There’s an empty parking space in front of the D.A.’s private entrance. I park and ring the bell, but no one answers. Banging on the door produces no response, either. I call Shad’s office from my cell phone, but all I get is a recording saying that the office is closed.
Even angrier than when I left the house, I walk around to the alley behind the waterworks. In the shadows between the buildings, I can hardly see my hand in front of my face. But on the third floor, bright fluorescent light spills from a row of casement windows.
A ladder dangles from a landing on the building across the alley.Fire escape. One minute of careful climbing puts me on a third-floor landing, where I smell the aroma of seafood cooking in the restaurant on the next block. I can also see directly into the office of the district attorney. What I see brings acid into my throat.
Shad Johnson is pacing around his office in a brilliant blue suit, while seated at his desk is Arthel Minor. To ensure impartiality, circuit judges are supposed to be assigned cases by a simple system of rotation, but in practice cases are often steered to certain judges by crafty lawyers. It’s pretty clear to me which judge will be assigned Kate Townsend’s murder case. Beyond Judge Minor, leaning against a filing cabinet on the far wall, stands Billy Byrd, the redneck sheriff of Adams County. This is the most unlikely lynch mob I ever heard of, but there’s no doubt in my mind about their intended function.
Two bricks lie on the landing at my feet. I’m tempted to hurl one through Shad’s window, but that would probably put me in jail for the night. Instead, I pick one up and start banging the metal railing of the fire escape. The clanging echoes through the alley like hammer blows in a blacksmith’s shop.
Shad soon comes to his window. I keep banging, and Sheriff Byrd appears at the next window in the row. Then Judge Minor materializes behind him. The sheriff motions angrily for me to stop.
Sheriff Byrd clearly does not recognize me. But now that I have the group’s attention, I hold up my cell phone, shake it theatrically, then dial Shad’s office again. They all turn away from the windows. Finally, Shad answers his phone.
“ Who’s making that goddamn racket?” I yell.
“What?” Shad asks in a flabbergasted voice. “Who is this?”
“Penn Cage, you unethical prick. Go downstairs and let me in.”
“Is that you banging on that fire escape across the alley?”
“You bet it is. And now that I’ve caught you three in the act, there’s no point trying to hide. Open up.”
Shad slams down the phone.
I scramble down the ladder and race around to the D.A.‘s door. Sheriff Byrd stands waiting for me, one hand on the gun in his belt and a seething anger tightening his jaw muscles.
“What the Sam D. Hell do you think you’re doing?” he growls.
“I’d like you to answer the same question.” I push past him and take the stairs two at a time, preferring to confront the judge before the others. But when I reach Shad’s office, Judge Minor is nowhere in sight.
Now Shad sits behind his antique desk, watching me like someone looking at a dangerous mental patient.
“Where’s Judge Minor?” I demand.
The district attorney doesn’t answer.
“He didn’t make it downstairs that fast unless he sprinted, and that’s a little undignified for a judge-even one of questionable integrity. Is he hiding in another office?”
“What are you doing here at this hour?” Shad asks, slowly getting himself under control. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about the third co-conspirator in this little lynch mob.”
Shad’s mouth drops open. “You’d better choose your words with more care, Counselor.”
“I said exactly what I meant to say.”
“Did you now?” Sheriff Byrd asks from behind me, huffing from the exertion of climbing stairs.
“What else did I see through those windows?” I ask. “The circuit judge, the sheriff, and the district attorney all huddled in a room after dark. The irony is exquisite.”
“What irony’s that?” asks the sheriff, who wouldn’t know irony if it hit him over the head.
“If Shad and Judge Minor weren’t black-and if this were forty years ago-what else could I conclude but that I was seeing a lynching in the making?”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Shad says finally.
“Do you deny that you three were discussing Drew Elliott before I showed up?”
Sheriff Byrd starts to deny it, but Shad holds up a hand to silence him. “Why should I deny that?”
“Because it isn’t exactly standard procedure for a murder investigation.”
