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CHAPTER 8

Dad and I are dressing for the Perry party-me in a sport jacket borrowed from his closet-when the phone rings beside his bed. He reaches for it without looking, the movement as automatic as scratching an itch.

"Dr. Cage," he says, waiting for a description of symptoms or a plea for narcotics. His face goes slack, and he presses the phone against his undershirt. "It's Shad Johnson."

"Who's that?"

"The black candidate for mayor."

"What does he want?"

"You. Want me to say you're not here?"

I reach for the receiver. "This is Penn Cage."

"Well, well," says a precise male voice in the middle register, a voice more white than black. "The prodigal son himself."

I don't know how to respond. Then a fragment of Dad's thumbnail sketch of local politics comes to me: Shad Johnson moved home to Natchez from Chicago specifically to run for mayor. "I hear the same could be said of you, Mr. Johnson."

He laughs. "Call me Shad."

"How can I help you, Shad?"

"I'd like you to come see me for a few minutes. I'd come to you, but you might not want the neighbors thinking we're any closer than we are. News travels fast in this town. Like those Payton women coming to see you this morning."

A wave of heat rolls up the back of my neck. "I have no intention of getting involved in local politics, Mr. Johnson."

"You got involved the second you talked to the newspaper about Del Payton."

"Consider me uninvolved."

"I'd like nothing better. But we still need to talk."

"We're talking now."

"Face to face. I'm over at my campaign headquarters. You're not afraid to come to the north side of town, are you?"

"No." My father is straining hard to hear both sides of the conversation. "But I've got to be somewhere in an hour."

"Not that fund-raiser for Wiley Warren, I hope?"

Shad Johnson obviously has the town wired. I'm about to beg off when he says, "You and your family are in danger."

I fight the impulse to overreact. "What are you talking about?"

"I'll tell you when you get here."

"Give me your address."

"Martin Luther King Drive. It's a storefront setup, in a little strip mall."

"Where's Martin Luther King Drive?"

"Pine Street," Dad says, looking concerned.

"That old shopping center by the Brick House?" I ask, recalling a shadowy cinder-block bar I went to once with two black guys I spent a summer laying sewer pipe with.

"That's right. But it's not the Brick House anymore, just like it's not Pine Street anymore. Times change, counselor. You on your way?"

"Give me fifteen minutes."

"What the hell did he want?" Dad asks, taking the phone from me and hanging it up.

"He said our family's in danger."

"What?"

I tie my tie and walk to the bedroom door. "Don't worry. I'll be back in forty-five minutes. We'll make the party in plenty of time."

He gives me his trademark stern-father look. "You'd better take a pistol with you."

The north side looks nicer than it did when I was a boy. Back then it was a warren of shotgun shacks and dilapidated houses separated by vacant lots and condemned buildings, their walls patched with tin or even cardboard. Juke clubs operated out of private houses surrounded by men drinking from paper bags, and paint-and-body shops sagged amid herds of junk cars, looking like sets for The Road Warrior. Now there are rows of well-kept houses, a sparkling video store, a state-of-the-art Texaco station, good streetlights, smooth roads.

I swing into the parking lot of the strip mall and scan the storefronts: a styling salon, a fish market, an NAACP voter-registration center, a Sno-Cone stand thronged by black kids, and one newly painted front hung with a bright banner that reads, shad johnson-the future is now.

An open-air barbecue pit built from a sawn-in-half fifty-five-gallon drum smokes like a barn fire outside the NAACP center, sending the aroma of chicken and pork ribs into the air. A knot of middle-aged black men stands around the pit drinking Colt.45 from quart bottles. They fall silent and watch with sullen suspicion as I get out of the BMW and approach Johnson's building. I nod to them and go inside.

A skinny young man wearing a three-piece suit that must be smothering him sits behind a metal desk, talking on a telephone. Behind the desk stands a wall-to-wall partition of whitewashed plywood with a closed door set in it. The young man looks up and motions me toward a battered church pew. I nod but remain standing, studying the partition, which is plastered with posters exhorting the public to vote for Shad Johnson. Half show him wearing a dark suit and sitting behind a large desk, a model of conservatism and rectitude; the other half show a much younger-looking Johnson sporting a Malcolm X-style goatee and handing out pamphlets to teenagers on an urban playground. It isn't hard to guess which posters hang in which parts of town.

A voice rises over the partition. It has anger in it, but anger communicated with the perfect diction of a BBC news reader. As I try to get a fix on the words, the young assistant hangs up and disappears through the door. He returns almost instantly and signals me to follow him.

