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The district attorneys office is on the third floor of the waterworks building in Lawyers Alley, across from the massive city courthouse. In a town filled with architecturally significant buildings, the waterworks is nothing special, a three-story concrete block with one glass-brick corner enclosing the staircase. I park under the courthouse oaks and cross the street, waving at one of my parents neighbors as she walks into the DMV office.

Theres no receptionist behind the door on the ground floor, just a staircase. As I climb the stairs, my errand weighs heavy below my heart. Ive got to tell Shad Johnson the truth as I know it-up to a point, anyway. Drew had sex with Kate the night before she died, so I have to assume that the state pathologist has already recovered his semen from her body. And while no judge would order Drew to take a DNA test based solely on an anonymous telephone call, Shad may already have more proof connecting Drew to Kate.

Last night, Drew told me hed been intimate with Kate for the past seven months. How many seventeen-year-old girls could sleep with a forty-year-old man that long without telling a single friend about it? If Kate told her mother about the affair, why not her best friend? And with Kate dead at the hands of a killer, how long will it take Jenny Townsend-however much she may like Drew-to tell the police what she knows? Shad may already have proof of the affair; he may have called this meeting simply to see if Drew will lie about it, using the lesser crime of sexual battery as a litmus test for deception before questioning Drew about the murder. I did the same thing many times as a prosecutor.

When I reach the third floor, a heavy female secretary with dyed-orange hair and a flower-print dress gives me a quizzical look from behind a glass partition. Five years ago Shad had a male factotum who dressed like Malcolm X, but he vanished shortly after Shads mayoral defeat. This woman was obviously expecting Drew, who is known on sight by most Natchezians. Im pretty well-known myself, but in a small town no one ever quite attains the celebrity of the best doctors. My father is testament to that fact. He cant walk twenty yards in Wal-Mart without being stopped by adoring or inquisitive patients.

Im Mr. Johnsons noon appointment, I tell the secretary.

No, youre not.

You expecting Dr. Drew Elliot?

She looks confused. Thats right.

Im his attorney.

Her lips form a perfect O, just like they do in cartoons. Youre Penn Cage.

I am. Im Dr. Elliotts attorney.

The expression of surprise morphs into an uncertain glare. I know about you.

Your boss and I once went a few rounds over a civil rights murder.

She picks up the phone and begins speaking in a hushed tone.

My statement about the civil rights murder is true. The irony of that case is that I, the white lawyer, was crusading to solve the twenty-year-old murder of a black man, while Shad, the black politician, was trying to bury the case to keep from upsetting the white voters he needed to win the mayors office.

The secretary hangs up and buzzes me through the door. End of the hall, she says curtly.

As soon as I enter the blandly painted corridor, a door at the far end opens and a black man a few inches shorter than I peers out, an expression of annoyance on his face. Son of a bitch, he says without a trace of Southern accent. I was having a good day until now.

Hello, Shad.

The district attorney shakes his head, then walks back into his office, squaring his shoulders for combat as he goes. I follow him inside and wait to be invited to sit.

As usual, Shadrach Johnson is dressed to the nines in a bespoke suit and Italian shoes. His hair has a little more gray in it than the last time we locked horns, but his eyes still flash with quick intelligence. My first impression of him was of a brash personal injury lawyer, and nothing in the intervening years has changed that. Shads jutting jaw greets the world with a perpetual challenge, his eyes project arrogance and mistrust, and his shoulders stay flexed under the weight of an invisible yet enormous chip.

Your buddys not playing this right, Cage, he says, taking a seat behind an enormous desk that looks like an antique. An innocent man doesnt send his lawyer to speak for him in a situation like this. Have a seat.

Go for it,I tell myself. Turn on the gravitas and recite the lines you rehearsed on the way over: This is a very serious matter, Shad. Dr. Elliott was indeed seeing the dead girl, but he did not kill her. You and I have to set aside our personal history and help the police to find a dangerous killer. Dr. Elliott wants to assist the investigation in every way, but he also wants to keep this unfortunate matter from escalating into something that could ruin reputations and break up families unnecessarily.

