Drew makes me wait until we have wrestled his four-wheeler out of the creek and stripped half the thing down before he’ll tell me anything about finding Kate. He’s one of those rare white-collar guys who actually knows how to fix things. He approaches machines with the same familiarity that he does the human body. Now he stands beside the steaming ATV, waiting for the air intake box to drain and the carburetor to dry. I’m sitting on a rotten log nearby, trying to catch my breath.
“All right, start talking,” I snap.
He walks away from me and stares up the hill that the motorcycle disappeared over. With his rifle slung over his shoulder, he looks like a marine standing guard in some lost jungle. My Springfield is gone; it must have fallen out of my pocket at some point during our charge through the woods. Drew has promised to find or replace it, but at this moment a lost pistol is not my highest priority. I want to know what he held back from me earlier tonight.
“It was this afternoon,” he says, still looking off into the dark. “Whatever led to Kate’s death started this afternoon.”
I remain silent, leaving him to fill the vacuum. I hope he doesn’t take long. It’s about fifty degrees, but with the wind hitting my wet clothes, it feels like deep winter.
“Kate was late getting her period,” Drew says softly. “Only five days, but she was usually as regular as clockwork. She was worried.”
So Drew has been sleeping with Kate for several months at least.
“I told her to buy a home pregnancy test, but she didn’t want to. The truth is, I think she sort of hoped she was pregnant.”
He turns to me, but his expression is indistinct in the moonlight. “Because that would have forced everything to a head. If she was pregnant, all would have been decided. She wouldn’t have got an abortion. I would have asked Ellen for a divorce, and-”
“Would Ellen have given you a divorce?”
“I think so. It would have cost me dearly, but it would have been worth it.”
“I was supposed to meet Kate tonight, after Ellen went to sleep. That’s usually when we’d meet, during the week. She’d slip across the creek and come over to my workshop.”
“It was pretty safe, actually. Ellen never goes out there. She just calls on the intercom. Anyway, for some reason Kate couldn’t wait until tonight.”
“Maybe she took that pregnancy test after all.”
He nods thoughtfully. “Maybe so.”
“What did she do this afternoon?”
“She sent me a text message on my cell phone. It said, ’I really need to see you. The creek or the cemetery.‘ ”
“The city cemetery was our backup place. The creek meant St. Catherine’s Creek. We met there a lot in the beginning, at the bend between Sherwood Estates and Pinehaven.”
“You used cell phones to communicate?”
“Never directly. She sent me that message from a computer-probably one at St. Stephen’s. There was no traceable link to her cell phone.”
Sherwood Estates and Pinehaven, the two most expensive subdivisions within the city limits. At the rear of each, wooded bluffs drop down to muddy, cane-covered flats that border the creek. During heavy rains, the creek rises several feet in hours and becomes a fifty-foot-wide torrent filled with logs and other debris.
“Kate would take her dog down there like she was exercising him,” Drew says. “I’d just jog down there. If we needed to talk during the day, it was a good place.”
“During the day? You’re nuts. Why not just get her a cell phone in your name, or something like that?”
Drew shakes his head. “Too dangerous. In the past couple of months, I’ve had the feeling Ellen might be having me followed. It’s very easy to eavesdrop on cell phones, and you can monitor their GPS position simply by calling a company that specializes in that. No warrant required.”
“Okay. Go on.”
“I don’t know how long Kate was waiting at the creek. I got the text message at my office. It was time-stamped one fifty-four p.m. She was almost certainly at school then. She probably left the building at three. I left my office at three-thirty. It took me ten or twelve minutes to get down to the creek, I guess. I didn’t park at home, because I was impatient. I parked at the back of an empty lot in Pinehaven and came in from the south.”
“Did anybody see you?”
“I don’t think so.”
“But they could have. The blackmailers, for example. They could have seen your car and followed you.”
“Maybe. But I don’t think so. You can’t see the back of that lot from the street.”
I motion for him to continue.
Drew’s voice drops in volume, forcing me to strain to hear him. “I saw her from forty yards away. She was lying on the creek bank with her head trailing in an eddy of water. I told myself it couldn’t be her. My mind totally rejected the visual evidence. Cognitive dissonance, I think it’s called. But at some level I knew. I sprinted up to her and looked down, and I just…she’d been wearing her tennis outfit. Her Izod shirt and sports bra had been pushed up to her neck, but she was naked from the waist down. There was fresh blood on the side of her head…petechiae around her eyes. I cradled her head and-”
Drew covers his mouth with one hand, unable to go on. A muffled sob comes from his throat. Then he speaks in a monotonic voice. “Her eyes were wide open, glassy, the pupils fixed and dilated. I was sure she was dead, but I tried to resuscitate her anyway. I gave her CPR for ten minutes, but I couldn’t get a heartbeat.”