“Dr. Elliott isn’t a standard murder suspect. Neither was Kate Townsend a standard victim. She was practically a celebrity around here. And that’s what we were discussing. The whole town’s turned upside down from the rumors going around, and we wanted to make sure we were all on the same page.”
“That’s called collusion, Shad.”
“It’s none of your damn business what we’re doing up here,” says the sheriff.
I focus on Shad. “You know a meeting like that borders on being unethical. Drew hasn’t even been charged with murder. The circuit judge has no place whatever in this matter. Not at this time.”
“ Borderson,” Shad echoes, tilting his head to indicate the equivocal nature of this point. “This is a special case, Penn. And we all agree that it needs to be expedited as quickly as possible.”
“That’s exactly the wrong thing to do. You need to proceed methodically, follow precedent, and leave no stone unturned in your investigation.”
Sheriff Byrd leans against the filing cabinet again and regards me with disdain. “My mama always told me the worst vice is ad -vice.”
“I know your mama,” I tell him. “I think most people would agree she could have used a little advice herself along the way.”
Byrd comes off the file cabinet with stunning speed, one fist clenched and the other hand on his gun.
“Billy!” Shad yells. “He’s just trying to bait you.”
“You smug son of a bitch,” Byrd says in a murderous tone. “Just keep on with your shit. See what happens.”
Shad lays his palms flat on his desk. “Penn, you’ll get your chance to weigh in on these issues during the trial. But for now-”
“The trial? You’ve found nothing so far that indicates Drew should even be indicted. You’ve hijacked the grand jury to question minors without their parents present. You’ve started rumors that have already gone a long way toward ruining Dr. Elliott’s career. Half the town already thinks he’s guilty of murder, and he hasn’t even been charged. And what do you have, really? A rumor that he was having sex with Kate Townsend. That’s light-years away from capital murder!”
Shad seems unfazed by my impassioned outburst. “Are you finished?”
“For the moment.”
“Then why don’t you try listening for a change?”
“I’m all ears.”
“Dr. Elliott is in deep trouble, and it has nothing to do with the meeting you just witnessed. Let me review the evidence for you. First, the anonymous call that started this thing.”
I start to argue, but Shad silences me with a shake of his head.
“That call was too strange to ignore. If you were the D.A., you would have handled it just as I did. You’d have called Dr. Elliott into your office. In any case, that anonymous call certainly led somewhere, didn’t it?”
“Damned straight,” agrees Sheriff Byrd.
Shad looks embarrassed to have Byrd’s support. “Second,” Shad goes on, “the preliminary serology on the semen samples. Based on the lab findings, one of those two samples is very likely to be confirmed as belonging to Dr. Elliot when the DNA analysis comes back-which won’t be as long as you think. Third, that particular semen sample wasn’t taken from the Townsend girl’s vagina, but from her rectum.”
The hair along my forearms stands up. When Shad told me yesterday that Kate had semen “in both holes,” I naturally assumed that the unknown sample-the one unknown to me, that is-was the one swabbed from her rectum.
“That rather prurient fact,” Shad says with authority, “bolsters my theory that Dr. Elliot’s intercourse with the victim was an act of vengeance if not outright rape. A ’grudge-fuck,‘ I believe it’s called.”
I can’t even begin to deal with the implications of this new information in this room. “But at our first meeting, you told me the trauma was vaginal, didn’t you?”
“I believe I said ’genital.‘ ” Shad looks down at some papers on his desk. “There was labial swelling, some vaginal abrasions, but also anorectal swelling with small tears inside the anus.”
I take a moment to process this. “Which semen was deposited first? That found in the vagina? Or the anal sample? Even if you assume Drew had anal sex with Kate, he could have deposited that semen up to seventy-two hours before she was swabbed, while the sperm found in her vagina could have been deposited just prior to death.”
Shad shakes his head, and I detect something like smugness in his eyes. “We’ll never know that,” he says. “Since the girl was DOA, she wasn’t swabbed until the next morning during the autopsy in Jackson. The sperm in both samples were dead. One of the disadvantages of investigating crime in a small town.”
