/ Language: English / Genre:thriller

Just Cause

John Katzenbach

Reporter Matt Cowart's explosive investigative journalism succeeds in freeing a convicted rapist and murderer. But has his dedication to freeing "an innocent man" actually turned a ruthless killer loose again?

John Katzenbach

Just Cause

ONE. Prisoners

When you win the prize they tell you a joke: Now you know the first line of your own obituary.

1. A Man Of Opinions

On the morning that he received the letter, Matthew Cowart awakened alone to a false winter.

A steady north wind had picked up after midnight and seemed to push the nighttime black away, smearing the morning sky with a dirty gray that made a lie of the city's image. As he walked from his apartment to the street outside, he could hear the breeze rattle and push at a palm tree, making the fronds clash together like so many swords.

He hunched his shoulders together tightly and wished that he'd worn a sweater beneath his suit coat. Every year there were a few mornings like this one, filled with the promise of bleak skies and blustery winds. Nature making a small joke, causing the tourists on Miami Beach to grumble and walk the sandy stretches in their sweaters. In Little Havana, the older Cuban women would wear heavy woolen overcoats and curse the wind, forgetting that in the summer they carried parasols and cursed the heat. In Liberty City, the rat holes in the crack houses would whistle with cold. The junkies would shiver and struggle with their pipes. But soon enough the city would return to sweaty, sticky normalcy.

One day, he thought as he walked briskly, perhaps two. Then the warm air will freshen out of the South and we will all quickly forget the cold.

Matthew Cowart was a man moving light through life.

Circumstances and bad luck had cut away many of the accoutrements of impending middle age; a simple divorce had sliced away his wife and child, messy death his parents; his friends had slid into a separate existence defined by rising careers, squads of young children, car payments, and mortgages. For a time there had been attempts by some to include him in outings and parties, but, as his solitude had grown, accompanied by his apparent comfort in it, these invitations had fallen off and finally stopped. His social life was defined by an occasional office party and shop talk. He had no lover and felt a vague confusion as to why he didn't. His own apartment was modest, in a sturdy high-rise overlooking the bay, built in the 1950s. He had filled it with old furniture, bookcases stuffed with mystery novels and true crime nonfiction, chipped but utilitarian dinnerware, a few forgettable framed prints hanging on the walls.

Sometimes he thought that when his wife had taken their daughter, all the color had fled from his life. His own needs were satisfied by exercise – an obligatory six miles a day, running through a downtown park, an occasional game of pickup basketball at the YMCA and his job at the newspaper. He felt possessed of a remarkable freedom yet somehow worried that he had so few recognizable debts.

The wind was still gusting hard, pulling and tugging at a trio of flags outside the main entrance to the Miami Journal. He paused momentarily, looking up at the stolid yellow square building. The paper's name was emblazoned in huge red, electric letters against one wall. It was a famous place, well known for its aggressiveness and power. On the other side, the paper looked over the bay. He could see wild waters splashing up against the dock where huge rolls of newsprint were unloaded. Once, while sitting alone in the cafeteria eating a sandwich, he'd spotted a family of manatees cavorting about in the pale blue water, no more than ten yards from the loading dock. Their brown backs burst through the surface, then fell back beneath the waves. He'd looked about for someone to tell but had found no one, and had spent the next few days, at lunch, staring constantly out at the shifting blue-green surface for another glimpse of the animals. It was what he liked about Florida; the state seemed cut from some jungle, which was always threatening to overtake all the development and return it to something primeval. The paper was forever doing stories about twelve-foot alligators getting trapped on entrance ramps to the interstate and stopping traffic. He loved those stories: an ancient beast confronting a modern one.

Cowart moved quickly through the double doors that led to the Journal's newsroom, waving at the receptionist who sat partially hidden behind a telephone console. Next to the entrance was a wall devoted to plaques, citations, and awards: a parade of Pulitzers, Kennedys, Cabots, Pyles, and others with more mundane names. He paused at a bank of mailboxes to pick up his morning mail, flipping rapidly through the usual handouts and dozens of press releases, political statements, and proposals that arrived every day from the congressional delegation, the mayor's office, the county manager's office, and various police agencies, all alerting him to some development that they thought worthy of editorial attention. He sighed, wondering how much money was wasted on all these hopeless efforts. One envelope, however, caught his eye. He separated it from the pile.

It was a thin, white envelope with his name and address written in sturdy block print. There was a return address in the corner, giving a post office box number in Starke, Florida, in the northern portion of the state. The state prison, he thought instantly.

He put it on top of the other letters and headed toward his office, maneuvering amidst the room of desks, nodding at the few reporters who were in early and already working the telephones. He waved at the city editor, who had his feet up on his desk in the center of the room and was reading the last edition. Then he moved through a set of doors in the rear of the newsroom marked EDITORIAL. He was halfway into his cubicle when he heard a voice from nearby.

'Ahh, the young Turk arrives early. What could bring you in before the hordes? Unsettled by the troubles in Beirut? Sleepless over the president's economic recovery program?'

Cowart stuck his head around a partition. 'Morning, Will. Actually, I just wanted to use the WATS line to call my daughter. I'll leave the truly deep and useless worrying to you.'

Will Martin laughed and brushed a forelock of white hair out of his eyes, a motion that belonged more to a child than an old man. 'Go. Abuse the abundant financial generosity of our beloved newspaper. When you get finished, take a look at the story on the Local page. It seems that one of our black-eyed dispensers of justice cut something of a deal for an old buddy caught driving under the influence. It could be time for one of your ever-popular crime-and-punishment crusades.'

'I'll look at it, Cowart said.

'Damn cold this morning,' said Martin. 'What's the point of living down here if you still have to shiver on the way to work? Might as well be Alaska.'

'Why don't we editorialize against the weather? We're always trying to influence the heavens, anyway. Maybe they'll listen to us this time.'

'You've got a point, Martin smiled.

'And you're just the man for the job, Cowart said.

'True, Martin replied. 'Not steeped in sin, like you, I have a much better connection to the Almighty. It helps in this job.'

'That's because you're so much closer to joining him than I.'

His neighbour roared. 'You're an ageist, he protested, waggling a finger. 'Probably a sexist, a racist, a pacifist – all the other ists, too.'

Cowart laughed and headed to his desk, dumping the pile of mail in the middle and leaving the single envelope on top. He reached out for it, while with the other hand he started dialing his ex-wife's number. With any luck, he thought, they should be at breakfast.

He crooked the receiver beneath his shoulder and ear, freeing his hand while the connection was being made. As the telephone began ringing he opened the envelope and took out a single sheet of yellow legal-ruled paper.

Dear Mr. Cowart:

I am currently awaiting execution on Death Row for a crime that I DID NOT COMMIT.

'Hello?'

He put the letter down. 'Hello, Sandy. It's Matt. I just wanted to talk to Becky for a minute. I hope I didn't disturb anything.'

'Hello, Matt.' He heard a hesitation in her voice. 'No, it's just we're getting ready to go. Tom has to be in court early, so he's taking her to school, and…' She paused, then continued, 'No, it's okay. I have a few things I need to talk over with you anyway. But they've got to go, so can you make it quick?'

He closed his eyes and thought how painful it was not to be involved in the routine of his daughter's life. He imagined spilling milk at breakfast, reading books at night, holding her hand when she got sick, admiring the pictures she drew in school. He bit back his disappointment. 'Sure. I just wanted to say hi.'

I'll get her.'

The phone clunked on the table and in the silence that followed, Matthew Cowart looked at the words: I DID NOT COMMIT.

He remembered his wife on the day they'd met, in the newspaper office at the University of Michigan. She'd been small, but her intensity had seemed to contradict her size. She'd been a graphic design student, who worked part-time doing layouts and headlines, poring over page proofs, pushing her dark wavy hair away from her face, concentrating so hard she rarely heard the phone ring or reacted to any of the dirty jokes that flew about in the unbridled newsroom air. She'd been a person of precision and order, with a draftsman's approach to life. The daughter of a Midwestern-city fire captain who'd died in the line of duty, and a grade-school teacher, she craved possessions, longed for comforts. He'd thought her beautiful, was intimidated by her desire, and was surprised when she'd agreed to go on a date with him; surprised further when, after a dozen dates, she'd slept with him.

He'd been the sports editor, which she had thought was a silly waste of time. Over-muscled men in bizarre outfits fighting over variously shaped balls, she would say. He had tried to educate her to the romance of the events, but she had been intransigent. After a while, he had switched to covering real news, throwing himself tenaciously after stories, as their relationship had solidified. He'd loved the endless hours, the pursuit of the story, the seduction of writing. She'd thought he would be famous or, if not famous, important. She'd followed him when he got his first job offer on a small Midwestern paper. A half dozen years later, they'd still been together. On the same day that she announced she was pregnant, he got his offer from the Journal. He was to cover criminal courts. She was to have Becky.

'Daddy?'

'Hi, honey.'

'Hi, Daddy. Mommy says I can only talk for a minute. Got to get to school.'

'Is it cold there, too, honey? You should wear a coat.'

'I will. Tom got me a coat with a pirate on it that's all orange for the Bucs. I'm going to wear that. I got to meet some of the players, too. They were at a picnic where we were helping get money for charity.'

'That's great,' Matthew replied. Damn, he thought.

'Are football players important, Daddy?'

He laughed. 'Sort of.'

'Daddy, is something wrong?'

'No, honey, why?'

'Well, you don't usually call in the morning.'

'I just woke up missing you and wanted to hear your voice.'

'I miss you, too, Daddy. Will you take me back to Disney World?'

'This spring. I promise.'

'Daddy, I've got to go. Tom is waving for me. Oh, Daddy, guess what? We have a special club in second grade called the hundred-book club. You get a prize when you read one hundred books. I just made it!'

'Fantastic! What do you get?'

'A special plaque and a party at the end of the year.'

'That's great. What was your favorite book?'

'Oh, that's easy. The one you sent me: The Reluctant Dragon.' She laughed. 'It reminds me of you.'

He laughed with her.

'I've got to go,' she said again.

'Okay. I love you and I really miss you.'

'Me too. Bye-bye.'

'Bye,' he said, but she had already left the telephone.

There was another blank moment until his ex-wife picked up the line. He spoke first.

'A charity picnic with football players?'

He had always wanted to hate the man who'd replaced him, wanted to hate him for what he did, which was corporate law, how he looked, which was stocky and chesty, with the build of a man who spent lunchtimes lifting weights at an expensive health club, wanted to imagine that he was cruel, a thoughtless lover, a poor stepfather, an inadequate provider, but he was none of those things. Shortly after his ex-wife had announced her impending marriage, Tom had flown to Miami (without telling her) to meet with him. They had had drinks and dinner. The purpose had been murky, but, after the second bottle of wine, the lawyer had told him with direct honesty that he wasn't trying to replace him in his daughter's eyes, but because he was going to be there, he was going to do his damnedest to help her love him, too. Cowart had believed him, had felt an odd sort of satisfaction and relief, ordered another bottle of wine and decided he sort of liked his successor.

'It's the law firm. They help sponsor some of the United Way stuff in Tampa. That's how the football players get involved. Becky was pretty impressed, but of course, Tom didn't tell her how many games the Bucs won last year.'

'That makes sense.'

'I suppose so. They certainly are the biggest men I've ever seen. They impressed Becky as well.' Sandy laughed.

There was a momentary pause before she continued. 'How are you? How's Miami?'

He laughed. 'Miami's cold, which makes everyone crazy. You know how it is, nobody owns a winter coat, nobody has any heat in their homes. Everyone shivers and gets a little insane until it heats up again. I'm okay. I fit right in.'

'Still having the nightmares?'

'Not too much. Every so often. It's under control.'

It was a mild falsehood, one he knew she would disbelieve but would accept without further questioning. He shrugged hard, thinking how much he hated the night.

'You could get some help. The paper would pay.'

'Waste of time. I haven't had one in months,' he lied more flagrantly.

He heard her take a breath.

'What's wrong?' he asked.

'Well,' she said, I suppose I should just tell you.'

'So just tell me.'

'Tom and I are going to have a baby. Becky's no longer going to be alone.'

He felt a bit dizzy, and a dozen different thoughts and feelings ricocheted within him. 'Well, well, well. Congratulations.'

'Thank you,' his ex-wife said. 'But you don't understand.'

'What?'

'Becky's going to be part of a family. Even more than before.'

'Yes?'

'You don't see, do you? What will happen. That you'll be the one squeezed out. At least, that's what I'm afraid of. It's already hard for her, with you being on the other part of the state.'

He felt as if someone had slapped him across the face. 'I'm not the one on the other part of the state. You are. You're the one that moved out.'

That's old business, Sandy replied. After a moment, she continued. 'Anyway, things are going to change.'

'I don't see why…' he stammered.

'Trust me,' she said. Her tone displayed that she had considered her words carefully, far in advance. 'Less time for you. I'm sure of it. I've been thinking about it a lot.'

'But that's not the agreement.'

'The agreement can change. We knew that.'

'I don't think so, he replied, the first edge of anger sliding into his voice.

'Well,' she said abruptly, I'm not going to allow myself to get upset talking about it. We'll see.'

'But…'

'Matt, I have to go. I just wanted you to know.'

'Great, he said. 'Thanks a bunch.'

'We can discuss this later, if there's anything to discuss.'

Sure, he thought, after you've talked to attorneys and social workers and edited me out completely. He knew the thought was untrue, but it refused to be dislodged.

'It's not your life we're talking about, she added. 'Not anymore. It's mine.'

And then she hung up.

You're wrong, he thought. He looked about his work cubicle. Through a small window he could see the sky stretching gray over the downtown. Then he looked down at the words in front of him: I DID NOT COMMIT.

We are all innocent, he thought. It is proving it that is so hard.

Then, trying to banish the conversation from his mind, he picked up the letter and continued reading:

On May 4th, 1987, I had just returned home to my grandmother's house in the town of Pachoula, Escambia County. At the time I was a college student at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, just completing my junior year. I had been visiting her for several days, when I was picked up by the sheriff's office for questioning in a rape-murder that took place a few miles from my grandmother's place. The victim was white. I am black. An eyewitness had seen a green Ford sedan similar to one I owned leaving the scene where the girl disappeared. I was held without food or water or sleep and without a chance to talk to counsel for thirty-six hours straight. I was beaten several times by deputies. They used folded telephone books to pound on me, because those don't make any marks. They told me they would kill me and one held a revolver to my head and kept pulling the trigger. Each time the hammer clicked down on an empty cylinder. At the end of this they told me that if I confessed, everything would be okay. I was scared and exhausted, so I did. Not knowing any details, but letting them lead me through the crime, I confessed. After what they put me through, I would have confessed to anything.

But I Did Not Do It!

I tried to recant my confession within hours, but I was unsuccessful. My public defender attorney only visited me three times before my trial. He also did no investigation,, called no witnesses who would have placed me elsewhere at the time of the crime, failed to get the illegally obtained confession suppressed. An all-white jury heard the evidence and convicted me after an hour's deliberation. It took them another hour to recommend the death penalty. The white judge passed this sentence on. He called me an animal that ought to be taken outside and shot.

I have now been on Death Row for three years. I have every hope that the courts will overturn my conviction, but that may take many more years. Can you help me? I have learned from other prisoners that you have written editorials condemning the death penalty. I am an innocent man, facing the supreme punishment because of a racist system that was stacked against me. Prejudice, ignorance and evil have put me into this situation. Please help me.

I have written the names of my new lawyer and witnesses below. I have put your name on my approved visiting list, if you decide to come talk with me.

There is one other thing. Not only am I innocent of the charges against me, but I can tell you the name of the man who did commit the crime. Hoping you will help, Robert Earl Ferguson #212009 The Florida State Prison, Starke, Fla.

It took Cowart several moments to digest the letter. He read it through several times, trying to sort through his impressions. The man was clearly articulate, educated, and sophisticated, but prisoners who claimed innocence, especially Death Row prisoners, were the norm rather than the exception. He had always wondered why the majority of men, even confronting their own demise, stuck to an image of innocence. It was true of the hardest psychopaths, the mass killers who cared so little for human life that they would as soon kill someone as talk with them – but who, when confronted, would maintain that aura unless persuaded that confession might somehow help them. It was as if the word meant something different to them, as if the compilation of horrors they had suffered somehow wiped the slate clean.

The thought made him remember the boy's eyes. The eyes had been prominent in a number of his nightmares.

It had been late, crawling through the thick heat of Miami summertime night toward morning, when he'd gotten the call, rousing him from sleep, directing him to a house only ten or twelve blocks from his own. A city editor, gruff with the hour, jaded with the job, sending him to a horror show.

It was when he'd still been cityside, working general assignment, which meant mostly murder stories. He had arrived at the address and spent an hour pacing around outside the police line, waiting for something to happen, staring across the dark at a trim, single-story ranch house with a well-manicured lawn and a new BMW parked in the driveway. It was the middle-class home of a junior executive and his wife. He could see crime-scene technicians and various detectives and medical examiner's office personnel moving about within the house, but he could not see what had happened. The entire area was lit by pulsating police lights, throwing quick snatches of red or blue across the area. The lights seemed to thicken in the humid air. The few neighbors who'd ventured out had been uniform in their description of the couple who lived in the house: nice, friendly, but kept to themselves. This was a litany known to all reporters. People who have been murdered were always said to have kept to themselves, whether they had or not. It was as if neighbors needed to rapidly disassociate themselves from whatever terror had fallen out of the sky.

Finally, he'd spotted Vernon Hawkins leaving the house through a side door. The old detective had ducked away from the police strobes and the television cameras and had pushed himself up against a tree, as if in great exhaustion.

He had known Hawkins for years, through dozens of stories. The veteran detective had always had a special liking for Cowart, had tipped him off frequently, shown him things that were confidential, explained things that were secret, let the reporter in on the inexorably ugly life of the homicide detective. Cowart had surreptitiously slid beneath the yellow police line and approached the detective. The man had frowned, then shrugged and gestured for him to sit.

The detective lit a cigarette. Then he stared for an instant at the glowing end. 'These things are murder,' he said with a rueful laugh. 'They're killing me. Used to be slowly, but I'm getting older, so it's speeding up.'

'So why don't you quit?' Cowart asked.

'Because they're the only things I've ever found that get the smell of death out of my nostrils.'

The detective took a long drag and the red glow illuminated the lines in the man's face.

After a moment of silence, the detective turned toward Cowart. 'So Matty, what brings you out on a night like this? Ought to be home with that pretty wife of yours.'

'C'mon, Vernon.'

The detective smiled quietly and put his head back gently against the tree. 'You're gonna end up like me, with nothing better to do at night except go to crime scenes.'

'Give me a break, Vernon. What can you tell me about the inside?'

The detective laughed briefly. 'Guy naked and dead. Throat cut while he was in bed. Woman naked and dead. Throat cut while she was in bed. Blood all over the fucking place.'

'And?'

'Suspect in custody.'

'Who?'

'A teenager. A runaway kid from Des Moines they picked up earlier this evening. Drove all the way to the Fort Lauderdale strip to find him. They were into kinky threesomes. The only trouble was, after having their fun with the lad, he decided that their hundred bucks wasn't quite all there was to be had. You know, he saw the car, saw the nice neighborhood and everything. They argued. He pulled out an old-style straight razor. Those things are still a helluva weapon. First shot got the guy right across the jugular…'

The detective demonstrated in the night air, abruptly slashing the darkness with a swift chopping motion.

'… The man goes down like he's been shot. Gurgles a couple of times and that's it. He's alive just long enough to realize he's dying. A tough way to go. The wife starts screaming, of course, tries to run. So the kid grabs her by the hair, pulls her head back, and bingo. Real fast, she only got off one more scream. Tough luck, though. It was enough to alert a neighbor who called us. Some guy with insomnia walking his dog. We got the kid as he came out the front door. He was loading up the car with the stereo, television, clothes, anything he could get his hands on. Covered in blood.'

He looked out across the yard and said vacantly, 'Matty, what's Hawkins' First Law of the Street?'

Cowart smiled through the darkness. Hawkins liked to speak in maxims. 'The first law, Vernon, is never look for your trouble, because trouble will always find you when it wants to.'

The detective nodded. 'Real sweet kid. Real sweet psychopathic kid. Says he had nothing to do with it.'

'Christ.'

'Not that strange,' the detective continued. 'I mean, the kid probably blames Mr. Junior Exec and his wife there for what happened. If they hadn't tried to stiff him, you know what I mean.'

'But…'

'No remorse. Not a shred of sympathy or anything human. Just a kid. Tells me everything that happened. Then he says to me, "I didn't do nothing. I'm innocent. I want a lawyer." We're standing there and there's blood all over and he says he didn't do nothing. I guess that's because it didn't mean anything to him. I guess. Christ…'

He leaned back in defeat and exhaustion. 'You know how old this kid is? Fifteen. Just fifteen a month ago. Ought to be home worrying about pimples, dates, and homework. He'll do juvie time for sure. Bet the house on it.'

The detective closed his eyes and sighed. I didn't do nothing. I didn't do nothing. Jesus.'

He held out his hand. 'Look at that. I'm fifty-fucking-nine years old and gonna retire and I thought I'd seen and heard it all.'

The hand was quivering. Cowart could see it move in the light thrown from the pulsating police lights.

'You know,' Hawkins said as he stared at his hand, 'I'm getting so I don't want to hear any more. I'd almost rather shoot it out with some crazy fuck than I would hear one more guy talk about doing something terrible as if it means no more than nothing. Like it wasn't some life that he snuffed out, it was just a candy wrapper he crumpled up and tossed away. Like littering instead of first-degree murder.'

He turned to Cowart. 'You want to see?'

'Of course. Let's go,' he replied, too quickly.

Hawkins looked at him closely. 'Don't be so sure. You always want to see so damn quick. It ain't nice. Take my word for it this time.'

'No,' Cowart said. 'It's my job, too.'

The detective shrugged. I take you in, you gotta promise something.'

'What's that?'

'You see what he did, then I show him to you – no questions, you just get a look at him, he's in the kitchen – but you make sure you get into the paper that he's no boy next door. Got it? That he's not some poor, disadvantaged little kid. That's what his lawyer's gonna start saying just as soon as he gets here. I want it different. You tell them that he's a stone-cold killer, got it? Stone-cold. I don't wanna have anybody pick up the paper and see a picture of him and think, How could a nice kid like that have done this?'

'I can do that,' Cowart said.

'Okay.' The detective shrugged, rose, and they started to walk toward the front door. As they were about to pass inside, he turned to Cowart and said, 'You sure? These are folks just like you and me. You won't forget this one. Not ever.'

'Let's go.'

'Matty, let an old guy look out for you for once.'

'Come on, Vernon.'

'It's your nightmare, then,' the detective said. He'd been absolutely right about that.

Cowart remembered staring at the executive and his wife. There was so much blood it was almost as if they were dressed. Every time the police photographer's flash exploded, the bodies glistened for an instant.

Wordlessly, he had followed the detective into the kitchen. The boy sat there wearing sneakers and jeans, his slight torso naked, one arm handcuffed to a chair. Streaks of blood marked his body, but he ignored them and casually smoked a cigarette with his free hand. It made him look even younger, like a child trying to act older, cooler, to impress the policemen in the room but really only appearing slightly silly. Cowart noted a smear of blood in the boy's blond hair, matting the curls together, another tinge of dried brown blood on the boy's cheek. The kid didn't even need to shave yet.

The boy looked up when Cowart and the detective entered the room. 'Who's that?' he asked, nodding toward Cowart.

For an instant Matthew locked his eyes with the boy's. They were an ancient blue, endlessly evil, like staring at the iron edge of an executioner's sword.

'He's a reporter, with the journal,' Hawkins said.

'Hey, reporter!' the kid said, suddenly smiling.

'What?'

'You tell everybody I didn't do nothing,' he said. Then he laughed in a high-pitched, wheezing way that echoed after Cowart and forever froze in his memory, as Hawkins steered him out of the room, back out into the hurrying dawn.

He had gone to his office and written the story of the junior executive, his wife, and the teenager. He'd described the white sheets crumpled and brown with blood, the red spatter marks marking the walls with Daliesque horror. He'd written about the neighborhood and the trim house and a framed testimonial on the wall attesting to the victim's membership in an advanced sales club. He'd written about suburban dreams and the lure of forbidden sex. He'd described the Fort Lauderdale strip where children cruised nightly, aging far beyond their years every minute. And he'd described the boy's eyes, burning them into the story, just the way his friend had asked him to.

He'd ended the story with the boy's words.

When he'd gone home that night, carrying a copy of the first edition under his arm, his story jamming the front page, he had felt an exhaustion that had gone far beyond lack of sleep. He had crawled into his bed, pulling himself up against his wife, even knowing that she planned to leave him, shivering, flu-like, unable to find any warmth in the world.

