"Tom Cage, you dog! I can't believe you came!"
In small towns the most beautiful women are married, and Lucy Perry proves the rule. Ten years younger than her husband-the surgeon hosting the party-Lucy has large brown eyes and a high-maintenance muscularity shown to perfection in a black silk dress that drapes just below her shapely knees. She also has suspiciously high cleavage for a forty-year-old mother of three, which I know she is, having been given a social update by my father on the way over to the party. Lucy uses the sorority squeal mode of greeting, which is always a danger in Mississippi. She flashes one of the brightest smiles I've seen off a magazine cover and throws her arm around my father.
"I'm here for the free liquor," Dad says. "Not for Wiley Warren to pick my pocket."
Lucy has a contagious laugh, and Dad has drawn it out. He's one of the few people honest enough to use the mayor's nickname within earshot of the man himself. Now Lucy looks at me as though she's just set eyes on me.
"So this is the famous author."
I offer my hand. "Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Perry."
"Mrs. Perry? For God's sake, Lucy." She steps inside my proffered hand and draws me to her in a one-armed hug that lasts long enough for me to learn that she's been drinking gin without much tonic and that her breasts are not original architecture. "I've forbidden anyone to mention that awful newspaper story. No one believes anything they read in the Examiner anyway."
The house is full of people, and it's some house. Though not one of Natchez's premier mansions, it would easily fetch nine or ten million dollars in Los Angeles. A brass plaque announces that it is on the National Register of Historic Places. The interior has been meticulously restored at a cost of countless gall bladders and appendices. A wide hallway bisects the ground floor, with arched doorways leading to capacious rooms on both sides. Of the fifty or so faces in the hallway I recognize about a quarter. People I went to school with, friends of my parents, a half dozen doctors I know. I give a broad wave to cover the group. Many nod or smile in acknowledgment, but no one approaches.
Caitlin Masters's article has done its work. I stick close to Dad as we work our way toward the bar table at the end of the hall.
As Shad Johnson predicted, the only black faces in the house belong to white-jacketed bartenders and maids, who circulate with heaping platters of hors d'oeuvres.
"Bourbon and water, Roosevelt," Dad tells the bartender. "Easy on the water. Penn?"
"Gin and tonic."
The bartender grins. "Good to see you, Dr. Cage."
Dad and I jump as a boom rattles the windowpanes behind the bar table. Terror grips me until a trombone, trumpet, and double bass join the thundering drum kit and reorient me to normalcy. A black Dixieland jazz band is performing on the patio. There are no dancers. It's too damned hot to dance on a patio. It's too damned hot to be playing music out there too, but Lucy and her hubby aren't worried about the musicians.
Dad squeezes my arm and leans toward me. "Think they were gunning for you again?"
I try to laugh it off, but both of us are nervous as cats. He agreed with my decision not to report the shooting to the police, but he insisted on bringing a pistol to the party. He's wearing it in an ankle holster.
I turn and pan the hall again. At the far end, beyond the talking heads, Lucy Perry opens the front door and pulls a young woman inside. I feel a little jolt when I recognize Caitlin Masters. She's wearing a strapless jade dress with sandals, and her black hair is swept up from her neck. As she steps aside for Lucy to close the door, I spy the rebellious flash of a gold anklet above one sandal. How do I feel about her? Angry that she printed something I considered off the record. But I can't help admiring her for shaking up our complacent town a little.
A blustering male voice pulls my attention to the staircase, where Wiley Warren stands dispensing political wisdom to seven or eight smiling listeners. Warren is a natural bullshitter, an ex-jock with enough brains to indulge his prodigious appetites within a younger group that admires his excesses and keeps his secrets like JFK's press corps. Dad says he's done a fairly good job as mayor, but nothing he's accomplished thus far would compare to getting the BASF plant, a deal which would secure his political future.
"The reason Shad Johnson isn't making race an issue," Warren crows, "is that he's damn near white as I am."
This is vintage Wiley. The crowd chuckles encouragement.
"01' Shadrach went off to prep school with the Yankees when he was eleven, and didn't come back till he was forty and ready to run for mayor. He's no more a representative of his people than Bryant Gumbel!"
"Who does he represent?" someone calls.
"Himself, of course."
"So he's just like you," says a gastroenterologist whose name I can't recall.
Warren laughs louder than anyone, tacitly admitting the self-interest that drives all politicians and which Southern voters prefer to see in the open rather than cloaked in hypocrisy. Brutal honesty in such matters is part of the mayor's charm.