“What else do you have?” I ask quietly.
“Fourth,” Shad enumerates. “Fingerprints. Sheriff Byrd’s detectives found Dr. Elliot’s fingerprints all over Kate Townsend’s bedroom and private bathroom.”
Drew, you stupid bastard,I curse silently. “How do you know those prints are Dr. Elliot’s?” I ask the sheriff. “Given your relationship with the PD, I can’t believe you went to the city jail to print him, or even that you asked the police to fax theirs over to you.”
Sheriff Byrd gives me a superior smile. “One of my deputies took some prints from the doc’s private bathroom when they went to his office to collect his blood.”
Now I remember. The short, unpleasant deputy excused himself to “use the restroom” while Susan Salter pulled Drew’s blood. The little son of a bitch.
“What else?” I ask, working hard to hide my dismay.
“Phone records,” Shad says. “We’ve got Kate Townsend’s cell phone records for the past year. The past few months are clean, but if you go back to this past summer, it gives Dr. Elliott some problems.”
“Of course she called Drew,” I say. “She was the family babysitter.”
Shad grins good-naturedly. “You’re going to dig the hole deeper if you don’t keep your mouth shut. Why don’t you listen to what I have to say?”
He’s right. If Drew were a normal client, I’d stand here with my mouth shut. But I feel compelled to defend my friend, even when I don’t know exactly what he has or hasn’t done.
Shad dons a pair of reading glasses and examines a piece of paper with tiny type on it. “I wouldn’t have found it odd if the girl called Dr. Elliott’s home a few times, or even more than a few. But she didn’t do that. She called his medical office and his cell phone almost exclusively. She did it often and at very odd times. Like three o’clock in the morning. And the calls lasted a very long time.” Shad looks at me over the lenses of his glasses. “Hours.”
I struggle to hold my poker face.
“But the real kicker,” Shad says with obvious relish, “is that she didn’t just call him direct. She bought third-party phone cards at Wal-Mart and dialed into an 800-number switchboard before calling his cell phone. That’s a standard method of trying to disguise phone calls-particularly in extramarital affairs.” He glances at Sheriff Byrd. “Computers are a wonderful thing, aren’t they?”
The only positive I can see is that they seem to have no record of Kate using computers to text-message Drew. Certainly they’ve checked his records by now. Perhaps those digital connections are not so easily traced. “What else?”
Shad removes his reading glasses and meets my gaze. “A classmate of Kate Townsend’s saw her changing cars with Dr. Elliott in a public parking lot.”
“What do you mean, ’changing cars‘?”
“You know exactly what I mean. Both of them parked their cars in a public lot, and when they thought no one was looking, Kate climbed into Dr. Elliot’s car and they drove away. A female St. Stephen’s student told that to the grand jury this afternoon.”
My stomach rolls over.
“This girl also said that it looked like Dr. Elliott and the girl were fighting.”
“How long ago did this supposedly happen? And where?”
Shad shakes his head, his eyes twinkling. “Sorry, Counselor. Can’t tell you everything. That wouldn’t be right.”
Shad’s litany of evidence like this would titillate and possibly sway a jury-until they realized that he was proving the wrong point.
“Fine,” I say. “Drew looks like a dog for carrying on with Kate Townsend. But you’re no closer to murder than you were ten minutes ago. All you’ve given me is evidence of an extramarital affair, most of it circumstantial. This isn’t a divorce case, Shad.”
He nods as if in agreement. “You’re right about that. But you’re wrong about what I’ve shown, and you know it. I’ve presented you with direct evidence of sexual battery, a serious felony.”
Shad’s heading right where I didn’t want him to go.
“Dr. Elliott was Kate Townsend’s personal physician,” he says, “a position of trust defined by statute. Having consensual sex just once with a juvenile female patient will buy him thirty years in the pen. And I figure Dr. Elliott probably repeated that offense a hundred times or more.”
“Open-and-shut case,” says Sheriff Byrd.