I was prepared to say those things, but now that Im actually facing Shad Johnson, something stops me. It all seemed so clear in the car: pay the short-term price for a long-term gain. But this office, as modest as it is, gives me the old feeling I had when I worked for the D.A. in Houston. Irrevocable decisions are made in this room, decisions about who will be punished and who will not. Who will spend decades in prison? Who will die at the hands of the state? For any prosecutor, Drew Elliott would be a juicy target, but for a man like Shad Johnson-a man who dreams of being governor and more-Drew is a prize elephant.

Theres no doubt that Drew would look better to a future jury if he told the truth now. But what other consequences might result? Natchez is a small town, and when small-town cops are handed a likely suspect, they dont look too hard for another. Truth be told, city cops arent much different. And confessing to the affair with Kate would immediately open Drew to a sexual battery charge that Shad could use to jail him, should he choose to. No, better to keep my cards close to the vest.

Thats a lot nicer desk than the one the last D.A. had, I observe, stalling for time as I take the chair opposite Shad.

The district attorney cant help but brag; its his nature. I got it out of storage from the old Natchez Museum, he says, rubbing the finely grained wood. It came from the attic of one of the antebellum homes. Longwood, I think. Ironic, isnt it? Me working at a cotton planters desk? I had it appraised. Its worth sixty grand.

I give Shad a level gaze. I hope youre not one of those people who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Shads eyes narrow. What are you doing here, Penn? Wheres Dr. Elliott?

He had an emergency at his office. He had to stay and handle it.

Bullshit. Your clients scared. His dicks got him tangled up in a capital murder case, and hes terrified.

Shad must have more than the anonymous call in his pocket. How do you figure that?

Did Elliott tell you about the call I got this morning?

He said you mentioned an anonymous caller who told you some story about him being intimate with Kate Townsend.

Thats right. And the good doctor did not deny it.

Did he confirm it?

Thats what this meeting was for. For him to confirm or deny. Now hes sent you in his place. The big-time mouthpiece. I didnt think you practiced anymore.

I wasnt practicing when I took the Del Payton case either.

Shad looks like he just bit into something sour. My punishing Del Paytons murderers after Shad had resisted reopening the case cost him just enough support in the black community to take the mayoral election away from him. But thats old news. Ive got to get a handle on his present intentions before I paint myself into a corner.

Shad, lets-

Stop, he says, jabbing a forefinger at me. Youre here because you want something.

Hes right. I would like to know what was discovered during Kates autopsy.

Shad studies me for several moments. And you think Im just going to give that to you?

If you continue to pursue my client, Ill get it one way or another. Why dont we try to foster a spirit of cooperation here?

You havent done any cooperating with me so far. He lifts a sheaf of fax paper off his desk and flips to the last page. But Im feeling generous. What do you want to know?

Time of death?

Shad shakes his head. Well pass on that for now.

Cause?

Strangulation. There was also head trauma that might have killed the girl if she hadnt been strangled first.

Interesting. There are rumors going around town about rape. Nurses at the hospital did some talking. Was the girl raped or not?

The pathologist says she was.

Genital trauma?

Shad nods slowly.

Did they recover semen from her?

Affirmative. Both holes.

His crudeness is meant to shock, but I saw too much rape and murder in Houston for this to bother me. So, the killer had some time with her.

Shad shakes his head, a strange smile on his face. Not necessarily. The pathologist already ran serology on the semen samples. They came from two different men.

A glimmer of hope sparks in my soul. Multiple assailants?

You could read it that way.

What other way is there? You have a different scenario in mind?

After the call I got this morning, you cant blame me for speculating a little.

Im listening.

Shad leans over his desk and steeples his fingers. Lets say Dr. Elliott was having an affair with this high school girl. In his mind, its true love. Then he finds out his prom queens been sharing the poonanny with somebody else when hes not around. Her old boyfriend, say. The doc finds out, and he flips out. Maybe Kate is cruel about how she tells him-you know some women. So, your client starts choking her, trying to make her shut up. Before he knows what hes doing, hes shut her up for good.