“You didn’t call 911?”
“I’d left my cell phone in my car.”
I wonder if this is true. “Would you have called for help if you’d had it?”
“Was she still warm?”
Drew goes still. “Yes.”
“Okay. So you knew she was dead. What happened then?”
“I went insane. I literally came apart. Suddenly everything I’d been holding inside for months just burst out of me. I was crying, talking to myself, screaming at the sky like Captain Ahab.”
“Is this when you saw someone else there?”
“I didn’t see anybody else. But there was someone there.”
“How do you know?”
Drew clenches and unclenches his right fist. “I felt him.”
“The way you do in horror movies. Your scalp is itching and you start to sweat. You can feel someone looking at you.”
This is a popular notion, but entirely untrue. Extensive experiments have proved this type of “intuition” false. “That was probably just paranoia.”
Drew shakes his head with absolute conviction. “I’ve hunted all my life. There was a human being close to me in those woods. But he stayed concealed. He knew how to use cover, or I’d have seen him watching me.”
I finally ask the obvious question. “If this is really how it went down, why wasn’t it you who reported Kate’s death?”
Drew looks at me as though puzzled about this himself. “It almost was. My first instinct was to cradle her like a baby and carry her up to my car. I was going to take her home to her mother and confess everything.”
As reckless as this sounds, I sense that he’s telling the truth. As a prosecutor, I heard many confessions in which murderers expressed this urge, and some even followed through with it.
“Did you actually pick her up?”
“No. It was at this point that I sensed the other person. I felt an urge to run, but I didn’t. Only a coward would run, I told myself. I had to face the situation. But as I sat there staring at her blank eyes-eyes I’d looked into the night before as we made love, eyes so alive you can’t imagine them-I started to see the situation from outside myself. What would I accomplish by confessing the affair? Kate was beyond help. If I confessed, I’d lose my medical license and probably go to jail. I might even be suspected of killing her. At that moment I honestly didn’t give a shit about myself. But what would it do to my family? My parents? What would happen to Tim? I wouldn’t be there to raise him. But worse, what would he think about me? He’d grow up believing I was a total shit, and maybe even a killer.”
“So you left the scene?”
Drew nods. “I pulled Kate clear of the water, but I left her in the open so that she’d be easily found. I was going to make an anonymous call.”
A silent shake of the head.
He bends down and examines the Honda’s carburetor. “I’d been there for a while. I’m no detective, but I’ve read enough to know that you leave trace evidence everywhere you go. It was raining pretty hard. I figured the rain would wipe away any evidence that I was there by morning.”
“That and more,” I say softly, wondering more and more about Drew’s actions. “It also washed away any evidence of the real killer. And it damn near washed Kate down to the Mississippi River.”
He says nothing.
“You don’t come out looking too heroic in this, buddy. A cop would be reading you your rights about now.”
Drew looks at me with a direct gaze. “Probably so. But Kate wouldn’t have wanted me to destroy Tim’s image of me for the sake of her postmortem dignity.”
“Her mother might have. You said the blackmailer sounded like a black kid. What would a black kid be doing down at St. Catherine’s Creek? I don’t remember ever seeing any down there.”
“When was the last time you were down there?”
“When we were kids, I guess.”
“That was thirty years ago, Penn. A couple of apartment complexes you think of as white have gone black in the past ten years. A lot of the kids play down there. Smoke dope, have sex, whatever.”
“Do you think some random black kid would have recognized you?”
“Why not? I have a lot of black patients.”
“But earlier you said that whoever was watching you was probably the killer.”
“I think so, yeah.”
“You think Kate was murdered by some random black kid?”
“Why not? Some crazy teenager?”
“We’re talking about capital murder, Drew. Murder during the commission of a rape.”
“Happens all the time, doesn’t it?”
“It does in Houston or New Orleans. But Natchez is a universe away from there. Houston had two hundred and thirty-four homicides last year. I think Natchez had two. The year before that, nobody got murdered here.”
“Yeah, but in the last twenty years, we’ve had some seriously twisted crimes.”
He’s right. Not even Natchez has gone untouched by the scourges of the modern era-stranger-murder and sexual homicide.
