I’m sitting in the Center City Grill, a microcosm of New Orleans located at the geographical center of downtown Natchez. Center City has a brick courtyard, wrought-iron tables, lush ferns, a fountain, a good bar, and well-traveled owners of some cultivation, as the local euphemism goes. Seated across the table from me is Jaderious Huntley. The snitch is wearing black sweatpants and a dirty T-shirt, and he looks about as twitchy as a junkie waiting for his next fix.
This morning, Jaderious called me to say that Stoney Washington was willing to talk to me about Cyrus, but only face-to-face. That smelled like a trap to me, so I said the meeting would have to happen at a public place of my choosing. Jaderious put this to Stoney, who reluctantly agreed. I chose Center City Grill because it’s always busy at lunch, and also because Jaderious and Stoney are unlikely to run into anyone who would recognize them here.
”Why didn’t Stoney come with you?“ I ask.
Jaderious looks anxiously at the nearby tables. They’re filled, but nobody’s paying attention to us. ”Stoney don’t want to be seen with me. Bad for his health. Don’t worry, he’ll be here.“
My cell phone vibrates. It’s Caitlin, calling from the newspaper office. I’ll call her back after the meeting. I can’t relax my vigilance with Jaderious for even a moment. He looks like he’d bolt if a waitress dropped a tray.
”What you gonna do if you find Cyrus?“ he asks.
”Talk to him.“
Jaderious shakes his head. ”You crazy. You want to stay far away from that cat. You ought to just walk away now. Both of us. There’s still time to call Stoney and-“
”Forget it. After this, you might be free of me, but you’re staying for this meeting. You have to make sure I’m talking to the right guy.“
Jaderious freezes, his eyes fixed on something behind me.
I turn and glance at the main entrance of the restaurant. To get in or out of Center City, patrons walk through a long courtyard lined with wrought-iron tables, then pass through a door with windows set in it. Right now, a black man of about twenty with a red rag tied on his head is standing outside that door, surveying the tables inside.
”Is that Stoney?“ I ask.
Jaderious’s chair screeches on the floor.
I whirl and grab his arm before he can run. Jaderious is half out of his seat with terror. I grab his arm and hold him tight. ”Who is that?“
”One of Cyrus’s guys! I gotta get out of here!“
”Okay. Just stay calm. He won’t do anything while we’re sitting with all these people. I can have cops here in two minutes.“
Jaderious looks at me like I’m insane. ”Man, he’ll shoot all these motherfuckers to get me. We gots to go now. “
I look toward the kitchen. There’s probably an exit there, but I’ve never seen it. There is, however, a small door in the back wall of the main dining room that leads to an alley. On busy days, I’ve sometimes parked in that alley and entered the restaurant that way.
”What’s he doing now?“ I ask.
”Looking straight at me,“ Jaderious whispers. ”I’m dead, man. Aw,shit. “
”There’s a back way out. A door in the wall almost directly behind you, about thirty feet away.“
”He’s coming in, man!“
I rise and pull Jaderious to his feet. As I lead him between the tables toward the door, I reach into my jacket pocket for my cell phone.
”You got a gun?“ Jaderious asks.
”Yes. Tell me if he pulls his.“ I pull out my cell phone and dial 911.
A female voice says, ”911 emergency.“
”This is Penn Cage,“ I say quietly. ”There’s about to be a shooting at the Center City Grill. Get some squad cars here as fast as possible. Call Chief Logan and tell him what I said.“
We’re almost at the door. I pocket the phone and grip the butt of Dad’s Browning. ”You open it,“ I tell Jaderious.
”Penn Cage!“warbles a woman from the table nearest the door.
It’s one of my mother’s friends. I smile at her, then slip through the door and pull it shut after me.
Jaderious is already sprinting toward Main Street.
”Wait!“ I yell.
”Fuck that shit!“
I charge after him. He’s younger than I am, but I’m betting a junkie’s wind won’t last long. Jaderious slows down to slip around a work van blocking the alley. I speed up, hoping to finesse the gap between the van and the wall at high speed. As I twist my body, someone leans out of the van’s side door and slams a fist into my chest.
