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Chapter 14

Im parked outside my house on Washington Street, trying to reach Sonny Cross, the narcotics agent who told me about Cyrus White. Mia stands in the open door, her worried face illuminated by the porch light. Someone answers in a voice so soft as to be almost inaudible.

Sonny? I ask. Are you asleep?

On surveillance, he whispers. Hang on.

I hear the sound of heels on pavement-probably Sonnys snakeskin cowboy boots-and then he speaks in a normal voice. You must have heard about the Vogel boy.

Yeah.

Things go to shit in a hurry, dont they?

Do you think his death was drug-related?

Definitely. The kid with him admitted theyd done three tabs of acid in the past twelve hours. I was there when they questioned him.

Did he say where they got it?

Claims they found it in a bag by the lake road.

This is Jimmy Wingate?

Yeah.

Were his parents there?

Sonny chuckles dryly. Oh, yeah. Jimmys old man threatened to beat the crap out of him if he didnt tell us the truth, and the kidstill wouldnt talk.

You think they got the acid from Marko Bakic?

Who else? But nobodys admitting that. These kids either love Marko or theyre scared shitless of him.

Maybe both, I suggest. Marko knows nothing about American football, but he won the South State football playoff for St. Stephens by kicking the winning field goal. I wouldnt think that would be enough to keep kids quiet when a childhood friend dies, though.

Yeah, well, times on our side, bubba. Let Chriss death really sink in, and somebodyll get mad enough or upset enough to talk.

I hope so. St. Stephens cant take much more of this.

Natchez cant take much more, Sonny mutters.

Could the LSD have come from Cyrus White rather than Marko?

You can bet it went through Cyruss hands before it got to Marko. Just like it went through the Asians hands before it got to Cyrus. I suppose some other white kid could be buying from Cyrus, but it wasnt until Marko got to St. Stephens that this shit started showing up there.

Look, Sonny, I had to mention the Cyrus-Kate connection in front of Sheriff Byrd. I kept your name out of it, but I did tell him the contact was documented. He may be able to figure out where it came from based on that.

Ah, shit, dont worry about it. Byrd cant afford to fire me. I make him look too good. I gotta go, Penn. Later.

I hang up and get out of the car. As I walk up the steps, Mia runs forward and hugs me, then sobs against my chest. Whats happening? Everythings gone crazy!

Calm down, I tell her, trying to separate us, then giving up and stroking her hair the way I do Annies when shes upset. Its going to be all right.

She pulls away and stares at me, her eyes sparkling with tears. No, its not. You know its not. Dont tell me things are okay when theyre not. My dad does that.

The dad who left when she was two.Im not saying things are okay, Mia. Im telling you Im going to make them right.

How? You cant bring Chris back to life.

No. All I can do is try to keep what happened to Chris from happening to anybody else.

She lays her head on my chest again. I let her alone for a bit, trying not to feel too awkward with her body pressing against mine. Then I separate us.

Wheres Annie?

In bed.

Good. Do you feel like telling me what you know now?

She wipes her eyes and nose. My eyes are swollen. That always happens when I cry. I know I look like shit.

Its okay. Just tell me what happened.

She disengages from me, sits on the top step, and hugs her knees. About seven tonight, Chris bet Jimmy Wingate he could beat him across the lake. Swimming, right? As cold as it is at night, and thats the wide part of the lake, too. Jimmy didnt want to do it, but Chris was wasted and kept calling Jimmy a pussy. I can just see it. Chris is such a redneck sometimes. So they tried it. No life jackets, pitch black. They were about halfway across when Chris got into trouble. He just stopped swimming and tried to float. He told Jimmy he was watching the moon, that the moon was changing colors every second.

Theyd done three tabs of acid in the past twelve hours,Sonny said.

Jimmy tried to get him to keep swimming, Mia continues, but it was like Chris couldnt hear him. Jimmy was treading water, and he knew he couldnt last long. When he finally got Chris to start swimming again, Chris started puking. After that, Chris couldnt keep himself afloat. Jimmy wasnt sure which bank they were closer to, so he tried to pull Chris back to the pier where theyd started. He barely made it forty yards before he was exhausted. Mia is rocking steadily now. He had to let Chris go, and he barely made it back himself. He was crying like a baby when he told me this.

Things have gone crazy, I murmur.

Did I help any? Mia asks.

What?

About Shad Johnson. Did I help Dr. Elliott by seeing Shad with the judge and the sheriff?

I reach down and squeeze her shoulder. You helped a lot. I really appreciate it.

Can you tell me about it?

I wish I could, but-

You dont trust me.

Its not that. Its just

She looks up, her eyes hurt. If you really trusted me, youd tell me.

I sit beside her on the steps. Drews situation is about more than a crime, okay? Its political. The D.A. wants to convict Drew to prove that a rich white man wont be treated any better than a poor black one in this town.

That sounds like a good thing.

If that were the real reason he was doing it, it would be. But its not. Shad wants to be elected mayor. And if what he really wanted was to bring this city back to life, Id support him. But thats not what he wants. He wants a stepping-stone to bigger things. He wants personal power. And hes willing to railroad Drew to get it.

Mia turns to me and smiles through her tears. That wasnt so hard, was it?

No.

She raises a forefinger and pretends to zip her lips. Its in the vault.

Seinfeld?

She laughs. Then she begins to cry again.

Did you know Chris well? I ask.

Since nursery school.

This doesnt surprise me. I started at St. Stephens when I was four years old. Fourteen years later, most of the people I graduated with were children Id played with in nursery school. I knew them as well as I knew my own family, and many of them I still do. Thats one of the things that makes this shrinking town worth saving. Some of the best parts of American life that have vanished elsewhere still thrive here.

I still want to help, Mia says. I mean it. Even if you think its dangerous. Schools boring me to death. Im just counting the days until graduation. I want to do something that matters. Especially now.

I stand and pull her to her feet, then look hard into her eyes. Who brought the LSD to the party?

She goes still, her eyes locked on mine.

Was it Marko?

I dont know. Not for sure.

Would you tell me if you knew?

I dont know.

What would keep you from it? Loyalty to your friends? To Marko? Or is it fear of Marko?

She closes her eyes, then opens them again. Ill think about that, okay? Im not sure myself.

Fair enough.

Id better go now.

I try to give her a smile of encouragement, but it fails.

Will you hug me once more? she asks in a small voice.

I start to, but something stops me.

Never mind, she says, her mercurial eyes quick to recognize my hesitation. She walks down the steps and to her car, not once looking back.

Be careful, Mia.

Dont worry. I can take care of myself. She slams her door and pulls away, leaving me feeling like a complete asshole.


Chapter 13 | Turning Angel | Chapter 15