I am about to go in search of Austin Mackey, the district attorney, when I spot him at the edge of the group listening to the mayor. He motions for me to follow him to some chairs in an empty corner. Mackey was a year ahead of me in school from kindergarten through college. A perennial middle-of-the-class kid, he managed to make most athletic teams but never the first string. His grades were unremarkable, and I'm pretty sure he chose Ole Miss Law School so he wouldn't have to pass the bar exam in order to practice in Mississippi, a rule they changed the year after he went into practice.
"Any particular reason you came home and shat in our little sandbox?" he asks as we sit.
This is not a fortuitous beginning. "Good to see you again, Austin."
"Skip the sentiment, Cage." He keeps his eyes on the mayor.
Watching Austin Mackey play the tough throws me a little. But Natchez is his legal fiefdom now, and if he chooses to behave like George Raft in a bad film noir, he can.
"Look, Austin, about that article. Caitlin Masters didn't exactly-"
"Earth to Cage, give me a fucking break. By now every jig in this town is bitching about how Austin Mackey never lifted a finger to help Mrs. Payton find out who killed her poor baby."
I don't know how to segue from this to warm reminiscences of our shared history. Mackey seems to have forgotten we have one. "I just mentioned the Payton case as an example of a local mystery. Because it was an unsolved murder."
Mackey's eyes glint with superiority. "Don't be so sure about that."
"What do you mean?"
"The FBI worked the Payton case. You think they tanked it? Just because no one went to jail for that particular crime doesn't mean the perp didn't go down for something."
"If that's the case, why not tell the family? Give them some peace."
"I can't tell them what I don't know for sure. Listen, when I ran for D.A., I knew the blacks might ask me about past civil rights cases. So I asked the Bureau for their files on the Payton murder. I was assistant D.A. then, and I requisitioned them in the name of the office."
"They said that unless we'd developed a suspect and had new evidence, they wouldn't be showing our office any files."
"Why would they say that?"
"Can I read the mind of J. Edgar Hoover?"
"Hoover? He's been dead twenty-five years."
"Well, his spirit's alive and well. Hoover made the final decisions on the disposition of those civil rights cases. And he worked them hard, especially the murders up in Neshoba County. But it's no secret that his personal agenda had nothing to do with advancing civil rights. He hated Martin Luther King and the Kennedys. Cases like Payton's were nothing to him but chips in a political game."
"What about your office file?"
"There isn't one. No one was ever charged with the crime."
"Have you looked?"
"I don't need to." He finally meets my eyes. "Let's get this straight right now. Unless you're the attorney of record for a member of the Payton family, you'll receive zero assistance from my office. And since you're not licensed in this state, that pretty much settles things."
Actually, I am licensed to practice in Mississippi, but I see no reason to point this out now. And though my combative instincts urge me to tell Mackey that a single phone call could secure my position as attorney for the Payton family, concern for my father stops me.
"You really get to me, Cage," Mackey goes on before I can change the subject. "Mr. St. Stephens, law review at Texas, big-time author. You've got nothing better to do than come back here and make your old schoolmates look like assholes?"
Bitterness and envy literally crackle off the man. I am so surprised that I can do little but apologize. "That wasn't my intention, Austin."
"I'd hate to see what would happen if you really meant some harm."
"What would you say if I told you I was shot at by a sniper less than an hour ago?"
His head snaps up. "Were you?"
"Did you report it?"
His eyes are like signs reading, Thank God for small favors. "Where did this happen?"
"The black section, Linda Lee Drive."
"What the hell were you doing over there?"
"Shad Johnson wanted to talk to me."
"Jesus." The muscles in Mackey's jaw tighten. "What did he say?"
"He warned me off the Payton case."
An ironic smile. "Shad's no fool. The election's five weeks off, and the polls have him and Warren neck and neck."
"That's all you have to say about an attempt on my life?"
"You're back in Mississippi, bubba. You piss people off, they're going to hit back. Anyway, it's pretty obvious which side you're on."
I sip my drink. Melting ice has drowned the gin. "I'm not on any side."
"Then you've forgotten the primary political reality of your home state."
"There's no middle ground. Whatever's there gets crushed to powder by the sides. I'd pick one quick if I were you."
Mackey stands abruptly and drifts back into watchful orbit around his candidate. The conversation couldn't have gone any worse if I'd set out to make him hate my guts. This is the man upon whose mercy I advised my father to throw himself?
I stand and walk into the hallway, half looking for Dad and half aiming for the bar. I'm almost to the alcohol when a powerful hand closes on my shoulder and a voice whispers in my ear: "Don't move, you outside agitatin' son of a bitch. "
I whirl, ready for anything, only to find the laughing bearded face of Sam Jacobs, whom I've known since we were five years old.