Cowart shook his head to dispel the morning and looked around his work cubicle.

Hawkins was dead now. Retired with a little ceremony, given a pension, and released to cough his life away with emphysema. Cowart had gone to the ceremony and clapped when the chief of police had cited the detective's contributions. He'd gone to see him in the detective's small Miami Beach apartment every time he could. It had been a barren place, decorated with some old clippings of stories Cowart and others had written. 'Remember the rules,' Hawkins had told him at the end of each visit, 'and if you can't remember what I told you about the street, then make up your own rules and live by them.' They had laughed. Then he'd gone to the hospital as frequently as possible, taking off early and surreptitiously from his office to go and trade stories with the detective, until the last time, when he'd arrived and found Hawkins unconscious beneath an oxygen tent, and Cowart hadn't known whether the detective heard him when he whispered his name, or felt him when he picked up his hand. He had sat beside the bed for one long night, not even knowing when it was that the detective's life had slipped away in the darkness. Then he'd gone to the funeral, along with a few other old policemen. There'd been a flag, a coffin, a few words from a priest. No wife. No children. Dry eyes. Just a nightmare's worth of memories being lowered slowly into the ground. He wondered if it would be the same when he died.

I wonder what happened to the kid, he thought. Probably out of juvenile hall and out on the street. Or on Death Row beside the letter writer. Or dead.

He looked at the letter.

This really should be a news story, he thought, not an editorial. He ought to hand it to someone on the city desk and let them check it out. I don't do that anymore. I am a man of opinions and positions. I write from a distance, a member of a board which votes and decides and adopts positions, not passions. I have given up my name.

He half rose from his chair to do exactly that, then stopped.

An innocent man.

In all the crimes and trials he'd covered, he tried to remember ever seeing a genuinely innocent man. He'd seen plenty of not-guilty verdicts, charges dismissed for lack of evidence, cases lost by sheer defensive eloquence or stumbling prosecution. But he could not recall someone genuinely innocent. He'd asked Hawkins once if he'd ever arrested someone like that, and he'd laughed. 'A man who really didn't do it? Ah, you screw up a bunch, that's for sure. A lot of guys walk who shouldn't. But bust somebody who's really innocent? That's the worst possible case. I don't know if I could live with that. No, sir. That's the only one I'd ever really lose sleep over.'

He held the letter in his hand. I DID NOT COMMIT. He wondered, Is someone losing sleep over Robert Earl Ferguson?

He felt a hot flush of excitement. If it's true, he thought… He did not complete the idea in his head but swallowed swiftly, curbing a sudden flash of ambition.

Cowart remembered an interview he'd read years before about a graceful, aging basketball player who was finally hanging up his sneakers after a long career. The man had talked about his achievements and disappointments in the same breath, as if treating them each with a sort of restrained and equal dignity. He had been asked why he was finally quitting, and he started to talk about his family and children, his need to put the game of his childhood away finally and get on with his life. Then he'd talked about his legs, not as if they were a part of his body, but as if they were old and good friends. He'd said that he could no longer jump the way he'd once been able to, that now when he gathered himself to soar toward the hoop, the leg muscles that once had seemed to launch him so easily screamed with age and pain, insisting he quit. And he had said that without his legs' cooperation, continuing was useless. Then he had gone out to his final game and scored thirty-eight points effortlessly – shifting, twisting, and leaping above the rim as he had years earlier. It was as if the man's body had given him one last opportunity to force an indelible memory on people. Cowart had thought the same was true of reporting; that it took a certain youth that knew no exhaustion, a drive that would shunt sleep, hunger, love, all in the singular pursuit of a story. The best reporters had legs that carried them higher and farther when others were falling back to rest.

He flexed his leg muscles involuntarily.

I had those once, he thought. Before I retired back here to get away from the nightmares, to wear suits and act responsible and age gracefully. Now I'm divorced and my ex-wife is going to steal the only thing I ever really loved without restriction, and I sit back here, hiding from reality, issuing opinions about events that influence no one.

He clutched the letter in his hand.

Innocent, he thought. Let's see.

The library at the Journal was an odd combination of the old and the new. It was located just past the newsroom, beyond the desks where the soft-news feature writers sat. In the rear of the library were rows of long metal filing cabinets that housed clippings that dated back decades. In the past, every day the paper had been dissected by person, subject, location, and event, each cutting filed away appropriately. Now this was all done on state-of-the-art computers, huge terminals with large screens. The librarians simply went through each story, highlighting the key people and words, then transmitting them into so many electronic files. Cowart preferred the old way. He liked being able to arrange a bunch of inky clips about, picking and choosing what he needed. It was like being able to hold some history in his hand. Now, it was efficient, quick, and soulless. He never neglected to tease the librarians about this when he used the library.

When he walked through the doors, he was spotted by a young woman. She was blonde, with a striking sheet of hair, tall and trim. She wore wire-rimmed glasses, sometimes peering over the top.

'Don't say it, Matt.'

'Don't say what?'

'Just don't say what you always say. That you liked it more the old way.'

'I won't say it.'

'Good.'

'Because you just said it.'

'Doesn't count,' the young woman laughed. She rose and went to where he was standing at a counter. 'So how can I help you?'

'Laura the librarian. Has anyone told you that you'll wreck your eyes staring at that computer screen all day?'

'Everyone.'

'Suppose I give you a name…'

'… And I'll do the old computer magic'

'Robert Earl Ferguson.'

'What else?'

'Death Row. Sentenced about three years ago in Escambia County.'

'All right. Let's see… ' She sat primly at a computer and typed in the name and punched a button. Cowart could see the screen go blank, save for a single word, which flashed continuously in a corner. Searching. Then the machine seemed to hiccup and some words formed.

'What's it say?' he asked.

'A couple of entries. Let me check.' The librarian hit some more characters and another set of words appeared on the screen. She read off the headlines: Tormer college student convicted in girl's murder, sentenced to death penalty; Appeal rejected in rural murder case; Florida Supreme Court to hear Death Row cases. That's all. Three stories. All from the Gulf Coast edition. Nothing ran in the main run, except the last, which is probably a roundup story.'

'Not much for a murder and death sentence,' Cowart said. 'You know, in the old days, it seemed we covered every murder trial

'No more.'

'Life meant more then.'

The librarian shrugged. 'Violent death used to be more sensational than it is now, and you're much too young to be talking about the old days. You probably mean the seventies…' She smiled and Cowart laughed with her. 'Anyway, death sentences are getting to be old hat in Florida these days. We've got…' She hesitated, pushing her head back and examining the ceiling for an instant.'… More than two hundred men on Death Row now. The governor signs a couple of death warrants every month. Doesn't mean they get it, but…' She looked at him and smiled. 'But Matt, you know all that. You wrote those editorials last year. About being a civilized nation. Right?' She nodded her head toward him.

'Right. I remember the main thrust was: We shouldn't sanction state murder. Three editorials, a total of maybe ninety column inches. In reply, we ran more than fifty letters that were, how shall I put it? Contrary to my position. We ran fifty, but we got maybe five quadrillion. The nicest ones merely suggested that I ought to be beheaded in a public square. The nasty ones were more inventive.'

The librarian smiled. 'Popularity is not our job, right? Would you like me to print these for you?'

'Please. But I'd rather be loved…'

She grinned at him and then turned to her computer. She played her fingers across the keyboard again and a high-speed printer in the corner of the room began whirring and shaking as it printed the news stories. 'There you go. On to something?'

'Maybe,' Cowart replied. He took the sheaf of paper out of the computer. 'Man says he didn't do it.'

The young woman laughed. 'Now that would be interesting. And unique.' She turned back to the computer screen and Cowart headed back to his office.

The events that had landed Robert Earl Ferguson on Death Row began to take on form and shape as Cowart read through the news stories. The library's offering had been minimal, but enough to create a portrait in his imagination. He learned that the victim in the case was an eleven-year-old girl, and that her body had been discovered concealed in scrub brush at the edge of a swamp.

It was easy for him to envision the murky green and brown foliage concealing the body. It would have had a sucking, oozing quality of sickness, an appropriate place to find death.

He read on. The victim was the child of a local city-council member, and she had last been seen walking home from school. Cowart saw a wide, single-story cinder-block building standing alone in a rural, dusty field. It would be painted a faded pink or institutional green, colors that could barely be brightened by children's excited voices greeting the end of the school day. That was when one of the teachers in the elementary grades had seen her getting into a green Ford with out-of-state plates. Why? What would make her get into a stranger's car? The thought made him shiver and feel an instant flush of fear for his own daughter. She wouldn't do that, he told himself abruptly. When the little girl failed to arrive home, an alarm had gone out. Cowart knew that the local television stations would have shown a picture on the evening news that night. It would have been of a ponytailed youngster, smiling, showing braces on her teeth. A family photo, taken in hope and promise, used obscenely to fill the airwaves with despair.

More than twenty-four hours later, deputies searching the area had uncovered her remains. The news story had been filled with euphemisms: 'brutal assault,' 'savage attack,' 'torn and ripped body,' which Cowart recognized as the shorthand of journalism; unwilling to describe in great detail the actual horror that the child had faced, the writer had resorted to a comfortable series of cliches.

It must have been a terrible death, he thought. People wanted to know what happened but not really, because if they did they would not sleep either.

He read on. As best he could tell, Ferguson had been the first and only suspect. Police had picked him up shortly after the victim's body had been discovered, because of the similarity with his car. He'd been questioned – there was nothing in any of the stories about being held incommunicado or beaten – and confessed. The confession, followed by a blood-type matchup and the vehicle identifiction, appeared to have been the only evidence against him, but Cowart was circumspect. Trials took on a certain momentum of their own, like great theater. A detail which seemed small or questionable when mentioned in a news story could become immense in a juror's eyes.

Ferguson had been correct about the judge's sentencing. The quote '… an animal that ought to be taken outside and shot' appeared prominently in the story. The judge had probably been up for reelection that year, he thought.

The other library entries had provided some additional information: primarily that Ferguson's initial appeal, based upon the insufficiency of evidence against him, had been rejected by the first district court of appeal. That was to be expected. It was still pending before the Florida Supreme Court. It was clear to Cowart that Ferguson had not yet really begun to gnaw away at the courts. He had numerous avenues of appeal and had yet to travel them.

Cowart sat back at his desk and tried to picture what had happened.

He saw a rural county in the backwoods of Florida. He knew this was a part of the state that had absolutely nothing in common with the popular images of Florida, nor the well-scrubbed, smiling faces of the middle class that flocked to Orlando and Disney World, nor the beered-up frat boys who headed to the beaches during their spring breaks, nor the tourists who drove their mobile homes to Cape Canaveral for space shots. Certainly, this Florida had nothing to do with the cosmopolitan, loose-fitting image of Miami, which styled itself as some sort of American Casablanca.

But in Pachoula, he thought, even in the eighties, when a little white girl is raped and murdered and the man that did it is black, a more primal America takes over. An America that people would prefer not to remember.

Is that what happened to Ferguson? It was certainly possible.

Cowart picked up the telephone to call the attorney handling Ferguson's appeal.

It took most of the remainder of the morning to get through to the lawyer. When Cowart finally did connect with the man, he was immediately struck by the lawyer's licorice-sweet southern accent.

'Mr. Cowart, this is Roy Black. What's got a Miami newspaper man interested in things up here in Escambia County?' He pronounced the word 'here' he-yah.

'Thanks for calling back, Mr. Black. I'm curious about one of your clients. A Robert Earl Ferguson.'

The lawyer laughed briefly. 'Well, I sorta figured it would be Mr. Ferguson's case that you were calling about when my gal here handed me your phone message. Whatcha wanna know?'

'First tell me about his case.'

'Well, State Supreme Court has the package right now. We contend that the evidence against Mr. Ferguson was hardly sufficient to convict him. And we're saying right out that the trial judge shoulda suppressed that confession of his'n. You oughta read it. Probably the most convenient document of its sort I ever saw. Just like the police wrote it up in the sheriff's department up here. And, without that confession, they got no case at all. If Robert Earl doesn't say what they want him to say, they don't even get two minutes in court. Not even in the worst redneck, racist court in the world.'

'What about the blood evidence?'

'Crime lab in Escambia County is pretty primitive, not like what y'all are used to down there in Miami. They only typed it down to its major group. Type O positive. That's what the semen they found in the deceased was, that's what Robert Earl is. Of course, the same is true of maybe a couple thousand men in that county. But his trial attorney failed to cross-examine the medical folks on that score.'

'And the car?'

'Green Ford with out-of-state plates. Nobody identified Robert Earl, and nobody said for sure that it was his car that little gal got into. This wasn't what you call circumstantial evidence, hell, it was coincidental. Shoulda been laughed out of the trial.'

'You weren't his trial attorney, were you?'

'No, sir. That honour went to another.'

'Have you attacked the competency of the representation?'

'Not yet. But we will. A third-year fella at the University of Florida law school coulda done better. A high school senior coulda done better. Makes me angry. I can hardly wait until I write that brief up. But I don't want to shoot off all the cannons right at the start.'

'What do you mean?'

'Mr. Cowart,' the attorney said slowly, 'do y'all understand the nature of appellate work in death cases? The idea is to keep taking little old bites at the apple. That way you can drag that sucker out for years and years. Make people forget. Give time a bit of a chance to do some good. You don't take your best shot first, because that'll put your boy right in the old hot seat, if you catch my drift.'

I understand that,' Cowart said. 'But suppose you've got an innocent man sitting up there?'

'That what Robert Earl told you?'

'Yes.'

'Told me that, too.'

'Well, Mr. Black, do you believe him?'

'Hmmm, maybe. Maybe more'n most of the times I hear that from someone enjoying the hospitality of the state of Florida. But you understand, Mr. Cowart, I don't really indulge in the luxury of allowing myself to subscribe to the guilt or innocence of my clients. I have to concern myself with the simple fact that they been convicted in a court of law and I got to undo that in a court of law. If I can undo a wrong, well, then when I die and go to heaven I trust they will welcome me with angels playing trumpets. Of course, I also maybe sometimes undo some rights and replace them with wrongs, so there's the very real possibility that I may be met at that other place with folks carrying pitchforks and wearing little pointy tails. That's the nature of the law, sir. But you work for a newspaper. Newspapers are a helluva lot more concerned with the public's impression of right and wrong, truth and justice, than I am. Newspaper also has a helluva lot more influence with the trial judge who could order up a new trial, or the governor and the state Board of Pardons, if you catch my drift, sir. Perhaps you could do a little something for Robert Earl?'

'I might.'

'Why don't you go see the man? He's real smart and well-spoken.' Black laughed. 'Speaks a sight better'n I do. Probably smart enough to be a lawyer. Sure a helluva lot smarter than that attorney he had at his trial, who must have been asleep most of the time they were putting his client in the electric chair.'

'Tell me about his trial attorney.'

'Old guy. Been handling cases up there for maybe a hundred, two hundred years. It's a small area, up in Pachoula. Everybody knows each other. They come on down to the Escambia County courthouse and it's like everyone's having a party. A murder-case party. They don't like me too much.'

'No, I wouldn't think so.'

'Of course, they didn't like Robert Earl too much, either. Going off to college and all and coming home in a big car. People probably felt pretty good when he was arrested. Not exactly what they're used to. Of course, they ain't used to sex murders neither.'

'What's the place like?' Cowart asked.

'Just like what you'd expect, city boy. It's sort of what the papers and the chamber of commerce like to call the New South. That means they got some new ideas and some old ideas. But then, it ain't that bad, either. Lots of development dollars going in up there.'

I think I know what you mean.'

'You go up and take a look for yourself, the attorney said. 'But let me give you a piece of advice: Just because someone talks like I do and sounds like some character outa William Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor, don't you naturally assume they are dumb. 'Cause they aren't.'

'So noted.'

The lawyer laughed. I bet you didn't think I'd read those authors.'

'It hadn't crossed my mind.'

'It will before you get finished with Robert Earl. And try to remember another thing. People there are probably pretty satisfied with what happened to Robert Earl. So don't go up expecting to make a lot of friends. Sources, as you folks in the papers like to call 'em.'

'One other thing bothers me,' Cowart said. 'He says he knows the name of the real killer.'

'Now, I don't know nothing about that. He might. Hell, he probably does. It's a small place is Pachoula. But this I do know…' The attorney's voice changed, growing less jocular and taking on a directness that surprised Cowart. '… I do know that man was unfairly convicted and I mean to have him off Death Row, whether he did it or not. Maybe not this year, in this court, but some year in some court. I have grown up and spent my life with all those good ole boys, rednecks, and crackers, and I ain't gonna lose this one. I don't care whether he did it or not.'

'But if he didn't…'

'Well, somebody kilt that little gal. I suspect somebody's gonna have to pay.'

'I've got a lot of questions,' Cowart said.

'I suspect so. This is a case with a lot of questions. Sometimes that just happens, you know. Trial's supposed to clear everything up, actually makes it more confused. Seems that happened here to old Robert Earl'

'So, you think I ought to take a look at it?'

'Sure,' said the lawyer. Cowart could feel his smile across the telephone line. 'I do. I don't know what you'll find, excepting a lot of prejudice and dirt-poor thinking. Maybe you can help set an innocent man free.'

'So you do think he's innocent?'

'Did I say that? Nah, I mean only that he shoulda been found not guilty in a court of law. There's a big difference, you know.'

2. One Man On Death Row

Cowart stopped the rental car on the access road to the Florida State Prison and stared across the fields at the stolid dark buildings that held the majority of the state's maximum-security, prisoners. There were two prisons, actually, separated by a small river, the Union Correctional Institution on one side, Raiford Prison on the other. He could see cattle grazing in distant green fields, and dust rising in small clouds where inmate work crews labored amidst growing areas. There were watchtowers at the corners and he thought he could make out the glint of weapons held by the watchers. He did not know which building housed Death Row and the room where the state's electric chair was kept, but he'd been told that it split off from the main prison. He could see twelve-foot-high double rows of chain link fence topped with curled strands of barbed wire. The wire gleamed in the morning sun. He got out and stood by the car. A stand of pine trees rose up straight and green on the edge of the roadway, as if pointing in accusation at the crystal blue sky. A cool breeze rustled through the branches, then slid over Cowart's forehead amidst the building humidity.

He had had no difficulty persuading Will Martin and the other members of the editorial board to cut him loose to pursue the circumstances surrounding the conviction of Robert Earl Ferguson, though Martin had expressed some snorting skepticism which Cowart had ignored.

'Don't you remember Pitts and Lee?' Cowart had replied. Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee had been sentenced to die for the murder of a gas-station attendant in North Florida. Both men had confessed to a crime they hadn't done. It had taken years of reporting by one of the Journal's most famous reporters to set them free. He'd won a Pulitzer. In the Journal newsroom, it was the first story any new reporter was told.

'That was different.'

'Why?'

That was in 1963. Might as well have been in 1863. Things have changed.'

'Really? How about that guy in Texas, the one the documentary film-maker got off Death Row there?'

'That was different.'

'How much?'

Martin had laughed. 'That's a good question. Go. With my blessing. Answer that question. And remember, when you're all finished playing reporter again, you can always come home to the ivory tower.' He'd shooed Cowart on his way.

The city desk had been informed and promised assistance should he need any. He had detected a note of jealousy that the story had landed in his lap. He recognized the advantage that he had over the cityside staff. First, he was going to be able to work alone; the city desk would have assigned a team to the story. The Journal, like so. many newspapers and television stations, had a full-time investigative squad with a snappy title like 'The Spotlight Team' or The I-team.' They would have approached the story with the subtlety of an invading force. And, Cowart realized, unlike the regular reporters on the staff, he would have no deadline, no assistant city editor breathing down his neck, wondering every day where the story was. He could find out what he could, structure as he saw fit, write it as he wanted. Or discard it if it wasn't true.

He tried to hold on to this last thought, to armor himself against disappointment, but as he headed down the road and pulled into the prison, he sensed his pulse quickening. A series of warning signs was posted on the access road, informing passersby that by entering the area they were consenting to a search, that any firearms and narcotics violations would be punished by a term of prison. He passed through a gate where a gray-jacketed guard checked his identification against a list and sullenly waved him through, then parked in an area designated VISITORS and entered the administration building.

There was some confusion when he checked with a secretary. She had apparently lost his entrance request. He waited patiently by her desk while she shuffled through papers, apologizing rapidly, until she found it. He was then asked to wait in an adjacent office until an officer could escort him to where he was to meet Robert Earl Ferguson.

After a few minutes, an older man with a gray-tinged Marine Corps haircut and bearing entered the room. The man had a huge, gnarled hand, which he shot forward at Cowart. 'Sergeant Rogers. I'm day officer on the Row today.'

'Glad to meet you.'

'There are a few formalities, Mr. Cowart, sir, if you don't mind.'

'Like?'

I need to frisk you and search your tape recorder and briefcase. I have a statement you need to sign about being taken hostage…'

'What's that?'

'It's just a statement saying you're entering the Florida State Prison of your own wish and that, if taken hostage during your stay here, you will not sue the state of Florida, nor will you expect extraordinary efforts to secure your freedom.'

'Extraordinary efforts?'

The man laughed and rubbed his hand through his brush of hair. 'What it means is that you don't expect us to risk our asses to save yours.'

Cowart smiled and made a face. 'Sounds like a bad deal for me.'

Sergeant Rogers grinned. 'That it is. Of course, prison is a bad deal for just about everybody, except those of us who get to head home at night.'

Cowart took the paper from the sergeant and signed it with a mock flourish. 'Well,' he said, still smiling, 'can't say you guys give me a lot of confidence right here at the start.'

'Oh, you ain't got nothing to worry about, not visiting Robert Earl. He's a gentleman and he ain't crazy.' As he spoke, the sergeant methodically searched through Cowart's briefcase. He also opened up the tape recorder to inspect the insides and popped the battery compartment to ascertain that there were batteries in the space. 'Now, it's not like you were coming in to visit Willie Arthur or Specs Wilson – they were those two bikers from Fort Lauderdale that let a little fun with that girl they picked up hitchhiking get out of hand – or Jose Salazar – you know, he killed two cops. Undercover guys in a drug deal. You know what he made them do before he killed 'em? To each other? You oughta find out. It'll open your mind to how bad folks can be when they set their minds right to it. Or some of the other lovely guys we got in here. Most of the worst come from downstate, from your hometown. What y'all doing down there anyway, that makes folks kill each other so bad?'

'Sergeant, if I could answer that question…'

They both grinned. Sergeant Rogers put down Cowart's briefcase and gestured for him to hold his hands up in the air. 'Sure helps to have a sense of humor around here, the sergeant said as his hands flitted across Cowart's body. The sergeant patted him down rapidly.

'Okay,' the sergeant said. 'Let me brief you on the drill. It's gonna be just you and him. I'm just there for security. Be right outside the door. You need help, you just yell. But that ain't gonna happen, because we're talking about one of the non-crazy men on the Row. Hell, we're gonna use the executive suite…'

'The what?'

'The executive suite. That's what we call the inter- view room for the best behaved. Now, it's just a table and chairs, so it ain't no big deal. We've got other facilities that are more secure. And Robert Earl won't have no restraints. Not even leg irons. But no hand contact. I mean you can give him a smoke…'

I don't'

'Good. Smart man. You can take papers from him, if he hands you documents. But if you wanted to hand him anything, it would have to go through me.'

Like hand him what?'

'Oh, maybe a file and hacksaw and some road maps.'

Cowart looked surprised.

'Hey, just kidding,' the sergeant said. 'Of course, in here, that's the one joke we never much make."Escape. Not funny, you know. But there's lots of different ways to escape a prison. Even Death Row. A lot of the inmates think talking to reporters is one way.' 'Help them escape?'

'Help them get out. Everyone always wants the press to get excited about their case. Inmates never think they got a fair shake. They think that maybe if they make enough of a stink, they'll get a new trial. Happens. That's why prison people like me always hate to see reporters. Hate to see those little pads of paper, those camera crews and lights. Just gets everyone riled up, excited about nothing much. People think it's the loss of freedoms that makes for trouble in prisons. They're wrong. Worse thing by far is expectations getting raised and then smashed. It's just another story for you guys. But for the guys inside, it's their lives you're talking about. They think one story, the right story, and they'll just walk on out of here. You and I know that ain't necessarily true. Disappointment. Big, angry, frustrating disappointment. Causes more trouble than you'd like to know. What we like is routine. No wild hopes, no dreams. Just one day exactly like the last. Don't sound exciting, but of course, you don't want to be around a prison when things get exciting.'

'Well, I'm sorry. But I'm just here checking a few facts.'

'In my experience, Mr. Cowart, there ain't no such thing as a fact, except two maybe, one being born and one being dying. But, no problem. I ain't as hard-core as some around here. I kinda like a little change of pace, as long as it's within reason. Just don't hand him nothing. It'll only make it worse for him. 'Worse than Death Row?'

