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Chapter 24

Dad, its Penn. You awake?

You know me, my father says in his deep voice. Im dictating and smoking a cigar.

Dad was doing exactly the same thing thirty years ago, while I tried to stay awake to watch the late movie, back in the dark ages before HBO. Eternally behind with his hospital charts, he would dictate late into the night and then reward himself with three hours of reading on the Civil War or the history of the Crusades.

I heard the ERs been pretty busy tonight, he says with understated curiosity.

Yeah.

What do you need, son?

A gun.

What kind?

Not a moments hesitation. My father has collected guns for most of his life. The bulk of his collection consists of Civil War muskets, with a few pieces dating back to the Revolutionary War. But he also has a nice collection of modern pistols.

I need an automatic with a big magazine.

Ive got a nice Browning you can use. You on your way over?

Yep.

You in a hurry?

I need to get some sleep.

Ill meet you outside.

Five years ago, my parents house-my childhood home-was burned to the ground by a man trying to stop me from working on a thirty-year-old race murder. Five years, yet I still find myself turning into our old neighborhood, as though the house I grew up in is still standing. Its not. My father had the wreckage cleared but built a new house elsewhere. Now our old lot holds only flowers and a small granite monument to Ruby Flowers, the black maid who raised me and my older sister. Ruby died as a result of the fire that took the house, and part of me died with her. The new house is south of town, where most new construction in Natchez goes up.

True to his word, Dad is standing in his carport when I arrive. In the glow of my headlights, I see the Browning automatic hanging from his right hand. I leave my engine running and walk up to him. Seventy-two years old, half crippled by diabetes, arthritis, and coronary artery disease, he still manages to practice medicine more hours per week than most internists fresh out of medical school.

Thanks, I say, taking the gun.

Is Annie in danger? he asks.

This is no idle question. The man who burned our house five years ago also targeted my daughter for kidnapping and death. Not yet. But I try to learn from past mistakes.

Dad nods. By the time most people realize theyre in danger, its too late to do anything about it.

I may give Daniel Kelly a call.

Sounds like a good idea. I thought he was working in Afghanistan.

Daniel Kelly is a former Delta Force operator who worked with me during the Del Payton case. Now an operative for a prestigious corporate security firm based in Houston, Kelly has truly frightening skills, but more important, he knows and loves my family.

Dad probes my eyes with a gaze that has searched out illness and deception for more than forty years. What happened tonight? You look shell-shocked.

Somebody tried to kill a drug dealer. Three black guys got killed-teenagers, probably.

Dad shakes his head. Thats not all of it, is it?

Paul and Janet Wilson were just murdered in their home.

Now its my father who looks shell-shocked. Professor Wilson?

And his wife. Cut to pieces.

Who the hell would do that?

Im not sure yet. I think the killer was after an exchange student who lives with them.

Why? Is this a drug thing, too?

I think so.

Are you involved in that case?

In a way. Im afraid it might be connected to Drews case.

How?

This is you and me, right?

Dad gives me a look that makes me embarrassed to have asked the question.

Ellen Elliott was addicted to Lorcet, I tell him. Drew had the DEA on his back for keeping her supplied, so his girlfriend started getting it for Ellen to make life easier on Drew. She got it from this black dealer.

Dad closes his eyes. Damn it. I suspected something like that.

What?

Drew called me once and asked if Id write Ellen a scrip for fifty Lorcet.

Did you?

Sure. But I knew if he was asking me to do it, he was already at the limit himself.

Do a lot of local people abuse that drug?

Patients ask for it by name every day. I take it myself for arthritis. Couldnt get by without it. But its addictive as hell. You dont hear about it much. Oxycontin gets all the headlines, but Lorcet is an opium derivative, too, and it makes you feel pretty good.

I look down at the Browning and familiarize myself with the safety mechanisms.

Dad grips my wrist in his hand. Youre shaking, Penn.

That crime scene was pretty bad.

What can I do to help?

This is no idle offer. At nineteen my father was part of the infamous retreat from the Chosin Reservoir in Korea. He also had occasion to use violence a couple of times in civilian life after that. But I would never put him in harms way now, despite his willingness to put himself there. Nothing right now, but I appreciate the offer.

