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CHAPTER 6

My father wakes me by slapping a newspaper against my forehead. After I rub the sleep from my eyes, I see my own face staring up from the front page of the Natchez Examiner, above the fold. They've scanned my most recent author photo and blown it up to "this man assassinated the president" size. The headline reads: prodigal son returns home.

"The goddamn phone hasn't stopped ringing," Dad growls. "Everybody wants to know why my son is disparaging his hometown."

Beneath the author photo is a montage of smaller shots, like a family album: me as a lanky kid with Dad's arm around my shoulders, printed in a Father's Day issue in 1968; as a high school baseball player; as the flag runner in the annual Confederate pageant; my Ole Miss graduation photo. I quickly scan the columns, recognizing most of what I said yesterday, laid out in surprisingly faithful prose.

"I don't get it," I say. "What's wrong with this?"

"Have you been in Houston so long you've forgotten how things are here? Bill Humphreys said you set back thirty years of good race relations."

"I didn't say anything you haven't said a hundred times in our kitchen."

"The newspaper isn't our kitchen!"

"Come on, Dad. This is nothing."

He shakes his head in amazement. "Turn the page, hotshot. You'll see something."

When I turn the page, my breath catches in my throat.

The banner headline reads: 30 years later "racist cowards" still walk streets. My stomach flips over. Underneath the headline is a photo of a scorched Ford Fairlane with a blackened corpse seated behind the wheel. That picture never ran in the Natchez Examiner in 1968. Caitlin Masters must have dug up an old crime-scene photo somewhere.

"Jesus," I whisper.

"Harvey Byrd at the Chamber of Commerce thinks you may have single-handedly sabotaged the chemical-plant deal."

"Let me read the thing, okay?"

Dad plants himself in the corner, his arms folded. The story opens like a true-crime novel.

On May 14, 1968, Frank Jones, a scheduling clerk at the Triton Battery plant, walked out to his car in the middle of the third shift to run an errand. Before he could start his engine, he heard a boom "like an artillery piece," and a black-wall tire slammed into his windshield. Thirty yards away, a black man named Delano Payton sat burning to death. Jones was the sole eyewitness to the worst race crime in the history of this city, in which a combat veteran of the Korean War was murdered to prevent his being promoted to a "white-only" job. No one was ever arrested for the crime, and many in the black community believe that law enforcement officials of the period gave less than their full efforts to the case. Best-selling author and Natchez native Penn Cage characterized the killers of Delano Payton as "racist cowards," and stated that justice should be better served than it was in Natchez in 1968.

Former police chief Hiram Wilkes contended that leads were nonexistent at the time, and said that despite exhaustive efforts by law enforcement, and a $15,000 reward offered by Payton's national labor union, no suspects were turned up. The FBI was called in to work the case but had no more success than local police. Former Natchez police officer Ray Presley, who assisted on the case in the spring of 1968, stated, "It was a tough murder case, and the FBI got in the way more than they helped, which was par for them in those days-"

I reread the last sentence, my heartbeat accelerating. I had no idea Ray Presley was involved in the Payton case. I want to ask my father about him, but with the blackmail issue-and my mother's suspicions about Presley- hanging like a cloud between us, I don't.

"You've been dealing with the media for twelve years," Dad grumbles. "That publisher must have shown you a little leg and pureed your brain. I've seen her around town. Face like a model, tits like two puppies in a sack. I know what happened. It took her about five seconds to get Penn Cage at his most sanctimonious." He grabs the newspaper out of my hands and wads it into a ball. "Did you have to dredge up the goddamn Payton case?"

"I just mentioned it, for God's sake. I thought we were off the record."

"She obviously didn't."

I try to remember the point at which I asked to go off the record. I can check my tape, of course, but I already know what Caitlin Masters will say: she thought I wanted the Jungian analysis and the comparison between Germany and the South off the record, but not the Del Payton remarks, which were an extension of our earlier conversation on racism. At least she honored my request not to mention the Hanratty execution.

"What about that Klan rally stuff?" Dad mutters.

"You took me to that rally!"

"I know, I know damn it. I just wanted you to see that wasn't any way to be. But you didn't have to drag it all back up now, did you?"