'You got to understand, even on the Row there's lots of ways of doing your time. We can make it real hard, or not so tough. Right now, Robert Earl, he's got it pretty good. Oh, he still gets his cell tossed every day, and he still gets a strip search after a little meeting like this one here today, but he's got yard privileges now and books and such. You wouldn't think it, but even in prison there's all sorts of little things we can take away that will make his life a lot worse.'

'I've got nothing for him. But he may have some papers or something

'Well, that's okay. We ain't so concerned with stuff being smuggled out of the prison…'

The sergeant laughed again. He had a booming laugh to match his forthright speech. Rogers was obviously the sort of man who could tell you much or make your life miserable, depending on his inclination. 'You're also supposed to tell me how long you're gonna be.'

'I don't know.'

'Well, hell, I got all morning, so take your time. Afterwards I'll give you a little tour of the place. You ever seen Old Sparky?'

'No.'

'It's an education.'

The sergeant rose. He was a wide, powerful man, with the sort of bearing that implied he'd seen much trouble in his life and always managed to deal with it Successfully.

'Kinda puts things in perspective, if you know what

I mean."

Cowart followed him through the doorway, feeling dwarfed by the man's broad back.

He was led through a series of locked doors and a metal detector manned by an officer who grinned at the sergeant as they passed through. They came to a terminal center where several wings of the immense wheel-like prison building came together. In that moment, Cowart was aware of the noise of prison, a constant cacophony of raised voices and metallic clangs and crashes as doors swung open, only to be slammed shut and locked again. A radio somewhere was playing country music. A television set was tuned to a soap opera; he could hear the voices, then the ubiquitous music of commercials. He felt a sensation of motion about him, as if caught in a strong river current, but, save for the sergeant and a pair of other officers manning a small booth in the center of the room, there were few people about. He could see inside the booth and noted an electronic board that showed which doors were open and which were shut. Cameras mounted in the corners by the ceiling and television monitors showed flickering gray images from each cell tier as well. Cowart noticed that the floor was a spotless yellow linoleum, worn bright by the flood of people and the never-ending efforts of prison trustees. He saw one man, wearing a blue jumpsuit, diligently swabbing a corner area with a dirty gray mop, endlessly going over and over a spot that was already clean.

'That's Q, R, and S wings,' said the sergeant. 'Death Row. Actually, I guess you'd have to say Death Rows. Hell, we've even got an overcrowding problem on Death Row. Says something, don't it? The chair's down there. Looks like the other areas, but it ain't the same. No, sir.'

Cowart stared down the narrow, high corridors. The cell tiers were on the left, rising up three stories, with stairs at either end. The wall facing the cells contained three rows of dirty windows that swung open to let in the air. There was an empty space between the catwalk outside the bank of cells and the windows. He realized the men could lie locked in each small cell and stare out across and through to the sky, a distance of perhaps thirty feet that might as well have been a. million miles. It made him shudder.

'There's Robert Earl over there,' the sergeant said. Cowart spun about and saw the sergeant pointing toward a small barred cage in a far corner of the terminal area. There were four men inside, sitting on an iron bench, staring out at him. Three men wore blue jumpsuits, like the trustee. One man wore bright orange. He was partially obscured by the bodies of the other men.

'You don't want to wear the orange,' the sergeant said quietly. 'That means the clock's ticking down on your life.'

Cowart started toward the cage but was stopped by the sergeant's sudden grip on his shoulder. He could feel the strength in the man's fingertips.

'Wrong way. Interview room's over here. When someone comes to visit, we search the men and make a list of everything they have – papers, law books, whatever. Then they go into isolation, over there. We bring him to you. Then, when it's all said and done, we reverse the process. Takes goddamn forever, but security, you know. We do like to have our security.'

Cowart nodded and was steered into an interview room. It was a plain white office with a single steel table in the center and a pair of old, scarred brown chairs. A mirror was on one wall. An ashtray in the center. Nothing else.

He pointed at the mirror. 'Two-way?' he asked.

'Sure is, replied the sergeant. 'That a problem?'

'Nope. Hey, you sure this is the executive suite?' He turned toward the sergeant and smiled. 'Us city boys are accustomed to a bit more in the way of creature comforts.'

Sergeant Rogers laughed. 'Why, that's what I would have guessed. Sorry, this is it.'

'It'll do,' Cowart said. 'Thanks.'

He took a seat and waited for Ferguson.

His first impression of the prisoner was a young man in his mid-twenties, just shorter than six feet, with a boyish slight build, but possessing a deceptive, wiry strength that passed through his handshake. Robert Earl Ferguson had rolled his sleeves up, displaying knotted arm muscles. He was thin, with narrow hips and shoulders like a distance runner, with an athlete's easy grace in the manner he walked. His hair was short, his skin dark. His eyes were alert, quick, penetrating; Matthew Cowart had the sensation that he was measured by the prisoner in a moment's time, assessed, read, and stored away.

'Thank you for coming,' the prisoner said.

'It wasn't a big deal.'

'It will be,' Ferguson replied confidently. He was carrying a stack of legal papers, which he arranged on the table in front of him. Cowart saw the prisoner glance over at Sergeant Rogers, who nodded, turned, and exited through the door, slamming it shut with a crash.

Cowart sat, took out a notepad and pen, and arranged a tape recorder in the center of the table. 'You mind?' he asked.

'No,' Ferguson responded. 'It makes sense.'

'Why did you write me?' Cowart asked. 'Just curious, you know. Like, how did you get my name?'

The prisoner smiled and rocked back in his seat. He seemed oddly relaxed for what should have been a critical moment.

'Last year you won a Florida Bar Association award for a series of editorials about the death penalty. Your name was in the Tallahassee paper. It was passed on to me by another man on the Row. It didn't hurt that you work for the biggest and most influential paper in the state.'

'Why did you wait to contact me?'

'Well, to be honest, I thought the appeals court was going to throw out my conviction. When they didn't, I hired a new lawyer – well, hired isn't quite right -I got a new lawyer and started being more aggressive about my situation. You see, Mr. Cowart, even when I got convicted and sentenced to die, I still really didn't think it was happening to me. I felt like it was all a dream or something. I was going to wake up any moment and be back at school. Or maybe like someone was just going to come along and say, 'Hey, hold everything. There's been a terrible mistake made here… ' and so I wasn't really thinking right. I didn't realize that you have to fight hard to save your life. You can't trust the system to do it for you.'

There's the first quote of my story, Cowart thought.

The prisoner leaned forward, placing his hands on the table, then, just as rapidly, leaned back, so that he could use his hands to gesture in short, precise movements, using motion to underscore his words. He had a soft yet sturdy voice, one that seemed to carry the weight of words easily. He hunched his shoulders forward as he spoke, as if being pushed by the force of his beliefs. The effect was immediate, it narrowed the small room down to the simple space between the reporter and the prisoner, filling the arena with a sort of superheated strength.

'I thought just being innocent was going to be enough, you see. I thought that's the way it all worked. I thought I didn't have to do anything. Then, when I got here, I got some education. Real education.'

'What do you mean?'

'Well, the men on Death Row have a kind of informal way of passing information about lawyers, appeals, clemency, you name it. You see, over there… ' he gestured toward the main prison buildings, 'the convicts think of what they're gonna do when they get out. Or maybe they think about escaping. They think about how they're going to do their time, and they think about making a life inside. They have the luxury to dream about something, a future, even if it's a future behind bars. They can always dream about freedom. And they have the greatest gift of all, the gift of uncertainty. They don't know what life will hold for them.

'Not us. We know how we're gonna end up. We know that there will come a day when the state will send two thousand five hundred electric volts into r brain. We know we've got five, maybe ten years.

It's like having a terrible weight around your neck all the time, that you're struggling to hold up. Every minute goes by, you think, Did I waste that time? Every night comes, you think, There's another day gone. Every day arrives, you realize another night lost. That weight around your neck is the accumulation of all those moments that just passed. All those hopes just fading away. So, our concerns aren't the same.'

They were both quiet for an instant. Cowart could hear his own breath easing in and out, almost as if he'd just run up a flight of stairs. 'You sound like a philosopher.'

'All the men on Death Row are. Even the crazy ones who scream and howl all the time. Or the retards who barely know what is happening to them. But they know the weight. Those of us with a little formal education just sound better. But we're all the same.' 'You've changed here?' 'Who wouldn't?' Cowart nodded.

'When my initial appeal failed, some of the others, some of the men who've been on the Row five, eight, maybe ten years, started to talk to me about making a future for myself. I'm a young man,Mr. Cowart, and I don't want it to end here. So I got a better lawyer, and I wrote you a letter. I need your help.'

'We'll get to that in a minute.' Cowart was uncertain precisely what role to play in the interview. He knew he wanted to maintain some sort of professional distance, but he didn't know how great. He had spent some time trying to think of how he would act in front of the prisoner, but had been unsuccessful. He felt a little foolish, sitting across from a man convicted of murder, in the midst of a prison holding men who'd committed the most unthinkable acts, and trying to act tough.

'Why don't you start by telling me a little bit about yourself? Like, how come a person from Pachoula doesn't have an accent?'

Ferguson laughed again. 'I can, if you want to hear it. I mean, if'n I'z wan'ta, I'z kin speechify lak da tiredest ol' backwoods black you done ever heard… ' Ferguson sat back, sort of slumping into his chair, mimicking a man rocking in a rocking chair. The slow drawl of his words seemed to sweeten the still air of the small room. Then he pitched forward abruptly and the accent shifted. 'Yo, mutha, I ken also talk like a homeboy from da streets, 'cause I know dat sheeit jes' as well. Right on.' Just as quickly, that disappeared too, replaced by the wiry earnest man sitting with elbows on the table and speaking in a regular, even voice. 'And I can also sound precisely as I have, like a person who has attended college and was heading to a degree and perhaps a future in business. Because that's what I was as well.'

Cowart was taken aback by the quick changes. They seemed to be more than simple alterations in accent and tone. The changes in inflection were mimicked by subtle alterations of body English and bearing, so that Robert Earl Ferguson became the image he was projecting with his voice. 'Impressive, Cowart said. 'You must have a good ear.'

Ferguson nodded, 'You see, the three accents reflect my three parts. I was born in Newark, New Jersey. My momma was a maid. She used to ride the bus out to all the white suburbs every day at six A.M…, then back at night, day in, day out, cleaning white folks' homes. My daddy was in the army, and he disappeared when I was three or four. They weren't ever really married, anyway. Then, when I was seven, my momma died. Heart trouble, they told us, but I never really knew. Just one day she was having trouble breathing and she walked herself down to the clinic and that was all we ever saw of her. I was sent down to Pachoula to live with my grandmother. You have no idea what that was like for a little kid. Getting out of that ghetto to where there were trees and rivers and clean air. I thought I was in paradise, even if we didn't have indoor plumbing. They were the best years of my life. I would walk to the school. Read at night by candlelight. We ate the fish I caught in the streams. It was like being in some other century. I thought I'd never leave, until my grandmother got sick. She was scared she couldn't watch over me, and so it was arranged I would be sent back to Newark to live with my aunt and her new husband. That's where I finished high school, got into college. But I used to love coming down to visit my grandmother. Vacations, I would take the all-night bus from Newark down to Atlanta, change there for Mobile, get the local to Pachoula. I had no use for the city. I thought of myself as a country boy, I guess. I didn't like Newark much.'

Ferguson shook his head and a small smile creased his face. 'Those damn bus rides,' he said softly. 'They were the start of all my troubles.'

'What do you mean?'

Ferguson continued shaking his head but answered, 'By the time I got finished riding, it was nearly thirty hours. Humming along the freeway, then right through every country town and back road. Bouncing along, a little carsick, needing to use the can, filled up with folks that needed to bathe. Poor folks who couldn't afford the plane fare. I didn't like it much. That's why I bought the car, you see. A secondhand Ford Granada. Dark green. Cost me twelve hundred bucks from another student. Only had sixty-six thousand miles on it. Cherry. Sheeit! I loved cruising in that car…'

Ferguson's voice was smooth and distant.

'But…'

'But if I hadn't had the car, I never would have been picked up by the sheriff's men investigating the crime.'

'Tell me about that.'

'There's really not that much to tell. The afternoon of the killing, I was at home with my grandmother. She would have testified to that, if anybody'd had the sense to ask her…'

'Anybody else see you? Like, not a relative?'

'Oh, uh, oh, I don't recall anyone. Just her and me. If you go see her, you'll see why. Her place is an old shack about a half mile past any of the other old shacks. Dirt-road poor.'

'Go on.'

'Well, not long after they found the little girl's body, two detectives come out to the house to see me. I was in the front, washing the car. Boy, I did like to see that sucker shine! There I was, middle of the day, they come out and ask me what was I doing a couple of days before. They start looking at the car and at me, not really listening to what I say.'

'Which detectives?'

'Brown and Wilcox. I knew both those bastards. Knew they hated my guts. I should have known not to trust them.'

'How'd you know that? How come they hated you?'

'Pachoula's a small place. Some folks like to see it just keep on keepin' on, as they say. I mean, they knew I had a future. They knew I was going to be somebody. They didn't like it. Didn't like my attitude, I guess.'

'Go on.'

'After I tell them, they say they need to take a statement from me in town, so off I go, not a complaint in the world. Christ! If I knew then what I know now… But you see, Mr. Cowart, I didn't think I had anything to fear. Hell, I barely knew what they were taking a statement about. They said it was a missing persons case. Not murder.'

'And.'

'Like I said in my letter, it was the last daylight I saw for thirty-six hours. They brought me into a little room like this one, sat me down and asked me if I wanted an attorney. I still didn't know what was going on, so I said no. Handed me a constitutional-rights form and told me to sign it. Damn, was I dumb! I should have known that when they sit a nigger in that chair in one of those rooms, the only way he's ever going to get to stand up again is when he tells them what they want to hear, whether he did it or not.'

All jocularity had disappeared from Ferguson's voice, replaced with a metallic edge of anger constrained by great pressure. Cowart felt swept along by the story he was hearing, as if caught in a tidal wave of words.

'Brown was the good cop. Wilcox, the bad cop. Oldest routine in the world.' Ferguson almost spat in disgust.

'And?'

'I sit down, they start in asking me this, asking me that, asking me about this little girl that disappeared. I keep telling them I don't know nothing. They keep at it. All day. Right into the night. Hammering away. Same questions over and over, just like when I said 'No,' it didn't mean a damn thing, They keep going. No trips to the bathroom. No food. No drink. Just questions, over and over. Finally, after I don't know how many hours, they lose it. They're screaming at me something fierce and the next thing I know, Wilcox slaps me across the face. Wham! Then he shoves his face down about six inches from mine and says, "Have I got your attention now, boy?" '

Ferguson looked at Cowart as if to measure the impact that his words were having, and continued in an even voice, filled with bitterness.

'He did, indeed. He kept screaming at me then. I remember thinking that he was going to have a heart attack or a stroke or something, he was so red in the face. It was like he was possessed or something. "I want to know what you did to that little girl!" he screams. "Tell me what you did to her!" He's shouting all the time and Brown walks out of the room so I'm alone with this madman. "Tell me, did you fuck her and then kill her, or was it the other way around?" Man, he kept that up for hours. I kept saying no, no, no, what do you mean, what are you talking about. He showed me the pictures of the little girl and kept asking, "Was it good? Did you like it when she fought?

Did you like it when she screamed? Did you like it when you cut her the first time? How about when you cut her the twentieth time, was that good?" Over and over, over and over, hour after hour.'

Ferguson took a deep breath. 'Every so often he would take a break, just leave me in that little room alone, cuffed to the chair. Maybe he went out, took a nap, got something to eat. He'd be out five minutes once, then a half hour or more. Left me sitting there a couple of hours one time. I just sat there, you know, too scared and too stupid to do a damn thing for myself.

I guess he got frustrated, finally, with my refusing to confess, because eventually he started to whale on me. Started by just slapping me about the head and shoulders a bit more frequently. Stood me up once and punched me in the stomach. I was shaking. They wouldn't even take me to the can, and I wet myself. I didn't know what he was doing when he took the telephone book and rolled it up. Man, it was like being hit with a baseball bat. Knocked me right to the floor.'

Cowart nodded. He had heard of the technique. Hawkins had explained it to him one night. The telephone book had the impact of a leather sap, but the paper wouldn't cut the skin or really leave a bruise.

I still wouldn't say anything, so finally he left. Brown comes in. I haven't seen him in hours. I'm just shaking and moaning and figuring I'm gonna die in that room. Brown looks at me. Picks me up off the floor. All sugar and spice. Man, he says he's sorry for everything that Wilcox has done. Man, he knows it hurts. He'll help me. He'll get me something to eat. He'll get me a Coke. He'll get me some fresh clothes and he'll let me go to the bathroom. Man, all I got to do is trust him. Trust him and tell him what I did to that little girl. I tell him nothing, but he keeps at it. He says, "Bobby Earl, I think you're hurt bad. I think you're gonna be pissing blood. I think you need a doctor real bad. Just tell me what you did, and we'll take you right over to the infirmary." I tell him I didn't do nothing and he loses it. He screams at me, "We know what you did, you just got to tell us!" Then he takes out his weapon. It wasn't his regular gun, the one he wears on his hip, but a little snub-nosed thirty-eight he had hidden in an ankle holster. Wilcox comes in right then and cuffs me with my hands behind my back, grabs my head and holds it so I'm looking right down the, barrel of that little gun. Brown says, "Start in talking now." I says, "I didn't do anything!" and he pulls the trigger. Man! I can still see that finger curling around the trigger and tugging back so slow. I thought my heart stopped. It clicks down on an empty chamber. I'm crying now, just like a baby, blubbering away. He says, "Bobby Earl, you got real lucky with that one. You think you're real lucky today? How many empty chambers I got in here?' He pulls the trigger again and it clicks again. "Damn!" he says. "I think it misfired." And then he cracks open that little gun, swings the cylinder right out and pulls out a bullet. He looks at it real careful like and says, "Man, how about that? A dud. Maybe it'll work this time." And I watch him put it back into the gun. He points the gun right at me and says, "Last chance, nigger." And I believe him this time and I say, "I did it, I did it, whatever you want, I did." And that was the confession.'

Matthew Cowart took a deep breath and tried to digest the story. He suddenly felt that there was no air in the small interview room, as if the walls had grown hot and stifling, and he was baking in the abrupt heat. 'And?' he asked.

'And now I'm here,' Ferguson replied. 'You told this to your attorney?' 'Of course. He pointed out the obvious: There were two police detectives and just one of me. And there was a beautiful little dead white girl. Who do you think was going to get believed?'

Cowart nodded. 'Why should I believe you now?' 'I don't know,' Ferguson replied angrily. He glared at Cowart for an instant. 'Maybe because I'm telling the truth.'

'Would you take a polygraph test?'

'I took one for my attorney. Got the results right here. Damn thing came back "Inconclusive." I think I was too jumpy when they strapped all those wires onto me. Didn't do me no good at all. I'd take another one, if you want. Don't know if it'd do any good. Can't use it in court.'

'Of course. But I need some corroboration.'

'Right. I know that. But hell, that's what happened.'

'How can I prove that story, so I can put it in the paper?'

Ferguson thought for a moment, his eyes still burrowing into Cowart's. After a few seconds, a small smile tore through some of the intensity in the convicted man's face.

'The gun,' he said. 'That might do it.'

'How so?'

'Well, I remember before they took me into that little room, they made a big deal of checking their sidearms at the desk. I remember he had that little sucker hidden under his pants. I bet he'll lie to you about that gun, if you can figure out a way of tripping him up.'

Cowart nodded. 'Maybe.'

The two men grew quiet again. Cowart looked down at the tape recorder and watched the tape spinning on its capstan. 'Why did they pick you?' he asked.

'I was convenient. I was right there. I was black. They made the green car. My blood type was the same – of course, they figured that out later. But I was there and the community was about to go crazy -I mean, the white community. They wanted somebody and they had me in their hand. Who better?'

'That seems like mighty convenient reasoning.'

Ferguson's eyes flashed, an instant moment of anger, and Cowart saw him ball his hand into a fist. He watched the prisoner fight and regain control.

'They always hated me there. Because I wasn't a dumb backwoods shuffling nigger like they were used to. They hated that I went to college. They hated that I knew all the big-city things I did. They knew me and they hated me. For what I was and for what I was going to be.'

Cowart started to ask a question, but Ferguson thrust both hands straight out, gripping the edge of the table to steady himself. His voice was barely contained, and Cowart felt the man's rage pour over him. He could see the sinews on the prisoner's neck stand out. His face was flushed, his voice had lost its steadiness and quavered with emotion. Cowart saw Ferguson struggling hard with himself, as if he were about to break under the stress of remembering. In that moment, Cowart wondered what it would be like to stand in the way of all that fury.

'You go there. You take a look at Pachoula. Escambia County. It's right south from Alabama, not more than twenty, thirty miles. Fifty years ago, they just would have hung me from the nearest tree. They would have been wearing white suits with little pointy hats and burning crosses. Times have changed,' he spoke bitterly, 'but not that goddamn much. Now they're hung up with all the benefits and trappings of civilization. I got a trial, yes sir. I got an attorney, yes sir. A jury of my peers, yes sir. I got to enjoy all my constitutional rights, yes sir. Why, this damn lynching was nice and legal.' Ferguson's voice shook with emotion. 'You go there, Mr. White Reporter, and start asking some questions and you'll see. You think this is the nineteen eighties? You're gonna find out that things haven't moved along quite as quickly. You'll see.'

He sat back in the chair, glaring at Cowart.

The prison sounds seemed distant, as if they were separated by miles from the walls, corridors, and cells. Cowart was suddenly aware how small the room was. This is a story about small rooms, he thought. He could feel hatred flooding from the prisoner in great waves, an endless flow of frustration and despair, and felt swept along with it.

Ferguson continued to stare across the table at Cowart, as if considering his next words. 'Come on, Mr. Cowart. Do you think things work the same in Pachoula as they do in Miami?'

'No.'

'Damn right they don't. Hell, you know the funniest thing? If I had done this crime – which I didn't – but if I had, and it was down in Miami? Well, you know what would have happened with the shabby evidence they had against me? I'd have been offered a deal to second degree and sentenced to five to life. Maybe do four years. And that's only if my public defender didn't get the whole thing thrown out. Which he would have. I had no record. I was a college student. I had a future. They had no evidence. What do you think, Mr. Cowart. In Miami?'

'In Miami, you're probably right. A deal. No doubt.'

'In Pachoula, death. No doubt.'

'That's the system.'

'Damn the system. Damn it to hell. And one more thing: I didn't do it. I didn't damn do the crime. Hey, I may not be perfect. Hell, up in Newark, I got into a couple of scrapes as a teenager. Same thing down in Pachoula. You can check those out. But dammit, I didn't kill that little girl.'

Ferguson paused. 'But I know who did.'

They were both silent for an instant.

'Let's get to that,' Cowart said. 'Who and how?'

Ferguson rocked back in his seat. Cowart saw a single smile, not a grin, not something that preceded a laugh, but a cruel scar on the man's face. He was aware that something had slipped from the room, some of the intensity of anger. Ferguson changed in those few seconds, just as effectively as he had earlier when he had changed accents. 'I can't tell you that yet,' the prisoner replied.

Bullshit,' Cowart said, letting a touch of displeasure slip into his own Voice. 'Don't be coy.'

Ferguson shook his head. 'I'll tell you,' he said, 'but only when you believe.'

'What sort of game is this?'

Ferguson leaned forward, narrowing the space between the two men. He fixed Cowart with a steady, frightening glare. 'This is no fucking game,' he said quietly. 'This is my fucking life. They want to take it and this is the best card I've got. Don't ask me to play it before I'm ready.'

Cowart did not reply.

'You go check out what I've told you. And then, when you believe I'm innocent, when you see those fuckers have railroaded me, then I'll tell you.'

When a desperate man asks you to play a game, Hawkins had once said, it's best to play by his rules.

Cowart nodded.

Both men were quiet. Ferguson locked his eyes onto Cowart's, watching for a response. Neither man moved, as if they were fastened together. Cowart realized that he no longer had any choice, that this was the reporter's dilemma: He had heard a man tell him a story of evil and wrongs. He was compelled to discover the truth. He could no more walk away from the story than he could fly.

'So, Mr. Cowart,' Ferguson said, 'that's the story. Will you help me?'

Cowart thought of the thousands of words he'd written about death and dying, about all the stories of pain and agony that had flowed through him, leaving just the tiniest bit of scar tissue behind that had built up into so many sleeping nightmare visions. In all the stories he'd written, he'd never saved anyone from even a pinprick of despair. Certainly never saved a life. 'I'll do what I can,' he replied.

