Sims leaves the podium and walks halfway to the jury box, testing Judge Franklin's formality. She makes no objection to his move. "With that in mind," he goes on, "I want to ask you a question. What is a man's name worth? The defendant in this case, Mr. Penn Cage, has signed an agreement stipulating to certain facts. First, that he uttered the vile charges in question. Second, that he uttered them in the full knowledge that they would be published in a newspaper. And third, that my client's reputation has been severely damaged by his charges. That being the case, I won't waste your valuable time trying to prove damages. Mr. Cage has publicly called my client a murderer. What more malicious charge could anyone make against another human being? Child molestation perhaps." Sims slowly bobs his head as though weighing this issue.
"My client does not contest the fact that a tragic murder took place in May of 1968. Mr. Cage may even have evidence against the man who committed that crime. But what he does not have-what he cannot possibly have-is evidence that Leo Marston had anything whatever to do with that crime. Leo Marston was, in fact, the district attorney at that time. The chief law enforcement officer of the county. Mr. Cage may present some sort of circumstantial evidence, which he may try to weave into a web of deception to fool you good people. But my client and I know that you will not be fooled. Del Payton was a civil rights worker murdered to stop him from doing his noble work. And Leo Marston is demonstrably one of the most racially progressive leaders in this town, and has been since he was a young man."
Sims lists various pro-civil rights statements Leo made during the sixties, his friendships with black leaders, donations to black causes. He cites testimonial letters he will enter into evidence, attesting to Marston's contributions to Mississippi's economy: letters from John Stennis and Jim Eastland (both deceased), Trent Lott, Mike Espy, and five former governors.
"What we have here," Sims concludes-giving me a theatrical look of disdain-"is an irresponsible and sensational attack carried out by a man who has had a personal vendetta against my client for more than twenty years. Before this trial is over, you will understand why. And I want you people to know something else. The money involved in this case is of secondary importance to my client. What he wants, and what he deserves, is the vindication of his good name." Sims fold his hands with the apparent probity of a deacon. "But if you good people should see fit to teach Mr. Cage a moral lesson about the price of such irresponsible action, so be it. We leave that to you. Thank you."
Sims is unable to conceal his self-satisfaction as he takes his seat, but if he was hoping for congratulations from his client or co-counsel, he is disappointed. Leo stares sullenly ahead like a truck driver in the eleventh hour of a drive, while Livy sits with the cool composure of a pinch hitter waiting to be called to the plate.
In the restless silence of the crowd, I rise from my table and walk slowly toward the jury box. Their faces are expectant, as they always are at the beginning of a trial. Before boredom has set in. Before resentment against vain attorneys who love to hear themselves talk has settled in their veins. I lay my hands on the rail and speak directly to them.
"Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Penn Cage. I am a writer. Before I wrote books, I was a prosecuting attorney. I spent every day of my life putting violent criminals behind bars. I put more than a few on death row.
"I was born and raised right here in Natchez, but like a lot of our young people, I had to move away to earn my living."
Several jurors nod their heads, probably those with adult children.
"I earned that living as a prosecutor in Houston, Texas. Now, if you were to go to Texas and ask about Penn Cage, you might find some people willing to speak ill of him. If you went to the penitentiary at Huntsville, you'd find a lot of them."
General laughter from the gallery.
"What you would not find is a single person who would describe me with the word Mr. Sims just used. Irresponsible. Because when you are prosecuting murderers and asking for the death penalty, irresponsibility is not a weakness you can afford. It's not a trait that my former boss, the district attorney of Harris County, would tolerate for one minute. Folks, you are looking at a man who says what he means, and means what he says."
From the rapt faces of the jury, I can see that I haven't lost the old touch. It's a good feeling, like climbing onto a horse after ten years away and feeling him respond without a moment's hesitation. It's a pity that I have no case.
"When I called Leo Marston a murderer," I say evenly, "I meant it. Together with a brutal and crooked cop named Ray Presley, Leo Marston engineered the death of a young father, army veteran, and civil rights worker named Delano Payton. And contrary to what Mr. Sims suggested-and what the citizens of our town have believed for thirty years-that murder had nothing to do with civil rights. No, Leo Marston had Del Payton killed for profit." I glance back at Livy, but she refuses to look at me. "The same reason he does everything else. And despite what Mr. Sims told you, money is never of secondary importance to Leo Marston.