"A little nervous, are we?" Sam wiggles his black eyebrows up and down. "Wishing we'd been a little less candid with the fourth estate?"
I punch him in the chest, then hug him hard.
When Sam and I were tenth-graders at St. Stephens, an assistant football coach invited the varsity football team to establish a chapter of the Brotherhood of Christian Athletes at the school. While the rest of the team lined up to get the necessary applications, two boys remained in the otherwise empty bleachers: Penn Cage and Sam Jacobs. As a Jew, Sam was barred from membership. And I-ever since walking out of Episcopal communion at age thirteen-was a devout agnostic. Under the suspicious gaze of teammates and coaches, Sam and I left that meeting joined in a way that had more to do with manhood than football ever would. Now a petroleum geologist, Jacobs is one of only three non-family members who flew to Houston for Sarah's funeral.
"It's great to see you, Sam. What are you doing at this tight-ass function?"
He grins. "I've sold Don Perry enough Wilcox production to qualify him as a certified oil maggot."
"So, that's how he paid for this palace. You must be doing well."
"I ain't complaining. When the bottom dropped out of the drilling business, I slid over into production. Bought up old wells, worked them over, got them running full bore, and sold out at an obscene profit. It's getting harder to find wells, though. Everybody's into it now."
"I'm sure whatever happens, you'll be the guy sitting on top of the pile."
"The last guy clinging to the limb, more like." Sam sips his drink. "How does it feel?"
"Having everybody in the place stare at you."
"I'm pretty used to the fishbowl lifestyle now."
"Natchez is a lot smaller bowl than Houston. Even small waves seem big here."
"Come off it. A week from now, who'll give a damn about that article?"
"Everybody, ace. How much do you know about the BASF deal?"
I shrug. "A little."
"That chemical plant means salvation to a lot of people. Not just blue-collar either. These doctors need patients with private insurance to keep the gravy train running. Everybody's on their best behavior, trying to sell Natchez as a Southern Utopia. We're pushing our opera festival, the literary celebration, the hot-air balloon race. And this morning you tossed a toad right into the punch bowl."
I glance around the room and instantly find what I'm looking for: Caitlin Masters, deep in conversation with two older men. "You see that girl?"
Sam cranes his neck. "Caitlin Masters?"
"You know her?"
"I know she's fine as wine and worth a few million bucks."
"She printed a little more than I intended her to."
"Fess up, man. You were just being you. At your pompous best."
"That's what Dad said."
"Speaking of your old man, I'm surprised he came."
Before I can ask what Sam means, someone taps me on the shoulder. Sam hides a smile behind his drink. I turn and look into the luminous green eyes of Caitlin Masters.
"Are you going to slug me?" she asks.
"If you were male, I might consider it."
"I know I angled that story in a way you didn't expect."
"Angled it? Try sensationalized it. Remember the words 'off-the-record'?"
Her lips part slightly in surprise. "I honored that request."
"About the Hanratty execution. But as for Del Payton-" I force myself to shut up, not wanting to argue the point in front of a crowd.
"Why don't we have lunch tomorrow?" she suggests. "I'd like to help you understand why I did what I did."
I want to say no, but just as yesterday, something about Caitlin Masters makes me want to see her again. The jade dress is linen, and it lies against her skin like powder. She is a study in elegance and self-possession.
"Is that a no?" she asks.
"Once burned, twice shy," Sam chimes in.
"I like Wilde's quote better," Caitlin rejoins.
"What's that?" I ask.
"The burnt child loves the fire."
She winks at me, then turns on her heel and walks away, ignoring the gazes of half the people in the room, who have watched our exchange with intense interest.
"You sure know how to liven up a town," Sam says, his eyes glued to her retreating form. "And she knows how to fill out a dress. A shiksa from dreamland, that one."
I step hard on his toe. "You already married one of those, remember? What were you saying about my dad?"
"I'm surprised he came, is all."
"Because I'm pretty sure Judge Marston is on the guest list."
I feel a sliding sensation in my stomach. A quick survey of the room yields no sign of either Marston or my father. Squeezing Sam's shoulder, I push off through the crowd. Natchez is a funny town. People involved in running feuds frequently socialize together. Men who've gutted each other in business disputes leave their rancor at the doors of certain seasonal soirees, and it's not unheard of to see a woman who has caught her husband in bed with someone else pouring punch for that woman-or man-at a party.
