Three weeks later, on a beautiful evening in May, I mounted a stage set up at the center of the St. Stephen’s football field and took a seat beside Jan Chancellor. Much had happened in the three weeks following Marko’s death, and thanks to Caitlin, most of it happened in public view. As a result of that publicity, Senator Brent Few, the speaker scheduled to appear at St. Stephen’s graduation, begged off, pleading health problems. The senior class asked if I would be willing to speak in his place. I told them I would be proud to do so.
Three hundred chairs have been set up before the stage, and all but a few are filled. This is impressive, as the senior class numbers only twenty-one souls. When I graduated, we had thirty-two, but Natchez was larger then. I know most of the faces in the crowd, students and their families mainly. Two special chairs stand empty in the seniors’ section, symbolic places for Kate Townsend and Chris Vogel. They’ve almost disappeared under the bouquets of flowers left there.
No chair was left empty for Marko Bakic. For the senior class, Marko is like John Lennon’s assassin: He Who Must Not Be Named.
Of the bright faces shining between the royal blue caps and gowns, one shines brighter than the rest for me: Mia Burke. Just after my commencement address, Mia will give the valedictory speech. She was scheduled to speak before me, but I asked Jan to give Mia the last word tonight. On the night we learned that Kate had been murdered, Mia told me she had some things to say to her class and to the parents. Tonight I look forward to hearing them.
Annie is sitting with my parents in the third row. She’s with my parents because Caitlin is not here tonight. Last week, she flew north again, not to Boston this time but to her father’s house in Wilmington, North Carolina. We decided that she’s not ready for the obligations that would come with marrying me. Our parting was difficult, but mostly because of Annie. Caitlin wanted a private conversation with Annie to break the news, but I decided we should speak to her together. I still love Caitlin, and I trust her motives. But I would not take the slightest risk that something might be said which would leave Annie blaming herself for Caitlin’s disappearance from our lives.
As Jan Chancellor begins her welcome remarks, I scan the football field and surrounding bowl. It seems impossible that Drew and I chased Marko across this field on a four-wheeler just a few weeks ago. But much of what happened after that night is hard for me to believe, yet happen it did. And the consequences of those events are still unfolding.
At two this afternoon, a secret meeting was held in the district attorney’s office. Present were Shad Johnson, myself, and Quentin Avery. The atmosphere was tense, for Shad had not behaved gracefully after Judge Minor overturned Drew’s conviction. In fact, Shad made a personal crusade of trying to convict Drew of sexual battery, which could have resulted in a sentence of forty years. For two weeks I sweated blood trying to think of a way to thwart Shad’s mission. I couldn’t do it. Drew’s medical license had already been suspended by the state authorities, but word had leaked down from the board chairman in Jackson that Drew’s future medical career would depend on the disposition of his legal case.
It was during this seemingly hopeless period that Quentin Avery earned his enormous fee. Through the tangled grapevine of the local black community, Quentin somehow learned exactly how Shad had discovered Ellen Elliot’s drug addiction, and also Kate’s part in it. Shad had not done this by brilliant deductive reasoning, or even by lucky accident. Three days after my kidnapping, he had received an express mail package containing the leather portfolio stolen with my car on the night of the attack at the Eola Hotel. The portfolio-which still contained Kate’s flash drives, Marko’s hair, and Kate’s diary-had almost certainly been sent to Shad by the leader of the Asian gang in Biloxi. The gang leader had probably been prompted by Marko to send the package, in an attempt to cement Drew’s conviction for Kate’s murder.
Regardless of who sent the portfolio, the materials inside it gave Shad enough leads to discover not only Kate’s drug activities on Ellen’s behalf but also Cyrus White’s obsession with Kate. Yet Shad never informed Quentin that he had any of this in his possession. Just as Quentin had predicted at the outset of the case, Shad had broken the rules-and the law-in his effort to ensure victory at trial. To withhold such evidence constituted felony obstruction of justice-grounds for disbarment-and Quentin was ready to go to war to accomplish that end. With some considerable anxiety, I sat Quentin down and explained my view of the situation: that Shad’s greed had given us a magic bullet that could keep Drew out of jail. But Quentin did not lightly abandon his persecution of Shad Johnson. It took a campaign of attrition by me and my father to persuade Quentin that serving Drew Elliott to the best of his ability was a higher moral duty than ridding the city of Shadrach Johnson. In the end, Quentin relented.
When I left Shad’s office this afternoon, I was in a state close to shock. Quentin had stripped more than the proverbial pound of flesh from the district attorney’s backside. He had verbally flayed Shad, shaming him to a degree I thought impossible. Quentin also extracted from Shad a written promise not to seek the office of mayor in the special election. This seemed a little much, and I wondered if Quentin had done this because he was considering a run for mayor himself. But when I asked about this after the meeting, the civil rights legend just laughed.