3. Pachoula

Escambia County is tucked away in the far northwest corner of Florida, touched on two borders by the state of Alabama. It shares its cultural kinship with the states to its immediate north. It was once primarily a rural area, with many small farms that rolled green over hillsides, separated by dense thickets of scrubby pine and the looped and tied tendrils of great willows and vines. But in recent years, as with much of the South, it has seen a burst of construction, a suburbanizing of its once country lands, as its major city, the port town of Pensacola, has expanded, growing shopping malls and housing developments where there was once open space. But, at the same time, it has retained a marshy commonality with Mobile, which is not far by interstate highway, and with the salt water tidal regions of the Gulf shore. Like many areas of the deep South, it has the contradictory air of remembered poverty and new pride, a sense of rigid place fueled by generations who have found the living there, if not necessarily easy, then better than elsewhere.

The evening commuter flight into the small airport was a frightening series of stomach-churning bumps and dips, passing along the edges of huge gray storm clouds that seemed to resent the intrusion of the twin-engine plane. The passenger compartment alternately filled with streaks of light and sudden dark as the plane cut in and out of the thick clouds and red swords of sunshine fading fast over the Gulf of Mexico. Cowart listened to the engines laboring against the winds, their pitch rising and falling like a racer's breath. He rocked in the cocoon of the plane, thinking about the man on Death Row and what awaited him in Pachoula.

Ferguson had stirred a war within him. He had come away from his meeting with the prisoner insisting to himself that he maintain objectivity, that he listen to everything and weigh every word equally. But at the same time, staring through the beads of water that marched across the plane's window, he knew that he would not be heading toward Pachoula if he expected to be dissuaded from the story. He clenched his fists in his lap as the small plane skidded across the sky, remembering Ferguson's voice, still feeling the man's ice-cold anger. Then he thought about the girl. Eleven years old. Not a time to die. Remember that, too.

The plane landed in a driving thunderstorm, careening down the runway. Through the window, Cowart saw a line of green trees on the airport edge, standing dark and black against the sky.

He drove his rental car through the enveloping darkness to the Admiral Benbow Inn just off the interstate, on the outskirts of Pachoula. After inspecting the modest, oppressively neat room, he went down to the bar in the motel, slid between two salesmen, and ordered a beer from the young woman. She had mousy brown hair that flounced around her face, drawing all the features in tight so that when she frowned, her whole face seemed to scowl along with her lips, an edgy toughness that spoke of handing too many drinks to too many salesmen and refusing too many offers of companionship issued over shaky hands clutching scotch and ginger ale. She drew the beer from a tap, eyeing Cowart the entire time, sensing when the froth from the beer was about to slide over the lip of the glass. 'Y'all ain't from around here, are you?'

He shook his head.

'Don't tell me,' she said. I like to guess. Just say, The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain.' He laughed and repeated the phrase. She smiled at him, just losing a small edge from her distance. 'Not from Mobile or Montgomery, that's for sure. Not even Tallahassee or New Orleans. Got to be two places: either Miami or Atlanta; but if it's Atlanta, then you ain't originally from there but from somewhere else, like New York, and you'd just be calling Atlanta home temporary-like.' 'Not bad,' he replied. 'Miami.'

She eyed him carefully, pleased with herself. 'Let's see,' she said. 'I see a pretty nice suit, but real conservative, like a lawyer might wear…' She leaned across the bar and rubbed her thumb and forefinger against the lapel of his jacket. 'Nice. Not like the polyester princes selling livestock vitamin supplement that we get in here mainly. But the hair's a bit shaggy over the ears and I can see a couple of gray streaks just getting started. So you're a bit too old – what, about thirty-five? – to be running errands. If you were a lawyer that old, you'd damn well have to have some fresh-cheeked just-outa-school assistant you'd send here on business instead of coming yourself. Now, I don't figure you for a cop, 'cause you ain't got that look, and not real estate or business either. You don't have the look of a salesman, like these guys do. So now, what would bring a guy like you all the way up here from Miami? Only one thing left I can think of, so I'd guess you're a reporter here for some story.' He laughed. 'Bingo. And thirty-seven.' She turned to draw another glass of beer, which she set in front of another man, then returned to Cowart. 'You just passing through? Can't imagine what kinda story would bring you up here. There ain't much happening around here, in case you hadn't already noticed.'

Cowart hesitated, wondering whether he should keep his mouth shut or not. Then he shrugged and thought, If she figured out who I was in the first two minutes, it isn't going to be much of a secret around here when I start talking to the cops and lawyers. 'A murder story,' he said.

She nodded. 'Had to be. Now you've got me interested. What sort of story? Hell, I can't remember the last killing we had around here. Now, can't say the same for Mobile or Pensacola. You looking at those drug dealers? Jesus, they say that there's cocaine coming in all up and down the Gulf, tons of it, every night. Sometimes we get some Spanish-speaking folks in here. Last week three guys came in, all wearing sharp suits and those little beeper things on their belts. They sat down like they owned the place and ordered a bottle of champagne before dinner. I had to send the boy out to the liquor store for it. Wasn't hard to figure out what they were celebrating.'

'No, not drugs,' Cowart said. 'How long have you been here?'

'A couple of years. Came to Pensacola with my husband, who was a flier. Now he still flies and he ain't my husband and I'm stuck here on the ground.'

'Do you remember a case, about three years old, a little girl named Joanie Shriver? Allegedly killed by a fellow named Robert Earl Ferguson?'

'Little girl they found by Miller's Swamp?' 'That's it.'

I remember that one. It happened right when me and my old man, damn his eyes, got here. Just about my first week tending this bar.' She laughed briefly. 'Hell, I thought this damn job was always gonna be that exciting. Folks were real interested in that little girl. There were newspapermen from Tallahassee and television all the way from Atlanta. That's how I got to recognize your type. They all pretty much hung out here. Of course, there's no place else, really. It was quite a set-to for a couple of days, until they announced they caught the boy that killed her. But that was all back then. Ain't you a little late coming around?' 'I just heard about it.'

'But that boy's in prison. On Death Row.'

'There are some questions about how he got put there. Some inconsistencies.'

The woman put her head back and laughed. 'Man' she said, 'I don't bet that's gonna make a lot of difference. Good luck, Miami.'

Then she turned to help another customer, leaving Cowart alone with his beer. She did not return.

The morning broke clear and fast. The early sun seemed determined to erase every residual street puddle remaining from the rain the day before. The day's heat built steadily, mixing with an insistent humidity. Cowart could feel his shirt sticking to his back as he walked from the motel to his rental car, then drove through Pachoula.

The town seemed to have established itself with tenacity, situated on a flat stretch of land not far from the interstate, surrounded by farmland, serving as a sort of link between the two. It was a bit far north for successful orange groves, but he passed a few farms with well-ordered rows of trees, others with cattle grazing in the fields. He figured he was coming in on the prosperous side of the town; the houses were single-story cinder block or red-brick construction, the ubiquitous ranch houses that stand for a certain sort of status. They all had large television antennas. Some even had satellite dishes in their yards. As he closed on Pachoula, the roadside gave way to convenience stores and gas stations. He passed a small shopping center with a large grocery store, a card shop, a pizza parlor, and a restaurant clinging to the edges. He noticed that there were more houses stretched in the areas off the main street into town, more single-family, trim, well-kept homes that spoke of solidity and meager success.

The center of town was only a three-block square area, with a movie theater, some offices, some more stores, and a couple of stoplights. The streets were clean, and he wondered whether they had been swept by the storm the night before or by community diligence.

He drove through, heading away from the hardware stores, auto parts outlets, and fast-food restaurants, on a small, two-lane road. It seemed to him that there was a slight change in the land around him, a fallow brown streakiness that contradicted the lush green he'd seen moments earlier. The roadway grew bumpy and the houses he saw by the road were now wooden-frame houses, swaybacked with age, all painted a fading whitewashed pale color. The highway slid into a stand of trees, swallowing him with darkness. The variegated light pouring through the branches of the willows and pines made seeing his way difficult. He almost missed the dirt road cutting off to his left. The tires spun briefly in the mud before gaining some purchase, and he started bouncing down the road. It ran along a long hedgerow. Occasionally, over the top, he could see small farms. He slowed and passed three wooden shacks jumbled together at the edge of the dirt. An old black man stared at him as he slowly rolled past. He checked his odometer and drove another half mile, to another shack perched by the road. He pulled in front and got out of the car.

The shack had a front porch with a single rocker. There was a small chicken coop around the side, and chickens pecked away in the dirt. The road ended in the front yard. An old Chevy station wagon, with its hood up, was parked around the side.

A steady, solid heat washed over him. He heard a dog bark in the distance. The rich brown dirt that served as a front yard was packed hard underfoot, solid enough to have survived the previous evening's rainstorm. He turned and saw that the house stared out across a wide field, lined by dark forest.

Cowart hesitated, then approached the front porch.

When he put his foot on the first step, he heard a voice call out from inside, 'I see you. Now what y'all want?'

He stopped and replied, 'I'm looking for Mrs. Emma Mae Ferguson.'

'Whatcha need her for?'

'I want to talk to her.'

'You ain't tellin' me nothin'. Whatcha need her for?'

'I want to talk to her about her grandson.'

The front door, half off its screen that was peeling away from the cracked wood, opened slightly. An old black woman with gray hair pulled severely behind her head stepped out. She was slight of frame, but sinewy, and moved slowly, but with a firmness of carriage that seemed to imply that age and brittle bones didn't really mean much more than inconvenience.

'You police?'

'No. I'm Matthew Cowart. From the Miami Journal. I'm a reporter.' 'Who sent you?'

'Nobody sent me. I just came. Are you Mrs. Ferguson?' 'Mebbe.'

'Please, Mrs. Ferguson, I want to talk about Robert Earl.'

'He's a good boy and they took him away from me.'

'Yes, I know. I'm trying to help.'

'How can you help? You a lawyer? Lawyers done enough wrong for that boy already.'

'No, ma'am. Please, could we just sit and talk for a few minutes? I don't mean to do anything except try to help your grandson. He told me to come and see you.'

'You saw my boy?'

'Yes.'

'How they treating him?'

'He seemed fine. Frustrated, but fine.'

'Bobby Earl was a good boy. A real good boy.'

'I know. Please.'

'All right, Mr. Reporter. I'll sit and listen. Tell me what you want to know.'

The old woman nodded her head at the rocker and moved gingerly toward it. She motioned toward the top step on the porch, and Matthew Cowart sat down, almost at her feet.

'Well, ma'am, what I need to know about are three days almost three years ago. I need to know what Robert Earl was doing on the day the little girl disappeared, on the next day, and the day after that, when he was arrested. Do you remember those times?'

She snorted. 'Mr. Reporter, I may be old, but I ain't dumb. My eyesight may not be as good as it once was, but my memory is fine. And how in the Lord's name would I ever forget those days, after all that's come and passed since?'

'Well, that's why I'm here.'

She squinted down at him through the porch shade. 'You sure you're here to help Bobby Earl?'

'Yes, ma'am. As best as I can.'

'How're you gonna help him? What can you do that that sharp-talking lawyer cain't do?'

'Write a story for the paper.'

'Papers already written a whole lot of stories about Bobby Earl. They mostly helped put him in the Death Row there, best as I can figure it.'

'I don't think this would be the same.'

'Why not?'

He didn't have a ready answer for that question. After a moment, he replied, 'Look, Mrs. Ferguson, ma'am, I can hardly make things worse. And I still need some answers if I'm going to help.'

The old woman smiled at him again. 'That's true. All right, Mr. Reporter. Ask your questions.'

'On the day of the little girl's murder…'

'He was right here with me. All day. Didn't go out, except in the morning to catch some fish. Bass. I remember because we fried them for dinner that night.'

'Are you sure?'

'Of course I'm sure. Where was he to go?'

'Well, he had his car.'

'And I'da heard it if he started it up and drove off. I ain't deaf. He didn't go nowheres that day.'

'Did you tell this to the police?'

'Sure did.'

'And?'

'They didn't believe me. They said, "Emma Mae, you sure he didn't slip away in the afternoon? You sure he didn't leave your sight? Mebbe you took a nap or somethin'." But I didn't, and I tole them so. Then they tole me I was just plain wrong and they got angry and they went off. I never saw them much again.'

'What about Robert Earl's attorney?'

'Asked the same damn questions. Same damn answers. Didn't believe me none, either. Said I had too much reason to lie, to cover up for that boy. That was true. He was my darlin' gal's boy and I loved him plenty. Even when he went off'n to New Jersey and then came back all street tough and talking trash and actin' so hard, I still loved him fine. And he was doing good, too, mind you. He was my college boy. Can you imagine that, Mr. White Reporter? You look around you. You think a lot of us get to go to college? Make somethin' of ourselves? How many you figure?'

She snorted again and waited for an answer, which he didn't offer. After a moment, she continued. 'That was true. My boy. My best boy. My pride. Sure I'da lied for him. But I didn't. I'm a believer in Jesus, but to save my boy I'da hopped up to the devil hisself and spat in his eye. I just never got the chance, 'cause they didn't believe in me, no sir.'

'But the truth is?'

'He was here with me.'

'And the next day?'

'Here with me.'

'And when the police came?'

'He was right outside, polishing that old car of his. Didn't give them no lip. No trouble. Just yes sir, no sir and went right along. See what it did for him?'

'You sound angry.'

The small woman pitched forward in the chair, her entire body rigid with emotion. She slapped her palms down hard on the arms of the rocker, making two pistol shots that echoed in the clear morning air.

'Angry? Y'all asking me if I'm angry? They done tore my boy from me and sent him away so they's can kill him. I ain't got the words in me to tell you about no anger. I ain't got the evil in me that I could say what I really and truly feel.'

She got up out of the chair and started to walk back inside. 'I ain't got nothing but hate and bitter empty left, Mr. Reporter. You write that down good.'

Then she disappeared into the shack's shadows, clacking the door shut hard behind her, leaving Matthew Cowart scribbling her words into his notepad.

It was noontime when he arrived at the school. It was very much the way he had pictured it, a solid, unimaginative cinder-block building with an American flag hanging limply in the humid air outside. There were yellow school buses parked around the side and a playground with swings and basketball hoops and a fine covering of dust in back. He parked and approached the school, slowly feeling the wave of children's voices rise up and carry him forward. It was the lunch hour and there was a certain contained mayhem within the double doors. Children quickstepped about, clutching paper bags or lunch boxes, buzzing with conversation. The walls of the school were decorated with their artwork, splashes of color and shape arranged in displays, with small signs explaining what the artwork represented. He stared at the pictures for an instant, reminded of all the drawings and colored paper and glue montages he was forever receiving in the mail from his own daughter and which now decorated his office. He pushed past, heading through a vestibule toward a door marked ADMINISTRATION. It swung open as he approached and he saw two girls exit, giggling together in great secret animation. One was black, the other white. He watched them disappear down a corridor. His eyes caught a small framed picture hanging on a wall, and he went over to look at it.

It was a little girl's picture. She had blonde hair, freckles, and a wide smile, displaying a mouth filled with braces. She wore a clean white shirt with a gold chain around her neck. He could read the name 'Joanie' stamped in thin letters in the center of the chain. There was a small plaque beneath the picture. It read:

Joanie Shriver

1976-1987

Our Friend and Beloved Classmate She will be missed by all

He added the picture on the wall to all the mental observations he was accumulating. Then he turned away and walked inside the school's office.

A middle-aged woman with a slightly harried air looked up from behind a counter. 'Can I help you?'

'Yes. I'm looking for Amy Kaplan.'

'She was just here. Is she expecting you?'

'I spoke with her on the phone the other day. My name is Cowart. I'm from Miami.'

'You're the reporter?'

He nodded.

'She said you were going to be here. Let me see if I can find her.' There was a note of bitterness in the woman's voice. She did not smile at Cowart.

The woman stood up and walked across the office, disappearing for an instant into the faculty lounge, then reemerging with a young woman. Cowart saw she was pretty, with a sweep of auburn hair pushed back from an open, smiling face.

'I'm Amy Kaplan, Mr. Cowart.'

They shook hands.

'I'm sorry to interrupt your lunch.'

She shrugged. 'Probably the best time. Still, like I said on the telephone, I'm not sure what I can do for you.'

'The car,' he said. 'And what you saw.' 'You know, it's probably best if I show you where I was standing. I can explain it there.'

They walked outside without saying anything. The young teacher stood by the front of the school and turned, pointing down a roadway. 'See,' she said, 'we always have a teacher out here, checking on the kids after school. It used to be mostly to make sure the boys don't get into fights and the girls head straight home, instead of hanging around and gossiping. Kids do that, you know, more'n anybody it seems. Now, of course, there's another reason to be out here.'

She looked over at him, eyeing him for an instant. Then she went on. '… Anyway, on the afternoon Joanie disappeared, just about everyone had cleared off and I was about to go back inside, when I spotted her, down by the big willow over there…' She pointed perhaps fifty yards down the road. Then she put her hand to her mouth and hesitated.

'Oh, God, she said.

'I'm sorry,' Cowart said.

He watched the young woman fixing her eyes on the spot down the road as if she could see it all again, in her memory, in that moment. He saw her lip quiver just the slightest bit, but she shook her head to tell him she was all right.

'It's okay. I was young. It was my first year. I remember, she saw me and turned and waved, that's how I knew it was her.' Some of the firmness of her voice had slid away in the heat.

'And?'

'She walked just under the shadows there, right past the green car. I saw her turn, I guess because somebody'd said something to her, and then the door opened, and she got inside. The car pulled away.'

The young woman took a deep breath. 'She just got right in. Damn.' She whispered the swearword under her breath. 'Just right in, Mr. Cowart, as if she hadn't a care in the world. Sometimes I still see her, in my dreams. Waving at me. I hate it.'

Cowart thought of his own nightmares and wanted to turn to the young woman and tell her that he, too, didn't sleep at night. But he didn't.

That's what's always bothering me,' Amy Kaplan continued. I mean, in a way, if she'd been grabbed and struggled or called for help or something…' The woman's voice was broken with remembered emotion, '… I might have done something. I'd have screamed and maybe run after her. Maybe I could have fought or done something. I don't know. Something. But it was just a regular May afternoon. And it was so hot, I wanted to get back inside, so I didn't really look.'

Cowart stared down the street, measuring distances. 'It was in the shadows?'

'Yes.'

'But you're sure it was green. Dark green?'

'Yes.'

'Not black?'

'You sound like the detectives and the attorneys. Sure, it could have been black. But my heart and my memory say dark green.'

'You didn't see a hand, pushing open the door from inside?'

She hesitated. 'That's a good question. They didn't ask that. They asked me if I saw the driver. He would have had to lean across to open the door. I couldn't see him…' She strained with recall. 'No. No hand. Just the door swinging open.'

'And the license plates?'

'Well, you know, Florida plates have that orange outline of the state on a white background. All I really noticed was that these were darker and from somewhere else.'

'When did they show you Robert Earl Ferguson's car?'

'They just showed me a picture, a couple of days later.'

'You never saw the car itself?'

'Not that I recall. Except on the day she disappeared.'

'Tell me about the picture.'

'There were a couple, like taken by an instant camera.'

'What view?'

1 beg your pardon?'

'What angle did they take the pictures from?'

'Oh, I see. Well, they were from the side.'

'But you saw the car from the back.'

'That's right. But the color was right. And the shape was the same. And…'

'And what?'

'Nothing.'

'You would have seen the brake lights when the car took off. When the driver put it into gear, the brake lights would have flashed. Would you remember what shape they were?'

I don't know. They didn't ask me that.'

'What did they ask?'

'There wasn't a lot. Not by the police. Not at the trial. I was so nervous, getting up there to testify, but it was all over in a few seconds.'

'What about the cross-examination?'

'He just asked me whether I was sure about the color, like you did. And I said I could be wrong, but I didn't think so. That seemed to please him real well, and that was it.'

Cowart looked down the roadway again, then at the young woman. She seemed resolved to the memories, her eyes staring off away from him. 'Do you think he did it?'

She breathed in and thought for an instant. 'He was convicted.'

'But what do you think?' She took a deep breath. 'The thing that always bothered me was that she just got into the car. Didn't seem to hesitate for an instant. If she didn't know him, why, I can't see why she'd do that. We try to teach the kids to be safe kids and smart kids, Mr. Cowart. We have classes in safety. In never trusting a stranger. Even here in Pachoula, though you might not believe it. We aren't so backwoods backwards as you probably think. A lot of people come here from the city, like I did. There's people here, too, professional people who commute down to Pensacola or over to Mobile, because this is a safe, friendly place. But the kids are taught to be safe. They learn. So I never understood that. It never made sense to me that she just got into that car.'

He nodded. 'That's a question I have, too,' he said.

She turned angrily toward him. 'Well, the first damn person I'd ask is Robert Earl Ferguson.'

He didn't reply, and in a moment she softened. 'I'm sorry for snapping at you. We all blame ourselves. Everyone at the school. You don't know what it was like, with the other children. Kids were afraid to come to school. When they got here, they were too afraid to listen. At home they couldn't sleep. And when they did sleep, they had nightmares. Tantrums. Bed-wettings. Sudden bursts of anger or tears. The kids with discipline problems got worse. The kids who were withdrawn and moody got worse. The normal, everyday, ordinary kids had trouble. We had school meetings. Psychologists from the university came down to help the kids. It was awful. It will always be awful.'

She looked around her. 'I don't know, but it was like something broke here that day, and no one really knows if it can ever be fixed.'

They remained silent for an instant. Finally, she asked, 'Have I helped?'

'Sure. Do you mind just one more question?' he replied. 'And I might have to get back to you after I talk with some of the other people involved. Like the cops.'

That'd be okay' she said. 'You know where to find me. Shoot.'

He smiled. 'Just tell me what it was that went through your mind a couple of minutes ago, when we were talking about the pictures of the car, and you cut it off.'

She stopped and frowned. 'Nothing' she replied.

He looked at her.

'Oh, well, there was something.'

'Yes?'

'When the police showed me the pictures, they told me that they had the killer. That he'd confessed and everything. My identifying the car was just a formality, they said. I didn't realize that it was so important until months later, just before the trial. That always bugged me, you know. They showed me pictures, said, Here's the killer's car, right? And I looked at them and said, Sure. I don't know, it always bothered me they did it that way.'

Cowart didn't say anything but thought, It bothers me, too.

A newspaper story is a compilation of moments, accumulated in quotations, in the shift of a person's eyes, in the cut of their clothes. It adds in words the tiny observations of the reporter, what he sees, how he hears. It is buttressed by the past, by a sturdy foundation of detail. Cowart knew that he needed to acquire more substance, and he spent the afternoon reading newspaper clippings in the library of the Pensacola News. It helped him to understand the unique frenzy that had overtaken the town when the little girl's mother had called the police to say that her daughter hadn't come home from school. There had been a small-town explosion of concern. In Miami, the police would have told the mother that they couldn't do anything for twenty-four hours. And they would have assumed that the girl was a runaway, fleeing from a beating, from a stepfather's sexual advances, or into the arms of some boyfriend, hanging out by the high school in a new black Pontiac Firebird.

Not in Pachoula. The local police started cruising the streets immediately, searching for the girl. They had ridden with bullhorns, calling her name, up the back roads surrounding the town. The fire department had assisted, sirens starting up and wailing throughout the quiet May evening. Telephones started ringing in all the residential neighborhoods. Word had spread with alarming swiftness up and down each side street. Small groups of parents had gathered and started walking the backyards, all searching for little Joanie Shriver. Scouts were mobilized. People left their businesses early to join in the search. As the long early-summer night started to slide down, it must have seemed as if the whole town was outside, hunting for the child.

Of course, she was already dead then, he thought. She was dead the moment she stepped off the curb into that car.

The search had continued with spotlights and a helicopter brought in that night from the state police barracks near Pensacola. It had buzzed, its rotors throbbing, its spotlight probing the darkness, past midnight. In the first morning light, tracker dogs were brought in and the hunt had widened. By noontime the town had gathered itself like an army camp preparing itself for a long march, all documented by the arrival of television cameras and newspaper reporters.

The little girl's body had been discovered in the late afternoon by two firemen diligently searching the edge of the swamp, walking through the sucking ooze in hip waders, swatting at mosquitoes and calling the little girl's name. One of the men had spotted a flash of blonde hair at the edge of the water, just caught by the dying light.

He imagined the news must have savaged the town, just as surely as the girl's body had been savaged. He realized two things: To be picked up for questioning in the death of Joanie Shriver was to have stepped into the center of a whirlwind; and the pressure on the two police detectives to catch the killer had to have been immense. Perhaps, he thought, unbearably immense.