The breath explodes from my lungs. As I tumble forward, the man who hit me catches me under the arms and drags me inside the van. He throws me onto the metal floor, steps on my chest, and jerks my gun from my jacket. While he slides the side door shut, the engine roars to life, and the van races up the alley-away from Jaderious.
When the foot leaves my chest, I see that I’m lying in an open space with power tools all around me. My assailant, an enormous black man wearing a purple Alcorn Braves football jersey, is sitting on a homemade bench that runs the length of the van’s cargo area. The van lurches to the right, onto Franklin Street, then left again.
”Hello, Mr. Cage,“ says a deep voice from behind my head.
I tilt my head back.
A heavily muscled black man is sitting against the bulkhead of the van. He has a bald head and dark, penetrating eyes. A solitary gold chain adorns his neck.
”Cyrus?“ I ask.
The bald man grins. ”Oh, yeah.“ He looks back at his compatriot. ”Hold him down, Blue.“
The mountain of a man who hit me rises into a crouch and plants what must be a size-16 Nike running shoe in the center of my chest again.
”I stomp on your heart,“ he says, ”you’ll be dead. So don’t do nothing.“
A strange and powerful hissing sound comes from behind my head. Filled with unreasoning panic, I jerk my head back again. Cyrus is holding a small blowtorch in his hand.
”Wait!“I scream, recalling Jaderious’s tales of torture.”What do you want to know?“
Cyrus belly-laughs at my terror. The man called Blue just shakes his head. I’m trying to think of a way to bribe Cyrus when he picks up a stainless-steel spoon from the bench and holds the flame of the blowtorch to its bottom. He smiles as he watches the spoon, then kills the flame and sets the spoon on the bench. A white blister pack like those in my father’s medical bag appears in his hand. Cyrus rips it open and removes a syringe. Then he draws whatever is in the spoon into the syringe.
”What are you doing?“ I ask. ”Are you going to give me an overdose?“
Cyrus holds up the syringe and taps it a couple of times. ”Naw, man. Gonna give you just the right amount. Give you a nice little ride.“
I try to twist away from the needle, but Blue puts more weight behind his Nike. It feels like a tree trunk pinning me to the floor.
”Get his vein up,“ says Cyrus.
Blue cocks Dad’s Browning, presses the barrel against my forehead, then closes his free hand around my left biceps with an iron grip. ”He got good veins, man.“
Cyrus squats beside me, his black eyes gleaming. Then he slips the needle into my antecubital vein with the casual expertise of a phlebotomist. I don’t feel the prick, but when he depresses the plunger of the syringe, I feel absolute terror.
”What was it?“I scream.
Blue releases my biceps. Cyrus pats my inner elbow, then gets back up on the bench. ”You’ll find out,“ he says, his eyes shining. ”Here it comes.“
The first thing I feel is a rush of warmth to my stomach, just below my heart. Then it spreads outward, suffusing my limbs with a wholly unfamiliar numbness. Panic balloons in my chest, but just as suddenly the pressure evaporates, and my muscles go limp.
”Don’t fight it,“ urges Cyrus. ”Let it find the place.“
”Jesus Dust,“ says Cyrus.
”Look at his eyes,“ says Blue. ”Shit, dog, he gone now.“
Cyrus laughs deep in his chest.
”Where we going?“ asks an unfamiliar voice.
The driver?I can’t make my head turn to look. My muscles refuse to obey my nerves.
”You know where,“ says Cyrus. ”You still with us, Mr. Cage?“
I try to answer, but what emerges from my mouth is one long, meaningless syllable.
”Yeah,“says Cyrus, infinitely amused by my behavior.
Blue leans over me and laughs like a father watching his baby trying to speak his first words.
I come awake on a sleeping bag on a hard floor. A metal floor. I roll over and squint against bright fluorescent lights.
”Here he is,“ says a deep voice. ”Here he comes.“
Cyrus is sitting in an office chair about eight feet away from me, his elbows on his knees, his dark eyes on me. The huge man called Blue leans against the wall behind him.
”How you feel?“ asks Cyrus.