I give Shad my coldest stare. “You don’t give a damn about Drew having sex with that girl. If you charge him on that offense, it’s pure politics, and everyone in town will know it.”
“How do you figure that?”
“You’re singing your song about positions of trust and underage sex. You want to go out to the public school with me tomorrow and start questioning seventeen-year-old black girls? You want to ask them if any of their coaches have rubbed their shoulders after practice? Or maybe rubbed some more intimate parts, as defined in the statute on sexual battery?”
Shad has gone still as a bust in a museum.
“You want to go over to the junior high and start asking fifteen-year-old black girls how many of them are sleeping with adult men? That’s statutory rape, open and shut. Hell, you could fill up both jails in an hour. But you won’t do that, will you? You’d lose votes faster than if you put on a KKK sheet and hood. Don’t pretend that public morals or public safety have anything to do with this case, okay? You want to convict a rich white man to further your political ambitions. End of story.”
I turn to Sheriff Byrd. “I don’t know why you’re part of this, but I’m going to find out. And don’t think I’ll hesitate to go to the media with the whole stinking mess. You’ve already ruined my client’s reputation. I’ve got nothing to lose.”
Both men are staring at me with more anxiety than anger. Sheriff Byrd walks over to a chair and takes a seat beside Shad. The district attorney rises from his chair, comes around the desk, settles his butt on it, and smiles as though this whole confrontation is just a misunderstanding between friends.
“Penn, you were a prosecutor for fifteen years. The evidence I’ve laid out tonight is just what we’ve uncovered in the first forty-eight hours. Can you imagine what else there is to find? You know Dr. Elliot’s DNA is going to match what we took from that girl’s rectum. And at that point-forget any future evidence that comes in-at that point, just about any jury in this state will be ready to fry his ass and not lose a minute’s sleep over it.”
I let his last sentence hang in the air. This is the kind of logic that condemned many an innocent black man not so many years ago.
“There’s just one problem with your scenario, Shad. A tiny little hole that a second-year law student could drive a cement truck through.”
“The second semen sample. You’re completely ignoring it. Who else had sex with Kate Townsend? Who raped her? That’s what you should be trying to find out.”
“On the contrary,” he says, “that’s the cornerstone of my case. Dr. Elliott murdered Kate Townsend in a jealous rage over what he perceived as infidelity on the girl’s part.”
“Then who’s the mystery man? If the semen in her vagina wasn’t deposited during a rape, why hasn’t the guy come forward?”
Shad glances at Sheriff Byrd as if deciding how much to reveal. “I think it’s a kid,” he says finally, “just like the deceased. A kid who’s scared shitless, and with good reason. He doesn’t want to jump into the middle of a capital murder case. Also, he’s probably scared of Dr. Elliott. Maybe he saw Elliott kill the girl. If so, he’s got to figure, ’If he killed her, he’ll damn sure kill me to keep me quiet.‘ Or the kid may have told his parents what he saw.They may be keeping him from coming forward. These days, a lot of parents would do that.”
“Everything you just told me is pure speculation.”
Shad shrugs. “Maybe so. But it’s the kind of speculation juries like.”
He’s right. And although he might have some difficulty getting this speculation into the record in a normal courtroom, he’ll have no trouble with Judge Minor. Good old Arthel will give Shad all the rope he needs to hang Drew with innuendo.
“Come on, Cage,” says Sheriff Byrd. “You know as well as I do that most murder victims are killed by people they know, and know well. Same with rape.”
“You’re absolutely right. Are you satisfied that you’re aware of everybody Kate Townsend knew well?”
“We’re getting there.”
“So you know all about Cyrus White.”
Byrd’s eyes narrow, but Shad looks blank.
“What are you talking about?” asks the sheriff.
“I’m talking about regular contact-regular and documented contact-between Kate Townsend and Cyrus White. And I’m not talking about casual encounters in the mall. I’m talking about her visiting his crib in the Brightside Manor Apartments.”
“Stop right there,” Shad says irritably. “Who the hell is Cyrus White?”