“Only now I’m thinking it wasn’t one kid,” he says. “We just got shot at while we chased the guy on the motorcycle. That means two people, at least. Maybe there were more. Maybe Kate was waiting for me at the creek, and it was just the wrong time to be down there. Maybe a crew of horny teenagers was down there messing around and they saw her. Maybe they decided they wanted her, whether she wanted them or not. Like that ’wilding‘ thing in Central Park, remember?”
I don’t answer. As a prosecutor, I found that whenever a crime victim’s relative suggested minority-assailant murder cases as parallels, I needed to look more closely at that person. What I’ve learned in the past five minutes has fundamentally altered my perception of Kate’s death and Drew’s relationship to it. When the school secretary interrupted the board meeting tonight, Drew already had a good idea of what she was about to say. When Theresa Cook choked out that our beloved homecoming queen was dead, Drew felt no surprise. Only hours before, he had been pounding on her chest and kissing her dead lips, trying to breathe life back into her body. I’ve never thought of Drew as duplicitous, but I guess we’re all capable of anything in the interest of self-preservation.
“What happens now?” he asks.
“You tell the police about your involvement with Kate. If you don’t, you’re at the mercy of whoever was on that motorcycle. And his buddy with the rifle.”
“What happens if I do tell the cops?”
“At the very least, you can count on a statutory rape charge from Jenny Townsend.”
Drew shakes his head. “Jenny wouldn’t do that.”
“Are you crazy? Of course she would.”
He steps closer to me, close enough for me to see his eyes clearly. “Jenny knew about us, Penn. About Kate and me.”
I blink in disbelief. “And she was okay with it?”
“She knew I loved Kate. And she knew I was going to leave Ellen.”
Every time I think I have my mind around the reality of this case, Drew moves the boundaries. “Drew, we’re through the looking glass here. If you have any more earthshaking revelations, I’d just as soon hear them all now.”
“That’s the only one I can think of right now.”
My mind is spinning with new permutations of motive and consequence. “A minute ago you said you were thinking of carrying Kate up to her mother and confessing everything. Now you tell me she already knew about you. Which is it?”
“ ’Confess’ was the wrong word. I meant tell Jenny how Kate died, that I’d found her. I felt it was my fault. I still do. I guess I said ‘confess’ because if I’d done that, everything would have become public.”
I mull over this explanation. “Given what’s happened, Jenny might change her mind about your relationship with Kate.”
“We were fine tonight. That house was full of grieving people, but Jenny and I were the only two who truly knew what was lost when Kate died.”
“Jenny doesn’t know you were at the crime scene, does she?”
“No. But I’m probably going to tell her.”
“I wouldn’t rush into that. Even if she remains your biggest fan, if your affair with Kate becomes public, Jenny may feel she has no choice but to demand your head on a platter. If it were known that she sanctioned your relationship, she’d be crucified right along with you.”
“Jenny’s never been too concerned about the opinions of others.”
“This is a little different than…Oh, hell, the point’s moot anyway. If your affair becomes public, the police or the sheriff’s department will probably charge you with murder. Spurred on by the district attorney, of course.”
“Shad Johnson,” Drew says softly.
Even the name makes my gut ache. Shadrach Johnson is a black lawyer who was born in Natchez but raised in Chicago. Five years ago, he returned to Natchez to run for mayor, an election he lost by 1 percent of the vote. A year later he won the post of district attorney, taking the office from a white man who had never distinguished himself in the position. The mayoral race Johnson lost happened to be going on during my investigation of the unsolved civil rights murder, and during the stress of that case, Shad revealed his true colors to me. The man has one interest-his own political career-and he doesn’t care who he steps on, black or white, to advance it.
“Shad would charge you in a heartbeat,” I murmur. “He has wet dreams about getting a case like this.”
“Anything for headlines,” Drew agrees.
I’m starting to think Drew may have been right not to call in the cavalry when he discovered Kate’s body. My chivalrous side is revolted by his callousness, but the modern world is not a chivalrous place. In this world, no good deed goes unpunished.
“What will the blackmailers do now?” Drew asks.
“You gave them the whole twenty thousand?”
“Yeah. I thought about stacking some bills over a newspaper, but the geometry of the stadium wasn’t right for that. I knew he’d have too much time to check the bag before I could get him.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t just take your rifle down there and shoot the guy when he showed up.”
Drew looks uncomfortable. “I figured whoever it was would be watching me, looking for a gun, so I didn’t take it down with me. I figured I could sprint back up to the four-wheeler before he got to the bag. I’d scanned the whole stadium with the night-vision scope before I went down, and I knew nobody was close to the fifty-yard line.”