”This town needs an idealist,“ he said, ”not a cranky old pragmatist like me.“
As I sit watching the graduation crowd, Jan Chancellor introduces Melissa Andrews, the salutatorian. A tall girl with long red hair, Melissa reads from her text without once looking up, but she speaks with genuine emotion about the pain of leaving the cocoon of her class, and her anxiety about entering a world where friends and parents will not be there to prop her up. My gaze roams over the attentive faces, then wanders to the surrounding forest. Spring has truly arrived, and with it a desperately needed air of renewal. The evening breeze blows cool and steady, and the trees encircling the stadium are alive with the pale green leaves of new growth. If Natchez were like this year-round, people would move here by the thousands.
Suddenly, Jan Chancellor’s voice breaks into my reverie. ”…a distinguished attorney who switched careers in midlife to become a bestselling author, but to the people in this town he will always be the tight end on St. Stephen’s championship football team. Ladies and gentlemen, Penn Cage.“
I stand and hug Jan as I walk to the podium. She showed some courage over the past month, unlike some board members I could name.
Lawyers are notorious for being addicted to the sound of their own voices, but as I look out over the crowd, I recall my basic mantra of public speaking: Be sincere, be brief, be seated. Using a few notes scrawled on a legal pad this afternoon, I tell the seniors the things one usually tells graduates in a commencement speech: that their time has come; that the road out of this bowl no longer leads to Natchez, but to the wider world; that the world is theirs for the taking, if they but have the courage to reach out for it. I also tell them some harsher truths: that the world they will find beyond the borders of Mississippi looks very different from the one that nurtured them to this point; that the whites among them might soon find themselves the targets of prejudice for a change; that in the real world, it is often who rather than what they know that will gain them advancement. I’m candid about the fact that their education has not been as thorough as it might have been, but I also promise them that the emotional grounding provided by their multigenerational families will more than compensate for this. Though it’s not in my notes, I also pass along one lesson that has served me well in both careers:
”As a Southerner, you will constantly be underestimated by the people you deal with, and this tendency can work to your advantage. Learn how to use it.“
Having departed from my notes, I pause for a moment and look down at Mia in the first row. She’s watching me as though she expects something profound to fall from my lips, some inspiring conclusion to my thus-far-generic speech. But I don’t have any pearls of great wisdom. What I do have is a sudden realization that leaves me profoundly shaken. These kids are not coming back. Not the best of them, anyway. As I told Caitlin over dinner at the Castle, the parents in this beautiful and unique city are raising their children to live elsewhere. Somehow, we have let Natchez slip into such a state that we cannot offer our brightest students jobs to return to, even when they want them. And that is unacceptable. I will not raise my daughter in a town that offers her no future. With this simple realization comes certainty.
I’m running for mayor.
I leave the podium after an unremarkable conclusion, but as I walk to my seat, a new energy is building inside me. I know where I’m going now.
Jan walks to the podium again and introduces a girl whom she refers to as one of the brightest individuals she has ever had the privilege to know.
Mia rises from the first row and walks uncertainly up the steps to the stage. She usually walks with such self-possession that I wonder if she’s been drinking. If I recall correctly, I had a bit to drink myself on my graduation night.
Mia has to pull down the microphone to reach it with her mouth. There’s a shrill whistle of feedback, then silence. Mia holds up a sheaf of paper and speaks in a conversational tone.
”I wrote a whole speech for tonight. I’ve been thinking about it all year long. But now, looking out at you guys, I don’t want to read it. This class has been through a lot this year. Maybe too much. We lost…so much. We lost two great people, and we lost the last shreds of our innocence. I’m not sure we gained anything, other than experience. But I guess it’s not up to us to choose when we learn what life is really about.“
She looks down at the podium, seeming to gather herself. ”I know a lot of parents have been freaked out by what they learned about our class in the wake of Kate’s and Chris’s deaths. Of course, parents in every generation have been shocked when they somehow learned the truths of their children’s lives. That’s the way of the world. But now, in this time and this generation, I think they’re right to be shocked. I’m part of this generation, and I’m shocked. We seem to have reached a point in our society where every form of restraint has been broken down or stripped away. There are no rules anymore. In the nineteen sixties, our parents fought to achieve political freedom and liberation of the self. Well, now we’ve got it. We’ve got about as much freedom and liberation as anybody can stand. I’ve had a computer in my bedroom since I was five years old. I’ve had access to basically all the information in the world since I was twelve-not in a library, but right at my fingertips. At the slightest whim, I can view images of just about anything that piques my curiosity. And I have. But am I better for that? I don’t know.
“Don’t get me wrong, I like freedom. But you can have too much of a good thing. At some point you have to draw a line, agree on some rules, or all you have is chaos. Anarchy. So, I guess what I’m saying tonight is this: That’s our job, guys. Our class, I mean. And our generation. To figure out where freedom stops being a blessing and starts being a curse. Our parents can’t do it. They don’t even understand the world we live in now. Maybe that job can’t even be done for a society. Maybe it’s an individual decision in every case. But it seems to me that humans given absolute freedom don’t do a very good job of choosing limits.”