"Mr. Sims also mentioned the term 'circumstantial evidence' in a rather derogatory tone. After all the television lawyers we've seen, a misconception has grown up that circumstantial evidence is somehow inherently weak. But that is simply not true. Circumstantial evidence is merely indirect evidence. Let's say a woman is shot to death at midnight with a thirty-eight caliber pistol. When the police arrive, they learn from one neighbor that the woman and her husband were in the middle of a messy divorce, and from another that the husband sped away from the house at five past midnight. The next day the police discover that the husband has a thirty-eight revolver registered in his name. Everything I just told you is circumstantial evidence. But I think a pretty clear picture of what happened is emerging in your minds. I'm not saying it's conclusive evidence. I'm saying this is evidence that cannot be ignored."
More nods from the jury, especially from the women.
"Mr. Sims asked what a man's name is worth. I'll tell you." I turn and point at Leo, the man who acted with such shocking dispatch last night. His blue-gray eyes burn with the subzero cold of liquid nitrogen. "After this trial that man's name won't be worth the price of a cup of coffee. He ordered one of the most terrible crimes in the history of this city, and by so doing stained the name of Natchez, Mississippi, for thirty years. And with the help of J. Edgar Hoover, he sabotaged the investigation that followed that crime. The cold-blooded details of this premeditated murder will sicken you, just as they did me. But you must hear them. For the time has come to remove the bloody stain from the name of our fair city. Thank you."
The jury seems a bit flabbergasted by the passion of my indictment, but it's been my experience that juries like passion-to a point. And in my present situation, passion is better than nothing.
When Blake Sims rises to present his case, he does just as he promised: he ignores the question of damage to Leo's reputation. He accomplishes this by a neat reversal, calling three character witnesses whose combined testimony is designed to canonize his client, making the image of Leo Marston as a cold-blooded murderer one that jurors will feel guilty for even entertaining.
The first is Governor Nunn Harkness, a Republican with a two-fisted, shoot-from-the-hip style that has won him two terms despite his methodical gutting of social programs. Playing to the balcony TV cameras, Harkness praises Leo to the skies, lauding his success in bringing industry and gaming to Mississippi, and lamenting that, while Marston is a bit too liberal on issues like affirmative action, he is morally beyond reproach. It's a pitch-perfect performance by a master, and the jury is visibly impressed. When Sims tenders the governor to me for cross-examination, I don't ask a single question. Best to get Nunn Harkness offstage as soon as possible.
Sims's second character witness is Thomas O'Malley, bishop of the Catholic diocese of Jackson. Once the priest of St. Mary Cathedral in Natchez, O'Malley has moved up the hierarchy. For fifteen minutes he waxes poetic about the multitudes of poor children whose Christmases Leo Marston brightened with toys. Then he moves on to the church itself. To hear O'Malley tell it, Leo single-handedly restored the cathedral to its present splendor, donating over half a million dollars to the restoration effort. As the bishop speaks, I am reminded of Michael Corleone being honored by the pope in The Godfather III. I shudder to think what sins O'Malley must have heard Leo confess during his years as a priest in Natchez, but none of that will ever pass the bishop's lips. When Sims tenders O'Malley to me, I let him go without a word. Unless you're dealing with questions of sexual molestation or mismanagement of funds, a Catholic bishop is bulletproof.
Sims's third witness is another matter. As Bishop O'Malley leaves the courtroom, pausing in the aisle to shake the hands of a half dozen former parishioners, Sims calls FBI Director John Portman.
Portman enters the courtroom with two bodyguards, who take up posts at the door as their master walks up the aisle. Lean, tanned, perfectly coiffed, and attired in a dark blue suit, the FBI director is clearly accustomed to television. He ascends to the witness box with the air of a medical expert about to hold forth on matters beyond the understanding of a lay audience.
This time it is not Blake Sims but Livy who rises from the plaintiff's table and approaches the box. Judge Franklin gives Sims a questioning look, but Sims says nothing.
"You will be handling this witness, Ms. Sutter?" asks Franklin, using Livy's legal surname.
"With the court's permission, Your Honor."
Franklin turns to me. "Any objection, counselor?"
"No, Your Honor."
