Shad’s emissaries arrive at Drew’s medical lab before I do. But they’re not cops, as I expected; they’re sheriff’s deputies. I can tell by the big yellow star on the door of the white cruiser parked outside. This tells me that in the investigation of Drew Elliott, the district attorney has chosen to align himself with the fat man in the cowboy hat who walked by my car a few minutes ago, rather than with the chief of police, who by any standard of common sense should be handling this matter.
Drew practices in a suite of offices maintained by Natchez Doctors’ Hospital, which is located behind the cluster of primary care clinics that feed patients to the main facility. The front door of Drew’s office is unlocked. I enter to find his waiting room dark. There’s light in the corridor beyond it, but the door to the hall is locked. After I bang loudly, a young woman’s face appears behind the receptionist’s window. She waves, then buzzes me into the corridor.
Drew’s lab is right across the hall, a brightly lit rectangle containing centrifuges, microscopes, and expensive blood chemistry machines. Against the far wall, a blue phlebotomist’s chair stands beside a white refrigerator. Drew himself is reclining in the chair, one shirtsleeve rolled up past his elbow.
I step in and find two deputies standing with their backs to the wall opposite Drew. They look uncomfortable. I recognize one of them. Tom Jackson was the top detective at the police department until the sheriff hired him away, which wasn’t hard to do. The county pays cops about five thousand a year more than the city does. Jackson is as tall as Drew, and his handlebar mustache gives him the look of a cowboy in a Frederic Remington painting. He gives me a friendly nod, but his partner-a short, black-haired man with pasty skin-doesn’t even acknowledge me.
“Tom,” says Drew, “this is Penn Cage, a buddy of mine.”
“I know Penn,” Jackson says in a deep voice.
Both deputies must know why I’m here, but Drew seems to want to preserve the illusion of a friendly get-together. He nods past me, and I turn to see the white-uniformed woman who let me in. She’s in her midthirties, with short brown hair and a heart-shaped face distinguished by intelligent brown eyes.
“Penn, this is Susan Salter, my med tech.”
“Nice to meet you, Susan.”
She manages a slight nod; she looks the least comfortable of us all.
“Well,” says Drew, “let’s get this over with.”
Susan takes a long white box from a cabinet and looks at the deputies. “You said four tubes?”
“That’s what our evidence technician told us,” says Tom Jackson. “I guess they want to make sure they don’t have to ask for more blood later.”
Susan removes four vacuum tubes with purple stoppers from the box and lays them flat on one arm of the chair. Then she straps a Velcro tourniquet around Drew’s left biceps and slaps his antecubital vein three times. A vein like a rigid blue pipe stands up at the place where Drew’s arm muscles insert at the inner elbow. Susan pushes the stopper end of one of the tubes into a Vacutainer syringe, then with a single deft motion pricks the needle into Drew’s vein and presses the stopper of the tube down onto the rear of the needle with her thumb.
A fountain of dark blood begins filling the tube, sucked inward by the vacuum inside it. The short deputy looks away.
“I need to use the restroom,” he mumbles.
“Down the hall to your right,” says Drew.
The deputy disappears. As Susan replaces the full tube with an empty one, I realize her hands are shaking. She’s playing out a scene she couldn’t possibly have imagined an hour ago. How much has Drew told her? I wonder.
“Tom?” I say, taking advantage of the other deputy’s absence. “What do you figure the time of death was?”
Jackson looks warily at me. “You don’t know?”
“The D.A. wouldn’t tell me.”
He sighs and shakes his head. “People are acting mighty squirrelly about this case. I’d like to help you out, though.”
“Well…we know the girl didn’t leave the school until three. The fishermen say they found her about six-twenty.”
“What did the body temperature tell you?”
Jackson glances uncomfortably at the door. “I don’t know about all that. I heard they’re not sure how long she was in the water.”
The short deputy walks through the door, looks at Jackson, and smiles. It seems a strange thing to do, but it shuts Jackson up.
When the four tubes lie full of blood on a table and the tourniquet has been removed from Drew’s arm, Tom steps forward with a plastic evidence bag and holds it open. Susan drops the tubes inside. Drew shakes his head, looking more than anything like an innocent man doing his best to humor overzealous cops.
“That it, guys?”
Jackson nods. “That’s it, Doc. Sorry to bother you with this.”
“How long do you think it will take to get the DNA results?” I ask.
“Usually takes a month, at least,” Tom replies. “They’ll probably rush this, considering the situation. But two and a half weeks is the fastest I’ve ever seen. Out of New Orleans, anyway.”