Mia sighs deeply, then gifts the audience with one of her remarkable smiles. “Natchez is a good place to be from. But now it’s time for us to go. I wish I could say something inspiring, but I guess this isn’t that kind of speech. I am hopeful about the future. I do believe I can change the world. I just know that it won’t be easy.”
She waves to her class with one long swing of her hand, then walks back down the steps to join them.
There’s a smattering of applause, but it soon dies. No one knows what to make of Mia’s honesty. In a rather subdued conclusion to the ceremony, Holden Smith passes out diplomas to the graduates. After he’s done, the seniors toss their caps into the sky as one, putting the stamp of conventionality on the proceeding at last.
I walk down the steps into the milling throng and make my way toward Mia. She’s surrounded by classmates and parents, so I stand a few yards away and wait. A few moments later, I see Drew and Ellen moving toward me through the crowd. A few people gawk as they pass, but most simply go about their business.
To my surprise-and my satisfaction-Natchez remains the eccentric Southern town in which people who have caught their spouses in bed with others still attend the same Pilgrimage parties, and graciously pour punch for mortal enemies.
Ellen is wearing a designer dress, but she looks pale and drawn. She’s currently participating in an outpatient rehab program overseen by a local physician. Drew is seeing a psychiatrist with her in Jackson every three days. He’s been working out his grief by doing writing exercises, which he says read more like an elegy to Kate than anything else. He told me that the hardest thing for Ellen to deal with has been something I only recently recalled from the autopsy report. Kate died from strangulation, but the “bleed” in her brain caused by hitting her head on the buried wheel would probably have killed her, had she not been strangled before that could happen. So while Ellen did not in fact kill Kate, she did inflict what would have been a fatal injury. She only escaped prosecution because no one in the world knew that she had been at the crime scene-no one, that is, but the unholy pentangle of Drew, me, my father, Mia, and Quentin Avery. And none of us will ever speak of it.
After the last of Mia’s well-wishers drifts away, I signal Drew to join me beside her.
“Great speech,” I say, hugging her to my side.
She looks sheepish. “Not so great.”
“Better than mine, anyway.”
“That’s true. Were you on drugs or something?”
“I was a little preoccupied.”
She suddenly realizes that Drew and Ellen are behind her. She turns and gives them an awkward wave. “Hey.”
“I enjoyed your speech,” Ellen says. “Very much to the point.”
An uncomfortable silence follows this exchange, so I break it. “Drew has something to tell you, Mia.”
He nods and smiles at her. “I want to thank you for everything you did for me.”
“You already thanked me. That day I saw you in Planet Thailand.”
Ellen smiles as though bursting with a secret. “We wanted to thank you in a more tangible way.”
“But…I already got your present.”
“The jewelry box?”
Ellen laughs, and Drew actually blushes. “Mia,” he says, “today I went down to my broker’s office and opened an account in your name.”
Mia nods, but I’m not sure she understands what Drew is saying. The excitement of the day, giving her speech, thoughts of the party later-all this is more than a little distracting. While Drew tries to find the right words, a girl runs up and hugs Mia, then squeals and races off to someone else.
“In my name?” Mia asks. “I don’t understand.”
“It’s a college fund,” Drew explains. “To help pay your expenses at Brown.”
Mia reddens as understanding dawns. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Ask him how much money is in it,” I tell her.
“Oh, no. My God, anything’s fine. I’m serious. You shouldn’t have done it. Really.”
Ellen takes Mia’s hand and looks into her eyes. “There’s a hundred thousand dollars in it, Mia. And you deserve every penny.”
Mia blinks in disbelief. Then her free hand starts to shake, and a tear escapes her eye. “I’ve got to tell my mom. Oh God…oh, my God.” She leans forward and hugs Drew and Ellen at the same time. “Do you mind if I find my mom and tell her?”
“Go,” Ellen says. “Happy graduation.”
Mia walks away dumbfounded. As her petite form recedes into the crowd, I follow her with my eyes. Just before she disappears, she turns back and finds me. Her gaze is long and open, her eyes speaking to me as though there’s no space between us. I raise my hand and open it in a motionless farewell.
Very slowly, she shakes her head and mouths the words, Thank you.
And then she’s gone.
When I turn back to Drew and Ellen, only Drew is there. He’s watching me with an empathy that raises the hair on my neck.
“You understand now,” he says. “Don’t you?”
I look away, but he takes my arm and squeezes hard.
“Maybe a little,” I say softly.
He shakes his head, then puts his arm around me. “Let’s find the kids.”
We stroll through the familiar crowd, two former golden boys tarnished by the years. A few people smile and shake our hands, but more nod in silence as we pass. That’s all right. I can live with my choices. Drew will have a harder time living with his, but what do people want him to do? Kill himself?
“Look,” he says, pointing.
Thirty yards away, two slim figures about four feet tall walk slowly along the track that runs around the football field. One is Annie, the other Tim.
“You think maybe…?” Drew says.
I smile. “I’d be okay with it.”