“Only the biggest drug dealer in the city of Natchez.”
Shad glances at Byrd. “Is that right?”
The sheriff nods reluctantly.
“Why haven’t I heard of him before?”
I can’t resist answering. “The voters of this city would probably like to ask you the same question, Shad.”
The sheriff gives me a dark look, then cuts his eyes at Shad. “You don’t know who Cyrus is because he’s never been arrested. Where did you get your information, Cage?”
Since I can’t betray Sonny Cross, I barb my evasion with a point. “From the same person who told me Cyrus was sexually obsessed with Kate Townsend.”
“Cyrus has a serious jones for white girls, Billy. That seems like the kind of thing you ought to know about, given the circumstances of this case.”
“Cyrus is black?” Shad asks. “I mean, if he lives in Brightside Manor, I guess he must be.”
“He’s black,” the sheriff confirms. “But he doesn’t always stay at Brightside. He has safe houses and apartments all around town. The crib at Brightside is just one of them. Cyrus moves around a lot.”
“Where was this guy when the murder happened?” Shad asks.
Sheriff Byrd looks at me again but says nothing.
“He doesn’t know,” I tell Shad. “Billy figured he could nail Dr. Elliott on circumstantial evidence alone, and since that’s what you want him to do, why look any further? Right, Sheriff?”
“Screw you, Cage. Don’t tell me how to run my business.”
“Somebody needs to. Has it seeped into your brain yet that St. Catherine’s Creek runs right behind Brightside Manor?”
Sheriff Byrd’s mouth falls open. He looks like a largemouth bass that’s been hooked deep in the gut.
“That’s what I figured.” I turn to Shad. “Ain’t it a bitch? You were all ready to rush a pillar of this community to execution to make yourself look good for an election, and now Cyrus White drops out of the woodwork. Nailing a black drug dealer for killing a white girl won’t buy you much capital with black voters, will it? In fact, it might hurt you some.”
Shads eyes are no longer focused on me. They’ve moved off to the middle distance as he makes lightning calculations about the political ramifications of all this.
“Ask yourself this, Shad,” I say softly. “On one hand, you’ve got a distinguished physician who’s never been in trouble in his life. He was having sex with an underage girl, but he was in love with her and ready to marry her. That’s the guy you’ve got sitting in jail. On the other hand, you’ve got a notorious drug dealer who violently wiped out all his competition, who is known to have been sexually obsessed with the murder victim, and who lives on the creek into which the body was dumped. Now-which suspect would a reasonable man conclude is the most likely killer?”
Shad swallows audibly. The sound gives me great satisfaction.
Sheriff Byrd stands up straight and tries to stare a hole through me. Except for the paunch, he looks a lot like the black-hatted gunfighters in the old Westerns my dad and I watched when I was a kid. “Tell me where you got your information about Cyrus and the Townsend girl,” he says, taking two steps toward me.
“Sorry, Sheriff. If I told you everything, that wouldn’t be right, would it?”
Shad speaks in a cold voice. “Tell him, or I’ll charge you with obstruction of justice.”
“You call what I saw when I walked into this office justice?” I laugh outright, then turn and walk to the door. “I’ll see you boys tomorrow, after you’ve taken a DNA sample from Cyrus White. And be sure to inform the newspaper, the grand jury, and Judge Minor that you have a second suspect. Or I’ll have to do it for you.”
“Hold it, Cage,” Sheriff Byrd warns. “We’re a long way from done here.”
I keep walking.
“You can’t get out,” Shad calls after me. “The downstairs door is locked.”
He’s right. “Then get your ass down there and open it. Or I’ll smash it open.”
“Do that, and I’ll arrest you,” threatens the sheriff, his voice edged with hatred.
It’s times like this that I think the judicial system should be entrusted solely to women. “Arrest me, and I’ll make you look like the biggest asshole in the county on the front page of tomorrow’s paper. And that’s saying something.”
Billy Byrd looks like he’s about to stroke out.
“Open it for him,” Shad says softly. “Here are the keys.”