"I made it clear that stuff was all in the past. And she printed my qualifications, I'll give her that."

"God almighty, what a mess. Do you think-"

The front doorbell rings, cutting him off.

"Who the hell could that be?" he asks. "It's only eight-thirty."

He walks out of the bedroom, taking the wadded-up newspaper with him.

My thoughts return to Caitlin Masters. Despite her assurances, I was foolish to say anything to her that I didn't want printed. Maybe she did show me a little leg and lull my usually vigilant defenses. Am I that easy to manipulate?

"Get some clothes on," my father says from the door, his face grave. "You've got visitors."

"Who? You look almost scared."

He nods slowly. "I think I am."

Uncertain what to expect, I hover in the hall outside my mother's living room. The hushed sibilance of gracious women making polite conversation drifts from the wide doorway. I walk through the door and stop in my tracks. Two black women sit primly on the sofa, delicate Wedgwood cups steaming before them on the coffee table. One is in her eighties, if not older, and dressed in an ensemble the like of which I have not seen since the Sundays I drove past black churches as a teenager. The skirt is purple, the blouse green, the shoes a gleaming patent black. Her hat is a flowered concoction of black straw and varicolored silk. Beneath the hat is a shining black wig, beneath the wig a raisin of a face with watery eyes that glisten amid the wrinkles.

The woman beside her looks thirty years younger and wears a much more subdued outfit, a pleated navy skirt with a periwinkle blouse. She looks up, and her gaze disconcerts me. Most black people I grew up with rarely made direct eye contact, locking their feelings behind a veneer of humility. But this woman's gaze is unveiled, direct and self-confident.

"You keep a fine house, Mrs. Cage," the older woman says in a cracked voice. "A fine house."

"You're so kind to say so," my mother replies from a wing chair on the other side of the coffee table. She wears a housecoat and no makeup, yet even in this state radiates a quiet, stately beauty. She turns to me and smiles.

"Son, this is Mrs. Payton." She gestures toward the elderly woman, then nods at her younger companion. "And this is Mrs. Payton also. They've come to thank you for what you said in this morning's paper."

I flush from my neck to the crown of my head. I can only be looking at the widow and mother of Delano Payton, the man bombed and burned to death in 1968. Barefoot and unshaven, I make a vain attempt to straighten my hair, then advance into the living room. Without rising, the elder Mrs. Payton enfolds my right hand in both of hers like a dowager empress. Her palms feel like fine sandpaper. The younger Mrs. Payton stands and shakes my hand with exaggerated formality. Her hand is moist and warm. Up close, she looks older than I first guessed, perhaps sixty-five. Because she has not gone to fat, she projects an aura of youth that her eyes cannot match.

"Althea works in the nursery at St. Catherine's Hospital," Dad informs me from the door. "I see her all the time. And I've treated Miss Georgia for thirty-five years now."

"Yo' daddy a good doctor," the elder Mrs. Payton says from the sofa, pointing a bony finger at me. "A good doctor."

My father has heard this ten thousand times, but he smiles graciously. "Thank you, Miss Georgia."

"I remember you makin' house calls late at night," Georgia Payton goes on, her voice reedy and difficult to follow as it jumps up and down the scale. "Givin' shots and deliverin' babies. Had you a spotlight back then to see the house numbers."

"And a pistol in my black bag," Dad adds, chuckling.

"Sho' did. I seen it once. You ever have to use it?"

"No, ma'am, thank God."

"Might have to one of these days, with all this crack in the streets. I told the pastor last Sunday, you want to find Satan, just pull up to one of them crack houses. Sheriff ought to burn ever' one to the ground."

We all nod with enthusiasm, doing our best to foster a casual atmosphere. Blacks visiting socially in white homes-and vice versa-is still as rare as snowfall in Natchez, but this is not the reason for the general discomfort.

"Mr. Cage," Althea says, focusing her liquid brown eyes on me, "we really appreciate you speaking out like you did in the paper."

"Please call me Penn," I implore her, embarrassed by thanks for a few lines tossed off without any real feeling for the victims of the crime.

"Mr. Penn," says Georgia Payton, "ain't no white man in thirty years said what you said in the paper today. My boy was kilt outside his job in nineteen hundred and sixty-eight, and all the po-lices did was sweep it under the rug."

