Pub: April 29, 2014
Natchez Burning is the first installment in an epic trilogy that weaves crimes, lies, and secrets past and present into a mesmerizing thriller featuring southern mayor and former prosecutor Penn Cage. Raised in the historic splendor of Natchez, Mississippi, Penn learned all he knows of honor and duty from his father, Dr. Tom Cage. But now the beloved family doctor and pillar of the community is accused of murdering Viola Turner, the African-American nurse with whom he worked in the dark days of the early 1960’s. Once a crusading prosecutor, Penn is determined to save his father, and his quest for the truth sends him deep into his father’s past, where a sexually charged secret lies waiting to tear the Cage family apart. More chilling, this long-buried sin is only one thread in a conspiracy of greed and murder involving the Double Eagles, a vicious sect of the KKK controlled by some of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the state. Penn uncovers a trail of corruption and brutality that places his family squarely in the Double Eagles’ crosshairs, and forces him to confront the most wrenching dilemma of his life: does a man of honor choose his father or justice?
As a young lawyer, I had a recurring dream. My father stood in the dock, accused of some terrible but unknown crime, and I was charged with defending him. There were a dozen versions of this dream, all turned to nightmares by different mistakes on my part. Some were routine, such as realizing I’d failed to file a critical motion or to ask for a continuance, or being physically unable to get into the courtroom. Other variations were more alarming. Sometimes the prosecutor could speak but I was mute; other times everyone could speak but I was deaf, and thus powerless to save my own father. The strangest part of this whole experience was that I was an assistant district attorney—a prosecutor, not a defense lawyer. Stranger still, my father had led an exemplary life. He was a war hero and a beloved physician, without the slightest blemish on his character. Yet in the final episode of this troubling series of dreams, when my father was asked to enter his plea, he stood and opened his mouth, then began coughing uncontrollably. The bailiff handed him a white handkerchief, and when he took it away from his mouth, clotted black blood stained the cotton, like lung tissue coughed up by someone dying of consumption. After a few moments of paralyzed horror, I awakened in my apartment, my heart thudding against my sternum, and sweating as though I’d run six miles.
That was the last time I had the dream. As the years passed, I occasionally remembered it, but never again did it trouble my sleep. I came to believe that its significance had more to do with my sometimes harrowing experiences of law school and court than anything to do with my father. Other lawyers would occasionally mention similar nightmares, and this convinced me I was right. But then, at the age of forty-five . . . my nightmare came true.
It began with a phone call.
“Mr. Mayor, I have the district attorney for you on line one.”
I look up from my BlackBerry, mildly shocked by the identity of the caller. “Did he say what he wanted?”
“What do you think, boss?” A dollop of sarcasm from Rose, my executive secretary. Shadrach Johnson, the district attorney of Adams County, only calls me when he has no way to avoid it.
“Hello, Shad,” I say with as much goodwill as I can muster. “What’s going on?”
“Strange days, Mayor,” he says in a surprisingly diffident voice. “You’re not going to believe this. I’ve got a man in my office demanding that I arrest your father for murder.”
I set my BlackBerry on my desk. Surely this is some sort of joke, a prank set up by the DA to pay me back for what he perceives as my many sins against him. “Shad, I don’t have time for this. Seriously. What do you need?”
“I wouldn’t play games about something like this, Penn. This guy isn’t a random citizen. He’s an attorney from Chicago. And he means business.”
Chicago? “Who’s Dad supposed to have killed?”
“A sixty-five-year-old woman named Viola Turner. Do you know that name?”
Viola Turner. “I don’t think so.”
“Take a minute.”
After a disjointed moment of confusion, a Proustian rush of scents and images flashes though my brain. With the tang of rubbing alcohol in my nose, I see a tall, dark-skinned woman who looks very much like Diahann Carroll playing Julia on TV in the late 1960s, her white nurses’ cap fitted perfectly into diligently straightened black hair, her bright, intelligent eyes set in a café au lait face. Nurse Viola. I never saw Viola Turner after I was eight years old, yet this image remains startlingly true. Viola administered my tetanus and penicillin shots as a boy, and held my hand while my father stitched up my knees after I ripped them open on the street. During these stressful episodes, I almost never cried, and now I remember why. While Dad hooked that curved needle through my torn skin, Viola would chant or sing softly to me in a language I had never heard. My father later told me this was Creole French, which only confused me. I’d taken French in elementary school, but Nurse Viola’s songs resembled nothing I had heard within the walls of St. Stephen’s Prep. Only now do I realize that Viola’s gift for empathy and her exotic voice must have imprinted her indelibly in my young mind.
“I don’t understand,” I say softly. “I thought she lived far off somewhere. L.A. or—”
“Chicago,” Shad finishes. “For the past thirty-seven years.”