I walk downstairs without waiting for Billy. He’ll be ready to kill me by the time he reaches the ground floor, but right now I don’t give a damn.
I stand at the glass door, listening to his boot heels hammer the steps and the keys jangling in his hand. He stops behind me but makes no move to open the door.
“You’re writing mighty big checks with that mouth of yours,” he says in a low voice.
I turn and face him, my jaw set. “What did Shad buy you with, Billy? Whatever it was, it must have been big. I know you don’t sell cheap, especially to a black man. They’ve never been your kind of folks.”
Byrd’s trigeminal nerve twitches his cheek. “Be careful, boy.”
“Of what, exactly?”
The smile that cracks his face is like another man’s grimace.
“Don’t you wish it was forty years ago?” I say softly. “So you could just put two in the back of my head and say I assaulted you? Or maybe that I tried to escape?”
The smile leaves Byrd’s lips. “Sometimes I think they had it right back then, yeah.”
“Open the door.”
The sheriff tosses Shad’s keys onto the floor and walks back up the stairs.
I unlock the door, toss Shad’s keys into a trash can in the corner, and walk out into the night.
As I stand in the street looking at the hulking white courthouse, everything I didn’t know about Drew rushes through my mind with dizzying speed. His fingerprints in Kate’s bedroom. Kate’s cell phone records. A witness seeing Drew and Kate changing cars in a parking lot. Each of these facts is another stone in the pile that could eventually bury Drew at trial. Not evidence of murder, of course, but evidence of depravity to a conservative jury. And Shad was right about one thing: if the semen found in Kate’s rectum turns out to match Drew’s DNA, Shad’s theory of rape and murder as revenge is going to sound a lot more plausible. No member of a Mississippi jury will want to believe that a high school senior was practicing anal sex for recreation. I’m not sure I believe it myself. If it weren’t for Cyrus White’s relationship with Kate-and the location of the Brightside Manor Apartments-I’d be damned frightened right now.
My cell phone rings. The caller ID saysMIA, but when I answer, all I hear is sobs.
“Mia? Is that you?”
She’s crying, I’m sure of it. My heart bounds into high gear. “Is Annie all right?”
“Yes, but something terrible has happened!”
“Chris Vogel is dead.”
Chris Vogel is a junior at St. Stephen’s and the star of the basketball team. I saw him two days ago, shooting three-point shots in a neighbor’s driveway downtown. “Are you sure?”
“Positive. Everybody’s talking about it.”
“How did he die?”
“He drowned at Lake St. John.”
Lake St. John. The same lake where the X-rave was held last night.I climb into my Saab, crank the engine, and pull into the empty street. “When did this happen, Mia?”
“Do you have any details?”
“More than I want. Apparently, Chris never came back to town after the party last night. He and Jimmy Wingate ditched school today. Everybody figured they had hangovers, because they wouldn’t answer their cell phones. But apparently they stayed up at the Wingates’ lake house. They just didn’t want word to get back to the teachers where they were. They stayed drunk and probably worse, given the shit that was up there the other night.”
“You mean drugs.”
“How do you know all this?”
“Christy Blake called and told me about Chris, but as soon as I hung up with her, I called Jimmy Wingate. We were good friends when we were little. He’s in bad shape. Seeing Chris drown really messed him up.”
I want to know more, but I’d rather hear it face-to-face. “I’ll be home in three minutes. Tell me when I get there, okay?”
Mia sobs into the phone. “Please hurry.”
I hang up and press down on the accelerator. I’ve never seen or heard Mia lose her composure before. But tonight it’s no wonder. Death is difficult enough for adults to deal with, but for adolescents it can be a paralyzing shock. Flushed with hormones and in the best physical shape of their lives, they view death as a shadowy event that waits incomprehensibly far in the future. The sudden loss of one of their own-particularly a school hero like Chris Vogel-punctures their illusions of immortality. You are not immune, says Fate, speaking with utter permanence.
Two high school kids dead in two days?muses a voice in my head. In a school with only five hundred students? How could they not be connected?