This is exactly what I expected.
Drew stands and offers Tom his hand, and Jackson gives it a strong shake. In all likelihood, Tom is a patient of Drew’s. But when Drew offers his hand to the shorter deputy, the man turns without a word and leaves the lab. Tom shrugs sheepishly, then follows his partner out.
Drew looks at Susan. “I guess I screwed up your lunch hour.”
She forces a smile. “That’s okay. I’m not hungry.”
Drew gives me a pointed glance, and I realize he needs to speak further with Susan in private.
“I’ll give you a call later,” I tell him, starting for the door.
“Wait,” he says. “Have you had lunch yet? I’m starving.”
“I was about to get something.”
“Why don’t we eat together? We ought to talk about a couple of things.”
I don’t want to risk talking about this situation in public. “Tell you what, I’ll grab some food and come back here. We can eat in your office.”
Drew looks dismayed, but then he seems to get it. “Okay. See you in a few minutes. No hamburgers.”
I leave the office and go out to my car, my mind on Susan and her ability to keep quiet. I feel like Thai food, but the only Thai restaurant is downtown, and it would take too long to get there and back to Drew’s office. The only options on this side of town are fast food and Ruby Tuesday’s. I pull into the drive-through lane at Taco Bell and order a couple of zesty chicken bowls, some tacos, and two Mountain Dews, which the restaurant delivers in record time. Then I pull back onto the bypass and get into the turning lane for Jefferson Davis Boulevard, the street that leads to Drew’s office.
While I wait for the light to change, the blare of a police siren pierces my ears. Several vehicles behind me pull onto the grassy median, and then a police car with blue lights flashing screeches to a stop behind me. With nowhere else to go, I shoot across two oncoming lanes of traffic and pull my right wheels onto the curb of Jeff Davis Boulevard. The squad car roars past me.
This kind of thing is pretty unusual in Natchez at midday. Maybe that’s what triggers my intuition, but in any case I hit the accelerator and take off in pursuit of the squad car.
The blue lights swerve into a parking lot on the right side of Jeff Davis Boulevard. Sure enough, it’s Drew’s office. What the hell could have happened so fast?I wonder, skidding into the lot behind the police car.
And then I see.
A muscular man in a blue cap is brandishing a wooden baseball bat at Drew, who stands in a half crouch with his hands held out from his body. Susan Salter is screaming at the man to put down the bat.
Two uniformed cops leap from the squad car. As one draws a can of pepper spray from his belt, I see two other men lying on the ground not far from the man with the bat. One rolls over onto his back, clutching his bloodied face in pain.
“Drop that bat!”yells one of the cops, who’s holding a deadly steel baton called an asp.
The man with the bat jerks his head toward the cop, and at that moment I realize something alarming: the blue cap he’s wearing is a St. Stephen’s Bucks baseball cap, which almost certainly makes him not a man at all, but a boy. From the rear, his size and muscularity gave him the appearance of an adult. But when I read the letters on the back of his jersey-SAYERS-everything clicks. The boy with the bat is Steve Sayers, Kate Townsend’s ex-boyfriend.
“Why are you pointing that at me?”Sayers screams at the cop, his eyes blazing with anger or fear and maybe both. “ He’sthe one! Look what he did!”
Steve points to the men on the ground, and I recognize one of them as a St. Stephen’s senior. What the hell is going on? As the cop yells again for Sayers to drop the bat, Steve swings the Louisville Slugger in a great roundhouse arc. Drew ducks beneath the whistling wood, and Steve keeps spinning. As the bat comes around a second time, Drew springs forward and snatches it from Steve’s hands.
“Get back, Steve!” he shouts. “I don’t want to fight you!”
But Sayers is beyond rational thought. He lunges for Drew’s throat, his eyes filled with rage. With a lightning motion, Drew thrusts the fat end of the bat into Steve’s midsection. There’s an explosive grunt, and Steve folds over the bat and drops to his knees, sucking for air. In the same moment, a cloud of pepper spray envelops Steve and Drew. Steve screams, and Drew begins clawing at his eyes with his free hand.
“That’s enough!”I yell at the cop. “That’s Dr. Drew Elliott! I’m his attorney. There’s no more danger!”
“Drop the bat, Doctor!” the cop yells at Drew again.
“Drop it, Drew!” I shout.