A rush of dread overpowers my initial skepticism. “Shad, what the hell’s going on?”
“As far as I understand it, several months ago, Mrs. Turner was diagnosed with lung cancer. Terminal. Her treatment didn’t go well. A few weeks ago, she decided to come home to Natchez to die.”
“After thirty-seven years?”
“Happens all the time, brother. Black folk might have run from the South as fast as they could when they were young, but they miss it when they get old. Don’t you know that?”
Shad’s down-home soul brother voice is an act; a Mississippi-born African-American, he lost his drawl a month after his parents moved him north to Chicago to attend prep school.
“The son,” he goes on, “whose name is Lincoln Turner, says his mother worked as a nurse for your papa back in the sixties. Anyway, after Viola came back here, Dr. Cage started treating her at home. Or at her sister’s house, rather. The sister never left Natchez. Her name is Revels—Cora Revels. She never got married. So Viola started out a Revels, too. That’s a famous black surname, you know? First black man to serve in the U.S. Senate.”
“But Dad’s not even working right now. He’s taking time off to recover from his heart attack.”
“Well, he’s apparently been making house calls on his old nurse. For the past several weeks, at least. The victim’s sister verifies that.”
The victim. Christ. “Keep going.”
“According to Cora Revels—and to Viola’s son—your father and Mrs. Turner had some sort of pact between them.”
“What kind of pact?”
“You know what kind,” Shad says in his lawyer-to-lawyer voice. “An agreement that before things got too bad, your father would help the old lady pass without too much suffering.” Shad’s voice carries the certainty of an attorney who has seen most things in his time.
Sixty-five’s not that old. “How did this even wind up in your office? She was terminal, you said. The police don’t usually get called in these situations.”
“I know. It’s the son pushing this thing. He seems to feel your father crossed whatever line exists in these situations, and Turner’s a lawyer. He’s sitting outside my office right now.”
“Where’s my father? He hasn’t been arrested, has he?”
“Not yet. But that’s what Turner wants.”
“How does he think Dad crossed the line?”
“Turner was driving down here from Chicago when it happened. His mother died thirty minutes before he got here, so he didn’t get any last visit with her. He believes his mother could easily have lasted another day, or maybe even a few weeks. I’m hoping he’ll calm down after the reality sinks in.”
A faint buzzing has started in my head, the kind you’re not sure belongs to a honeybee or a yellow jacket. “Are you, Shad?”
“You’re goddamn right. I haven’t forgotten what you’ve got on me. Pushing this case has no upside whatever for me.”
At least Shad hasn’t lost his instinct for self-preservation. “What else does the sister say?”
“Not much. I think Cora Revels is sort of simple-minded, to tell you the truth.”
“Well, what are you going to do? Did you say the son is talking about a murder charge?”
“At first he was, but then he went online and checked the Mississippi statutes. We have an assisted suicide law, in case you didn’t know. Now he’s asking that your father be charged under that.”
“What’s the penalty?”
“Fuck! That’s a life sentence for my father.”
“I know, I know. Take it easy, Penn. There’s no way it’s going to come to that. I made a couple of calls before I phoned you. Cases like this hardly ever make it to trial. When they do, it’s usually nonphysicians who are charged, not doctors. Unless you have a nut like Kevorkian, which your father obviously isn’t.”
It’s odd hearing Shad Johnson talk this way, because under normal circumstances, the DA would be thrilled to deliver any news that caused me grief. But eight weeks ago, I gained some unexpected leverage over him, and our relationship skidded far outside the bounds of normalcy.
“Still . . . this doesn’t sound good.”
“That’s why I called. You need to talk to your father fast, find out exactly what happened last night. I want to reassure you, okay? But I have to tell you, the assisted suicide statute is pretty broadly written. Technically your father could be convicted just for providing a lethal dose of narcotics, and from what little I know already, he did more than that.”
“A minute ago you were telling me not to worry.”
“I’m just saying take it seriously, Penn. But the chance of this going to trial is small. We just need to find a way to nip it in the bud.”
“I hear you.”
“As far as an arrest, I honestly don’t think there’s a cop or a deputy in town who would serve a warrant on your father.”
Shad is probably right about this.
“Call me as soon as you talk to your dad. I can’t stall Lincoln Turner forever. Call my mobile, not my office. You still have the number?”
“I always know how to find you, Shad.” The DA clicks off.
“Viola Turner,” I murmur, setting down my telephone with a shaking hand.
The district attorney has given me a gift, but only out of self- interest. During one of the most harrowing nightmares this town ever experienced, I discovered a digital photograph of the DA in the act of committing a career-ending felony. And though I gave Shad what I told him was the original SD card containing that image (in exchange for his not running for reelection), he can never be sure that I didn’t keep a copy, and that I won’t use it against him if he pushes me too far.
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