Hamilton Burns was a small, florid, gray-haired man. His voice, like so many others in Pachoula, tinged with the rhythmic locutions of the South. It was late in the day, and as he motioned to Matthew Cowart to sit in an overstuffed red leather chair, he mentioned something about the 'sun being over the yardarm,' and fixed himself a tumbler of bourbon after magically producing a bottle from a bottom desk drawer. Cowart shook his head when the bottle was proffered in his direction. 'Need a bit of ice,' Burns said, and he went to a corner of the small office, where a half-sized refrigerator stacked high with legal documents occupied some precious floor space. Cowart noticed that he limped as he walked. He looked around the office. It was paneled in wood, with legal books filling one wall. There were several framed diplomas and a testimonial from the local Knights of Columbus. There were a few pictures of a grinning Hamilton Burns arm in arm with the governor and other politicians.

The lawyer took a long pull at his glass, sat back, swiveling in his seat behind the desk opposite Cowart and said, 'So y'all want to know about Robert Earl Ferguson. What can I tell you? I think he's got a shot on appeal for a new trial, especially with that old sonuvabitch Roy Black handling his case.'

'On what issue?'

'Why, that damn confession, what else? Judge shoulda suppressed the shit out of it.'

'We'll get to that. Can you start by telling me how you came into the case?'

'Oh, court appointment. Judge calls me up, asks me if I'll handle it. Regular public defenders were overburdened, like always. I guess a little too hot for

'em, anyway. Folks was screaming for that boy's neck. I don't think they wanted any part of Ferguson. No sir, no way.'

'And you took it?'

'When the judge calls, you answer. Hell, most of my cases are court appointed. I couldn't rightly turn this one down.'

'You billed the court twenty thousand dollars afterwards.'

'It takes a lot of time to defend a killer.'

'At a hundred bucks an hour?'

'Hell, I lost money on the deal. Hell's bells, it was weeks before anybody'd even talk to me again in this town. People acted like I was some kind of pariah. A Judas. All for representing that boy. Walk down the street, no more "Good morning, Mr. Burns." "Nice day, Mr. Burns." People'd cross the street to avoid talking to me. This is a small town. You figure out how much I lost in cases that went to other attorneys because I'd represented Bobby Earl. You figure that out before you go criticizing me for what I got.'

The attorney looked discomfited. Cowart wondered whether he thought it was he that had gotten convicted, instead of Ferguson.

'Had you ever handled a murder case before?'

'A couple.'

'Chair cases?'

'No. Mostly like domestic disputes. You know, husband and wife get to arguing and one of them decides to underscore their point with a handgun… ' He laughed. 'That'd be manslaughter, murder two at worse. I handle a lot of vehicular homicides and the like. Councilman's boy gets drunk and smashes up a car. But hell, defending somebody from a jaywalking charge and defending someone from murder's the same in the long run. You got to do what you got to do.'

'I see,' Cowart said, writing quickly in his notepad and for the instant avoiding the eyes of the lawyer. 'Tell me about the defense.'

'There ain't that much to tell. I moved for a change of venue. Denied. I moved to suppress the confession. Denied. I went to Bobby Earl and said, "Boy, we got to plead guilty. First-degree murder. Go on down, take the twenty-five years, no parole. Save your life." That way, he'd still have some living left to do when he gets out. "No way," the boy says. Stubborn-like. Got that fuck-you kind of attitude. Keeps right on saying, "I didn't do it." So what's left for me? I tried to pick a jury that warn't prejudiced. Good luck. Case went on. I argued reasonable doubt till I was fair blue in the face. We lost. What's to tell?'

'How come you didn't call his grandmother with an alibi?'

'Nobody'd believe her. You met that little old battle-ax? All she knows is her darling grandson is well-nigh perfect and wouldn't hurt a flea. 'Course, she's the only one that believes that. She gets on the stand and starts lying, things gonna be worse. Mightily worse.'

'I don't see how they could be worse than what happened.'

'Well, that's hindsight, Mr. Cowart, and you know it.'

'Suppose she was telling the truth?'

'She might be. It was a judgment call.'

'The car?'

'That damn teacher even admitted it could have been a different color. Sheeit. Said it right on the stand. I can't understand why the jury didn't buy it.'

'Did you know that the police showed her a picture of Ferguson's car after telling her he'd confessed?'

'Say what? No. She didn't say that when I deposed her.'

'She said it to me.'

'Well, I'll be damned.'

The lawyer poured himself another drink and gulped at it. No, you won't be, Cowart thought. But Ferguson will.

'What about the blood evidence?'

'Type O positive. Fits half the males in the county, I'd wager. I cross-examined the technicians on that, and why they didn't type it down to its enzyme base better, or do genetic screening or some other fancy shit. Of course, I knew the answer: They had a match and they didn't want to do something special that might screw it up. So, hell, it just seemed to fit. And there was Robert Earl, sitting there in the trial, squirming away, looking hangdog and guilty as sin. It just didn't do no good.'

'The confession?'

'Shoulda been suppressed. I think they beat it out of that boy. I do, sir. That I do. But hell, once it was in, that was the whole ball of wax, if you know what I mean. Ain't no juror gonna disagree with that boy's own words. Every time they asked him, "Did ya'll do this, or did y'all do that," and he answered, "Yes, sir." "Yes, sir." "Yes, sir." All those yes, sirs. Couldn't do much about them. That was all she wrote. I tried, sir, I tried my best. I argued reasonable doubt. I argued lack of conclusive evidence. I asked those jurors, Where is the murder weapon? Something that positively points at Bobby Earl. I told them you can't just kill someone and not have some sort of mark on you. But he didn't. I argued upside and downside, rightside and leftside, over, under, around, and through. I promise you, sir, I did. It just didn't do any damn good. I kept looking over at those folks sitting in the box and I knew right away that it didn't make no damn difference what I said. All they could hear was that damn confession. His own words just staring at him off the page. Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Put himself right in that electric chair, he did, just like he was pulling up a seat at the dinner table. People here was mighty upset with what happened to that little girl and they wanted to like get it finished, get it over, get it all done with right fast, so they could go on living the way they was used to. And you couldn't find two folks in this town who'd got up and said a nice thing about that boy. Something about him, you know, attitude and all. No sir, no one liked him. Not even the black folks. Now I'm not saying there weren't no prejudice involved…'

'All-white jury. You couldn't find one black qualified?'

'I tried, sir. I tried. Prosecution just used their peremptory challenges to whack each and every one right off the panel.'

'Didn't you object?'

'Objection overruled. Noted for the record. Maybe that'll work on appeal.'

'Doesn't it bother you?'

'How so?'

'Well, what you're saying is that Ferguson didn't get a fair trial and that he may be innocent. And he's sitting right now on Death Row.'

The lawyer shrugged. 'I don't know' he said slowly. 'Yeah, the trial, well, that's right. But innocent. Hell, his own words. That damn confession.'

'But you said you believed they beat it out of him.'

'I do, sir. But…'

'But what?'

'I'm old-fashioned. I like to believe that if'n you didn't do something, there's nothing in the world'll make you say you did. That bothers me.'

'Of course,' Cowart responded coldly, 'the law is filled with examples of coerced and manipulated confessions, right?'

'That's correct.'

'Hundreds. Thousands.'

'That's correct.'

The lawyer looked away, his face flushed red. 'I guess. Of course, now what with Roy Black on the case, and now you're here, maybe gonna write a little something that'll wake up that trial judge or maybe something that the governor can't miss, well, things have a way of working their ways right out.'

'It'll work out?'

'Things do. Even justice. Takes time.'

'Well, it sounds like he didn't have much of a chance the first time.'

'You asking me for my opinion?'

'Yes.'

'No, sir. No chance.'

Especially with you arguing his case, Cowart thought. More worried about your standing in Pachoula than putting someone on the Row.

The lawyer leaned back in his chair and swished his drink nervously around in his hand so that the bourbon and ice tinkled.

Night like impenetrable black water covered the town. Cowart moved slowly through the streets, stepping through the odd lights tossed from streetlamps or from storefront displays that remained lit. But these moments of dull brightness were small; it was as if with the sun falling, Pachoula gave itself over completely to the darkness. There was a country freshness in the air, a palpable quiet. He could hear his own footsteps as they slapped at the pavement.

He had difficulty falling asleep that night. Motel sounds – a loud, drunken voice, a creaking bed in the next room, a door slamming, the ice and soda machines being used – all intruded on his imagination, interrupting his sorting through of what he'd learned and what he'd seen. It was well past midnight when sleep finally buried him, but it was an awful rest.

In his dreams, he was driving a car slowly through the riot-lit streets of midnight Miami. Light from burning buildings caressed the car, tossing shadows across the front. He had driven slowly, maneuvering carefully to avoid broken glass and debris in the roadway, all the time aware he was closing in on the center of the riot but knowing that it was his job to see it and record it. As he had pulled the car around a corner, he spotted the dream mob, dancing, looting, racing through the flickering fire lights toward him. He could see the people shouting, and it seemed to him they were calling his name. Suddenly, in the car next to him, a piercing voice screamed, panic-stricken. He turned and saw that it was the little murdered girl. Before he could ask what was she doing there, the car was surrounded. He saw Robert Earl Ferguson's face and suddenly felt dozens of hands pulling him from behind the wheel as the car was rocked, pitching back and forth as if it were a ship lost at sea in a hurricane. He saw the girl being pulled from the car, but as she slipped from his wild, grasping hands, her face changed terribly and he heard the words 'Daddy, save me!'

He awakened, gasping for breath. He staggered from the bed, got himself a glass of water, and stared into the bathroom mirror as if looking for some visible wound, but seeing only a ridge of sweat plastering his hair by his forehead. Then he went back and sat by the window, remembering.

Some half-dozen years earlier, he had watched the frenzy as a mob pulled two teenage boys from a van. The boys had been white, the attackers black. The teenagers had unwittingly wandered into the riot area, gotten lost, tried to escape, only to drive themselves farther into the melee. I wish it were a dream, he thought. I wish I hadn't been there. The crowd had surged about the screaming youths, pushing and pulling them, tossing them about until finally they had both disappeared beneath a siege of kicking feet and pummelling fists, crushed down by rocks, shot by pistols. He had been a block distant, not close enough to be a helpful eyewitness for the police, just close enough to never forget what he saw. He had been hiding in the lee of a burning building beside a photographer who kept clicking pictures and cursing that he didn't have a long lens. They waited through the deaths, finally seeing the two mangled bodies abandoned in the street. He had run then, when the mob had finished and had poured in another direction, back to his car, trying to escape the same fate, knowing he would never escape the vision. Many people had died that night.

He remembered writing his story in the newsroom, as helpless as the two young men he'd seen die, trapped by the images that slid from him onto the page.

But at least I didn't die, he thought.

Just a tiny part of me.

He shuddered again, turned it into a shrug, and rose, stretching and flexing his muscles as if to reinvigorate himself. He needed to be alert, he admonished himself. Today he would interview the two detectives. He wondered what they would say. And whether he could believe any of it.

Then he went to the shower, as if by letting the water flow steadily over him, he could cleanse his memory as well.

4. The Detectives

A secretary in the major-crimes offices of the Escambia County Sheriff's Department pointed Matthew Cowart toward a lumpy fake-leather couch, and told him to wait while she contacted the two detectives. She was a young woman, probably pretty but with a face marred by a frowning boredom, her hair pulled back severely and a rigid set to her shoulders beneath the dull brown of her policewoman's uniform. He thanked her and took a seat. The woman dialed a number and spoke quietly, so that he was unable to make out what she was saying. 'Someone'll be here in a couple,' the woman said to him as she hung up the phone. Then she turned away, examining some paperwork on her desk, studiously ignoring him. So, he thought, everyone knows why I'm here.

The homicide division was in a new building adjacent to the county lockup. It had a modern quiet to it, the noise disappearing in the thick brown carpet and baffled by stark white wall partitions that separated the detectives' desks from the waiting area where Cowart cooled his heels. He tried to concentrate on his upcoming interview but found his mind wandering. The quiet was disconcerting.

He found himself thinking of his home. His father had been the managing editor of a small daily paper in a midsize New England city, a mill town that had grown up into something more important, thanks to some lucky investments by large corporations that brought in money and new blood and a certain undeniable quaintness in the local architecture. He was a distant man who worked hard, leaving before light, coming home after dark. He wore simple blue or gray suits that seemed to hang from an ascetic's lean body; an angular sharp man, not quick to smile, fingertips stained with nicotine and newsprint.

His father had been possessed, mostly with the never-ending ins and outs, details and dramatics, of the daily paper. What had electrified his father had been the gathering of news, a story, particularly one that burst on the front page, crying for attention. An aberration, an evil, some wrongdoing – then his father's rigidity relaxed, and he would spin with a sort of jumpy, exhausting delight, like a dancer hearing music for the first time after years of silence. In those moments, his father was like a terrier, ready to latch on to something and bite tightly, worrying it to oblivion.

Am I that different? he wondered. Not really. His ex-wife used to call him a romantic, as if it were an insult. A knight-errant – he looked up and saw a man enter the waiting area – but, he thought, with the heart of a bulldog.

'You Cowart?' the man asked, not unfriendly.

Cowart rose. 'That's right.'

'I'm Bruce Wilcox.' The man held out his hand. 'Come on, it'll be a few minutes before Lieutenant

Brown gets back in. We can talk back here.'

The detective led Cowart through a warren of desks to a glass-walled office in a corner, overseeing the work area. There was a title on the door: LT. I.A. BROWN, HOMICIDE DIVISION. Wilcox closed the door and settled behind a large brown desk, motioning to Cowart to take a seat in front of him. 'We had a small plane crash this morning,' he said as he began arranging some documents on the desk. 'Little Piper Cub on a training run. Tanny had to go to the site and supervise the recovery of the student and the pilot. Guys went down at the edge of a swamp. Messy business. First you've got to wade through all that muck to get to the plane. Then you've got to haul the guys out. I heard there was a fire. Ever have to try to handle a burned body? God, it's a mess. A righteous mess.'

The detective shook his head, clearly pleased that he'd managed to avoid this particular assignment.

Cowart looked at the detective. He was a compact, short man, with long but slicked-back hair and an easygoing manner, probably in his late twenties. Wilcox had taken off his sportcoat – a loud, red-checked design – and slung it over the back of the chair. He rocked in his seat like a man wanting to put his feet up on the desk. Cowart saw a set of wide shoulders and powerful arms more suited to a man considerably bigger.

'… Anyway, the detective continued, 'hauling bodies is one of the drawbacks to the job. Usually it's me that gets the duty…' He held up his arm and made a muscle. 'I wrestled in high school, and I ain't big, so I can squeeze into some space half the size of most of the other guys. I expect down in Miami they got technicians and rescue people and the like who get to fiddly-fuck about with dead folks. Up here, it kinda falls to us. Everybody dead is our business. First, we figure out if there was or wasn't a murder. Of course, that's not so hard when you've got a crashed plane smoldering on the ground in front of you. Then we ship them off to the morgue.'

'So, how's business?' Cowart asked.

'Death is always steady work,' the detective replied. He laughed briefly. 'No layoffs. No furloughs. No slack time. Just good, steady work. Hell, they ought to have a union just for homicide detectives. There's always someone up and dying.'

'What about murders? Up here

'Well, you're probably aware that we've got a drug problem up and down the Gulf Coast. Isn't that a great way of putting it? A drug problem. Makes it sound kinda cute. More like a drug hurricane, if you ask me. Anyway, it does create a bit of extra business, no doubt.

That's something new.'

'That's right. Just the last couple of years.'

'But before the drug trade?'

'Domestic disputes. Vehicular homicides. Occasionally, a couple of good old boys will get to shooting or stabbing over cards or women or dog fights. That's pretty much the norm for the county. We get some big-city troubles in Pensacola a bit. Especially with the servicemen. Bar fights, you know. There's a good deal of prostitution about the base, and that leads to some cutting and shooting as well. Butterfly knives and little pearl-handled thirty-two-caliber handguns. Pretty much what you'd expect, like I said. Nothing too unusual'

'But Joanie Shriver?'

The detective paused, thinking before answering. 'She was different.'

'Why?'

'She was just different. She was just… ' He hesitated, suddenly forcing his hand into a fist clenched tight and waving in the air in front of him. 'Everybody felt it. She was… ' He interrupted himself again, taking a deep breath. 'We ought to wait for Tanny. It was his case, really.'

'I thought his name was Theodore.'

'It is. Tanny's his nickname. It was his dad's before him. His dad used to run a little leather tanning business on the side. Always had that red dye color to his hands and arms. Tanny worked with him, right through high school, summers home from college. Picked up the nickname, just the same. I don't think anyone, except his momma, ever called him Theodore.' He pronounced the name See-oh-door.

'Both of you guys are local? I mean…'

I know what you mean. Sure, but Tanny's ten years older than me. He grew up in Pachoula. Went to the high school. He was quite an athlete in those days. Went off to Florida State to play football but ended up slogging about in the jungle with the First Air Cavalry. Came back with some medals and finished school and got a job on the force. Me, I was a navy brat. My dad was the shore patrol superintendent at the base for years. I just hung on after high school. Did a bit of junior college. Took the police academy exam and stayed. It was my dad steered me into police work.'

'How long have you been working homicide?'

'Me? About three years. Tanny's been at it longer.'

'Like it?'

'It's different. A lot more interesting than driving a patrol car. You get to use your head.' He tapped himself on the forehead.

'And Joanie Shriver?'

The detective hunched his shoulders together as if drawing inward. 'She was my first real case. I mean, most murders, you know, they're subject murders, that's what we call them. You arrive on the scene and there's the murderer standing right next to the victim.

That was true. Cowart remembered Vernon Hawkins saying when he went to the scene of a murder he always looked first for the person who wasn't crying but standing wide-eyed, in shock, confused. That was the killer.

'… Or else, now, these drug things. But that's just collecting the bodies for the most part. You know what they call them down at the state attorney's office? Felony littering. You don't ever really expect to make a murder case on a body found out in the water, that's been floating about for three days, that doesn't have any ID and not much of a face after the fish get finished. Single gunshot wound to the back of the head. Designer jeans and gold chains. No, those you just tag and bag, yes sir. But little Joanie, man, she had a face. She wasn't some anonymous Columbian drug runner. She was different.'

He paused, thinking. Then he added, 'She was like everybody's little sister.'

Detective Wilcox appeared about ready to say something else when the telephone on the desk rang. He picked it up, grunted a few words in greeting, listened, then handed it over to Cowart. 'It's the boss. Wants to speak to you.'

'Yes?'

'Mr. Cowart?' He heard a slow, distant, even, deep voice, one that didn't betray any of the Southernisms with which he was becoming so familiar. 'This is Lieutenant Brown. I'm going to be delayed here at this crash site.'

'Is there some sort of problem?'

The man laughed, a small bitter burst. 'I suppose that depends on how you look at it. None that one wouldn't expect with a burned plane, a dead pilot and student, all sunk in ten feet of swamp, a hysterical pair of wives, an angry flight-school owner, and a couple of park rangers pissed off because this particular landing came down in the midst of a bird sanctuary.'

'Well, I'll be happy to wait

The detective interrupted. 'What I think would be wise is if Detective Wilcox took you out and showed you where Joanie Shriver's body was found. There are a few other sights of interest as well, which we believe will help you in writing your story. By the time you two get finished, I will have cleared this location, and we can discuss Mr. Robert Earl Ferguson and his crime at our leisure.'

Cowart listened to the clipped, orderly voice. The lieutenant sounded like the sort of man who could make a suggestion into a demand merely by lowering his voice.

'That'd be fine.' Cowart handed the phone back to Detective Wilcox, who listened to the earpiece momentarily, replied, 'You sure they're expecting him? I wouldn't want to…' then started dipping his head in agreement, as if the other man could see him. He hung up.

'All right, he said. 'Time for the grand tour. You got any boots and jeans back at your hotel room? It ain't too nice where I'm taking you.'

Cowart nodded and followed after the short detective, who bounced down the hallway with a sort of impish enthusiasm.

They drove through the bright morning sun in the detective's unmarked squad car. Wilcox rolled down his window, letting the warm air flood the interior. He hummed to himself snatches of country-and-western songs. Occasionally he would half-sing some plaintive lyric, 'Mommas don't let your babies grow up to be homicide detectives…' and grin at Cowart. The journalist stared out across the countryside, feeling unsettled. He had expected rage from the detective, an explosion of animosity and frustration. They knew why he was there. They knew what he intended to do. His presence could be nothing but trouble for them -especially when he wrote that they had tortured Ferguson to obtain his confession. Instead, he got humming.

'So tell me,' Wilcox finally asked as he steered the car down a shaded street. 'What did you think of Bobby Earl? You went up to Starke, right?' 'He tells an interesting story.' 'I bet he does. But what'd'ya think of him?'

I don't know. Not yet.' It was a lie, Cowart realized, but he wasn't sure precisely how much of one.

'Well, I pegged him in the first five seconds. Soon as I saw him.'

'That's pretty much what he says.'

The detective burst out with a single crack of laughter. 'Of course, I bet he didn't say I was right, though, huh?'

'Nope.'

'Didn't think so. Anyway, how's he doing?'

'He seems okay. He's bitter,' Cowart replied.

'I'd expect that. How's he look?'

'He's not crazy, if that's what you mean.'

The detective laughed. 'No, I wouldn't figure Bobby Earl would get crazy. Not even on the Row. He was always a cold-hearted son of a bitch. Stayed frosty right to the end when that judge told him where he was gonna end up.'

Wilcox seemed to think for an instant, then he shook his head at a sudden memory. 'You know, Mr. Cowart, he was like that from the first minute we picked him up. Never blinked, never let on nothing right up until he finally told us what happened. And when he did confess, it was steady-like. Just the facts, Christ. It wasn't like he was talking about anything more difficult than stamping on a bug. I went home that night and I got so damn drunk, Tanny had to come by and pour me into bed. He scared me.'

'I'm very interested in that confession, Cowart said.

'I expect you are. Ain't that the whole ball of wax?' He laughed. 'Well, you're gonna have to wait for Tanny. Then we'll tell you about the whole thing.'

I bet you will, Cowart thought. Aloud, he asked, 'But he scared you?'

'It wasn't him so much as what I felt he could do.'

The detective didn't elaborate. Wilcox pulled the car around a corner, and Cowart saw that they'd approached the school where the abduction took place. 'We're gonna start here,' Wilcox said. He stopped the car under a dark willow tree. 'Here's where she gets in. Now watch carefully.'

He drove forward swiftly, took a fast right turn, then another quick left, heading down a long street with single-storey homes set back amidst shrubbery and pines.

'See, we're still heading toward Joanie's house, so there's nothing yet for her to get scared about. But we're already out of sight of anyone at the school. Now watch this.'

He pulled the car to a stop sign at a Y intersection. Down one street there were more homes, spaced wider apart. Down the other fork in the road there were a few decrepit shacks before a yellow-green, neglected hayfield and sway-backed brown barn at the edge of a dark tunnel-like overgrowth of forest and twisted swamp. 'She'd want to go that way,' the detective said, pointing toward the houses. 'He went the other way. I think this is where he popped her first…' The detective clenched his fist and made a mock punching motion toward Cowart. 'He's strong, strong as a goddamn horse. He may not look big, but he's plenty big enough to handle a little eleven-year-old girl. It must have surprised the hell out of her. Forces her down, floors it…'

In that instant, all the easygoing jocularity that had marked the detective's behavior vanished. In a single, murderous gesture, Wilcox suddenly reached over and grabbed Cowart's arm up by the shoulder. In the same motion, he punched the accelerator and the car shot forward, fishtailing briefly in loose gravel and dirt. His fingers pinching into Cowart's muscles, tugging him sideways off balance in the seat, Wilcox steered the car down the left fork in the road. Cowart shouted out, a grunting mixture of surprise and fear as he fought to hang on to the armrest in the wildly pitching vehicle. The car swerved, skidding around a corner, and Cowart was tossed against the door. The detective's grip tightened. He, too, was shouting, roaring words that made no sense, his face red with exertion. Within seconds they were past the shacks, bouncing on a washboard highway, disappearing into cool shadows thrown by the enveloping forest. The dark trees seemed to leap out at them as the car raced ahead. The speed was dizzying. The engine surged and howled and Cowart froze, expecting to be slammed into death.

'Scream!' the detective demanded sharply.

'What?'

'Go ahead, scream!' he shouted. 'Yell for help, damn you!'

Cowart stared at the detective's red face and mad eyes. Both men's voices were raised over the noise of the hurtling engine and the scraping and scrabbling of the tires against the road.

'Let go!' Cowart yelled. 'What the hell are you doing?' Shadows and branches whipped past him, leaping from the sides of the road at them like so many attacking beasts.

'Stop, goddammit, stop!'

Abruptly, Wilcox released him, grabbed the steering wheel with both hands and simultaneously slammed on the brakes. Cowart thrust out his arm to try to prevent himself from pitching into the windshield as the car screeched and shimmied to a stop.

'There,' the detective said. He exhaled rapidly. His hands were shaking.