By that scenario, the girl wasnt raped at all.

Shad waves his hand as though at a minor annoyance. Rape is a subjective finding in a dead girl. Shes not accusing anybody. So she had some genital trauma. Rough consensual sex can cause that. Hell, Ive had women get mad if I didnt traumatize them down there.

Youre reaching, Shad.

He settles back in his chair. I dont think so. Ill tell you something else for free. The St. Stephens homecoming queen was pregnant.

Shit.How far along?

A little over four weeks. And that -according to the laws of the great state of Mississippi-makes this a double homicide, Counselor. Shad arches his eyebrows in mock concern. The communitys going to be very upset by that idea, the murder of an unborn baby. You know, I can see some people speculating that Dr. Elliott was just playing with this poor girl-getting a little on the side-and when she turned up pregnant, he saw his nice little life crashing down around him. He saw thirty years in Parchman for having sex with a juvenile patient, so he killed her.

I suddenly see a glimpse of the future. This case is going to trial, and Drew Elliott will be the defendant, whether he deserves to be or not. Thank God I didnt march in here spouting his secrets. The public shouldnt be able to make that kind of speculation, I say evenly, because they shouldnt associate my clients name with this case in any way.

Shad smiles and shakes his head. Weve got a simple situation here, Counselor. Somebody is making telephone calls saying your client was screwing the dead girl. I cant control that callers actions. So youve got to assume that Dr. Elliots name is going to be in the street soon. The best thing Drew can do for himself is provide us a DNA sample and clear his name as quickly as possible. If his DNA doesnt match what the pathologist swabbed out of the girl, nobody can ever say a word against him.

Check and mate.If Im going to come clean about the affair before the trial, now is the time. But the truth as I know it will only lend credence to Shads first scenario-murder committed in a jealous rage.

You asked about time of death, Shad reminds me. If youll tell me where Dr. Elliott was during the hours surrounding it, Ill give you the time of death.

No deal. Were getting way ahead of ourselves.

Shads eyes glint with a predators love of the hunt.

What about the fishermen who found the girls body? I ask, trying to take Shads mind off Drews alibi. Have you ruled them out?

Theyre down at the hospital providing DNA samples as we speak. They couldnt wait to do it.

Damn.And Kate Townsends boyfriend?

Steve Sayers? Same deal. Shad taps the cherry desktop with manicured fingernails. The boys alibi is a little weak, but he couldnt wait to get over to the hospital and give blood. He offered to whack off in a cup right here in my office. Says he hasnt had sex with the victim in months. Seems Miss Townsend just up and stopped putting out, no explanation. And before that, she was as hot as they come, according to the Sayers boy. Kinky, he said. Shad gives me a cagey look. You think she got religion?

I keep my face impassive.

Shad smiles and leans back in his chair. The bottom line is this: I need DNA from everybody who might have known the Townsend girl in the biblical sense. And any reasonable man would have to include your client on that list. Now, everybody but your client is chomping at the bit to give me said sample. Your client, on the other hand, has sent his celebrity mouthpiece down here to talk for him. So Ill ask you straight out, is Dr. Elliott going to provide a DNA sample to the state in the interest of expediting this investigation? Or is he not?

I choose my words with great care. No judge would order my client to give a blood sample on the basis of an anonymous call alone.

Shad concedes this with a slight inclination of his head. That may be true. But in the interest of protecting the community, what innocent man would object to it?

In a perfect world, Id agree. But if it got out that you asked Drew Elliott to give a DNA sample in connection with this murder-and itwould get out, if he complied-the rumor alone could destroy him. Its practically a child molestation charge. The stigma would never go away.

You cant keep his name out of this mess, Cage. Our mystery caller didnt telephone just me this morning.

I cover my mouth and swallow hard. Who else?

Sheriff Byrd and the chief of police. Our callers a persistent fellow. He seems to believe strongly in his cause.

Did you trace the source of the calls from phone records?

They originated from a pay phone on the north side of downtown.