You know my number.

As I start to go, an idea hits me. Do you have a pistol with one of those lights on it? Sonny Cross had one, and it looked pretty useful.

A laser sight?

No, it was more like a powerful flashlight.

A tactical light, Dad says. Sure, Ive got one I can mount on that Browning. Be right back.

He disappears into the house, then returns with a small black object. Look here. You flip this catch, then slide the light onto these grooves cut into the gun stock. When you let go of the catches, its locked on. He demonstrates the move for me twice. To flick on the light, just push up this lever with your trigger finger.

I test the light by shining it toward Dads backyard fence. An armadillo rooting in the yard freezes, then scuttles away.

Take him out, Dad says. Those bastards tear this yard to pieces.

Ill leave him to you. Id better get moving. Ive got a babysitter keeping Annie.

Dad frowns. Caitlins still out of town?

Yeah.

He shakes his head but says nothing. He doesnt have to.

Ill see you, Dad.

Remember, he calls, theres more where that came from.

The gun or Caitlin?I wonder. But of course he meant both.

By the time I reach Washington Street, my hands have steadied a bit. I park in front of my house and look over at the town house to the right of mine-Caitlins house when shes in town, which is less and less of late. Some nights when shes gone, I look that way with an infantile wish that Ill see lights on inside, signifying a surprise return, but thats never happened. And tonight I dont even feel the wish. Its just an empty house.

I walk up the three steps to my familiar blue door, unlock it, and walk inside. For a brief moment Im suffused with terror, an irrational fear that Ill find Annie and Mia slashed and bleeding on the floor. But of course theyre not. Mia is asleep on the couch in my study, balled up beneath the comforter from my bed. Her cell phone sits on the back of the couch beside a paperback copy of Donna Tartts The Secret History. Annie is undoubtedly asleep in her room upstairs.

I dont know whether to wake Mia or to let her sleep through the night. I dont even know what to do about myself. Im exhausted, but I dont think I could sleep without a strong sedative. I should have asked Dad for something. Maybe a Lorcet.

Sensory overload,says a voice in my head. I told Deputy Burns the truth about my past in Houston, but that was a long time ago. Another life ago. The grotesque scenes I saw tonight hit me with the same impact they would a layman, or perhaps even harder. I think human beings can endure only so much carnage and waste; beyond a certain limit, one either breaks down or becomes utterly desensitized. That break point differs from person to person, but I sense that Im close to mine. Ive seen dozens of murder victims in person, and hundreds in crime scene photographs. Ive watched nine of the twelve men and women I sent to death row be executed. I watched my wife die a horrific death from cancer. And I watched the maid who practically raised me die from third-degree burns despite my best efforts to save her. Spread among those dead are the people Ive watched suffer but live to tell about it. If this tally continues to grow, Im not sure which side of the equation Ill tip over on-breakdown or numbness.

Hey, says Mia, blinking and smiling up from the sofa. What time is it?

Around midnight, I reply, setting my fathers Browning on top of a glass-fronted bookcase behind me.

Mia squints at me. Are you okay? You dont look good.

Im not sure.

She rises from the couch and walks past me to the hall. Stay there. Ill make some tea.

I obey, grateful to be told what to do. When Mia returns with the tea, Im still standing in the spot where she left me, staring at the rows of hardcover books on my shelves.

Come sit, she says, setting two china cups on the coffee table before the sofa.

Sarah chose those cups, I say softly.

Mia watches me closely. Your wife?

Yes.

Ive seen pictures of her in the photo albums. Annie showed them to me.

I nod distantly.

I think Annie still misses her a lot. Mia sucks her lips between her teeth as if reluctant to continue. Do you?

Sometimes.

I thought youd have a family picture out. With the three of you, you know?

I used to. I think it started to bother Caitlin after a while. She never said anything, but I took it down when I repainted and then pretended to forget to put it back up.

Mia nestles herself into the corner of the sofa and tucks her legs beneath her. I think the teas ready to drink.