My first impression of Shad Johnson is of a man in motion. Before I can adequately focus on the figure sitting behind the desk, he is rising and coming around it, right hand extended. A few inches shorter than I, Johnson carries himself with the brash assurance of a personal-injury lawyer. He is light-skinned- not to a degree that would hurt him with the majority of black voters, but light enough that certain whites can reassure themselves about his achievements and aspirations by noting the presence of Caucasian blood. He shakes my hand with a natural politician's grip, firm and confident and augmented by a megawatt of eye contact.

"I'm glad you came," he says in a measured tenor. "Take a seat."

He leads me to a folding chair across from his spartan metal desk, then sits atop the desk like a college professor and smiles. "This is a long way from my office at Goldstein, Henry in Chicago."

"Up or down?"

He laughs. "Up, if I win."

"And if you lose? Back to white-shoe law in Chicago?"

His smile slips for a nanosecond.

"You said my family is in danger, Mr. Johnson."

"Shad, please. Short for Shadrach."

"All right, Shad. Why is my family in danger?"

"Because of your sudden interest in a thirty-year-old murder."

"I have no interest in the murder of Del Payton. And I intend to make a public statement to that effect as soon as possible."

"I'm relieved to hear you say that. I must have taken fifty calls today asking what I'm doing to help you get to the bottom of it."

"What did you tell them?"

"That I'm in the process of putting together the facts."

"You didn't know the facts already?"

Johnson examines his fingernails, which look professionally manicured. "I was born here, Mr. Cage, but I was sent north to prep school when I was eleven. Let's focus on the present, shall we? The Payton case is a sleeping dog. Best to let it lie."

The situation is quickly clarifying itself. "What if new evidence was to come to light that pointed to Payton's killer? Or killers?"

"That would be unfortunate."

His candor surprises me. "For local politicians, maybe. What about justice?"

"That kind of justice doesn't help my people."

"And the Payton family? They're not your people?"

Johnson sighs like a man trying to hold an intelligent conversation with a two-year-old. "If this case was dragged through the newspapers, it would whip white resentment in this town to a fever pitch. Black people can't afford that. Race relations isn't about laws and courts anymore. It's about attitudes. Perceptions. A lot of whites in Mississippi want to do the right thing. They felt the same way in the sixties. But every group has the instinct to protect its own. Liberals keep silent and protect rednecks for the same reason good doctors protect bad ones. It's a tribal reaction. You've got to let those whites find their way to the good place. Suddenly Del Payton is the biggest obstacle I can see to that."

"I suppose whites get to that good place by voting for Shad Johnson?"

"You think Wiley Warren's helping anybody but himself?"

"I'm not Warren's biggest fan, but I've heard some good things about his tenure."

"You hear he's a drunk? That he can't keep his dick in his pants? That he's in the pocket of the casino companies?"

"You have evidence?"

"It's tough to get evidence when he controls the police."

"There are plenty of black cops on the force."

Johnson's phone buzzes. He frowns, then hits a button and picks up the receiver. "Shad Johnson," he says in his clipped Northern accent. Five seconds later he cries "My brother!" and begins chattering in the frenetic musical patois of a Pine Street juke, half words and grunts and wild bursts of laughter. Noticing my stare, he winks as if to say: Look how smoothly I handle these fools.

As he hangs up, his assistant sticks his head in the door. "Line two."

"No more calls, Henry."

"It's Julian Bond."

Johnson sniffs and shoots his cuffs. "I've got to take this."

Now he's the urbane attorney again, sanguine and self-effacing. He and Bond discuss the coordination of black celebrity appearances during the final weeks of Johnson's mayoral campaign. Stratospheric names are shuffled like charms on a bracelet. Jesse. Denzel. Whitney. General Powell. Kweisi Mfume. When the candidate hangs up, I shake my head.

"You're obviously a man of many talents. And faces."

"I'm a chameleon," Johnson admits. "I've got to be. You know you have to play to your jury, counselor, and I've got a pretty damn diverse one here."

"I guess running for office in this town is like fighting a two-front war."

"Two-front war? Man, this town has more factions than the Knesset. Redneck Baptists, rich liberals, yellow dog Democrats, middle-class blacks, young fire eaters, Uncle Toms, and bone-dumb bluegums working the bottomland north of town. It's like conducting a symphony with musicians who hate each other."

"I'm a little surprised by your language. You sound like winning is a lot more important to you than helping your people."

"Who can I help if I lose?"

"How long do you figure on sticking around city hall if you win?"

A bemused smile touches Johnson's lips. "Off the record? Just long enough to build a statewide base for the gubernatorial race."

"You want to be governor?"