”I don’t know. Weird.“
”That’s the dust. You never done heroin?“
A ripple of shock courses through me, but the reaction is strangely muted. ”No.“
Cyrus nods happily. ”Sweet, ain’t it?“
My watch is gone. So is my cell phone. ”What time is it?“
”Party time!“ laughs Cyrus.
”Oh, yeah,“ says Blue. His voice can’t be much higher than Barry White’s.
”Where are we?“
”Look around,“ suggests Cyrus. ”You don’t know?“
The room appears to be a laboratory of some sort. Thirty feet wide by forty feet long, it contains several pieces of what appears to be industrial electrical equipment. In the far corner, a Naugahyde recliner sits before a small television on a counter. A sleeper sofa stands against another wall. Against the wall to my right is some sort of mechanical cart. Emblazoned on its steel side is a blue trident with the letters ”TBC“ beneath it.
”Triton Battery?“ I ask.
Cyrus nods. ”My old employer. They helping me out now in ways they never dreamed.“
”I used to work here, too. The summer after my freshman year in college.“
”Yeah? Most everybody worked here at one time or other. Here or IP.“
The Triton Battery Company came to Natchez in 1936 to build batteries for Pullman railcars. In 1940 they retooled the line to manufacture batteries for diesel submarines. After the war it was truck batteries, marine batteries, whatever fit the changing market. When the plant shut down three years ago, Triton was using its ancient equipment to produce motorcycle batteries for European and Asian manufacturers.
”What part of the plant are we in?“
”Testing area. It’s the only part where the air-conditioning still works. This and the guardhouse. This is my temporary crib.“
If I’m not dead, it’s because Cyrus needs me alive for something. Probably information. Again Jaderious’s stories of torture zing through my head. How should I play it? Tell everything I know right away? Or hold something back so that I’ll have something to ”give up“ later? A predator like Cyrus won’t believe I’ve revealed everything until he sweats something out of me. But what does he want to know?
”What am I doing here?“
”You on ice, man. That’s what they call it in the gangster movies.“
”Why am I on ice?“
”’Cause I can’t have you running around town stirring up shit and causing aggravation. Old Shad’s got the right idea, and we need to let him get his business done.“
”Are you talking about the trial? Or the election?“
Cyrus looks puzzled. ”The mayor’s election?“
”What you got to do with that?“
”I’m talking about the trial, man.“
Of course. ”You don’t want me investigating Kate’s murder?“
At the mention of her name, the humor vanishes from Cyrus’s eyes. ”Like I said, I can’t have you stirring up any shit. And you been stirring up a lot of it this past week.“
With drug-induced stupidity, I say, ”Did you kill her, Cyrus?“
His bullet head draws back on his neck. ”You think I did that?“
”I don’t know. I know you wanted to sleep with her.“
A slow, almost reptilian blink. ”Yeah, I wanted her.“
”But she didn’t want you.“
He looks over at Blue, then studies me in silence.
”I read your e-mails,“ I say softly. ”You threatened her.“
The drug dealer’s black eyes flash with anger. He gets up from his chair, closes the distance between us, and squats beside me. ”That wasn’t any of your business, you know?“
”You’re right. I just…it’s the dope talking.“
Cyrus flexes his right forearm as though doing imaginary curls. ”Everybody know who killed that bitch anyway, right?“
An image of Cyrus tracking Kate’s cell phone by computer comes into my head. But arguing with him about Kate’s murder under these circumstances could be suicidal. ”How long am I going to be here?“
”That depends. How long you think the trial will take?“
”A week, maybe?“
”That’s how long you gonna be here, then.“
When Blue first dragged me into the van and I saw Cyrus’s face, I was certain I would die. When that fear lessened, the horror of torture rose in me. But now the reality is settling in: I’m going to be held prisoner until Drew’s trial is over. I won’t be able to investigate further for Quentin. He’ll be facing the trial in two days with little or no good information. A private detective hired at this point won’t be able to learn anything meaningful. And that’s why I’m here-to ensure Drew’s conviction.