But Steve Sayers isn’t done. Somehow he gets to his feet and charges Drew like a blind bull. Drew must be blind himself, because he takes the brunt of the charge in his belly. From reflex he pops Steve across the upper back with the bat, and this time the boy drops to the cement and stays there. Drew tosses the bat away and holds up his hands in surrender.
The cop with the pepper spray takes a pair of handcuffs from his belt, rushes up to Drew, and cuffs his hands behind his back.
“I was defending myself!” Drew protests, tears streaming down his face. “Penn, these kids attacked me. I tried to talk to them, but they wouldn’t listen!”
“He’s telling the truth!” shouts Drew’s med tech, stepping forward.
The other cop has cuffed Steve Sayers and is now checking the other boys on the ground.
“What happened here, ma’am?” asks the first cop.
Susan Salter swallows and tries to collect herself. “Dr. Elliott and I were just standing here talking, and these kids drove up and started cursing. They picked the fight. I have no idea why. It was crazy! Dr. Elliott did everything he could to avoid it.”
“What’s your name, ma’am?”
“Susan Salter. I’m Dr. Elliott’s medical technologist.”
The cop turns to me. “You’re Dr. Elliott’s lawyer?”
“Yes, I am, Officer. Penn Cage. As you saw, my client was clearly defending himself. But as serious as this looks, it’s still misdemeanor assault, and I very much doubt that my client will press charges. He knows these boys, and I’m sure it was all a misunderstanding. Isn’t that right, Drew?”
Drew looks in my direction with tears streaming down his face. “Uh…that’s right, Officer. We were just horsing around, and it got out of hand.”
“Bullshit!” yells one of the boys on the ground. “That bastard tried to kill us! He broke my fucking nose!”
The cop points at Steve Sayers. “In that kid’s hands, a baseball bat is a deadly weapon. It looked like aggravated assault to me.”
The cop is right. Steve Sayers is at least six-foot-one, and he has the hyperinflated musculature I associate with the use of anabolic steroids. All three boys do, come to think of it, which makes me think of Marko Bakic and his little drug business at St. Stephen’s.
“Aggravated assault is a felony, Officer,” I say evenly. “Steve’s a good kid. There’s no reason to put a felony arrest on his record.”
“Everybody wait right here,” says the cop, who looks young enough to be a rookie. He’s not going to make decisions involving prominent citizens without some advice from a superior. As he goes back to his squad car to use the radio, I turn to one of the seniors on the ground. “What the hell were you guys doing?”
“Kiss my ass!” he barks. “That bastard needs his ass kicked. Fucking cradle-robber. Pervert.”
Then it hits me: They know about Drew and Kate.
I’d like to question Drew, but the second cop is standing too close to him. I try to catch Drew’s eye, but the pepper spray has rendered those organs useless for the time being.
When the young cop returns from his car, he walks right past me, informs Drew that he’s under arrest for aggravated assault, then begins reading him his Miranda rights. The other cop takes his cue and does the same to Steve Sayers.
“What are you guys doing?” I ask in the calmest voice I can muster. “Dr. Elliott was clearly defending himself. You heard what he said during the fight.”
“Judge’ll decide that,” says the young cop. “Step back, sir.”
“The most you can arrest him for is simple assault.”
“I’m just doing what the chief told me to do.”
“The chief of police told you to do this?”
“That’s right. You got a problem, take it up with him.”
“I’ll do that,” I reply, but what I’m thinking is, Son of a bitch! This situation is becoming more political by the minute. The police chief should have ordered the patrolman to let Drew go, or at most to arrest him for simple assault, then release him on a recognizance bond. An arrest for aggravated assault can only mean one thing: the chief wants Drew and Steve in his custody. And the only reason I can see for that is the long-running turf war between the police department and the sheriff’s office. In the arena of that conflict, the police chief has been handed a gift from the gods. He can now hold Sheriff Byrd’s two main murder suspects in his jail for at least one night.
The boys cuss and spit at Drew as the cops haul them to their feet. One’s face is a mass of blood below the nose; the other’s left eye is already swelling shut. For a man defending himself against three assailants, Drew did a lot of damage.
A second squad car pulls into the lot. As the police herd their charges into the cars, I promise Drew I’ll meet him at the station. Then I pull Susan Salter into the courtyard of Drew’s office building. She’s hyperventilating now, and her tears are flowing nonstop.
“I don’t understand!” she says in a stunned voice. “This morning everything was fine, and now…everything’s upside down! It doesn’t make any sense. How could they think Dr. Elliott could do anything against the law?”