Her statement hangs suspended in crystalline silence. I sense my father's reflexive desire to answer her charge, to try to mitigate the behavior of the law enforcement figures of the period. But the murder remains unsolved, and he has no idea what efforts were made to solve it, if any, or how sincere they might have been. Althea Payton looks momentarily disconcerted by her mother-in-law's frankness, but then her eyes fill with calm resolution.

"Are you still a lawyer, Mr. Cage?" she asks. "I mean, I know you're a writer now. Can you still practice law?"

I incline my head. "I'm still a member of the bar."

"What that mean?" asks Georgia.

"I can still practice law, ma'am."

"Then we wants to hire you."

"For what?"

"I think I know," Dad says.

"To find out who murdered my baby," the old woman says. "The po-lice don't want to do it. FBI don't want to. The county lawyer neither."

"The district attorney," Althea corrects her.

"You've spoken to the district attorney about this?"

Althea nods. "Several times. He has no interest in the case."

Dad emits a sigh easily interpreted as, Big surprise.

"We hired us a detective too," Georgia says. "I even wrote to that man on Unsolved Mysteries, that good-looking white man from that old gangster TV show."

"Robert Stack?" asks my mother.

"Yes," Althea confirms. "We got back one letter from the show's producer expressing interest, but after that nothing."

"What about this detective?" I ask. "What happened with him?"

"We hired a man from Jackson first. He poked around downtown for an afternoon, then told us there was nothing to find."

"White man," Georgia barks. "A no-good."

"Then we hired a detective from Chicago," Althea says in a tense voice. "He flew down and spent a week in the Eola Hotel-"

"Colored man," the old woman cuts in. "A no-count no-good. He stole all our money and went back to Chicago."

"He was very expensive," Althea concedes. "And he said the same thing the first detective told us. The pertinent records had been destroyed and there was nothing to find."

"NAACP say the same thing," Georgia adds with venom. "They don't care about my baby none. He wasn't a big enough name. They cry about Martin and Medgar every year, got white folks makin' movies about Medgar. But my baby Del in the ground and nobody care. Nobody."

"Except you," Althea says quietly. "When I walked out in my driveway this morning and picked up that paper-when I read what you said-I cried. I cried like I haven't cried in thirty years."

Dad raises his eyebrows and sends me one of his telepathic messages: You opened your damn mouth. See what it's got you.

"I still gots some money, Mr. Penn," Georgia says, clutching at a black vinyl handbag the size of a small suitcase.

I envision a tidal wave of one-dollar bills spilling out of the purse, like money at a crack bust, but Mrs. Payton has clutched the bag only to emphasize her statement. I cannot let this go any further.

"Ladies, I appreciate your thanks, but I don't deserve them. As I said in the paper, I'm here for a vacation. I'm no longer involved in any criminal matters. What happened to your husband and son was a terrible tragedy, but I suspect that what the detectives told you is true. This crime happened thirty years ago. Nowadays, if the police don't solve a homicide in the first forty-eight hours, they know they probably never will."

"But sometimes they do," Althea says doggedly. "I've read about murder cases that were solved years after the fact."

"That's true, but it's rare. In all my years with the Houston D.A.'s office, we only had a couple of cases like that."

"But you had them."

"Yes. But what we had more of-a hundred times more of-was distraught relatives pleading with us to reopen old cases. Murder is a terrible thing, and no one knows that better than you. The repercussions reverberate through generations."

"But there's no statue of limitations on murder. Is there?"

Statue of limitations. I see no point in correcting her grammar; I've heard attorneys make the same mistake. Like congressmen referring to nucular war. "Everything hinges on evidence," I explain. "Has any new evidence come to light?"

Her desolate look is answer enough.

"That's what we were hoping you could do," Althea says. "Look back over what the police did. Maybe they missed something. Maybe they buried something. I read in a book that sixty percent of the Natchez police force was Klan back then. God knows what they did or didn't do. You might even get a book out of it. There's a lot nobody knows about those times. About what Del was doing for his people."