"I want to be president. But governor is a start. When a nigger sits in the governor's mansion in Jackson, Mississippi, the Civil War will truly have been won. The sacrifices of the Movement will have been validated. Those bubbas in the legislature won't know whether to shit or go blind. This whole country will shake on its foundations!"

Johnson's opportunistic style puts me off, but I see the logic in it. "I suppose the black man who could turn Mississippi around would be a natural presidential candidate."

"You can thank Bill Clinton for pointing the way. Arkansas? Shit. Mississippi is fiftieth in education, fiftieth in economic output, highest in illegitimate births, second highest in welfare payments, the list is endless. Hell, we're fifty-first in some things-behind Puerto Rico! I turn that around-just a little-I could whip Colin Powell hands down."

"How can you turn this town around? Much less the state?"

"Factories! Industry! A four-year college. Four-lane highways linking us to Jackson and Baton Rouge."

"Everybody wants that. What makes you think you can get it?"

Johnson laughs like I'm the original sucker. "You think the white elite that runs this town wants industry? The money here likes things just the way they are. They've got their private golf course, segregated neighborhoods, private schools, no traffic problem, black maids and yard men working minimum wage, and just one smokestack dirtying up their sunset. This place is on its way to being a retirement community. The Boca Raton of Mississippi."

"Boca Raton is a rich city."

"Well, this is a mostly poor one. One factory closed down and two working half capacity. Oil business all but dead, and every well in the county drilled by a white man. Tourism doesn't help my people. Rich whites or segregated garden clubs own the antebellum mansions. That tableau they have every year, where the little white kids dance around in hoop skirts for the Yankees? You got a couple of old mammies selling pralines outside and black cops directing traffic. You see any people of color at the balls they have afterward? The biggest social events in town, and not a single black face except the bartenders."

"Most whites aren't invited to those balls either."

"Don't think I'm not pointing that out in the appropriate quarters."

"Mayor Warren doesn't pursue industry?"

"Wiley Warren thinks riverboat gambling is our salvation. The city takes in just over a million dollars from that steamboat under the hill, while the boat drains away thirty million to Las Vegas. With that kind of prosperity, this town will be dead in five years."

I glance at my watch. "I thought you brought me here to warn me."

"I'm trying to. For the first time in fifty years we've got a major corporation ready to locate a world-class factory here. And you're trying to flush that deal right down the toilet."

"What I said in the paper won't stop any company serious about locating here."

"You're wrong. BASF is a German company. They may be racists themselves, but they're very sensitive to racial issues in foreign countries."

"And?"

"They have concerns about the school system here."

"The school system?"

"The public school is eighty percent black. The population's only fifty percent black. BASF's management won't put their employees into a situation where they have to send their kids to expensive and segregated private schools for a decent education. They have to be convinced that the public schools are safe and of excellent quality."

"And is that the case?"

"They're safe enough, but the quality's not the best. We've established a fragile consensus and convinced BASF that the public school is viable. We've developed all sorts of pilot programs. Those Germans are damn near committed to build here. But if the Payton case explodes in the media, BASF will crawfish so fast we'll finally hear that giant sucking sound Ross Perot always whined about."

I hold up my hands. "I have no interest in the case. I made a couple of comments and attracted the attention of Payton's family. End of story."

As Johnson smiles with satisfaction, my defensive tone suddenly disgusts me. "But I'll tell you this. The harder people try to push me away from something, the more I feel like maybe I ought to take a look at it."

He leans back and eyes me with cold detachment. "I'd think long and hard before I did that. Your little girl has already lost one parent."

The words hit me like a slap. "Why do I get the feeling you might be the danger you warned me about?"

He gives me a taut smile. "I'm just trying to do you a favor, brother. This town looks placid, but it's a powder keg. Drop by McDonald's or the Wal-Mart deli and watch the black workers serve blacks before whites who got there first. Blacks are angry here, but they don't know how to channel their frustration. What you've got here are blacks descended from those who were too dumb to head north after the Civil War or the world wars. No self-awareness. They take things out on whitey however they can. A while back, some black kids started shooting at white people's cars. Killed a young father. There's a white backlash coming, and when it comes, there's enough resentment among black teenagers to start a war. That's what you're playing with. Not to mention whoever killed Del Payton. You know those cracker bastards are still out there somewhere."

"Sounds to me like Del Payton died in vain."

"Payton was a paving stone in the road to freedom. No more, no less. And right now he's best honored by leaving him lie."

I stand, my face hot. "I've got to be somewhere."

"When you get to your party, tell Wiley Warren I'm going to whip his lily-white ass."