'What the hell?' Cowart shouted. 'You trying to get us both killed?'

The detective didn't answer. He just leaned his head back and inhaled rapidly, as if trying to gain back the control that had fled with the wild ride; then he turned to Cowart, fixing him with small, narrowed eyes. 'Relax, Mr. Reporter-man,' he said steadily. 'Take a look around you.'

'Jesus, what was that little show for?'

'Just showing you a little reality.'

Cowart took a deep breath. 'By driving crazy and trying to kill us?'

'No' the detective replied slowly. He grinned, his even white teeth glistening. 'Just showing you how easy it was for Ferguson to take that child from civilization into the fucking jungle. Take a look around you. You think there's anybody can hear you if you scream for help? Who's gonna come along and help you out? Look at where you are, Cowart. What do you see?'

Cowart stared out the window and saw dark swamp and forest stretching around him, covering him like a shroud.

'Who do you see who's gonna help you?'

'Nobody.'

'Who do you see who's gonna help a little eleven-year-old girl?'

'Nobody.'

'You see where you are? You're in hell. It takes five minutes. That's all. And civilization is gone. This is the fucking jungle. Get the point?'

'I get the point.'

'I just wanted you to see it with Joanie Shriver's eyes.'

'I get the point.'

'All right,' the detective said, smiling again. 'That's how fast it happened. Then he took her farther in. Let's go.'

Wilcox got out of the car and went to the trunk. He got out two pairs of bulky brown rubber wading pants and tossed one pair to Cowart. 'That'll have to do.'

Cowart started to struggle into the waders. As he was doing so, he looked down. He bent down suddenly and felt the ground. Then he walked to the rear of the police cruiser and stood next to the detective. He took a deep breath, smiling to himself. All right, he thought, two can play.

'Tire tracks,' he said abruptly, pointing down at the ground with his finger.

'Say what?'

'Fucking tire tracks. Look at this dirt. If he drove her in here, there would be tire tracks. You could have matched them up with his tires. Or don't you cowboys know about such things?'

Wilcox grinned, refusing to rise to the bait. 'It was May. Dirt turns to dust.'

'Not under this cover.'

The detective paused, staring at the reporter. Then he laughed, a wry smile crossing his face. 'You ain't dumb, are you?'

Cowart didn't reply.

'Local reporters wouldn't be that sharp. No, sir.'

'Don't flatter me. Why didn't you make any tire prints?'

'Because this area was drove all over by rescue personnel and search fucking parties. That was one of the big problems we had at the start. As soon as the word hit that she'd been found, everybody tore ass out here. I mean everybody. And they trampled the shit out of the crime scene. It was a fucking mess before Tanny and I got there. Firemen, ambulance drivers, Boy Scouts, Christ, you name it. There was no control whatsoever. Nobody preserved a damn thing. So suppose we made a tire track. A footprint. A piece of ripped cloth on a bramble, something. No way to match it up. By the time we got here, and damn, we were moving as fast as we could, this place was crawling with folks. Hell, they'd even moved her body out of the location, pulled her up on the shore.'

The detective thought for a minute. 'Can't really blame 'em,' he went on. 'People were crazy for that little girl. It wouldn't have been Christian to leave her in the muck getting gnawed on by snapping turtles.'

Christianity had nothing to do with this case, Cowart thought. It is all evil. But he said, 'So, they fucked up?'

'Yeah.' The detective looked at him. I don't want to see that in the paper. I mean, you can point out the scene was a mess. But I don't want to see "Detective Wilcox said the crime scene was fucked up…" but yeah, that's right, it was.'

Cowart watched the detective slip into the waders. He remembered another Hawkins maxim: If you look close enough, the scene will tell you everything. But Wilcox and Brown had had no scene. They had had no evidence that wasn't contaminated. So they'd had to get the other thing that would get them into a court of law: a confession.

The detective tightened his straps and waved to Cowart. 'Come on, city boy. Let me show you a real good dying place.'

He stepped off into the woods, his waders rustling against the shrub brush as he walked.

The place where Joanie Shriver had died was dark and enclosed by tangled vines and weeds, with overhanging branches that blocked out the sun like a cave made by nature. It was a small rise, perhaps ten feet above the edge of the swamp, which lurked with black water and mud, stretching away from the forest. Cowart's hands and face were scratched from pushing thorns out of his path. They had traveled a bare fifty yards from the car, but it had been a difficult trip. He was sweating hard, perspiration dripping into his eyes and stinging them. As he stood in the small clearing, he thought it seemed diseased somehow. For a terrible instant, he pictured his own daughter there, and he caught his breath. Find a tough question, he insisted to himself looking at the detective. Something to break the clammy hold his imagination had thrust on him.

'How could he haul some kid kicking and screaming through that?' Cowart said slowly.

'We figured she was unconscious. Deadweight.'

'How come?'

'No defensive wounds on the hands or arms…' He held up his arms, crossing them in front of his face, demonstrating. 'Like she was fighting against that knife. No sign that she fought back at all, like skin under her fingernails. There was a pretty large contusion on the side of her head. Pathologist figured she was knocked out pretty early. I suppose that was some comfort. At least she didn't know much about what was happening to her.'

Wilcox walked over to a tree trunk and pointed down. 'This is where we found her clothes. Crazy thing was, they were all folded up nice and polite.'

He walked a few steps away, back into the center of the clearing. He looked up as if trying to see through the overhang to the sky, shook his head, then motioned to Cowart. 'This is where we found the major blood residue. Killed her right here.'

'How come no murder weapon was ever discovered?'

The detective shrugged. 'Look around you. We went all over the area. Used a metal detector. Nothing. Either he threw it away someplace else, or I don't know. Look, you could walk down to the edge of the swamp, take a knife and just stick it straight down in the mud ten, twelve inches and we'd never find it. Not unless you stepped on the damn thing.'

The detective continued to walk through the clearing. 'There was a little blood trail leading right along here. The autopsy showed that the rape was premortem. About half the cuts were, too. But a bunch were afterwards. Kinda like he went crazy when she was dead, just cutting and slashing. Anyway, after he was finished, he dragged her down here and dumped her in the water.'

He pointed to the swamp edge. 'He pushed her down, got her under those roots there. You couldn't see her unless you were right on top of her. He'd tossed some loose brush on top. We were lucky to find her as quick as we did. Hell, we were lucky to find her at all. The guys would have gone right past her, 'cept one of them had his hat knocked off by a low branch. When he reached out to grab the hat, he spotted her down there. Just damn-fool blind luck, really.'

'But what about his clothing, wouldn't there be some sign? Like blood or hair or something?'

'We tossed his house pretty good after the confession. But we didn't come up with nothing.'

'Same for the car. There had to be something.'

'When we picked the son of a bitch up, he was just finishing cleaning out that car. Scrubbed it down real fine. There was a section cut out of the rug on the passenger's side, too. That was long gone. Anyway, the damn car was shining like it was brand-new. We didn't find anything.' The detective rubbed his forehead, then looked at the sweat on his fingers. 'We don't have the same kind of forensic capability that your big-city guys have, anyway. I mean, we aren't in the dark ages or anything, but lab work up here is slow and not altogether reliable. There may have been something that a real pro could have found with one of those FBI spectrographs. We didn't. We tried hard, but we didn't come up with nothing.'

He paused. 'Well, actually, we found one thing, but it didn't help none.'

'What was that?'

'A single pubic hair. Trouble was, it didn't match up with Joanie Shriver's. But it wasn't Ferguson's neither.'

Cowart shook his head. He could feel the heat, the closeness of the air suffocating him. 'If he confessed, why didn't he tell you where the clothes were? Why didn't he tell you where he hid the knife? What's the point of a confession unless you get all the details straight?'

Wilcox glared at Cowart, reddening. He started to say something, but then chewed back his words, leaving the questions hanging in the still, hot air of the clearing. 'Let's go,' he said. He turned and started to make his way out of the location, not looking back to see if Cowart was following. 'We got someplace we gotta be.'

Cowart took one last lingering look at the murder site. He wanted to sear it into his memory. Feeling a mixture of excitement and disgust, he trailed after the detective.

The detective pulled the unmarked car to a stop in front of a small house more or less like all the other houses in that block. It was single-storey, white, cinder block, with a well-cropped lawn and an attached garage. A red-brick walkway led down to the sidewalk. Cowart could see a patio area stretching around the back, a black kettle grill on one side. A tall pine tree shaded half the house from the day's heat, throwing a large shadow across the front. He did not know where they were or why they had stopped, so he turned away from the house and looked at the detective.

'Your next interview, Wilcox said. He had been quiet since they'd left the crime scene and now a tinge of harshness had crept into his voice. 'If you're up for it.'

'Whose house is it?' Cowart asked uneasily.

'Joanie Shriver's.'

Cowart took a deep breath. 'That's…'

'That's where she was heading. Never got there.' He glanced down at his watch. 'Tanny told them we'd be here by eleven and we're a bit late, so we'd better get a move on. Unless…'

'Unless what?'

'Unless this is an interview you don't want to do.'

Cowart looked at the detective, up at the house, then back to the detective. I get it,' he said. 'You want to see how sympathetic I am to them, right? You already figured out I'm going to be real easy on Robert Earl Ferguson, so this is part of some test, right?'

The detective turned away.

'Right?'

Wilcox spun in the seat and stared at him. 'What you haven't figured out yet, Mr. Cowart, is that son of a bitch killed that little girl. Now, you want to see what that really means, or not?'

'I generally schedule my own interviews' Cowart replied, more pompously than he wanted.

'So, you want to go? Come back maybe when it's more convenient?'

He sensed that was what the detective wanted.

Wilcox wanted immensely to have every reason in the world to hate him, and this would be a good one to start with.

'No,' Cowart said, opening the car door. 'Let's talk to the people.'

He slammed the car door behind him and walked quickly up the pathway, then rang the doorbell as Wilcox chased after him. For an instant he heard shuffling noises from behind the door, then it swung open. He found himself staring into the face of a middle-aged woman who had an unmistakable housewife's look. She wore little makeup but had spent time fixing her light brown hair that morning. It haloed her face. She wore a simple tan housedress and sandals. Her eyes were bright blue and for a moment, Cowart saw the little girl's chin, cheeks, and nose in the mother's face, looking at him expectantly. He swallowed the vision and said, 'Mrs. Shriver? I'm Matthew Cowart, from the Miami Journal. I believe Lieutenant Brown told you…'

She nodded and interrupted him. 'Yes, yes, please come in, Mr. Cowart. Please, call me Betty. Tanny said Detective Wilcox would be bringing you around this morning. You're doing a story about Ferguson, we know. My husband's here, please, we would like to talk with you.'

Her voice had an easygoing pleasantness to it that failed to conceal her anxiety. She clipped off her words carefully, he thought, because she doesn't want to lose them to emotion quite yet. He followed the woman into the house, thinking: But she will.

The murdered girl's mother led Cowart down a small hallway and into the living room. He was aware that Wilcox was trailing behind, but he ignored him. A bulky, large-bellied, balding man rose from a reclining chair when he entered the room. The man struggled for a moment to push himself out of the seat, then stepped forward to shake Cowart's hand. 'I'm George Shriver, he said. 'I'm glad we had this opportunity.'

Cowart nodded and quickly glanced around, trying to lock details to his memory. The room, like the exterior, was trim and modern. The furniture was simple, colorful prints were hung on the walls. It had a cozy haphazardness to it, as if each item in the room had been purchased independently from the others, solely because it was admired, not necessarily because it could match up with anything else. The overall impression was slightly disjointed but exceptionally comfortable. One wall was devoted to family photos, and Cowart's eyes fell on them. The same photograph of Joanie he'd seen at school hung in the center of the wall, surrounded by other shots. He noted an older brother and sister, and the usual family portraits.

George Shriver followed his eyes. 'The two older kids, George Junior and Anne, are away at school. They're both at the University of Florida. They probably would have wanted to be here,' he said.

'Joanie was the baby,' said Betty Shriver. 'She'd have been getting ready for high school.' The woman caught her breath suddenly, her lip quivering. Cowart saw her struggle and turn away from the photographs. Her husband reached out a huge, chunky hand and gently steered her over to the couch, where she-sat down. She immediately rose, asking, 'Mr. Cowart, please, where are my manners? Can I get you something to drink?'

'Ice water would be nice,' Cowart replied, turning away from the photographs and standing next to an armchair. The woman disappeared for a moment. Cowart asked George Shriver an innocuous question, something to dispel the pall that had fallen over the room.

'You're a city councilman?'

'Ex,' he replied. 'Now I just spend my time down at the store. I own a couple of hardware stores, one here in Pachoula, another down on the way to Pensacola. Keeps me busy. Especially right now, waiting on the spring.'

He paused, then continued. 'Ex-councilman. Used to be I was interested in all that, but I kinda fell out of it when Joanie was taken from us, and we spent so much time with the trial and all, and it just sort of slipped away, and I never got back into it again. That happened a lot. If'n we hadn't had the others, George Junior and Anne, I suspect we would have just stopped. I don't know what might have happened to us.'

Mrs. Shriver returned and handed Cowart a glass of ice water. He saw that she had taken a moment to compose herself.

'I'm sorry if this is difficult for you,' he said.

'No. Rather speak our feelings than hide them,' replied George Shriver. He sat down on the couch next to his wife, throwing his arm around her. 'You don't never lose the pain,' he said. 'It maybe gets a bit duller, you know, like it's not so sharp so it's pricking at you all the time. But little things bring it back. I'll just be sitting in the chair, and I'll hear some neighbor's child's voice, way outside, and for just an instant, I'll think it's her. And that hurts, Mr. Cowart. That's real pain. Or maybe I'll come down here in the morning to fix myself coffee, and I'll sit here staring at those pictures, just like you did. And all I can think of is that it didn't happen, no sir, that she's gonna come bouncing out of her room, just like she always did, all morning sunshine and happiness and ready to jump right into the day, sir, because that's the sort of child she was. Just all golden.'

The big man's eyes had filled with tears as he spoke, but his voice had remained steady.

'I go to church a bit more than I used to; it's a comfort. And the damnedest things, Mr. Cowart, will just make me hurt. I saw a special on television a year ago about the children starving in Ethiopia. Man, that's all the way on the other side of the world and, hell, I ain't ever been anywhere except North Florida, save for the army. But now, I been sending the relief organizations money every month. A hundred here, a hundred there. I couldn't stand it, you know, thinking that some babies were gonna die just because they couldn't eat. I hated it. I thought how much I loved my baby, and she was stolen from me. So, I guess I did it for her. I must be crazy. I'll be in the store, working on the receipts, and it'll start to get late, and I'll remember some time that I stayed to work late and missed dinner with the kids and got home late so they were all asleep, especially my baby, and I'd go in and see her laying there. And I would hate that memory because I missed one of her laughs, or one of her smiles, and there were so few of them, they were precious, sir. Like little diamonds.'

George Shriver leaned his head back, staring into the ceiling. He was breathing hard, sweating profusely, his white shirt rising and falling as he fought for breath and struggled with memories.

His wife had grown quiet, but her eyes had reddened and her hands shook in her lap. 'We ain't special people, Mr. Cowart,' she said slowly. 'George's worked hard and made something of hisself, so that the kids would have it easier. George Junior is going to be an engineer. Anne is a whizbang at chemistry and the sciences. She's got a chance to go on to medical school.' The woman's eyes glistened with a sudden pride. 'Can you imagine that? A doctor from our family. We've just worked hard so that they could be something better, you know.'

'Tell me,' Cowart said carefully, 'what you think about Robert Earl Ferguson.'

There was a solid loud quiet while they collected their thoughts. He saw Betty Shriver take a deep breath before answering.

'It's a hate that goes way beyond hate,' she said. 'It's an awful, unchristian anger, Mr. Cowart. It's just a terrible black rage inside that never goes away.'

George Shriver shook his head. 'There was a time when I would have killed him myself, just so easy, I wouldn't of thought about it no more than you would if you slapped a mosquito off'n your arm. I don't know if that's true for me anymore. You know, Mr. Cowart, this is a conservative community here. People go to church. Salute the flag. Say grace before they eat and vote Republican now that the Democrats have forgotten what they're all about. I think if you were to grab ten folks off the street, they'd say, No, don't give that boy the electric chair; send him back here and let us take care of him. Fifty years ago, he'd a been lynched. Hell, less than fifty. Things have changed, I think. But the longer it all goes on, the longer I think that it was us that got sentenced, not just him. Months pass. Years pass. He's got all these lawyers working for him, and we find out about another appeal, another hearing, another something, and it brings it all back. We don't ever get the chance to put it all behind us. Not that you can, mind you. But at least you ought to get the chance to put it someplace and get on with what's left of your life, even if it is all sick and wrong now.'

He sighed and shook his head. 'It's like we're living in a kinda prison right alongside him.'

After a few seconds, Cowart asked, 'But you know what I'm doing?'

'Yes, sir,' both husband and wife replied in unison.

'Tell me what you know,' he asked.

Betty Shriver leaned forward. 'We know that you're looking at the case. See if there wasn't some unfairness connected to it. Right?'

'That's about as close as you could guess.'

'What do you think was unfair?' George Shriver asked. This was spoken mildly, curiously, not angrily.

'Well, that was my question for you. What do you think about what happened in the trial?'

'I think the sonuvabitch got convicted, that's what… ' he responded, his voice rising quickly. But his wife put her hand on his leg and he seemed visibly to slow himself.

'We sat through it all, Mr. Cowart,' Betty Shriver said. 'Every minute. We saw him sitting there. You could see a sort of fear in his eyes, sir, a sort of desperate anger at everyone as it all happened. I'm told he hated Pachoula, and that he hated all the folks here, black and white, just the same. You could see that hatred every time he squirmed about in his seat. I guess the jury saw it, too.'

'And the evidence?'

'They asked him if he did it and he said yes. Now who would say that if''n it warn't true? He said he did it. His own words. Damn his eyes. His own words.'

There was another quiet then, before George Shriver added, 'Well, of course, I was bothered that they didn't have more on him. We talked to Tanny and Detective Wilcox for hours about all that. Tanny sat right where you're sitting, night after night. They explained what happened. They explained that the case was shaky to begin with. So many lucky things happened to bring him to trial. Hell, they might never even have found Joanie, that was luck, too. I wished they'd had more evidence, yes sir. I did. But they had enough. They had the boy's own words and that was good enough for me.'

And there it is, Cowart thought.

After a moment, Betty Shriver asked quietly, 'Are you gonna write a story?'

Cowart nodded and replied, 'I'm still unsure exactly what kind of story.'

'What'll happen?'

'I don't know.'

She frowned and persisted. 'It'll help him, won't it?'

'I can't tell that,' he said.

'But it could hardly hurt him, right?'

He nodded again. 'That's true. After all, he's on Death Row. What's he got to lose?'

'I'd like to see him stay there,' she said. She rose and gestured to him to follow her. They walked through a corridor, down a wing of the house. She paused in front of a door, putting her hand on the knob but not opening it. 'I'd hoped he'd stay there until he goes to – meet his maker. That's when he'll truly have to answer for all that hate that robbed us of our little girl. I wouldn't want to have his life, no sir, not at all. But even more, I wouldn't want to have his death. But you do what you have to do. Mr. Cowart. Just remember this.'

She swung the door open.

He looked inside and saw a girl's bedroom. The wallpaper was pink and white and there was a fluffy ruffle around the bed. There were plush toys with large sad eyes, and two bright mobiles hanging from the ceiling. There were pictures of ballerinas and a large poster of Mary Lou Retton, the gymnast, on the walls. There was a bookcase stuffed with books. He saw some titles: Misty of Chincoteague, Black Beauty, and Little Women. There was a funny picture of Joanie Shriver wearing outlandish makeup and dressed like a roaring-twenties flapper on the bureau top. Next to that was a box filled to overflowing with brightly colored costume jewelry. In the corner of the room was a large doll-house filled with small figures and a fluffy pink boa hanging over the edge of the bed.

'That's the way it was the morning she left us forever. It'll always be that way,' she said. Then the murdered girl's mother turned abruptly, her eyes filling, sobs summoned from her heart. For an instant she faced the wall, her shoulders heaving. Then she walked away unsteadily, disappearing through another door, which closed behind her, but not tight enough to obscure the painful weeping which filled the house. Cowart looked back toward the living room and saw the murdered girl's father sitting, staring blankly ahead, tears flooding down his own cheeks, incapable of moving. He wanted to shut his own eyes, but instead found himself looking with terrified fascination at the little girl's room. All the little-girl items, knick-knacks, and decorations leapt out at him, and for an instant he thought he couldn't breathe. Each sob from the mother seemed to press on his own chest. He thought he might pass out, but instead he turned away from the room, knowing he would never forget it, and jerked his head toward Detective Wilcox. For an instant, he tried to apologize and to thank George Shriver, but he realized his words were as empty as their agony. So, instead, tiptoeing like some burglar of the soul, he quietly showed himself out the door.

Cowart sat wordlessly in Lieutenant Brown's office. Detective Wilcox was seated behind the desk, pawing through a large file marked 'SHRIVER,' ignoring the reporter. They had not spoken since leaving the house. Cowart looked out the window and saw a large oak tree bend with a sudden breeze, its leafy branches tossing about as if unsettled, then slowly return to position.

His reverie was interrupted when Wilcox found what he was searching for, and tossed a yellow manila envelope on the desk in front of him.

'Here. I saw you take a nice long look at that pretty picture of Joanie Shriver on the wall at her house. Thought maybe you'd like to see what she looked like after Ferguson got finished with her.'

There no longer was any pretense to the detective's tones. Every word seemed tied down with barely adequate restraints.

He picked up the packet without replying and slid the photographs out. The worst was the first: Joanie Shriver was stretched out on a slab in the medical examiner's office before the start of the autopsy. Dirt and blood still marred her features. She was naked, her little girl's body just starting to show the signs of adulthood. He could see slash marks and stab wounds across her chest, slicing down at the budding breasts. Her stomach and crotch, too, were punctured in a dozen spots by the knife. He stared on, wondering whether he would get sick, staring instead at the girl's face. It seemed puffy, the skin almost sagging, the result of hours spent submerged in the swamp. He thought for an instant about many bodies he'd seen at dozens of crime sites, and of hundreds of autopsy photos from trials he had covered. He looked back at the remains of Joanie Shriver and saw that despite all the evil done to her, she had retained her little girl's identity. Even in death it was locked into her face. That seemed to pain him even more.

He started to flip through the others, mostly scene pictures that showed how she appeared after being pulled from the swamp. He saw as well the truth to what Bruce Wilcox had said. There were dozens of muddy footprints around the body. He continued looking through the pictures, finding more signs of the contamination of the murder location, only looking up when the door opened behind him, and he heard Wilcox say, 'Christ, Tanny, what took you so long?'

He stood up, turning, and his eyes met Lieutenant Theodore Brown's.

'Pleased to meet you, Mr. Cowart, the policeman said, extending his hand.

Cowart grasped it, at a loss for words. He took in the policeman's appearance in a second: Tanny Brown was immense, linebacker-size, well over six feet, broad-shouldered, with long, powerful arms. His hair was cropped close, and he wore glasses. But mostly what he was was black, a resonating, deep, dark onyx.

'Something wrong?' Tanny Brown asked.

'No,' Cowart replied, recovering. I didn't know you were black.'

'What, you city boys think we're all crackers like Wilcox up here in the panhandle?'

'No. Just surprised. Sorry.'

'No problem. Actually,' the policeman continued in his steady, unaccented voice, 'I'm used to the surprise factor. But if you were to go to Mobile, Montgomery, or Atlanta, you'd find many more black faces wearing policeman's uniforms than you would expect. Things change. Even the police, though I doubt you'd believe that.'

'Why?'

'Because, Brown continued, speaking simply and clearly, 'the only reason you're here is if you believe the crap that murdering bastard and his attorneys have told you.'

Cowart didn't reply. He merely took his seat and watched as the lieutenant took over the chair that Wilcox had occupied. The detective grabbed a folding chair and sat down next to the lieutenant.

'Do you believe it?' Brown asked abruptly.

'Why? Is it important for you to know what I believe?'

'Well, could make things simpler. You could tell me yes, you believe that we beat the confession out of that kid, and then we wouldn't really have much to talk about. I'd say, No, we didn't, that's absurd, and you could write that down in your little notebook and that would be the end of it. You'd write your story and whatever happens happens.'

'Let's not make it simple,' Cowart replied.

'I didn't think so,' Brown answered. 'So what do you want to know?'

'I want to know everything. From the beginning. And especially I want to know what made you pick up Ferguson and then I want to know about that confession. And don't leave anything out. Isn't that what you'd say to someone whose statement you were about to take?'

Tanny Brown settled his large body into the chair and smiled, but not because he was pleased. 'Yes, that's what I would say,' he answered. He spun about in the chair, thinking, but all the time eyeing Cowart steadily.