I fight the urge to glance at my parents for assistance. "I'm actually in the middle of a book now, and I'm behind. I-"

"I've read your books," Althea breaks in. "All of them. In paperback, of course. I read them on the late shift, when the babies are resting well."

I never know what to say in these moments. If you say, Did you like them? you're putting the person on the spot. But what else can you say?

"I liked the first one the best," Althea offers. "I liked the others too, but I couldn't help feeling"

"Be honest," I urge her, dreading what will follow.

"I always felt that your gift was bigger than the stories you were telling. I don't mean to be critical. But that first book was so real. I just think if you really understood what happened to Del, you'd have a story that would take all the gift you have to tell it."

Her words are like salt on my soul. "I truly wish I could help you. But I can't. If some new evidence were to come to light, the district attorney would be the proper man to see." I look at my father. "Is Austin Mackey still the D.A. here?"

He nods warily.

"I went to school with Mr. Mackey. He's a good man. I could-"

"He nothing but a politician!" scoffs Georgia Payton.

The old woman gets slowly to her feet, using her huge handbag as a counterweight. "He don't care none. We come here 'cause we thought you did. But maybe you don't. Maybe you was talking free in the paper 'cause you been gone so long you ain't worried 'bout what people thinks around here. I told Althea, you must be like your daddy, a hardworking man with a good heart. But maybe I told her wrong."

I flush again, suddenly certain that the men of the Payton family are intimately familiar with the guilt trip as a motivational tool.

Althea stands more slowly than her mother-in-law, as though lifting the weight of thirty years of grief. This time when she speaks, she looks only at the floor.

"I loved my husband," she says softly. "After he was killed, I never remarried. I never even went with another man. I raised my boy the best I could and tried to go on. I don't say it was hard, because everybody got it hard, some way. You know that, Dr. Cage. The world's full of misery. But my Del got took before his time." Her lower lip is quivering; she bites it to keep her composure. "He wanted us to wait to have children. So we'd be able to give them the things they needed. Del said our people hurt themselves by having too many children too quick. We just had one before he died. Del was a good boy who grew into a good man, and he never got to see his own baby grow up."

The mournful undertone in her voice pierces my heart. All I can see is Sarah lying in her casket at age thirty-seven, her future ripped away like a cruel mirage. Althea Payton breaks the image by reaching into her purse and taking out a folded piece of paper, which she hands to me. I have little choice but to unfold it.

It's a death certificate.

"When the ambulance men got to Del, he was already burned up. But they couldn't get him out of the seat. The springs from the seat had blown up through his thighs and pinned him there. That's why he couldn't get out, even though he was still alive after that bomb went off."

I stare at the brittle yellowed paper, a simple form dated 5-14-68.

"Look in the middle," Althea says. "Under cause of death."

I push down a hot wave of nausea. Thirty years ago, on the line beside the printed words cause of death, some callous or easily cowed bureaucrat had scrawled the word Accidental.

"As long as I live and breathe," Althea whispers, "I'll do what I can to find out the truth."

I want to speak, to try to communicate the empathy I feel, but I don't. Sarah's death taught me this. In the face of grief, words have no power.

I watch the Payton women follow my mother into the hall. I hear Georgia repeat her compliment about the fine house my mother keeps, then the soft shutting of the front door. I sit on the sofa where Althea sat. The cushion is still warm. My mother's slippers hiss across the slate floor of the foyer, the sound like a nun moving through a convent.

"The neighbors are standing out in their yards," she says.

Wondering at the sight of black people who aren't yard men or maids, I reflect. And tomorrow the maids and the yard men will return, while the two Mrs. Paytons sit or work in silent grief, mourning a man whose murder caused no more ripples than a stone dropped into a pond.

"I know that was hard," my father says, laying a hand on my shoulder. "But you did the right thing."

I shake my head. "I don't know."

"That boy's long dead and gone. Nothing anybody can do will help him now. But it could hurt a lot of people. Those two poor women. The town. Your mother. You and Annie most of all. You did the right thing, son."

I look up at my father, searching for the man Georgia Payton said he is.

"You did," my mother insists. "Don't dwell on it. Go wake Annie up. I'm going to make French toast."


CHAPTER 5 | The Quiet Game | CHAPTER 7