Leo Marston and Tom Cage are different. The judge once made it his mission to try to ruin my father's medical career, and Dad hates him with a fury that will brook no false bonhomie. He behaves, in fact, as though the judge were dead. Since Dad rarely goes anywhere other than his office or the hospitals, he rarely crosses paths with Marston, making that illusion easy to maintain. But if Sam Jacobs is correct, that might change tonight. Dad has already drunk one bourbon, probably two by now. If Marston provokes him, Dad is capable of swinging on him. With that thought my blood pressure plummets, because with it comes the memory that my father is carrying a gun tonight.
Catching sight of a silver head a few inches taller than the others near the bar, I move quickly forward, take Dad's arm, and pull him into the kitchen. It's empty save for a black maid, who smiles and nods when she sees us.
"What's going on?" He takes a sip of his bourbon and water sans water.
"Judge Marston's on the guest list. He may already be here."
Dad blinks. Then his cheeks turn red. "Where is he?"
"Dad, this isn't the time or the place."
"Why not? I've avoided that SOB too many years already." His breathing is shallow, and his motions have a jerky quality that might be the result of anger or alcohol.
"That's the whisky talking. You're a hundred percent right about Marston, but if you talk to him now, you're going to hit him." Or shoot him. "And I'll have to spend all my time at home defending you on a battery charge. That's after I bail you out."
"What do you want me to do? Leave?"
"Considering what we have to do in the next few days, I think you should."
That brutal reminder of the blackmail situation gets his attention.
"What about talking to Mackey?" he asks.
"I already did. And this isn't the place to discuss it."
His eyes flit back and forth; then he dashes his plastic cup against the stainless steel sink. "Goddamn it. Let's go."
"Stay close to me."
I take his forearm, lead him into the hallway, and freeze. Twenty yards away, in the open front door, stand Judge Marston and his wife, Maude. The odds of getting through that door without anyone making a smart remark are zero. I drag Dad back toward the kitchen.
"Where the hell are we going now?"
"The back door's closer to where I parked."
"You saw Marston, didn't you?"
He tries to pull free. I tighten my grip and hustle him toward the back door, knowing that if he really tries to resist me, I won't be able to stop him.
"Goddamn it, I'm not running!"
"That's right, you're not. You're taking the advice of your lawyer."
"You're not licensed in this state."
"Actually, I took the Mississippi bar exam when I graduated, and I've paid the licensing fee every year."
He is so distracted by this information that he allows himself to be pulled through a side garden to the street.
"Here's the car." I unlock my mother's Maxima-the damaged BMW having been consigned to the garage-and practically push him into the driver's seat.
He looks up at me, eyes anxious. "You felt Mackey out?"
"Yes. It was like feeling out a porcupine. We're going to have to go the other way."
"What other way?"
"We're going to have to buy the gun."
He blinks in disbelief. "Christ. Are you sure?"
"It's the only way. I want you to call Ray Presley at ten in the morning. Tell him I'll be at his place at ten-thirty. That doesn't give him enough time to get the police involved."
Dad looks down at the steering wheel. "Goddamn it, if anyone has to do this, it should be me."
"You've been under Presley's thumb too long. He'd never buy your bluff. Do you have a hundred thousand dollars liquid?"
He looks up, helpless with rage. "It'll cost a fortune in penalties, but I can get it. And I won't have a damn cent to pay the IRS in January."
"Don't worry, I'll pay you back. But there's no point in creating a paper trail to me yet. Have the money at your office as early as you can. I'll pick it up. I may not offer Presley the whole hundred grand, but I need to be able to go up to that."
He looks too dazed to keep track of this. "Well… get in. We'll get it all figured out."
"I'm not coming, Dad."
"I want to talk to Sam Jacobs about Presley. Sam knows everything that goes on in this town. Have you got everything straight?"
He takes a deep breath and nods slowly. "I'll have the money waiting. Ray too."
"Good. Now, go home and get some sleep. And don't speed. The last thing you need tonight is a DWI."
He gives me a somber salute, then shuts the door, starts the engine, and pulls slowly away. I stand at the curb and watch the taillights wink out as he hooks around the block to get headed home on the downtown streets, which are all one-way.
After years of putting men into prison-even into their graves-for committing crimes, I am about to cross the legal line myself. Tomorrow morning I am going to risk prison, forced separation from my child, to try to spare my father the same fate. That knowledge simmers in my stomach like a bad meal, acid and portentous. Is it the right thing to do? Is it stupid? Ultimately, it does not matter.
It's the only thing I can do.