'Robert Earl Ferguson was at the top of the short list of prime suspects from the first minute the girl was discovered.'

'Why?'

'He had been a suspect in other assaults.'

'What? I've never heard that before. What other assaults?'

'A half-dozen rapes in Santa Rosa County, and over the 'Bama border near Atmore and Bay Minette.'

'What evidence do you have that he was involved in other assaults?'

Brown shook his head. 'No evidence. He physically fits the best description we could piece together, working with detectives in those communities. And the rapes all corresponded to times when he was out of school, on vacation, visiting that old grandmother of his.'

'Yes, and?'

'And that's it.'

Cowart was silent for an instant. 'That's it? No forensic evidence to tie him to those assaults? I presume you did show his picture to the women.'

'Yes. Nobody could make him.'

'And the hair you found in his car – the one that didn't match Joanie Shriver's – you ran comparisons with the victims in those other cases?'

'Yes.'

'And?'

'No matchups.'

'The modus operandi in the other attacks was the same as in the Shriver abduction?'

'No. Each of the other cases had some similarities, but aspects that were different as well. A gun was used to threaten the victims in a couple of cases, a knife in others. A couple of women were followed home. One was out jogging. No consistent pattern that we could determine.'

'Were the victims white?' Cowart asked.

'Yes.'

'Were they young, like Joanie Shriver?'

'No. They were all adults.'

Cowart paused, considering, before continuing his questions.

'You know, Lieutenant, what the FBI statistics on black-on-white rape are?'

'I know you're going to tell me.'

Cowart surged on. 'Less than four percent of the cases reported nationwide. It's a rarity, despite all the stereotyping and paranoia. How many black-on-white cases have you had in Pachoula before Robert Earl Ferguson?'

'None that I can recall. And don't lecture me about stereotypes.' Brown eyed Cowart. Wilcox shifted about in his seat angrily.

'Statistics don't mean anything,' he added quietly.

'No?' Cowart asked. 'Okay. But he was home on vacation.'

'Right.'

'And nobody liked him much. That I've learned.'

'That's correct. He was a snide rat bastard. Looked down at folks.'

Cowart stared at the policeman. 'You know how silly that sounds? An unpopular person comes to visit his grandmother and you want to make him on rape charges. No wonder he didn't like it around here.'

Tanny Brown started to say something angry in reply, but then stopped. For a few seconds he simply watched Cowart, as if trying to burrow into him with his eyes. Finally he replied, slowly, 'Yes. I know how silly it sounds. We must be silly people.' His eyes had narrowed sharply.

Cowart leaned forward in his chair, speaking in his own, steady, unaffected voice. You've got no edge on me, he thought.

'But that's why you went to his grandmother's house first, looking for him?'

'That's right.'

Brown started to say something else, then closed his mouth abruptly. Cowart could feel the tension between the two of them and knew, in that moment, what the lieutenant had been prepared to say. So he said it for him. 'Because you had a feeling, right? That old policeman's sixth sense. A suspicion that you had to act on. That's what you were about to say, right?'

Brown glared at him.

'Right. Yes. Exactly.' He stopped and looked over at Wilcox, then back at Cowart. 'Bruce said you were slick,' he spoke quietly, 'but I guess I had to see it for myself.'

Cowart eyed the lieutenant with the same cold glance that he was receiving. 'I'm not slick. I'm just doing what you would do.'

'No, that's incorrect,' Brown said acidly. 'I wouldn't be trying to help that murdering bastard off of Death Row.'

The reporter and the policeman were both silent.

After a few moments, Brown said, 'This isn't going right.'

'That's correct, if what you want is to persuade me that Ferguson's a liar.'

Brown stood up and started pacing the floor, obviously thinking hard. He moved with a rugged intensity, like a sprinter coiled at the starting line, waiting for the starter's gun to sound, the muscles in his body shifting about easily, letting Cowart know all the time that he was not a person who enjoyed the sensation of being confined, either in the small room or by details.

'He was wrong,' the policeman said. I knew it from the first time I saw him, long before Joanie was killed. I know that's not evidence, but I knew it.'

'When was that?'

'A year before the murder. I rousted him from the front of the high school. He was just sitting in-that car, watching the kids leave.'

'What were you doing there?'

'Picking up my daughter. That's when I spotted him. Saw him a few times after that. Every time, he was doing something that made me uncomfortable. Hanging in the wrong spot at the wrong time. Or driving slowly down the street, following some young woman. I wasn't the only one that noticed it. A couple of the Pachoula patrolmen came to me saying the same. He got busted once, around midnight, right behind a small apartment building, just standing around. Tried to hide when the squad car rolled past. Charges got dropped right away. But still…'

'I still don't hear anything like evidence.'

'Goddammit!' the lieutenant's voice soared for the first time. 'Don't you hear? We didn't have any. All we had was impressions. Like the impression you get when you get to Ferguson's house and he's scrubbing out that car – and he's already deep-sixed a slice of rug. Like when the first thing out of his mouth is, "I didn't do that girl," before he's heard a question. And how he sits in an interview room, laughing because he knows you haven't got anything. But all those impressions add up to something more than instinct, because he finally talks. And, yes sir, all those impressions turn out to be absolutely right because he confesses to killing that girl.'

'So, where's the knife? Where's his clothes covered with blood and mud?'

'He wouldn't tell us.'

'Did he tell you how he staked out the school? How he got her to get into the car? What he said to her? Whether she fought? What did he tell you?'

'Here, goddammit, read for yourself!'

Lieutenant Brown seized a sheaf of papers from the file on his desk and tossed them toward Cowart. He looked down and saw that it was the transcript of the confession, taken by a court stenographer. It was short, only three pages long. The two detectives had gone through all of his rights with him, especially the right to an attorney. The rights colloquy occupied more than an entire page of the confession. They'd asked him whether he understood this and he'd replied he had. Their first question was phrased in traditional cop-ese: 'Now, on or about three P.M. on May 4, 1987, did you have occasion to be in a location at the corner of Grand and Spring streets, which is next to King Elementary School?' And Ferguson had replied monosyllabically, 'Yes.' The detectives had then asked him whether he had seen the young woman later known to him as Joanie Shriver, and again, his reply had been the single affirmative. They had then painstakingly brought him through the entire scenario, each time phrasing their narrative as a question and receiving a positive answer, but not one of them elaborated with even the meagerest detail. When they had asked him about the weapon and the other crucial aspects of the crime, he'd replied that he couldn't remember. The final question was designed to establish premeditation. It was the one that had put Ferguson on Death Row: 'Did you go to that location intending to kidnap and kill a young woman on that day?' and he'd replied again with a simple, awful 'Yes.'

Cowart shook his head. Ferguson had volunteered nothing except a single word, 'Yes,' over and over. He turned toward Brown and Wilcox. 'Not exactly a model confession, is it?'

Wilcox, who had been sitting unsteadily, shifting about with an obvious, growing frustration, finally jumped up, his face red with anger, shaking his fist at the reporter. 'What the hell do you want? Dammit, he did that little girl just as sure as I'm standing here now. You just don't want to hear the truth, damn you!'

'Truth?' Cowart shook his head and Wilcox seemed to explode. He sprang from behind the desk and grabbed hold of Cowart's jacket, pulling the reporter to his feet. 'You're gonna get me really angry, asshole! You don't want to do that!'

Tanny Brown jackknifed his bulk across the desk, seizing the detective with one hand and jerking him backward, controlling the smaller, wiry man easily. He did not say anything, especially when Wilcox turned toward his superior officer, still sputtering with barely controlled anger. The detective tried to say something to Brown, then turned toward Cowart. Finally, choking, fists clenched, he stormed from the office.

Cowart straightened his jacket and sat back down heavily. He breathed in and out, feeling the adrenaline pumping in his ears. After a few minutes of silence, he looked over at Brown.

'You're going to tell me now that he didn't hit Ferguson, right? That he never lost it during thirty-six hours of interrogation?'

The lieutenant paused for an instant, thinking, as if trying to assess the damage done by the outburst before replying. Then he shook his head.

'No, truth is, he did. Early on, once or twice, before I stopped him. Just slapped Ferguson across the face.'

'No punch to the stomach?'

'Not that I saw.'

'How about telephone books?'

'An old technique,' Brown said sadly, his voice growing quieter. 'No. Despite what Mr. Ferguson says.'

The lieutenant turned away for the first time, looking out the window. After a moment or two, he said, 'Mr. Cowart, I don't think I can make you understand. That little girl's death just got under all our skins and it's still there. And it was the worst for us. We had to make some sort of case out of that emotional mess. It bent us all. We weren't evil or bad. But we wanted that killer caught. I didn't sleep for three days. None of us did. But we had him, and there he was, smiling back at us just like nothing was wrong. I don't blame Bruce Wilcox for losing it a bit. I think we were all at the edge. And even then, with the confession – you're right, it's not a textbook confession, but it was the best we could get out of that closemouthed son of a bitch – even then it was all so fragile. This conviction is held together by the thinnest of threads. We all know that. And so, you come along, asking questions, and each one of those questions just shreds a little bit of those threads and we get a little crazy. There. That's my apology for my partner. And for sending you to the Shrivers. I don't want this conviction to shatter. More than anything else, I don't want to lose this one. I couldn't face those folks. I couldn't face my own family. I couldn't, face myself. I want that man to die for what he did.'

The lieutenant finished his confession and waited for Cowart's reply. The reporter felt a sudden rush of success and decided to press his advantage. 'What's the policy with your department on taking weapons into interrogation rooms?'

'Simple. You don't. Check them with the sergeant on duty. Every cop knows that. Why?'

'Would you mind standing up for a moment.'

Brown shrugged and stood.

'Now, let me see your ankles.'

He looked surprised and hesitated. 'I don't get it.'

Indulge me, Lieutenant.'

Brown stared angrily at him. 'Is this what you want to see?' He lifted his leg, putting his shoe up on the desk, raising his trouser leg at the same time. There was a small, brown-leather ankle holster holding a snub-nosed.38-caliber pistol strapped to his calf.

The lieutenant lowered his leg.

'Now, you didn't point that weapon at Ferguson and tell him you were going to kill him if he didn't confess, did you?'

'No, absolutely not.' Cold indignation rode the detective's voice.

'And you never pulled the trigger on an empty chamber?'

'No.'

'So, how would he know about that gun if you hadn't shown it to him?'

Brown stared across the desk at Cowart, an ice-like anger behind his eyes. 'This interview is finished,' he said. He pointed at the door.

'You're wrong' Cowart said, rising. 'It's just beginning.'

5. Death Row Again

There is a zone reporters find, a space like the marksman's narrowing of vision down the barrel, past the sight and directly to the center of the target, where other considerations of life fade away, and they begin to see their story take shape within their imaginations. The gaps in the narrative, the prose holes that need information start to become obvious; like a gravedigger swinging shovels of soil on top of a coffin, the reporter fills the breaches in his story.

Matthew Cowart had reached that place.

He drummed his fingers impatiently on the linoleum-topped table, waiting for Sergeant Rogers to escort Ferguson into the interview room. His trip to Pachoula had left him energized with questions, suffused with answers. The story was half-settled in his mind, had been from the moment that Tanny Brown had angrily conceded that Ferguson had been slapped by Wilcox. That small admission had opened an entire vista of lies. Matthew Cowart did not know what precisely had happened between the detectives and their quarry, but he knew that there were enough questions to warrant his story, and probably to reopen the case. What he hungered for now was the second element. If Ferguson hadn't killed the little girl, then who had? When Ferguson appeared in the doorway, an unlit cigarette hanging from his lip, arms filled with legal folders, Cowart wanted to jump to his feet.

The two men shook hands and Cowart watched

Ferguson settle into the chair opposite him. 'I'm gonna be outside,' the sergeant said, closing the reporter and the convict in the small room. There was the audible click of a dead bolt lock. The prisoner was smiling, not with pleasure but with smugness, and for just a moment, as he measured the grin in front of him against the cold anger he had seen in Tanny Brown's eyes, Cowart felt a swaying within him. Then the feeling fled and Ferguson dropped his papers onto the tabletop, making a muffled thudding sound with their weight.

'I knew you'd be back,' Ferguson said. I knew what you'd find there.'

'And what do you think that was?'

'That I was telling the truth.'

Cowart hesitated, then sought to knock a bit of the prisoner's confidence astray. I found out you were telling some truths.'

Ferguson bristled instantly. 'What the hell do you mean? Didn't you talk to those cops? Didn't you see that cracker redneck town? Couldn't you see what sort of place it is?'

'One of those cracker cops was black. You didn't tell me that.'

'What, you think that just because he's the same color as me that automatically makes him okay? You think he's my brother? That he ain't as much a racist as that little worm partner of his? Where you been, Mr. Reporter? Tanny Brown's worse than the worst redneck sheriff you ever imagined. He makes all the Bulls and Bubbas and all those other Deep South cops look like a bunch of bleeding hearts from the ACLU. He's white right to his heart and soul and the only thing he hates worse than himself is folks his own color. You go ask around. Find out who the big head-banger in Pachoula is. People'd tell you it was that pig. I promise.'

Ferguson had snapped to his feet. He was pacing about the cell, pounding one fist into an open palm, the sharp slapping noise punctuating his words. 'Didn't you talk to that old alky lawyer who sold me out?'

'I talked to him.'

'Did you talk to my grandmother?'

'Yes.'

'Didn't you go over the case?'

'I saw they didn't have much.'

'Didn't you see why they had to have that confession?'

'Yes.'

'Didn't you read that confession?'

'I read it.'

'They beat me, those bastards.'

'They admitted hitting you once or twice…'

'Once or twice! Christ! That's nice. They probably said it was like some little love taps or something, huh? More like a little mistake than an actual beating, right?'

'That's pretty much what they implied.'

'Bastards!'

'Take it easy

'Take it easy! You tell me, how am I to take it easy? Those lying sons of bitches can just sit out there and say any damn thing they want. Me, all I've got are the walls and the chair waiting.'

Ferguson's voice had risen and his mouth opened again, but instead he grew silent and stopped abruptly in the middle of the room. He looked over at Cowart, as if trying to regain some of the cool that had dissipated so swiftly. He seemed to think hard about what he was going to say before continuing.

'Were you aware, Mr. Cowart, we were in a lockdown until this morning? You know what that means, don't you?' Ferguson spoke with obvious restraint clipped to his voice.

'Tell me.'

'Governor signed a death warrant. We all get locked down into the cells twenty-four hours a day until the warrant expires or the execution takes place.' 'What happened?'

'Man got a stay from the fifth circuit.' Ferguson shook his head. 'But he's running close to the edge. You know how it works. First you take all the appeals that stem from the case. Then you start in on the big issues, like the constitutionality of the death penalty. Or maybe the racial makeup of the jury. That's a real favorite around here. Keep arguing away at those. Try to come up with something new. Something all those legal minds haven't thought of yet. All the time, ticktock, ticktock. Time's running out.'

Ferguson walked back to his seat and sat carefully, folding his hands on the table in front of him. 'You know what a lockdown does to your soul? It makes it grow all frozen cold inside. You're trapped, feeling every tick of that damn clock like it was tapping at your heart. You feel as if it's you that's gonna die, because you know that someday they're gonna come and lock down the Row because that warrant's been signed with your name on it. It's like they're killing you there, slowly, just letting the blood drip out drop by drop, bleeding you to death. That's when the Row goes crazy. You can ask Sergeant Rogers, he'll tell you. First there's a lot of angry shouting and yelling, but that only lasts for a few minutes. Then a quiet comes over the Row. It's almost like you can hear the men sweating nightmares. Then something happens, some little noise will break it and pretty soon the silence gets lost because some of the men start yelling again, and others start screaming. One man, he screamed for twelve straight hours before he passed out. A lockdown squeezes all the sanity out of you, just leaves all the hate and madness. That's all that's left. Then they take you away.'

Ferguson spoke the last very softly, then he got up and started pacing again. 'You know what I hated about Pachoula? Its complacency. How nice it is. Just damn nice and quiet.'

Ferguson clenched his fist. I hated the way everything had a place and worked just right… Everyone knew each other and knew exactly how life was going to work. Get up in the morning. Go to work. Yes sir, no sir. Drive home. Have a drink. Eat dinner. Turn on the television. Go to bed. Do it again the next day. Friday night, go to the high-school game. Saturday, go on a picnic. Sunday, go to church. Didn't make any difference if you were white or black – 'cept the whites ran things and the blacks lifted and carried, same as everywhere in the South. And what I hated was that everyone liked it. Christ, how they loved that routine. Shuffling in and out of each day, just the same as the day before, same as the day after. Year after year.'

'And you?'

'You're right. I didn't fit. Because I wanted something different. I was going to make something of myself. My granny, she was the same. The black folks down there used to say she was a hard old woman who put on airs about how fine she was, even though she lived in a little shack with no indoor plumbing and a chicken coop in the back. The ones that made it out – like your goddamn Tanny Brown – couldn't stand that she had pride. Couldn't stand that she wouldn't bow her head to no one. You met her. She strike you as the type likely to step aside on the sidewalk and let someone else pass?'

'No, she didn't.'

'She's been a fighter all her life. And when I came along, and I wasn't a get-along type like they wanted, well, they just came after me.'

He looked ready to go on, but Cowart stopped him. 'Okay, Ferguson, fine. Let's say that's all true. And let's say that I write the story: Flimsy evidence. Questionable identification. Bad lawyer. Beaten confession. That's only half of what you promised.' He had Ferguson's full attention now. 'I want that name. The real killer, you said. No more screwing around.'

'What promises do I have…'

'None. My story, to tell as I report it.'

'Yeah, but it's my life. Maybe my death.'

'No promises.'

Ferguson sat down and looked over at Cowart. 'What do you really know about me?' he asked.

The question set Cowart back. What did he know? 'What you've told me. What others have told me.'

'Do you think you know me?'

'Maybe a bit.'

Ferguson snorted. 'You're wrong.' He seemed to hesitate, as if rethinking what he had just said. 'What you see is what I am. I may not be perfect, and maybe I said and did things I shouldn't have. Maybe I shouldn't have pissed off that whole town so much so that when trouble came driving down the roadway, they only thought to look for me, and they let their trouble just drive on past, without even knowing it.'

1 don't get it.'

'You will.' Ferguson closed his eyes. 'I know I may come on a bit strong sometimes, but you got to be the way you are, right?'

'I suppose.'

'That's what happened in Pachoula, you see. Trouble came to town. Stopped a couple of minutes and then left me behind to get swept up with all the other broken little pieces of life there.' He laughed at Cowart's expression. 'Let me try again. Imagine a man – a very bad man – driving a car heading south, pulling off the roadway into Pachoula. He stops, maybe to eat a burger and some fries, beneath a tree, just outside a school yard. Spots a young girl. Talks her into his car because he looks nice enough. You've seen that place. It ain't hard to find yourself out in the swamp in a couple of minutes, all alone and quiet. He does her right there and drives on. Leaves that place forever, never thinking about what he did for more'n one or two minutes, and that's only to remember how good it felt to him to take that little girl's life.'

'Keep going.'

'Man zigzags down the state. A little trouble in Bay City. A bit in Tallahassee. Orlando. Lakeland. Tampa. All the way to Miami. Schoolgirl. Tourist couple.

Waitress in a bar. Problem is, when he gets to the big city, he's not quite as careful, and he's busted. Busted bad, busted big time. Murder one. Sound familiar?'

'Starting to. Keep going.'

'After a couple of years in court, man ends up right here on the Row. And what does he discover when he gets here? A big joke. Biggest joke he could ever imagine. Man in the cell next to him is waiting a date for the crime he committed and nearly goddamn forgot about because there were so many crimes, they all sort of got rolled together in his mind. Laughs so hard he'd like to split a gut. Only it isn't so funny for the man in the next cell, is it?'

'You're telling me that…'

'That's right, Mr. Cowart. The man who killed Joanie Shriver is right here on Death Row. Do you know a man named Blair Sullivan?'

Cowart breathed in sharply. The name exploded like shrapnel in his head. 'I do.'

'Everyone knows Blair Sullivan, right, Mr. Reporter?'

That's right.'

'Well, he's the one that did her.'

Cowart felt his face flush. He wanted to loosen his tie, stick his head out some window, stand in a breeze somewhere, anything to give himself some air. 'How do you know?'

"The man told me! Thought it was the funniest damn thing.'

'Tell me exactly what he said.'

'Not too long after he got sent up here, he was moved into the cell next to mine. He's not all there, you know. Laughs when nobody's made a joke. Cries for no reason. Talks to himself. Talks to God. Shit, man's got this awful soft voice, kinda makes a hissing sound, like a snake or something. He's the craziest motherfucker I've ever met. But crazy same as a damn fox, you know.

'Anyway, after a week or two, we get to talking and of course he asks me what I'm doing there. So I tell him the truth: I'm waiting on the death man for a crime I didn't do. This makes him grin and chuckle and he asks me what crime. So I tell him: Little girl in Pachoula. Little blonde girl, he says, with braces? Yeah, I say. And then he starts to laugh and laugh. Beginning of May? he asks. Right, I says. Little girl all cut up with a knife, body tossed in a swamp? he asks. Right again, I say, but how come you know so much about this? And he keeps giggling and laughing and snorting and just rolling about, wheezing, he thinks it's so funny. Hell, he says, I know you didn't do that girl, 'cause I did. And she was mighty fine, too. Man, he says, you are the sorriest fuck on this row, and he keeps laughing and laughing. I was ready to kill him right there, you see, right there, and I start screaming and yelling and trying to get through the bars. Goon squad comes down the row, flak jackets and truncheons and those helmets with the plastic shit in front of their eyes. They pound my ass for a bit and haul me off to isolation. You know isolation? It's just a little room with no window and a bucket and a cement cot. They toss you in there naked until you get your act together sufficiently.

'By the time I got out, they had shifted him off to another tier. We don't get exercise the same time, so I don't see him. Word has it, he's really off the deep end. I can hear him sometimes at night, yelling for me. Bobby Earl, he calls out, kinda high-pitched and nasty. Bobbbbby Earrrrll! Why won't you talk to meeeeee? Then he laughs when I don't call back. Just laughs and laughs and laughs.'

Cowart shivered. He wanted to have a moment to stand back and assess the story he'd heard, but there was no time. He was locked in, fastened by the words that had flowed from Robert Earl Ferguson.

'How can I prove this?'

I don't know, man! It ain't my job to prove things!'

'How can I confirm it?'

'Damn! The sergeant'll tell you they had to move

Sullivan away from me. But he don't know why. No one knows why, except you and me and him.'

'But I can't…'

'I don't want to hear what you can and can't do, Mr. Reporter. People all my life have been telling me lots of can'ts. You can't be this, you can't do that, you can't have this, you can't even want that. That's my whole life, man, in one word. I don't want to hear it no more.'

Cowart was silent. 'Well,' he said, 'I'll check…'

Ferguson turned swiftly, pushing his face toward him, his eyes electric with fury. 'That's right. You go check' the prisoner said. 'Go ask that bastard. You'll see, damn you, you'll see.'

Then Ferguson rose abruptly, pushing himself away from the table. 'Now you know. What you gonna do? What can you do? Go ask some more damn questions, but make damn sure I ain't dead before you finish asking 'em.'

The prisoner walked over to the door and started pounding on it. The noise was like gunshots reverberating in the small room. 'We're finished in here!' he called. 'Sergeant Rogers! Damn!' The door staggered under the violence of his assault. When the prison guard swung the door open, Ferguson tossed a single look back at Cowart, then said, I want to go back to my cell. I want to be alone. I don't need to make any more talk. No, sir.' He held out his hands and they were cuffed. As the manacles were clicked shut around his wrists, he looked once more at the reporter. His eyes were piercing, harsh, filled with challenge and demand. Then he turned and disappeared through the doorway, leaving Cowart sitting quietly, feeling for all the world as if his legs were dangling over the edge of a whirlpool, threatening to suck him in.

As he was being shown the way out of the prison, Cowart asked the sergeant, 'Where's Blair Sullivan?' Sergeant Rogers snorted. 'Sully? He's in Q wing.

Stays in his cell all day, reading the Bible, and writing letters. He writes to a bunch of psychiatrists and to the families of his victims. He writes them obscene descriptions of what he did to their loved ones. We don't mail those. We don't tell him that, but I think he suspects.' The sergeant shook his head. 'He's not playing with a full deck, that one. He's also got a real thing about Robert Earl. Calls his name out, kinda taunting-like, sometimes in the middle of the night. Did Bobby Earl tell you he tried to kill Sullivan when they were in adjacent cells? It was kinda odd, really. They got along fine at first, talking away through the bars. Then Robert Earl just goes crazy, screaming and thrashing about, trying to get at Sullivan. It's just about the only real trouble he's ever given us. Landed in the hole for a brief vacation. Now they're on the separation list.'