“Actually, you did make it in time to shoot him,” I observe. “Only I showed up.”
Drew nods, but I can’t read his emotions. “So, what will our motorcyclist do now? Will he try to milk me or will he turn me in?”
“No way to know. But he knows one thing for sure after tonight. Blackmailing you is risky business. He probably didn’t realize you were such a psycho.”
“I think he’ll keep playing me for a while. If he turns me in, he won’t get another penny out of me. No more drugs either.”
“You gave him drugs?”
Drew shrugs. “Just some samples. Nothing big. You know, that guy on the hill couldn’t shoot worth a damn.”
“He may not have been trying to hit us. Only to slow us down.”
Drew snorts at the idea of such half measures.
“Can we get out of here yet?” I ask.
He leans over the ATV where the big padded seat usually sits and checks the rectangular box that holds the air filter. Then he snaps the seat back on, pulls out the choke, and turns the ignition key. The engine turns over a few times, dies. He tinkers with something, then turns the key a second time. This time the motor sputters resentfully to life. He nurses the throttle with a lover’s touch, and soon the motor is roaring with power.
“Ready,” he says with a satisfied smile.
The trip back to St. Stephen’s is much more agreeable than the roller-coaster ride out here. If it weren’t for the wind chilling my wet clothes, I might enjoy it. Several times we startle deer, which freeze in our headlight with wide yellow eyes, then explode into chaotic motion like panicked soldiers. All the way, we watch the ground for my Springfield, but we don’t find it.
Drew brings us out of the woods on the high rim of the stadium, then drives swiftly around to the elementary school. I worried that there might be a police car waiting, but my car is still parked by itself in the shadows. A police patrol would probably be drawn to the glaring stadium lights before rifle fire. It’s not uncommon to hear rifle shots on this end of town after dark, as poachers spotlight deer out of season.
“Did you drive all the way here on your four-wheeler?” I ask, getting off the ATV.
“No, my pickup is parked behind the main building.”
“Do you need help loading this thing?”
“Nah, I’ve got some ramps.”
I reach for the door to my Saab, then turn back to Drew. “When was the last time you had sex with Kate?”
“Did you wear a condom?”
He shakes his head. “She’s on the pill.”
“She got pregnant while she was on the pill?”
“It’s highly unlikely,” he says. “That’s what I kept telling her. She always took it on time, so the chance of pregnancy was really nil.”
Unless she got pregnant on purpose,I think, but I only nod and open my door.
“What is it?” Drew asks.
“By tomorrow, a sample of your semen is going to be on its way to a DNA lab somewhere. New Orleans is my guess. And if the cops get any reason to test your blood against that sample, you’re going to look guilty of murder. There’s only one way to prevent that perception, Drew.”
“Tell the police I was having an affair with her?”
I nod again. “Right now. Don’t wait five minutes.”
He cuts the Honda’s engine. “If I do that, the first thing they’ll do is ask me for a DNA sample.”
“It’s still better than the alternative. You tell them first, they see you as trying to help. You don’t…you’re guilty as hell.”
Drew ponders this. “If I were going to tell them, who would I call? The sheriff or the chief of police? Not Shad Johnson, right?”
Like many communities, Natchez has suffered from a long-running rivalry between city and county law enforcement. And Kate’s body was found right at the border of the city limits, which could cause serious jurisdictional problems.
“Whoever you tell, it’s going to get to Shad eventually. You might as well tell him first. The only way to play this kind of thing is get out ahead of it and stay there. If you volunteer the information, people can get angry, but they can’t paint you as a liar. Think of Ted Kennedy at Chappaquiddick. Tell it now, Drew, before anyone beats you to the punch.”
“Everything? Even that I found Kate’s body?”
“I didn’t hear that question, brother.”
He looks confused. “What do you mean?”
“We have a saying in the legal profession. Every client tells his story once.”
“The first and only time you tell your story is on the witness stand. That way-until that day-you have time to adjust the truth to emerging facts.”
Disgust wrinkles his face.
“A cynical view, I admit,” I tell him, “but experience is a hard teacher. If I hear you tell me one story tonight, I can’t put you on the stand and let you tell a different one later.”
“But I’m innocent,” he says. “I told you that.”
Drew’s handsome face is a study in the complexity of human emotion. “Yes, you did. But you’re not acting like a man with nothing to hide.”