The black section?

Shad inclines his head again.

This fits what Drew told me about the blackmailers voice. Did the police fingerprint the phone?

Theyre working that angle, but no matches yet. Shad suddenly gives me a look of honest puzzlement. The thing is, Penn, accusing Dr. Elliott of this affair seems so out of left field, its hard to imagine anyone making it up. You know? If its not true, who would eventhink of it?

Somebody who hates Drew Elliott.

Shad turns up his palms. From what I gather, the good doctor hasnt got an enemy in the world. Everybody talks about him like hes a saint.

Theres a reason for that. Hes a genuinely good man.

Another beatific smile. Then hes got nothing to worry about. The way I see it, providing a DNA sample is about the only way Dr. Elliott is going to be able to preserve his sterling reputation.

Theres no way Im letting Drew go down to the St. Catherines Hospital lab for a DNA test. The mans on staff there, for Gods sake. Word would shoot through that building in less than an hour. By nightfall, everybody in town would know about it.

Shad leans back and speaks in a cold voice. Im sorry to hear that. Because if he doesnt, Ill be forced to consider other alternatives.

Such as?

Well, Ive been sitting here thinking about that. One thing, its the first week of the month. That means the grand jurys in session. Probably will be for two more days. They might be real interested in hearing about this situation. About the anonymous call, and about the strange coincidences, like how Dr. Elliott lives upstream on that creek where the girls body was found. They might just decide they want a DNA sample from the doctor on their own.

Jesus.Thats unethical, Shad. Youd be perverting the purpose of the grand jury. It doesnt exist to investigate crimes. And for your information, at least a thousand people live upstream on that creek, maybe more.

Shads eyes brim with confidence. Just a thought, Counselor. But emotions are running high in this town. People want a brutal killer like this caught and punished. Thats my sole interest here. And Im not going to let the fact that your client is white and rich stop me from getting to the bottom of this poor girls death. That kind of miscarriage of justice stopped the day I took over this office.

Like a chess player experiencing a flash of insight, I suddenly see a dozen moves down the board. And what I see sends a rush of adrenaline through my veins. This conversation isnt about murder at all-its about politics. I should have realized that before I walked in the door.

The mayoral election Shad lost five years ago was the most hotly contested in Natchez history. He lost to Riley Warren, a two-term white incumbent with a flamboyant style and a love for backroom business schemes that earned him the nickname Wiley. While some of those schemes benefited the city, others weighed it down with suffocating debt, and by the end of his term-last summer-even Wileys supporters suspected that hed enriched himself more than the city he was elected to serve. Shad might have defeated Warren then, but he was only halfway into his first term as district attorney. It wouldnt have looked good for him to resign after the promises hed made to rectify racial inequalities in Natchezs criminal courts.

Despite dwindling support, Wiley Warren ran for mayor a third time. His enemies polled local worthies in search of an opposition candidate-myself included. Like most who were asked, I declined to enter the fray. Ultimately, Warrens enemies ran a rather dim bulb named Doug Jones against their nemesis, and despite Joness utter lack of distinction or vision, he handily defeated Warren in the primary. The only black candidate to step forward was a funeral director with a checkered past, a man with enemies of his own in the black community. Black turnout was low on election day, and Doug Jones won by a 58 to 42 percent margin. The newly Honorable Mayor Jones took office and promptly became the invisible man. If he took no bold new initiatives for the city, neither did he make any tragic mistakes. He managed this by doing almost nothing at all. But shortly after Christmas he finally did do something: he held a press conference and announced that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer and would resign his office within ninety days.

That was two months ago.

If Mayor Jones pulls the trigger within the next four weeks, as promised, then the chief executive office of the city will be up for grabs. Local election rules dictate that once the mayors office is vacated, a special election must be held within forty-five days. Sitting here in this office, I realize just how important that fact is to Shad Johnson. If Shad were to convict a rich white doctor of capital murder, he could pronounce his election promises to the black community fulfilled and enter the mayoral race with a united front behind him-something that didnt happen five years ago.