I walk to the coffee table and drain half my cup in one swallow. The tea is almost scalding, but I welcome the pain.

Can you tell me what happened tonight? Mia asks.

You dont already know?

Nobody called me with anything new. Is it bad?

Yes.

Can you tell me?

I guess. Itll be all over town by tomorrow. I justIm really wiped out.

Thirty words or less?

Somebody tried to kill a black drug dealer. He got three of the dealers friends instead. And the Wilsons are dead.

Mias eyes go wide. The Wilsons Marko lives with?

Thats right.

Did Marko do it?

This brings me partly from my trance. You obviously think hes capable of it.

I dont know why I said that. Maybe I do. Or maybe Im retarded. Like I told you, Markos different from the rest of us. He liked the Wilsons, though. No, I dont think he would do that.

I sit on the end of the sofa opposite Mia. Shes still staring at me with wide eyes.

Penn, what the hell is going on?

I dont know. I really dont.

I mean, its been, whatthree days? Three days, and how many people dead? She counts off the casualties on her fingers: Kate, Chris, the narcthree black guys. And now the Wilsons.

And that Catholic kid is still in intensive care.

Right, Mike Pinella. I mean, does anybody have any idea whats going on?

I shrug.

What do you think? Seriously.

I think its a drug war. Thats the only explanation I can come up with.

She nods slowly. Can Natchez cops handle a drug war?

That questions moot. Tomorrow well see federal involvement. At least the DEA, and maybe a task force. Thats what needs to happen. Some of the violence is coming from the Asian gangs on the Gulf Coast. The rest of itI dont know.

Mia processes this in silence.

I lay my elbows on my knees, then turn and look hard into her eyes. Youve seen Marko selling drugs to St. Stephens kids, havent you?

She doesnt move. She doesnt even blink. But then, very softly, she says, I feel so bad about that now. Like maybe I could have stopped some of this.

You couldnt have. But you need to tell me the truth now. Have you seen Marko sell drugs on school property?

She nods.

Have you seen him hurt anybody? Physically, I mean.

A deep breath, held in. No. I havent seen that.

Why the hesitation?

I was thinking about something else.

What?

Private stuff.

I decide to leave this alone. Was Marko in school today?

No.

What about Steve Sayers?

Steve was there. He was trash-talking Dr. Elliott when I saw him.

An image of Kates ex-boyfriend rises in my mind. A Matthew McConaughey look-alike with a more redneck bent. Have you ever seen Steve do drugs?

Mia rolls her eyes. Ive seen him smoke weed. But most of the guys do that on occasion, even the jocks.

Nothing harder than pot?

No.

Do you think Steve could have killed Kate?

She picks at a thread in the fabric of a pillow beside her. Only in a fit of rage. Hed be screaming and crying as soon as he realized what hed done.

Maybe thats exactly what happened.

If Kate insulted his masculinity or something, I can see him hitting her.

What about choking her?

She tilts a hand from side to side. Yeah, I can see that.

Steve still has a weak alibi. And he assaulted Drew before word about the affair with Kate was really out in the community. Will you see if you can find out how he first learned about Kate and Drew?

Ill ask him.

Be careful.

Dont worry. Steves pretty much a brick. Mia hugs the pillow to her chest. You know, Ive been sitting here trying to figure out whats behind all this violence.

Have you?

I think peoples motivations are pretty basic, you know? Primitive.

Go on.

Its like sex.

How do you mean?

She shrugs as though her point is self-evident. Sex is always there, you know? People act civilized, they go through the motions of public life, but these secret attractions and affairs are always going on. Look at St. Stephens-the parents, I mean. How many of them are having affairs with other peoples husbands and wives? Quite a few that I know about. How do those affairs start? With a glance that lingered too long? Bumping into each other in the grocery store? My point is that sexual energy is always there. That desire to be loved and wanted is always looking for a connection. And thats the secret motivation of a lot of what we see.

Youre right. So?

Thats whats missing from history, I think.

History? What do you mean?