Livy walks past the podium and up to the witness box. Though Portman is much older than she, both emanate a sense of confidence and ease to which lesser mortals should not begin to aspire.
"Mr. Portman, what is your current position?" she asks.
"I'm the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI."
"Do you know the plaintiff in this case?"
"I do. I've known Leo Marston for thirty years."
"How did you meet?"
Portman purses his lips like he's thinking back. "Leo was the district attorney in Natchez in 1968. I was serving here as an FBI field agent at that time, investigating the death of Delano Payton. Mr. Marston gave the Bureau valuable assistance during that investigation."
My heart lurches.
"Why do you think he did that?" Livy asks.
Portman opens his hands, palms upward, as though the answer were obvious. "Leo Marston believed in the necessity of civil rights legislation. At no small risk to himself, he worked to help us enforce that. The man was a hero."
Livy nods thoughtfully. "How did you first become aware of the charges made by Penn Cage against Leo Marston?"
"Leo contacted me in Washington by telephone on the day the charges were printed in the local newspaper. We spoke at length at that time, and several times subsequent."
So much for the phone records. Livy's strategy is all too clear. She plans to undercut what little documentary evidence I have before I can present it.
"What was the substance of those conversations?" she asks.
"Judge Marston expressed anxiety that this sensitive case was being dragged through the media, and that his reputation was being damaged."
"You called the Payton case a sensitive case. Why is that?"
Portman adopts a pose of paternal concern. "I'm afraid I can only speak indirectly to this issue. As I've stated to the press, our file on Delano Payton is sealed on the grounds of national security interest. It has been for thirty years. Earlier this week the Senate Intelligence Committee voted to maintain the sanctity of that file."
"Please tell us anything you can about the case."
Portman nods agreeably. "The Payton case involved a veteran of the U.S. Army, a man who served in Vietnam. J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director at that time, felt that the details involving this man, if released during the Vietnam conflict, might damage national morale, particularly the morale of line troops in Vietnam, where racial problems had become an issue."
He has to be talking about Ike Ransom.
"But the Vietnam War has been over for more than twenty years," Livy points out. "Why is the file still sealed?"
"As I said, I can't speak as fully to this issue as I would like. I'm sorry Mr. Cage has seen fit to exploit this case in his bid for publicity or revenge, or whatever it is."
Livy pretends to be intrigued by this aside. "Have you had experience with Mr. Cage in the past?"
"I had some dealings with him when he was an assistant district attorney in Houston, Texas. I found him to be highly partisan, and indeed an unstable sort of man for that type of job. He actually killed the brother of a man he tried for murder, and the facts of that incident were never satisfactorily explained. I think the citizens of Texas were well served when he left that job to pursue a career in which a vivid imagination is an asset, not a liability."
I feel like throwing my pen at Portman, just to break up the rhythm. He and Livy are like tennis pros giving an exhibition match, sleek and practiced, the volleys perfectly timed, every shot a winner.
"One final question," she says. "As one of the agents who originally investigated the Payton murder, what do you think of the allegation that Leo Marston was somehow involved in that crime?"
A superior smile touches Portman's lips. God, he's enjoying this. "I find the notion utterly preposterous. The fact that we are sitting here today discussing it is a travesty of justice."
"Thank you, Mr. Director. Your witness."
I would prefer to cross-examine Portman after I have presented my case, but I cannot let his slurs against me stand unchallenged. Nor can I be sure that Portman will even stick around Natchez after he leaves the stand. I rise but remain at my table.
"Mr. Portman, you and I were involved in a jurisdictional dispute over the extradition of a murderer from Texas to Los Angeles, California, where you were a U.S. attorney. Is that correct?"
"Where was that murderer ultimately tried and convicted?"
"Thank you. You also stated that I killed the brother of a man I tried for murder. That trial ended in a conviction, did it not?"
"And wasn't the man I convicted also the subject of our jurisdictional dispute?"
"He was. But-"
"Was I charged in the shooting of his brother?"
"Not to my knowledge."
"Your Honor, I have further questions for this witness, but I would prefer to examine him during the presentation of my case."
Seeing Franklin gearing up to explain to me why the director of the FBI cannot be expected to sit around at my beck and call, I add, "I hope to recall Mr. Portman before the end of the day."