Is she talking about the fight?I wonder. Or about Kate’s murder? I take hold of Susan’s thin wrists and speak in a reassuring voice. “Listen to me, Susan. I don’t know how much Drew told you about his situation, but I do know this: he trusted you with his life. He told me you’d worked for him nine years, and that he had absolute confidence in you. What you just saw will be the talk of the town by tonight. If you add to that talk, it can only hurt Drew. Do you understand?”
She sucks her upper lip into her mouth as though thinking hard, then nods and wipes her nose. “Don’t worry about me saying anything. I hate gossip. That’s why I quit the hospital. All they do over there is cheat on their spouses and gossip about it afterward. I think they like the talking better than the cheating.”
“Will you tell me what you saw in the parking lot?”
She nods helpfully. “It happened just like I said. We were standing there talking about recombinant DNA, and this big pickup truck screeched to a stop beside us.” She points at a jacked-up orange pickup parked thirty yards away. “There were three guys inside. They looked like high school kids, but big, you know? I think Dr. Elliott knew them, because he waved and spoke to the driver. But then a guy jumped out of the backseat and started screaming at Dr. Elliott.”
“What did he scream?”
“Curse words, mostly.”
“Try to remember exactly.”
Susan has a primitive Baptist’s reluctance to utter profanity. “ ’You motherfucker,‘ I think he said first. ’You sick motherfucker. It was you. It was you all along.‘ ”
Oh wow.This is only a preview of the community reaction to Drew’s secret private life. “Did Drew say anything back?”
“No. He looked too shocked to speak.”
“ ’You need your ass kicked,‘ I think the boy said next, and then he jumped at Dr. Elliott like he was going to hit him. Dr. Elliott called him by name then. He told Steve to calm down and get back in the truck. But the kid just threw up his fists and kept jumping forward like he was going to hit Dr. Elliott. I was kind of freaked out, but not really scared at that point. It was so weird. But then the other two guys jumped out of the truck.”
“Is that when the bat came into it?”
“No. That only happened after Drew knocked the other two guys down.”
“Who threw the first punch?”
“The first kid. Steve.”
“Did Drew fight back?”
“Not at first. He kept trying to calm Steve down. But after Steve hit him five or six times, Dr. Elliott shoved him backward. Steve fell down, and I think that really embarrassed him. He screamed for the other guys to help, and at that point the other two guys jumped Dr. Elliott.”
“What happened then?”
Susan shakes her head as though in wonder. “I’m not really sure. I mean, it happened so fast. It was like Dr. Elliott knew how to fight and they didn’t. They were really mad, and they were screaming and throwing punches everywhere, but it looked sort of like my husband wrestling with my ten-year-old son. The second it got serious, it was like, over. ”
“How did the baseball bat come into it?”
“Steve went down first, but while Dr. Elliott was handling the other two, Steve grabbed the bat from the truck.” Susan shakes her head as if reliving the fight. “It was scary. I’ve never seen Dr. Elliott like that. I saw him once at the hospital picnic. He played softball with his shirt off, and he was like, ripped, you know?”
“I know. I grew up with him.”
“But he wasn’t that competitive, not like the other guys. He was just out there for fun. But today…Dr. Elliott did everything he could to stop that fight, but once he knew it was going to happen, he justswitched on. I’ve never seen anything like that.”
I can understand Susan’s awe. Steve Sayers and his buddies have been pumping iron seriously for two or three years. But their steroid-plumped muscles are no match for the speed and strength that genetics bestowed upon Drew Elliott at birth. And their teenage anger couldn’t begin to compare with the deadly resolve of a man who sensed he was fighting for his life.
“But in your mind, it was the other guys’ fault?” I ask.
“Oh, totally. Absolutely. They wanted a piece of Dr. Elliott, and they pushed him until they got it. Dear Lord.”
“All right, Susan. Will you be okay if I go on to the station now?”
She nods uncertainly. “I think so. Thanks for staying with me.”
“Glad to do it. And you’re not going to talk to anybody about this? Other than the police?”
“No, I understand.” She looks suddenly upset again. “Mr. Cage, is Drew going to be all right?”
The look in Susan Salter’s eyes tells me she’s more than half in love with her boss, but I don’t even want to go there. I nod at her as though any other outcome would be impossible. “You take care, okay?”
As I hurry back to my Saab, one thought fills my head: How did Steve Sayers find out that Drew was involved with Kate? But once in the car, another, more frightening thought takes its place: Who else knows about it?