I pause at the door and look back. Johnson already has the phone in his hand.

"I think you're underestimating blacks in this town," I tell him. "They're smarter than you give them credit for. They see more than you think."

"Such as?"

"They can see you're not one of them."

"Don't kid yourself, Cage. I'm Moses, cast onto the waters as a child and raised by the enemy. I prospered among the mighty and now return to show my people the way!"

In an instant the candidate's voice has taken on the Old Testament cadence and power of a young Martin Luther King.

As I gape, he adds in his mincing lawyer's voice: "Next time come over to campaign headquarters south. It's on Main Street. The atmosphere's more your style. Genteel and Republican, the way the old white ladies like it. Over there I'm a house nigger made good."

Johnson is still laughing when I leave the building.

The sky is deep purple, the warm night falling to a soundtrack of kicked cans, honking horns, shouting children, and squealing tires. The smell of chicken sizzling on the open pit pulls my head in that direction. Two black teenagers on banana bikes whiz toward me as I stand beside the BMW. I'm about to wave when one spits on the hood of my car and zips past, disappearing into a cloud of dark laughter. I start to yell after them, then think better of it. I did not bring the pistol my father advised me to, and I don't need to start the riot Shad Johnson just warned me about. I get into the BMW, start it, and head south toward the white section of town.

I've hardly begun to reflect on Johnson's words when I notice the silhouette of a police car behind me. Blinding headlights obscure its driver, but the light bar on the roof leaves no doubt that it's a cop. As he pulls to within fifteen yards of my rear bumper and hangs there, it hits me. I'm driving a seventy-five-thousand-e of adrenaline pulses through me as I wait for the flare of red lights, the scream of a siren.

Somewhere along here, this road becomes Linda Lee Mead Drive, named for Natchez's Miss America. As I top the hill leading down to the junction with Highway 61, the cruiser pulls out and roars past me. I glance to my left, hoping to get a look at the driver.

The man behind the wheel is black.

He is fifty yards past me when both front windows of the BMW explode out of their frames, shattering into a thousand pieces. I whip my head to the right, trying to shield my eyes. My eardrums throb from sudden depressurization, and I instinctively slam on the brakes. As the back end of the car skids around, something hammers my door, sending a shock wave up my left thigh. The car comes to rest facing the right shoulder, blocking both lanes of the road. In the silence of the dead engine, the reality of my situation hits me.

Someone is shooting at me.

Frantically cranking the car, I notice the brake lights of the sheriff's cruiser glowing red at the bottom of the hill, a hundred yards away.

It's just sitting there.

As my engine catches, two bullets smash through the rear windshield, turning it to starred chaos. I throw the BMW into gear, stomp the accelerator, whip around, and start down the hill. Before I've gone thirty yards, the sheriff's cruiser pulls onto the highway and races off toward town.

"Stop!" I shout, honking my horn. "Stop, goddamn it!"

But he doesn't stop. The rifle must have made a tremendous noise, though I don't remember hearing it. Maybe the exploding glass distracted me. But the black deputy in the cruiser must have heard it. Unless the weapon was silenced. This thought is too chilling to dwell on for long, since silenced weapons are much rarer in life than in movies, and indicate a high level of determination on the part of the shooter. But if the deputy didn't hear the shots, why did he stop so long? There was no traffic at the intersection. For a moment I wonder if he could have fired the shots himself, but physics rules that out. The first bullet came through the driver's window, while the deputy was fifty yards in front of me. The last two smashed the back windshield after the skid exposed it to the same side of the road.

My heart still tripping like an air hammer, I turn onto Highway 61, grab the cell phone, and dial 911. Before the first ring fades, I click End. Anything I say on a cell phone could be all over town within hours. The odds of catching the shooter are zero by now, and my father's blackmail situation makes me more than a little reluctant to bring the police into our lives at this point.

Shad Johnson's words echo in my head like a prophecy: A while back, some black kids started shooting at white people's cars. Killed a father of three. But this shooting was not random. This morning's newspaper article upset a lot of people-white people exclusively, I would have thought, until Shad Johnson disabused me of that notion. What the hell is going on? Johnson warns me that my family is in danger but gives no specifics, and ten minutes later I'm shot at on the highway? After being followed by a black deputy who doesn't stop to check out the shooting?

Whoever was behind that rifle meant to kill me. But I can do nothing about it now. I'm less than a mile from my parents' house, and my priority is clear: within an hour I will be talking to the district attorney about my father's involvement in a murder case, and deciding how best to sting Ray Presley, a known killer.


CHAPTER 7 | The Quiet Game | CHAPTER 9