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Im almost asleep when the telephone rings beside my bed. Im too tired and sore to roll over and look at the caller ID. I took three Advil after my shower, knowing that without them Id hardly be able to move in the morning. The answering machine can get this one for me.

Penn? Caitlin says after the beep, her voice sounding clipped and very Northern after Mias soft drawl. Im sorry I didnt get your earlier calls. I was at a party for a reporter whos leaving theHerald, and the band was so loud I couldnt hear anything. Im sure youre sleeping now. Look, I got a call from one of our reporters at theExaminer. She said a St. Stephens girl named Kate Townsend was murdered today. Raped and strangled, she said, or at least thats what it looks like. No autopsy until tomorrow morning. Have you heard about that? I think I played tennis with this girl at Duncan Park. She was really sharp, going to Harvard, she said. WellI guess I wont talk to you until tomorrow. I hope we can see each other soon. I know this sucks. Im really getting a lot done, though. I may crack this thing soon. I hope the new books going well. Talk to you tomorrow. I love you. Bye.

I was near to picking up the receiver when Caitlin signed off. Im not sure why I didnt. But I cant help wondering why a Natchez reporter was able to get through to Caitlin when I wasnt. And half of her message was about Kates murder, almost as if she were calling me to get details for a story. Its not that I dont want to share things with her. But I want her to be here to share actual experiences with me, not call for reports when things sound interesting.

A wave of relief goes through me when the phone rings again. I roll over onto one elbow and answer.

Hey, babe, I murmur. Sorry. I was half sleep before.

Penn? says a male voice.

Yeah, Drew. What is it?

I was surfing the Web, and I found a site maintained by the Mississippi Supreme Court. Theyve got the whole criminal code posted there. And from what I can tell, statutory rape only applies to girls under sixteen, not eighteen.

I blink in the darkness. Are you sure? I remember the statute pretty well. Of course I learned it before moving to Texas for fifteen years. The legislature could have changed it.

Heres the applicable language. The crime of statutory rape is committed when any person seventeen years of age or older has sexual intercourse with a child who: one, is at least fourteen but under sixteen years of age. There are qualifications, but they all deal with even younger victims and the age difference between victim and perpetrator. It also says, Neither the victims consent nor the victims lack of chastity is a defense to the charge of statutory rape.

They must have changed the statute, I say in disbelief. But even as relief courses through me, a sense of foreboding rises in my mind. DrewI think I read somewhere that some states were moving in this direction because there were so many suits being brought by parents who hated their daughters boyfriends. Youve got two seventeen-year-olds having consensual sex. The guy turns eighteen and bam, the girls parents try to lock him up for statutory rape.

So, Im in the clear?

Under that statute, I say uneasily. But somehow I dont think youre out of the woods yet. What is it? I wonder, searching my memory for the source of my anxiety. Theres definitely a sexual harassment issue here, but of course thats a civil matter. Its criminal charges were worried about, felonies in particular. Suddenly, a voice is sounding in my head, the voice of my old boss, the district attorney of Houston: lascivious touching or handling of a minorcontributing to the delinquency of a minor, and then the big one, sexual -Drew, are you still at your computer?

Yes.

Look up sexual battery.

I stare up at the dark ceiling, listening to the clicking of keys and praying that my instinct is wrong. What does it say?

Just a minute. Okayuh

Read it aloud.

HereA person is guilty of sexual battery if he or she engages in sexual penetration with (A) another person without his or her consent. Im okay there.

Keep reading.

(B) a mentally defective, mentally incapacitated, or physically helpless person. (C) A child at least fourteen but under sixteen years of age, if the person is thirty-six or more months older than the child. Thank God.

Drew sounds so relieved that Im tempted to let him hang up and get a good nights sleep. But Im almost certain that bad news is coming. Keep reading.

Okay. Theres a second paragraph. A person is guilty of sexual battery if he or she engages in sexual penetration with a child under the age of

His voice falters. Drew?

Eighteen, he whispers. It says eighteen here.

Keep reading.

Oh, God. Oh, no.

Please read it for me.

if he or she engages in sexual penetration with a child under the age of eighteen years if the person is in a position of trust or authority over the child including without limitation the childs teacher, counselor, physician, psychiatrist, psychologist, minister

Drews voice sounds like that of a man being sedated before an operation, a monotone fading into nothingness. You can stop, Drew.

He continues as though he cant hear me over the print screaming from his computer monitor. priest, physical therapist, chiropractor, legal guardian, parent, stepparent, aunt, uncle, scout leader or coach.

Drew, listen to me. Are you listening?

Out of a deep well of silence comes a single sob.

Drew, its all right. I know youre feeling terrible guilt right now. Seeing it written down like that, you may feel for the first time that youre guilty of a crime.

Shes dead, he says in a shattered voice. And if I hadnt crossed this line with her, shed be alive right now.

You dont know that. Youre not God. Listen to me, buddy. I love you. I love you, and I respect you. Youre just human, like the rest of us.

Wait a minute, he says wetly. Im looking for the penalty.

Dont. Leave that for tomorrow.

I need to see it.

No, you dont,I say silently. Its going to be thirty years-

Jesus Christ. Its thirty years.

Thats not going to happen, Drew. I promise you that.

Oh my God, he says with fresh dread.

What? What is it?

For a second offense, its forty years. Timmy would be-

Turn off that computer! Thats not the real world, Drew.

Are you sure?

Hell, yes. I was a prosecutor for fifteen years. Thats why you wanted my advice about all this, remember? And my advice is to go to sleep and let me do the worrying for you. Thats what youre paying me for.

Twenty bucks doesnt pay for much worrying.

I dont reply for some time. Then I say, You saved my life. And you risked your own to do it. If you hadnt, my daughter would never have been born. That buys you a lot of worrying.

You never asked for this.

No, but I can handle it. Youve got to stay in control for me, though.

Youre not leaving town or anything tomorrow, are you?

No way. Now, what are you going to do about the blackmail issue? Are you going to come clean with the cops?

After what we just learned? I dont know.

Youre a smart guy, Drew. Lets talk about probability.

Okay.

How often did you see Kate? I dont mean platonically. How often were you alone with her, intimate with her?

Every day. Or night, rather.

Unbelievable.For how long?

For the last seven months, I guess. Ever since the mission trip to Honduras. After that, we couldnt stand to be apart.

Get out ahead of this thing, Drew. Its your only chance.

I hear you.

I let the silence do its work for a while. Do you?

Its Tim thats holding me back. I dont want him to have to know about this if he doesnt have to. I dont want him to have to go through the grief hell get at school because of it. I dont even wantEllen to have to deal with it, now that Kates dead. Theres just no reason anymore.

Yes, there is. This thing is beyond your control now. No matter what you do, its eventually going to come out.

Im not so sure. If Kate said she didnt tell anybody, she didnt.

Then whos blackmailing you?

Kates killers.

I grunt noncommittally. Imnot so sure.

I know. But I am. He breathes steadily into the phone. Thanks for tonight, Penn. I mean it.

Night, buddy.

The open line hisses in my ear.

I hang up.


Chapter 6 | Turning Angel | Chapter 7