Mia is hugging the pillow hard, but she seems unaware that shes doing it. In school we learn about all these events, historical trends, stuff like that. But what we dont learn-and probably cant ever know-is the true nature of personalities. I mean we can read biographies-and if were lucky, personal letters-but the real interplay between individuals, the chemistry of aggression and submissiveness, pride and shame, sexual attraction-we cant ever know that. Thats why it was so shocking to the country when they proved that Thomas Jefferson had children by his black slave. Suddenly he was no longer a granite figure on Mount Rushmore. He was just like us, you know? Feet of clay. We tell ourselves that we know everyone is human, but then we act as if we expect something else. We expect our heroes to be immortal.Thats the real problem Drew has now.

Mias words are almost tumbling over themselves, but her command of the language amazes me. Did I speak this way as a high school senior? I dont think so. I have a feeling Mia goes through life holding herself in, praying for someone who might be receptive to her thoughts. It strikes me as even stranger that this vocabulary is pouring from the mouth of a beautiful girl. Thats only my prejudice, of course, but I wouldnt be half so surprised if Mia were a plain girl who sat at home all the time. But shes the head cheerleader, with a body to make the shallowest high school jock drop his jaw in lust. Kate Townsend shared this quality with her, though Kate was not so conventionally beautiful. Its not hard to see why Drew was drawn to this unusual combination of qualities.

Most people in Natchez thought Drew was the greatest guy theyd ever met, Mia says. Now it turns out he was having sex with his babysitter, and theyre so pissed off theyre about to pop. But their angers not really about Kate, you know? Its about them. They feel betrayed. They put him up on a pedestal, and then he committed the crime of being human. So fuck him, right? Never mind that Kate was two weeks shy of eighteen, and on the make for exactly the kind of affair she had with Drew.

So you think Kate was the aggressor?

Id bet all the money I have on it. She grins, exposing perfect teeth. Which isnt much.

If only Drew could get jurors with your mind-set. But go on. You said youve been trying to figure out whats behind this violence.

Mia looks startled. Oh! Sorry, I went off on a tangent, as usual. Okay, I know this sounds obvious, but I think you should start with the people and move forward, rather than the way cops work.

Which is?

They start with the murder and work backward. Right?

Some of them. Go on.

Were not just looking for a killer. Were trying to understand the secret reality of this town. Like Kate and Drew. That was the reality, not Drew and Ellen. You see? If you figure out the true connections, the killer will be obvious.

Mia is right. Of course, the best homicide detectives use the exact methodology shes describing. Theyre experts on human psychology, even if theyve never taken a single psychology course. But I doubt they developed their methods by the age of eighteen.

Mia, I think you should think long and hard before you choose a career. Because you need to find something thats going to make use of all of your gifts.

She stares at me without speaking. Then she blinks as though suddenly coming awake. Its time for me to go, isnt it?

I give her an apologetic smile. I think so.

She forces herself to release the pillow, then speaks without looking at me. Are you in for the night?

Absolutely. I dont think I can move from this spot.

Now her eyes find mine. You dont need me to stay and take Annie to school?

No, my eyes will pop open at seven.

A skeptical smile. I left my backpack in the kitchen. Ill get that, and then Im gone.

Okay. I cant thank you enough for staying late. You just did something I didnt think anyone could do.

Whats that? she asks, standing.

Took my mind off of the Wilsons bodies.

Well, Im glad for that. See you tomorrow.

She picks up her paperback and her cell phone, then leaves me alone in the study. I take a deep breath and settle back against the soft cushion. Mias theories of history and detective work acted like a tranquilizer on my frayed nerves. Driving home, I feared I would have trouble sleeping tonight, but my only trouble is going to be making it upstairs to my bedroom. The couch is plenty soft enough to sleep on.

I must have dozed off, because the next thing I feel is strong hands massaging my shoulders. I wouldnt have allowed Mia to do this if Id been awake, no matter how good it feels, which-frankly-is pretty damned good. Her fingertips dig expertly into the muscle fibers of my neck, then climb to the base of my skull, slowly easing the pressure on the disks between my cervical vertebrae. I groan involuntarily, and the sound of my pleasure brings me to full alertness.

Mia, that feels great, but I cant let you do that.

Why not?