The seemingly boundless confidence in Shads eyes triggers another revelation: he doesnt even have to convict Drew. Even if Shad loses, he wins politically in the black community, just for making the effort. He can always blame a courtroom loss on the white mans secret manipulation of the system.

I look Shad hard in the eyes but speak softly. Youre going to run for mayor again.

He blinks like a reptile basking in the sun. No comment, Counselor.

You think putting Drew Elliott in Parchman is your ticket to a unified black electoral base.

Shad attempts to dispose of my theory with a wave of his hand. Our business here is to rule out Dr. Elliott as a murder suspect-if we can-so that my officers can get on with the investigation of this heinous crime.

Spoken as though for reporters.My new understanding of the political situation has sent my mind racing down a dozen different paths, but Im not here to figure out the future of Natchez. Im here to protect Drew Elliott.

All right, I say in a tone of surrender. What about this? Dr. Elliott has a laboratory in his office. Send over a couple of police officers right now, during his lunch hour. His lab tech can draw the blood you need-do a buccal swab, whatever-and the cops can attest that its his. The chain of custody remains intact, and so does Dr. Elliotts reputation.

Shad nods. I can live with that.

I look at my watch. Id better call him.

I thought he had an emergency.

Hes probably handled it by now. I get up and offer Shad my hand.

He takes it, but he squeezes gently rather than shakes, then withdraws his hand. I hope your boy comes up clean, Penn. If he doesnt

He will.

Shad looks surprised by my statement. But I was talking about Kates murder, nothing else.

Im almost to the door when he says, Penn, about the mayoral situation.

I turn and regard him steadily. Yes?

I heard some local power brokers asked you to run against Wiley Warren last year.

Thats right. I wasnt interested.

Not interested in running against Warren? Or not interested in being mayor?

Both. Neither.

Shad studies me with unguarded curiosity. The towns in a lot different place than it was a year ago.

Youre right, Im sad to say.

It kills him to ask the next question. Are you still not interested?

I turn up my palms, then smile easily. No more than you. Have a good day, Shad.

Outside the D.A.s office, I stand in the sun and stare across the street at the courthouse. Somewhere inside, a simple white man named Doug Jones is wrestling with his fear of death and deciding when to resign the office of mayor. Im surprised hes waited two months, given the gravity of his diagnosis. I watched an uncle die of lung cancer, and Ive forgotten neither my horror nor his pain. But while Mayor Jones struggles with his mortality, Shad Johnson watches from across the street like a hungry vulture waiting to draw life from death. My new appreciation of Shads deeper motive has clarified Drews situation.

If Shad can get sufficient evidence, he will rush Drew to trial in record time, hoping to convict him-or at least garner a weeks worth of headlines-before Mayor Jones resigns. But Drews legal jeopardy is not the sole reason for my interest in Shads political intentions. For the past six months, despite my decision not to seek the office of mayor a year ago, I have been pondering the idea of entering the special election.

My reasons are simple. One month into Doug Joness administration, the International Paper Company-the largest employer in the county-announced that it would close its Natchez mill after fifty years of continuous operation. The shock to the community still hasnt passed. Closure came swiftly, and about a month ago the severance pay of former employees began to peter out. So did their heath insurance benefits. And IP was merely the last in a short but devastatingly complete line of local manufacturing companies to shut down. Triton Battery. Armstrong Tire and Rubber. Johns-Manville. That leaves tourism the only industry pumping outside dollars into Natchez. And tourism is a seasonal business.

In a single year, Natchez has been transformed from a fairly healthy city into a community on the edge. Weve lost more than five hundred families in the wake of the IP closure, and more are leaving every week. In 1850, Natchez boasted more millionaires than every city in America except New York and Philadelphia, the money flowing in as cotton flowed out by the hundreds of thousands of bales. But as the soil was slowly depleted, cotton farming moved north to the Delta, and Natchez entered a period of decline. Then in 1948, oil was discovered practically beneath the streets. By 1960, the year I was born, the city was flush with millionaires again, and Natchez became a truly magical place in which to grow up. But in 1986, the price of oil crashed, and the Reagan administration sacrificed domestic oil producers in his battle to win the Cold War. The number of local oil companies dwindled from sixty to seven, and by the time the price of oil began to climb again, there wasnt enough industry left to exploit what remained of our depleted reserves. Without visionary leadership, Natchez will soon shrink to a quaint hamlet of ten or twelve thousand people-mostly retirees, service workers, and people on welfare-and the thriving city of twenty-five thousand that I grew up in will be only a memory.