The side effects of my kidnapping will be more personal. Unless Cyrus demands some sort of ransom, my family will believe I’ve been murdered. My father and mother. Annie…
”You gonna be on the nod most of the time,“ Cyrus says. ”That week’s gonna go by like a day for you. Maybe two. You ain’t gonna get hungry, you ain’t gonna get horny…you just gonna get happy. Numb, baby. The weight of the world gonna be lifted off your shoulders. You gonna be thanking me.“
”And when the trial’s over?“
He shrugs. ”That’s up to you.“
”You’re going to let me go?“
”If I wanted you dead, you’d be lying in that alley behind the restaurant.“
”I don’t get it. From what I hear, you’re not a half measures kind of guy.“
Cyrus begins cracking his knuckles, starting with his left forefinger. He maintains his squat as effortlessly as a Major League catcher during this operation.
”I tell you how it is,“ he says. ”I’m thorough, all right. I checked you out. You ain’t no civilian. You sent a lot of people to Huntsville Prison. Bangers, killers, Klan, everything. And about five years ago, you damn near got the head of the FBI sent to jail.“
It’s true. Of course, the crime committed by the FBI director was not committed as director, but as a field agent assigned to Mississippi in 1968.
”I kill you,“ Cyrus says, ”there’d be consequences.“
This is a nice idea, but probably untrue. My father would likely commit the rest of his life to finding out who had murdered me, but no nationwide quest for vengeance by a cabal of powerful cops would result. There’s an ex-Delta Force operator who might get upset about my demise, but he has a living to make. Although now that I think about it, Daniel Kelly might just take it into his head to get some payback if I were murdered. And anybody with Kelly on his ass truly has a problem.
”Did Jaderious set me up?“ I ask.
Cyrus stands and walks over to the counter where the TV and microwave stand. ”We got Lean Cuisine and Dr Pepper. Got some Dannon in that fridge over there. You take what you need. But don’t be getting up in my Pringles. Got it?“
”Leave your Pringles alone.“
Cyrus looks at Blue and says, ”He’s smart, ain’t he?“
Blue’s big belly rolls with laughter.
”You just bide your time,“ says Cyrus. ”Enjoy the ride. When the trial’s over, if you’ve been a good boy, you can leave here the way you come.“
”Good as new?“
”A little rehab, maybe. Or you can become a customer. I wouldn’t blame you. Not many people can chase the dragon and walk away. It’s too good. Like classy white pussy gone bad.“
”Why do you want to keep me high?“ I ask, genuinely puzzled. ”Why not just lock me in here?“
”‘Cause this is where I’m staying part of the time. And I don’t need you bugging me, trying head games and shit. You on the nod, it’s less stress on you and me both. For me it’ll be like you ain’t even here. You’ll be like a pet dog or something. You okay with that?“
”Fine.“ If I’m still alive, I’m okay with just about anything.
”I thought so. But you listen, right?“ Cyrus points at me ”I don’t want to kill you. But I will. Understand? You cause me any kind of shit, you become even a minor inconvenience, and I’ll send you right back to the void. Clear?“
”And don’t even think about not taking the dust. ’Cause I know how to hurt a motherfucker. So does my crew.“
I don’t reply.
Cyrus takes a cup of yogurt from the fridge and rips off the foil top. ”After two or three days, you gonna be begging for the shit anyway. Wait and see. You won’t want to live without it.“
”How do you come and go from here?“ I ask. ”Don’t they have security?“
Cyrus spoons yogurt into his mouth. ”Triton’s got an old nigger manning the guardhouse at night. He works for me, though, not those motherfuckers.“
How much more perfect could it get? Cyrus can live in relative luxury two miles from town, and keep tabs on his drug business without any fear of discovery by the police.
”Me and Blue gotta make a couple runs tonight,“ he says, setting down his yogurt. ”So it’s time to hit you up again. Don’t make us hold you down. You do that, you gonna pay a price.“
I tell myself not to resist the injection, but when Cyrus starts cooking the heroin, my adrenaline begins to pump. When he picks up a loose syringe off the counter, I can’t help but back away.