Judge Franklin turns to Portman with a solicitous smile. "Will that impose an undue hardship on you, Mr. Director?"
"I can be available until the end of the day, barring an unforeseen emergency."
"Very well. You are temporarily excused." Franklin turns to the defense table. "Mr. Sims, does the plaintiff intend to call further witnesses?"
Blake Sims leans across Leo's massive chest and holds a whispered conference with Livy. She listens, then shakes her head. They want this show to close as quickly as possible.
"Your Honor," says Sims. "Reserving the right to call rebuttal witnesses, the plaintiff rests."
Judge Franklin looks at her watch. "This phase of the trial has taken much less time than I anticipated. Let's take a ten-minute break, and then Mr. Cage will present his defense."
As the jurors file out, I turn and look for Caitlin. She's sitting with my parents. She slides along the bench, then comes up to the bar behind my table. I can tell by her face that she doesn't have good news.
"No word from Stone?"
"Nothing. I'm sorry. You'd better drag out the testimony of every witness you have."
"I hate to do that. Juries always sense it."
"I don't think you have a choice."
What a comfort. The ten-minute recess lasts about two minutes, and then I'm on my feet again, doing what I have done countless times in my life: presenting a murder case. I do not stall for time. I do not equivocate. I present it just as I'd planned.
My witnesses come and go like commentators in a documentary. Frank Jones admits he lied about being alone in the Triton parking lot; his ex-wife describes finding the soiled stockings in their car; Betty Lou tearfully places Ray Presley at the crime scene (earning points with the jury for testifying against her own interest), then describes Presley's subsequent threats and brutal harassment; Huey Moak's expert testimony establishes that Payton's car was destroyed by C-4, proving the evidence "discovered" by Presley was planted; and Lester Hinson testifies that he sold C-4 to Ray Presley in April 1968. All this testimony runs like a Swiss watch.
And therein lies the problem.
Neither Blake Sims nor Livy rise once to cross-examine my witnesses. They don't even challenge Huey Moak's credentials. Every time I tender a witness, Sims waves his hand from the table and says, "No questions, Your Honor." Their strategy is simple. They'll happily let me prove Ray Presley guilty of murder. And they will probably let me draw connections between Presley and Ike Ransom, if I can. As long as I can't link Presley or Ransom to Leo Marston, I am fulfilling the scenario painted in Sims's opening statement. The Payton murder was a race crime, committed by a racist. In his closing argument Sims will probably laud my efforts to find justice in this terrible tragedy. But to suggest any nefarious link between such men and Leo Marston must indicate some secret malice toward Marston on my part.
My dilemma is simple. Either I begin the long, laborious task of building circumstantial links between Presley and Marston, which will last well into tomorrow and bore the jury to tears (not to mention sabotage my opportunity to cross-examine John Portman in this lifetime), or I can question Portman now, do what damage I can, and pray that Dwight Stone descends from the heavens like the deus ex machina of my dreams. Without Stone's testimony as a fulcrum, I can't force Portman to help my cause. But by forcing him to lie, I can set him up for a later fall on perjury charges. And for the director of the FBI, that could be a very long fall.
"Call John Portman," I say loudly.
"Bailiff," says Judge Franklin. "Call John Portman."
Portman returns to the courtroom wearing the same confidence with which he left it. He takes his seat in the witness box, shoots his cuffs, and gives me a serene smile.
"Director Portman," I begin, "in your earlier testimony you stated that Leo Marston rendered valuable assistance in the investigation of Del Payton's death. What was the nature of that assistance?"
He pretends to agonize over this question. "He provided certain information to us."
"In other words, he acted as a federal informant."
A couple of the white jury members frown.
"I'm going to ask you a direct question. Please answer yes or no. Did the FBI solve the murder of Delano Payton in 1968?"
Portman takes a deep breath but says nothing. We have come down to the nut-cutting, as we say in the South. If he lies now, he is laying himself open to perjury charges.
"Director Portman, I asked whether the Bureau learned the identity of Del Payton's murderer in 1968."
"Yes. We did."
A gasp goes up from the spectators.
"Order," snaps Judge Franklin.
"Why didn't the FBI arrest or charge anyone in connection with that murder?"
"For reasons of national security."
"Let me be sure I understand this. The FBI preserved the national security by protecting the identity of a man who had murdered a veteran of the Korean War?"