When I first heard about Doug Joness terrible diagnosis, I sensed the hand of fate offering this city a final opportunity for salvation. And to my surprise, I felt a powerful surge of civic responsibility swelling in my heart. Shad Johnson will tell voters he felt a similar call to public service, but I know him too well to believe that. Five years ago, he left his Chicago law firm to return to Natchez and run one of the most cynical campaigns Ive ever witnessed on either a local or national level. Im proud that my efforts in the courtroom helped snatch victory from his grasp, but it was black voters who ultimately did that. Enough of them saw through Shads theatrical skills to tip the balance against him. They closed their eyes, gritted their teeth, and voted for what they hoped was a harmless white man. But as Shad himself said earlier, Natchez was a different city a year ago. Now we are in crisis. And a man who does nothing during a crisis is as bad as a man who causes one.

As I stare at the great white courthouse, my cell phone rings. I climb into my Saab and answer.

Are you out of the meeting? Drew asks in a tense voice. Did you see the autopsy report?

No questions about his future, only about what happened to Kate. Is that because he loved her so dearly? Or because he has something to fear?She was strangled, Drew.

Thats what I thought, he says quietly. From the petechiae around her eyes. Was she pregnant?

Yes. Four weeks along.

A sharp intake of breath. Thats why she was so desperate to see me. Jesus, what about-

Stop talking, Drew. We can go into details later. Right now we have a problem. The district attorney wants a sample of your DNA.

Silence.

The pathologist found semen inside Kates body. Theres no point in telling Drew that the pathologist found the semen of two different men, and in two different locations. Of course, I expected that, given what you told me about the previous night.

Im listening.

Shad wants to prove you murdered Kate. He wants to prove it badly.

Does he really think Im capable of that?

All men are capable of that, Drew. We can talk about Shads motives later. Right now, under these circumstances, giving him the sample is the best thing you can do. Itll buy us three or four weeks while the lab does the test. And time is what we need more than anything right now.

Why?

Because the police may have caught the real murderer long before the test is completed, or even begun. And by that point, it wont matter nearly so much that you were having sex with Kate Townsend. In fact, if Shad gets a confession from someone else, I might be able to persuade him to cancel the test altogether. Youd probably have to make a massive contribution to his next political campaign-which will be sooner than anyone suspects-but I think you could live with that.

Okay, fine. But what about the autopsy? What else did the report show?

Later.Shad wanted you to waltz into the St. Catherines Hospital lab and give the blood sample, but I worked out a compromise.

Which is?

Can you trust your lab technician?

Susan? Sure. Shes been with me nine years.

Good. Because in the next hour, a couple of cops are going to show up at your office and watch Susan draw some blood from your arm.

Okay.

And, Drew?

Yes?

From now on, dont answer any questions from anybody without talking to me first. Nothing. You got that?

Okay.

Youd better get things straight with Susan.

I will. Are you going to be here when they draw the blood?

Is your office empty during lunch?

Like a cemetery.

All right. Ill come by and make sure they dont hassle you for pubic hairs or anything like that.

Thanks.

As I hang up and start my car, a tall, big-bellied white man wearing a brown uniform and a gray cowboy hat swaggers by my car and turns into the doorway of the district attorneys office. He is Billy Byrd, the sheriff of Adams County. As Sheriff Byrd pulls open the D.A.s door, he glances back at me and gives me a superior smile, as though he already knows exactly what transpired in the office upstairs a few minutes ago. And of course he does.

Welcome to Mississippi politics.


Chapter 7 | Turning Angel | Chapter 8