”Fuck!“ Cyrus mutters. ”Blue?“
Blue pulls a small revolver from his pocket and points it at me. He forces me into the nearest corner, then cracks the gun against my left shoulder with deceptive speed. My arm goes numb from shoulder to wrist.
”Lay down, now,“ he says in a surprisingly mild voice. ”Ain’t no use fighting. Just gon‘ make it worse on you self.“
”Has anybody else used that needle?“
Cyrus shakes his head. ”It’s the same one I used on you in the van. Come on. We’re running late. Don’t make me hurt you.“
Fighting all my natural instincts, I lie on the sleeping bag and let Blue squeeze my biceps to pump up my antecubital vein. Cyrus slips in the needle again, no pain whatever. As a test, I begin counting softly. When I hit seven, the rush begins. Again it starts in my belly, then spreads outward through my limbs. A heat like the warmth of plunging into a woman envelops my entire body.
”Is it good?“ asks Blue. ”How you feel?“
”Like a jellyfish,“ I murmur. ”But I’m part of the water.“
”Most people say it’s like their mama’s womb.“
I nod in vague agreement. ”Could be…don’t remember.“
Blue giggles like a little boy.
”I get back to the womb another way,“ Cyrus says. ”Right, Blue?“
”Oh, yeah. Best way there is.“
”Maybe I can remember,“ I think aloud. ”Go back in time, you know?“
”No,“ Cyrus intones. ”Don’t work that way.“ He kneels beside the sleeping bag and lifts my sagging chin until I’m looking into his deep black eyes. ”Let me tell you ’bout time, brother. I done some reading on that shit. People say time be like a river. That’s bullshit. You can swim upstream and downstream in a river. Can you do that with time? Hell, no. Time ain’t no river. Time is a big fucking razor blade scraping across the universe. And the edge of that razor is now. See? That’s all there is, man. No upstream or down, no past or future-just now. And all the stuff we feel, like hoping and feeling sorry for shit, that’s nothing. Useless. Nothing matters in this world but now.“
”I…understand your metaphor,“ I manage to slur. ”But things we do in this now can change our reality in the later now. See? That’s why…why what we do matters.“
Cyrus stares at me, working out my logic. Then he shakes his head. ”You missing the point, dog. It’s ‘cause you’re on the dust. That’s the only thing that can take away the now. Dust blurs it, like. Stretches it out into this big warm blanket. That’s why people kill to get it.“
”No,“ I whisper, but my grip on reason is fading fast. ”This stuffis the now. It takes away the past and future. It’s the only thing that can.“
Cyrus laughs. ”Oh, yeah. You way up in the good now.“
”Am I?“ I ask, wondering if I’m speaking at all.
Cyrus stands. ”Sleep tight, brother. Enjoy the ride.“
He walks toward the door, but before he opens it, my eyelids fall, and I snuggle under the warm blanket that heroin has thrown over my soul.
Cyrus was right about the passage of time. Soon I had no idea whether it was day or night, whether five minutes had passed or five hours. The heroin came and went like a warm tide, and my consciousness waxed and waned with it. People came and went, too, but I paid scant attention. An elderly black man in a uniform. A white girl. Jaderious Huntley. A teenager. And always Blue, who administered my heroin as lovingly as a gifted nurse. If Cyrus looked like an NFL cornerback, Blue was a nose tackle. Blue was Refrigerator Perry with a kind face. Blue was my nurturing angel.
Heroin was something else.
Heroin was an epiphany.
Suddenly all the disjointed images I’d never understood made sense: the generations of Englishmen who gave up everything to lie in opium dens in India; the ragged junkies in the Houston court system; the Scottish fuckups in Trainspotting; Tuesday Weld inDog Soldiers; even Frank Sinatra shooting up in The Man With the Golden Arm, back in my father’s day. This was why those people did what they did. This was what they were after. You go your whole life without understanding something. You know people who do it-who are even obsessed with it-but you feel no pull yourself. And then you experience it.
And the earth shifts on its axis.