Portman shifts in his seat. "Director Hoover made that decision. Not me."
"Did you agree with his decision?"
"It wasn't my place to agree or disagree."
"You were just following orders."
"Like a good German," I remark, recalling Stone's phrase.
"I strongly resent that."
"Mr. Cage," Franklin warns. "Don't push me."
"Withdrawn. Director Portman, did you-"
The loud clearing of a throat behind me breaks my train of thought. I start to ignore it, but something tells me to turn.
Caitlin Masters is crouched at the bar behind my table, urgently beckoning me with her hand.
"Your Honor, I beg the court's indulgence."
I walk back behind my table and kneel so that Caitlin can whisper to me. Her lips touch the shell of my ear. "I just talked to Stone's daughter," she says. "She and Stone were both at the newspaper. Two of my people are bringing them over now. They'll be on the courthouse steps in two minutes."
Relief and elation flood through me.
"Mr. Cage?" Judge Franklin presses. "We're waiting."
I squeeze Caitlin's arm, then rise and walk back toward the witness box with a briskness Portman cannot fail to notice. Caitlin's news has galvanized me.
"Director Portman, was there only one man responsible for Payton's death? Or more than one?"
"More than one."
A murmur from the spectators.
"How many? Two? Three? Ten?"
Portman folds his arms across his stomach. "I decline to answer on grounds that it might damage the national security."
"But you did say more than one. So, a minimum of two. Was one of those conspirators a Natchez police officer named Ray Presley?"
He gives me the great stone face. "I decline to answer on grounds that it might damage the national security."
"Did you work the Payton case alone, Director?"
"I was part of a team."
"Did that team include a veteran agent named Dwight Stone?"
Portman's eyes track me as I move, trying to read the source of my newfound confidence. "Yes."
"Was the Payton murder your first major case as a field agent?"
"Had Agent Stone wide experience in working civil rights cases for the Bureau?"
"Did you admire and respect Agent Stone?"
Portman hesitates. "At the time, yes."
"Did you, earlier this week, order the assassination of Agent Dwight Stone, who is now retired?"
"Objection!" shouts Blake Sims, with Livy close behind.
Franklin bangs her gavel in a vain attempt to silence the gallery. "Mr. Cage, you'd better be prepared to substantiate that statement."
"I intend to do just that, Your Honor." I turn back to Portman. "Did you also order the assassination of Sheriff's Deputy Ike Ransom, the man murdered at the old pecan-shelling plant last night?"
The spectators collectively suck in their breath as Portman turns to Judge Franklin for help.
Franklin looks hard at me, then says, "The witness will answer the question."
"I did not," Portman says in an indignant voice.
"Did you last week order the assassination of former Natchez police officer Ray Presley?"
"Mr. Cage," Franklin interrupts, "I'm losing my patience."
"One final question, Your Honor. Director Portman, if Special Agent Dwight Stone walks through that door back there and takes the stand, will you remain in Natchez to be recalled as a witness by me?"
He looks right through me. "I will."
"No more questions, Judge."
"Director Portman, you are excused," says Franklin.
Portman glances up at the TV cameras, then stands, shoots his cuffs again, and leaves the witness box. As he passes me on the way to the aisle, I say: "Call retired Special Agent Dwight Stone."
The hitch in Portman's walk is momentary, but for me it occurs in slow motion. His eyes flit instinctively to the main door, searching for his old enemy. Then they return to me, the fear in them tamped down, varnished over with the go-to-hell defiance of a man who has survived every threat to his monumental egotism.
"Call Dwight Stone," Judge Franklin orders.
The bailiff opens the back door. A tall, wiry man wearing a Denver Broncos windbreaker and leaning on the shoulder of a much younger woman limps through it with a cane in his left hand. Even from my table I can see the steely resolve in Stone's eyes. But he is not looking at me. As his daughter squeezes in beside Caitlin, he limps up the aisle using the cane, his eyes never leaving the face of John Portman, the man who threatened his daughter's life, and who tried to kill us two nights ago. I have a feeling that a lot of dead Koreans and Chinese saw the look that is on Stone's face right now. I would not want to be John Portman at this moment. But when I turn back to Portman, what I see unsettles me.
He looks surprised but unafraid.