I jerk my head around to find Caitlin staring down at me, looking half amused and half angry. She raises her eyebrows and says, You were a little slow to tell the babysitter she shouldnt be rubbing your neck.

I was asleep! I protest, getting to my feet.

Caitlin gives me a look of mock suspicion. Were you?

How the hell did you get here?

Hug first, then talk.

I walk around the sofa and crush her body against mine. Only after I sense her having difficulty breathing do I pull back and look at her. No matter how much time I spend with Caitlin, I cant get accustomed to the luminous green of her eyes. They seem almost incongruous in her face, which is porcelain pale, while her hair is jet black and very fine.

Wheres Mia? I ask.

Shes gone home, where she belongs. I slipped through the back door and saw her in the kitchen. She left that way.

Thats some timing.

A little color comes into Caitlins cheeks. I watched the two of you from the porch for a little bit.

Spying?

A girl has to protect her investment.

I maintain my smile, but the thought that came into my head was,You havent invested much in me lately- or in Annie, either.

Are you all right? Caitlin asks. I know you were at the Wilson scene.

How do you know that?

Ive been in touch with my reporters all the way down.

I pull her over to the couch and sit beside her. Down from where? Explain yourself.

She laughs at my puzzlement. I was flying down to Wilmington to see my father. He wanted to talk to me about an acquisition for the chain. Face time, not phone time.

Wilmington, North Carolina, is the home base of Caitlins father, the owner of one of the fastest-growing and most successful newspaper chains in the South. Theyre at eighteen papers and counting. Daddys company owns the Cessna jet that allows Caitlin to change her flight destination on a whim.

Ann Denny called me after Sonny Cross was shot, Caitlin goes on. Denny is the editor of the Natchez Examiner, which means she reports directly to Caitlin, who is still technically the publisher, despite her long absences. I figured you were probably in the middle of whatever was going on here, so I decided, Screw it, lets turn this plane southwest and go to Mississippi.

WellIm glad you did.

Her lovely eyes narrow. Are you?

Of course.

She gives me a long and searching look. Then why arent you raping me?

Her eyes flash invitingly, but I feel no reaction other than anxiety. If I make love with Caitlin now, and then tomorrow vent the feelings that have been building up while shes gone, she will feel betrayed. Besides, the truth is, I dont feel like having sex right now. What I most want now is sedation. General anesthesia.

Youre upset, arent you?

Yes, I concede.

I heard the Wilson scene was bad. Was it?

Even this simple question causes resentment in me. Is she asking me out of curiosity, or out of professional interest? It was a murder scene.

You dont want to talk about it?

Not tonight.

What do you want to do?

I know this sounds bad, but I think I need sleep more than anything else.

Caitlin shakes her head and smiles. No, I understand completely. Do you want me to stay here?

Can you stay all night?

She seems to steel herself, then says, I promised Ann I would go over to the paper at two-thirty for a strategy meeting. Shes working through the night.

I shake my head. Dont worry about it.

Penn, that still gives us almost two hours. I can tuck you in and watch you sleep.

A year ago I would have loved hearing this. Not now. I dont think Im very good company tonight. Ill have my resources back in the morning. We can start over then.

Caitlin stands. Okay. I need to air my house out anyway. Im going to open all the doors and windows and drink a gimlet. Maybe two.

I wish I was up to joining you. Sorry.

She looks down at me, silently imploring me for some explanation, but she must already know the truth of the situation.

Caitlinyou wouldnt even be in Natchez if it werent for these murders, would you?

She bites her lip and thinks this over. Thats probably true. But I was coming back in two weeks no matter what, and staying for a whole week.

Were you?

Yes. Penn, whats wrong? Please talk to me.

We should talk before we slip back into our old routine.

Lets talk now.

No. Im too exhausted. Ive seen too much tonight. Im happy to see you, and Annie will be ecstatic. Lets leave it at that for now.

Caitlin starts to reply, then thinks better of it. She steps forward and gives me a soft kiss on the lips, then turns and walks out of the study. Shes never been slow on the uptake.

One way or another, change is coming.


Chapter 23 | Turning Angel | Chapter 25