I think the fact that I’d tried other drugs in college created my misconception of heroin. Marijuana took away anxiety, made my head thick and mellow. Powdered cocaine-the three times I tried it-sent me into a euphorically controlled high, during which I felt capable of anything. But heroin short-circuits pain right at its source. It bathed me in a primitive bliss that must indeed be the closest thing to the womb. Hour after hour, I lay half comatose on the floor of the lab, trying to get my conscious mind around what was happening in the base of my brain.
I couldn’t do it.
Eventually I realized that time was indeed passing. Drew’s trial had begun. Cyrus showed me copies of the Examiner. The changing front pages showed photos of Shad, Drew, Quentin, even me. But it was all so far away, like something happening on the other side of the world. I knew I should fight what was happening to me, but how could I? Blue outweighed me by a hundred pounds, and Cyrus wore his pistol all the time. He even wore it while watching DVDs in his recliner.
He watched them on the little thirteen-inch Sony on the counter against the wall. Even when he wasn’t watching movies, he played them. His taste surprised me. He watched a lot of science fiction: the original versions of The Thing and The Planet of the Apes; Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. He watched conspiracy films from the seventies: The Conversation, The Parallax View. War films: The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Great Escape. Perhaps most surprising of all, Cyrus watched westerns. He seemed to choose his westerns by their stars: Steve McQueen, Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda. And he watched The Godfather -over and over again. I figured his cinematic tastes might have developed during his service in the Gulf War.
Most of the time Cyrus ignored me, but he would talk to me about movies. He was stunned and pleased to learn that The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Planet of the Apeshad been written by the same man. I remarked that he seemed young to be a fan of such old movies, and he laughed. ”Mama had a boyfriend,“ he said. ”All that guy did was watch HBO and TNT Classics. He never worked, man. He had a job as a bag man for a guy who ran numbers, but that was it. He’d just watch movies and drink. I’d sit there with him all day long, eating fish sticks and watching movies. I got to liking them. Like meditation, you know? That’s why I run them all the time, the way most people listen to music. Movies are my drug, man.“
He showed me a newspaper article with a picture of my father above it. He said Dad had hired private experts to mount a search for me. I asked if I could read the article, but Cyrus refused.
”You just keep cool,“ he said. ”Pretty soon the jury’s gonna convict the doc, and you can go home to your little girl.“
I peered into his eyes, searching for deception. ”Why wouldn’t I be a fool to believe that?“
Cyrus grinned. ”Good question. But you got people on your side you don’t even know about.“
”What do you mean?“
”Let’s just say the word’s out in the community that I might have you. And I’m hearing things about making sure you don’t get hurt. Del Payton’s widow’s making some noise, for one.“
Althea Payton is the widow of the factory worker whose murder I solved five years ago. In the matrix of Natchez society, she’s the equivalent of Coretta Scott King.
”Then there’s the preacher of Mandamus Baptist,“ Cyrus goes on, ”where your maid went to church. Quentin Avery’s put in his two cents’ worth. And then there’s your daddy’s patients, which seems to be about half the black people in this town.“
This gave me some real hope. ”What about Shad Johnson?“
Cyrus laughed hard at that. ”I think he’d be fine if you didn’t make it.“
I laughed with him, trying to foster some sense of comradeship. Cyrus might be a monster when it came to his business, but he seemed sincere about letting me go. If he wasn’t, why hadn’t he killed me the first day? My best strategy was to wait out Drew’s trial and do nothing to upset my captor. Drew and Quentin would have to make it on their own.
As always, when the effects of the heroin began to fade, manic anxiety began building in my mind. But Blue returned and injected me again, and again I felt content to wait out my term in the wilderness.
Soon, Cyrus and Blue left to ”make a run somewhere,“ as they often did when I was on the nod, so I decided to make a trip to the restroom. I threw off the top half of my sleeping bag and forced myself to get up. I told my feet to walk, but they refused. They were asleep. I stood there for a while, waiting for my circulation to normalize. Then I tried to walk again. No progress. I looked down at my feet. They looked strange. They were the wrong color. Almost blue, really-especially the toes. I reached out for the wall to stabilize myself, then slowly rose up and down on my toes. After about a minute of this, the feeling slowly returned to my feet. As my toes woke up, the blue faded away.
I figured it was no big deal.