'What's that?'

'Just what it sounds like. No contact whatsoever, under any circumstances. It's a list we keep to try to prevent some of the boys from killing one another before the state has the opportunity to juice them all legal-like.'

'Suppose I wanted to talk to Sullivan?'

The sergeant shook his head. 'The man's genuinely evil, Mr. Cowart. Hell, he even scares me, and I've seen just about every kind of head case killer this world's got to offer.'

'Why?'

'Well, you know, we got some men here who'd kill you and not even think about it, means nothing to them to take a life. We've got madmen and sex killers and psychopaths and thrill seekers and contract boys and hit men, you name it. But Sullivan, well, he's twisted a little different. Can't exactly say why. It's like he would fit into any of the categories we've got, just like one of those damn lizards that changes color…'

'A chameleon?'

'Yeah. Right. It's almost like he's every sort, rolled up into one, so he's no specific type at all.' Sergeant Rogers paused. 'Man just scares me. I can't say I'm ever happy to see anyone go to the chair, but I won't think twice about strapping that sucker in. Gonna be soon, too.'

'How so? He's only been on the Row a year or so, right?'

'That's right. But he's fired all his lawyers, like that guy did up in Utah a few years back. He's got just his automatic appeal to the state Supreme Court pending, and he says when that's finished, that's the end of the line. Says he can't wait to get to hell because they'll roll out the red carpet for him.'

'You think he'll stick to that?'

'I told you. He ain't like other folks. Not even like other killers. I think he'll stick hard. Living, dying, seems all the same to him. My guess is he'll just laugh, like he laughs at everything, and plop himself down in the chair like it ain't no big deal.'

'I need to talk to him.'

'No one needs to talk to that man.'

'I do. Can you arrange it?'

Rogers stopped and stared at him. This got something to do with Bobby Earl?'

'Maybe.'

He shrugged. 'Well, best I can do is ask the man. He says yes, I'll set it up. He says no, and that's all she wrote.'

'Fair enough.'

'Won't be like talking to Bobby Earl in the executive suite. We'll have to use the cage.'

'Whatever. Just try for me.'

'All right, Mr. Cowart. You call me in the morning, and I'll try to get some sort of answer for you.'

They both walked silently through the sally-port entrance to the prison. For an instant they stood in the vestibule, before the doors. Then Rogers walked beside Cowart out into the sunlight. The reporter saw the prison guard shade his eyes and stare up through the pale blue sky toward the glaring sun. The sergeant stood, breathing in clear air, his eyes closed for an instant as if trying to force some of the clamminess of confinement away with fresh air. Then he shook his head and, without saying anything further, walked back inside the prison.

Ferguson was right, Cowart thought. Everyone knew Blair Sullivan.

Florida has an odd way of spawning killers of unique proportions, almost as if, like the gnarled mangroves that flourish in the salt water-tinged sandy dirt near the ocean, evil takes root in the state and fights its way into the ground. And those not born there seem to gravitate toward the state with alarming frequency, as if following some unusual gravitational swing of the earth, driven by tides and the awful desires of men. It gives the state a sort of routine familiarity with evil; a shrugging acceptance of the paranoiac who opens fire with an automatic weapon in a fast-food outlet, or the bloated bodies of drug couriers gathering maggots in the Everglades. Drifters, crazies, contract murderers, killers willed with madness, passion, or devoid of reason or emotion, all find their way, it seems, to Florida.

Blair Sullivan, heading south, had killed a dozen people that he owned up to before arriving in Miami. The killings had been murders of convenience, really; just folks who happened to brush up against the man and wind up dead. The night manager of a small roadside motel, a waitress in a coffee shop, the clerk at a small store, an old tourist couple changing a tire by the road. What had made this particular killing spree so frightening was its utter random application. Some victims were robbed. Some raped. Some were simply killed, for no apparent reason or unfathomable reasons, like the gas-station attendant shot right through his protective cage, not because he was being robbed, but because he wasn't quick enough to make change of a twenty-dollar bill. Sullivan had been arrested in Miami minutes after he'd finished dealing with a young couple he'd found necking on a deserted road. He had taken his time with the pair, tying the teenage boy up and letting him watch as he raped the girl, then letting the girl watch as he slit the boy's throat. He had been slashing away at the young woman's body when a state trooper patrolling the area had spotted him. 'Just bad luck,' Sullivan had told the judge, arrogant, unrepentant, at his sentencing. 'If I'd been just a little bit quicker, I would have got the trooper, too.'

Cowart dialed the telephone in his room and within a few minutes was connected with the city desk at the Miami Journal. He asked for Edna McGee, the courthouse reporter who'd covered Sullivan's conviction and sentencing. The telephone played Muzak momentarily before she came on the line.

'Hey, Edna?'

'Matty? Where are you?'

'Stuck in a twenty-buck-a-night motel in Starke, trying to get it all figured out.'

'You'll let me know if you do, huh? So, how's the story going? Rumors all over the newsroom that you're on to something real good.'

'It's going along.'

'That guy really kill that girl or what?'

'I don't know. There's some real questions. Cops even admitted hitting him before getting the confession. Not as bad as he says they did, of course, but still, you know.'

'No kidding? Sounds good. You know, even the smallest little bit of coercion should cause a judge to throw out the man's confession. And if the cops admitted lying, even a little, well, watch out.'

'That kinda bothers me, Edna. Why would they admit hitting the guy? It can't help them.'

'Matty, you know as well as I that cops are the world's worst liars. They try and it just screws them up. They get all turned around. It's just not in their natures. So, finally, they end up telling the truth. You just got to hang in there long enough, keep asking the questions. Eventually, they'll always come around. Now, how can I help you?'

'Blair Sullivan.'

'Sully? Whew, now that's interesting. What's he got to do with all this?'

'Well, his name came up in a kind of unusual context. I can't really talk about it.'

'C'mon. Tell me.'

'Give me a break, Edna. As soon as I'm certain, you'll be the first.'

'Promise?'

'Sure.'

'Double-promise?'

'Edna. C'mon.'

'Okay. Okay. Blair Sullivan. Sully. Jesus. You know, I'm a liberal, but that guy, I don't know. You know what he made that girl do, before killing her? I never put it into a story. I couldn't. When the jurors heard it, one of them got sick, right in the jury box. They had to take a recess to clean up the mess. After she'd watched her boyfriend bleed to death, Sully made her bend down and…'

'I don't want to know,' Cowart interrupted.

The woman on the phone fell abruptly into silence. After a moment, she asked, 'So, what do you want to know?'

'Can you tell me about his route south?'

'Sure. The tabloids called it "The Death Trip." Well, it was pretty well documented. He started out by killing his landlady in Louisiana, outside of New Orleans, then a prostitute in Mobile, Alabama. He claims he knifed a sailor in Pensacola, some guy he picked up in a gay bar and left in a trash heap, then…'

'When was that?'

'It's in my notes. Hang on, they're in my bottom drawer.' Matthew Cowart heard the telephone being put down on the desktop and could just make out the sounds of drawers being opened and then slammed shut. 'I found it. Hang on. Here it is. Should have been late April, early May at the latest, right when he crossed over into the Sunshine State.'

Then what?'

'Still heading downstate slowly. Incredible, really. APBs in three states, BOLOs, FBI flyers with his picture, NCIC computer bulletins. And nobody spots him. At least, not nobody who lived. It was end of June before he reached Miami. Must have taken him a long time to wash all the blood off his clothes.'

'What about cars?'

'Well, he used three, all stolen. A Chevy, a Mercury, and an Olds. Just abandoned them and hot-wired something new. Kept stealing plates, you know, that sort of thing. Always picked nondescript cars, real dull, not-the-type-to-get-attention cars. Said he always drove the speed limit, too.'

'When he first came to Florida, what was he driving?'

'Wait. I'm checking my notebook. You know, there's a guy at the Tampa Tribune trying to write a book about him? Tried to go see him, but Sully just kicked him out. Wouldn't talk to him, I heard from the prosecutors. I'm still checking. He's fired all his lawyers, you know that? I think he'll check out before the end of the year. The governor's got to be getting writer's cramp he must be so anxious to sign a death warrant for Sully. Here it is: brown Mercury Monarch."

'No Ford?'

'No. But you know, the Mercury's just about the same car. Same body, same design. Easy to get them mixed up.'

'Light brown?'

'No, dark.'

Cowart breathed in hard. It fits, he thought.

'So, Matty, gonna tell me what this is all about?'

'Let me just check a few things, then I'll let you know.'

'Come on, Matty. I hate not knowing.'

'I'll get back to you.'

'Promise?'

'Sure.'

'You know the rumors are just gonna get worse around here?'

'I know.'

She hung up the phone, leaving Matthew Cowart alone. The room about him filled quickly with fearsome thoughts and terrifying explanations: Ford into Mercury. Green into brown. Black into white. One man into another.

'I don't properly understand it, but you're in luck, boy,' Sergeant Rogers said jovially, his voice betraying no sign of the early hour.

'How so?'

'Mr. Sullivan says he'll see you. Sure would piss off that guy from Tampa who was here the other week. Wouldn't see him. Sure would piss off all the damn lawyers who've been trying to get in to see Sully, too. He won't see them, neither. Hell, the only folks he sees are a couple of shrinks that the FBI sent down from the Behavioral Sciences Unit. You know, the boys that study mass murderers. And I think the only reason he sees them is so that none of the damn lawyers can file papers claiming he's incompetent and get a court order to handle his appeals. Did I tell you Mr. Sullivan is one unique fellow?'

'I'll be damned,' Cowart said.

'No, he will, to be sure. But that's not our concern, now, is it?'

'I'll be right over.'

Take your time. We don't move Mr. Sullivan without a bit of caution, mind you. Not since nine months ago when he jumped one of the Row guards outside the shower and chewed the man's ear clean off. Said it tasted good. Said he'd of eaten the man's whole head if we hadn't pulled him off the top. That's Sully for you.'

'Why'd he do that?'

The man called him crazy. You know, nothing special. Just like you'd say to your old lady, Hey, you're crazy to want to buy that new dress. Or you'd say to yourself, I'm crazy to want to pay my taxes on time. Like no big deal, huh? But it sure was the wrong damn word to use with Sullivan, all right. Just, bam! And he was on top of that man, chewing away like some sort of mongrel dog. The guy he took after, too, had to be twice his size. Didn't make no difference. And there they were rolling about, blood flying all over and the man screaming all the time, get offa me, you crazy sonuvabitch. Course it didn't make Sully do anything except fight harder. We had to pry him off with nightsticks, cool him down in the hole for a couple of months. I imagine it was that word, though, got it all started, kept it all going. It was just like pulling the man's trigger, he exploded so quick. Taught me something. Taught everyone on the Row something. To be a bit more cautious about the words we use. Sully, well, I gather he's very concerned about vocabulary.'

Rogers paused, letting a momentary silence slip into the air. Then he added, 'So's the other guy, now.'

Cowart was escorted by a young, gray-suited guard who said nothing and acted as if he were accompanying some disease-bearing organism down a whitewashed corridor filled with glare from sunlight pouring through a bank of high windows, placed beyond anyone's reach. The light made the world seem fuzzy and indistinct. The reporter tried to clear his mind as they walked. He listened to the tapping of their soles on the polished floor. There was a technique he used, a blanking-out where he tried not to think of anything, not to envision the upcoming interview, not to remember other stories he'd written or people he knew, anything at all; he wanted to exclude every detail and become a blotter, absorbing every sound and sight of the event that was about to happen.

He counted the clicking footsteps of the corrections officer as they passed down the corridor and through a locked set of double doors. As the count neared one hundred, they came into an open area, overseen by a pair of guards in a cubicle with catwalks and stairs leading up to housing tiers. In the junction of the space made by all the paths converging was a wire cage. In the center of the cage was a single steel-gray table and two benches. These were bolted to the floor. On one side of the table was a large metal ring welded into the side. Cowart was shown through the cage's single opening and motioned to take a seat opposite the side with the ring.

'The son of a bitch'll be here in a minute. You wait,' the guard said. Then he turned and walked swiftly out of the cage, disappearing up one of the stairwells and down a catwalk.

Within a moment or so came a pounding on one of the doors that opened onto the area. Then a voice shouted over the intercom, 'Security Detail! Five men coming through!'

There was a harsh blare from an electronic lock being opened and Cowart looked up to see Sergeant Rogers, wearing a flak jacket and a helmet, leading a squad into the area. The orange jumpsuit of the prisoner was obscured by men on either side of him, and a third behind. The group moved in quickstep right into the cage.

Blair Sullivan was hobbled by shackles connecting his hands and feet. The men that surrounded him marched with military precision, each boot hitting the floor in unison while he half-skipped in their midst, like a child trying desperately to keep up with a Fourth of July parade.

He was a cadaverously thin man, not tall, with purple-red tattoos crawling up the bleached white skin of each forearm and a shock of black hair streaked with gray. He had dark eyes that flickered about rapidly, taking in the cage, the guards, and Matthew Cowart. One eyelid seemed to twitch mildly as if each eye worked independently of the other. There was a flush looseness about his grin, about the languid way he stood while the sergeant cautiously undid the handcuff chain from where it was connected to his feet, almost as if he was able to disconnect the manacles from his mind. The corrections officers that flanked him stood at port arms with riot batons. The prisoner smiled at them, mock-friendly. The sergeant then ran the chain through the metal ring on the table and refastened it to a large leather belt that encircled the man's waist.

'All right. Sit down,' Rogers ordered brusquely.

The three guards stood back quickly from the prisoner, who eased himself into the steel seat. He had locked his eyes onto Cowart's. The light grin still wandered about the prisoner's lips, but his eyes were narrowed and probing.

'All right,' the sergeant said again. 'Have at it.'

He led the corrections officers from the cage, pausing to lock it securely.

'They don't like me,' Blair Sullivan said with a sigh.

'Why not?'

'Dietary reasons,' he replied, laughing abruptly. The laugh degenerated within seconds into a wheeze, followed by a hacking cough. Sullivan produced a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, along with a box of wooden matches. He had to stoop toward the table to manage this, half-bending in his seat as he lit the cigarette, the range of his arms limited by the chain that fastened his wrists to the table.

'Of course, they don't have to like me to kill me. You mind if I smoke?' he asked Cowart.

'No, go ahead.'

'It's sort of funny, don't you think?'

'What?'

'The condemned man smoking a cigarette. While everybody in the world is trying so damn hard to quit smoking, folks here living on the Row just naturally chain-smoke. Hell, we're probably R.J. Reynolds' best customers. I suspect we'd engage in every bad or dangerous vice we could if they'd let us. As it is, we just smoke. It's not like any of us are terribly worried about contracting lung cancer, although I suspect that if you managed to get damn sick enough, I mean really sick like unto death, then the state would be reluctant to drop your tail into the chair. The state gets squeamish about such things, Cowart. They don't want to execute somebody who's sick of mind or body. No, sir. They want the men they juice to be physically fit and mentally sound. There was a big uproar in Texas a couple of years back when that state tried to kill some poor sucker who had suffered a heart attack when his warrant was signed. It postponed the execution until the man was well enough to walk to his death. Didn't want to wheel him into the chamber on some hospital gurney, no way. That would offend the sensibilities of the do-gooders and the bleeding hearts. And there's a great story, back from the thirties, about some gangster in New York. Man, soon as he got to the Row, he started eating and eating. He was a big man getting bigger, you see. Got fatter and fatter and fatter and fatter and fatter. Ate bread and potatoes and spaghetti until it was coming out his ears. Starches, you see. You know what he figured? He figured he could beat the chair by getting so big that they couldn't fit him into it! I love it. Trouble was, he didn't quite make it. It was a tight squeeze, but damn, he still fit. Joke was on him, then, wasn't it? He must have looked like a pig roast by the time they got through with him. You tell me where's the logic in all that? Huh?'

He laughed again. 'There's no place like Death Row for letting you see all the little ironies of life.' He stared over at Cowart, his one eyelid twitching quickly.

'Tell me, Cowart, you a killer, too?'

'What?'

'I mean, you ever take a life? In the army, maybe? You're old enough for Vietnam, you go there? No, probably not. You ain't got that faraway look that vets get when they start in to remembering. But maybe you smashed a car up as a teenager or something. Kill your best buddy or your main squeeze on a Saturday night? Or maybe you told the doctors at some damn hospital to pull the plug on your old mom or dad when they got so decrepit a respirator had to keep them alive. Did you do that, Cowart? You ever tell your wife or girlfriend to get an abortion? Didn't want any little ones crawling in the way of success? Maybe you're a bit more upscale, Cowart, huh? Take a little toot or two of cocaine at some party down in Miami, maybe? Know how many lives were lost over that shipment? Just guessing, mind you. Come on, Cowart, tell me, you a killer, too?'

'No, I don't think so.'

Blair Sullivan snorted. 'You're wrong. Everybody's a killer. You just got to look hard enough. Take a broad enough definition of the word. Haven't you ever been in a shopping mall and seen some ragged mean momma just light into her kid, wallop 'em good right there in front of everybody? What you think's going on there? Look at that child's eyes, you'll see them go icy cold, sir. A killer in the making. So, why don't you look inside yourself as well. You got those icy eyes, too, Cowart. You got it in you. I know. I can tell just by looking at you.'

'That's quite a trick.'

'Not a trick. A special ability, I guess. You know, takes one to know one, that sort of thing. You get thick enough with death and dying, Cowart, and you can spot the signs.'

'Well, you're mistaken this time.'

'Am I? We'll see. We'll see about that.'

Sullivan lounged about in the hard metal chair, striking a relaxed pose but all the time letting his eyes burrow deeper into Cowart's heart. 'It gets easy, you know.'

'What does?'

'Killing.'

'How?'

'Familiarity. You learn real quick how people die. Some die hard, some die soft. Some fight like the devil, others just go along quietly. Some plead for their lives, some spit in your eye. Some cry, some laugh. Some call out for their mommas, others tell you they'll see you in hell. Some folks'll hang on to life real strong, others just give it up easy. But in the end, everybody's just the same. Getting stiff and cold. You. Me. Everybody's the same at the end.'

'Maybe at the end. But people get there in a lot of different ways.'

Sullivan laughed. 'That's true enough. That's a real Death Row observation, Cowart. That's exactly what some fellow on the Row would say, after about eight years and a hundred appeals and time running out quick. A lot of different ways.'

He drew hard on the cigarette and blew smoke up into the still prison air. For a moment Blair Sullivan's eyes followed the trail of smoke as it slowly dissipated. 'We're all smoke, aren't we? When it comes right down to it. That's what I told those shrinks, but I don't think they wanted to hear that too much.'

'What shrinks?'

'From the FBI. They got this special Behavioral Sciences section that's trying like crazy to figure out what makes mass murderers, so they can do something about this particular American pastime…' He grinned. 'Of course, they ain't having a whole helluva lot of success, 'cause each and every one of us has our own little reasons. Couple of real nice guys, though. They like to come down here, give me Minnesota Multiphasic Personality tests and Thematic Apperception tests and Rorschach tests and I.Q. tests and, Christ knows, they'll probably want to give me the fucking college board exams next time. They like it when I talk about my momma a lot, and when I tell them how much I hated that old bat and especially my stepdaddy. He beat me, you know. Beat me real bad every time I opened my mouth. Used his fists, used his belt, used his prick. Beat me and fucked me, fucked me and beat me. Day in, day out, regular as Sundays. Man, I hated them. Sure do. Still do, yes sir. They're in their seventies now, still living in a little cinder-block bungalow in the Upper Keys with a crucifix on the wall and a full-color picture of Jesus, still thinking that their savior's gonna come right through the door and lift them up into heaven. They cross themselves when they hear my name and say things like, "Well, the boy was always in the devil's thrall," and stuff like that. Those boys from the FBI are sure interested in all that. You interested in that stuff, too, Cowart? Or do you just want to know why I killed all those folks, including some I hardly even knew?'

'Yes.'

He laughed harshly. 'Well, it's an easy enough question to answer: I was just on my way back home and sort of got sidetracked. Distracted, you might say. Never did make it all the way. That makes sense to you?

'Not exactly.'

Sullivan grinned and rolled his eyes. 'Life's a mystery, ain't it?'

'If you say so.'

'That's right. If I say so. Of course you're a bit more interested in another little mystery, aren't you, Cowart? You don't really care about some other folks, do you? That ain't why you're here.'

'No.'

'Tell me why you want to talk to a bad old guy like myself?'

'Robert Earl Ferguson and Pachoula, Florida.'

As best he could, Blair Sullivan threw back his head and bellowed a single sharp laugh that echoed off the prison walls. Cowart saw a number of the corrections officers swing their heads, watch momentarily, then turn back to their tasks.

'Well now, those are interesting subjects, Cowart. Mighty interesting. But we'll have to get to them in a minute.'

'Okay. Why?'

Blair Sullivan pitched forward across the table, bringing his face as close as possible to Cowart's. The chain that linked him to the table rattled and strained with the sudden pressure. A vein stood out on the prisoner's neck and his face flushed suddenly. 'Because you don't know me well enough yet.'

Then he sat back abruptly, reaching for another cigarette, which he lit off the stub of the first. 'Tell me something about yourself, Cowart, then maybe we can talk. I like to know who I'm dealing with.'

'What do you need to know?'

'Got a wife?'

'Ex-wife.'

The prisoner hooted. 'Kids?'

Matthew Cowart hesitated, then replied, 'None.'

'Liar. Live alone or you got a girlfriend?'

'Alone.'

'Apartment or a house?'

'Little apartment.'

'Got any close friends?'

Again, he hesitated. 'Sure.'

'Liar. That's twice and I'm counting. What do you do at night?'

'Sit around. Read. Watch a ball game.'

'Keep to yourself mostly, huh?'

'That's right.'

The eyelid twitched again. 'Have trouble sleeping?'

'No.'

'Liar. That's three times. You ought to be ashamed, lying to a condemned man. Same as Matthew did to Jesus before the cock crowed. Now, do you dream at night?'

'What the hell…'

Blair Sullivan whispered sharply, 'Play the game, Cowart, or else I'll walk out of here without answering any of your frigging questions.'

'Sure. I dream. Everyone dreams.'

'What about?'

'People like you,' Cowart said angrily.

Sullivan laughed again. 'Got me on that one.' He leaned back in his seat and watched Cowart. 'Nightmares, huh? Because that's what we are, aren't we? Nightmares.'

'That's right,' Cowart replied.

'That's what I tried to tell those boys from the FBI, but they weren't listening. That's all we are, smoke and nightmares. We just walk and talk and bring a little bit of darkness and fear to this earth. Gospel according to John: "Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him." Got that? Eighth verse. Now, there might be a bunch of fancy shrink words to describe it all, but, hell, that's just a bunch of medical gobbledygook, right?'

'Right, I guess.'

'You know what? You've got to be a free man to be a good killer. Free, Cowart. Not hung up on all the silly shit that bogs down ordinary lives. A free man.'

Cowart didn't reply.

'Let me tell you something else: It ain't hard to kill folks. That's what I told them. And you don't really think about it much after, neither. I mean, you got too many things to think about, like disposing of bodies and weapons and getting bloodstains off'n your hands and such. Hell, after a murder, you're downright busy, you know. Just figuring out what to do next and how to get the hell outa there.'

'Well, if killing is easy, what was hard?'

Sullivan smiled. 'That's a good question. They never asked that one.' He thought for a moment, turning his face upward toward the ceiling. 'I think that what was hardest was getting here to the Row and figuring that I never did kill the folks I wanted to kill the most, you know.'

'What do you mean?'

'Ain't that always the hardest thing in life, Cowart? Lost opportunities. They're what we regret the most. What keeps us up at night.'

'I still don't get it.'

Sullivan shifted about in his seat, leaning forward again toward Cowart, whispering in a conspiratorial voice, 'You got to get it. If not now, you will someday. You got to remember it, too, because it'll be important someday. Someday when you least expect it, you'll remember. Who is it that Blair Sullivan hates most? Who does it bother him every day to know they're alive and well and living out their days? It's real important for you to remember that, Cowart.'

'You're not going to tell me?'

'No, sir.'

'Jesus Christ…'

'Don't use that name in vain! I'm sensitive to those things.'

'I just meant…'

Blair Sullivan pitched forward again. 'Do you think these chains could really hold me if I wanted to rip your face off? Do you think these puny little bars could contain me? Do you think I could not rise up and burst free and tear your body apart and drink your blood like it was the water of life in a second's time?'

Cowart recoiled sharply.

'I can. So don't anger me, Cowart.'

He stared across the table.

'I am not crazy and I believe in Jesus, though he'll most likely see my ass kicked straight to hell. But it don't bother me none, no sir, because my life's been hell, and so should my death be.'

Blair Sullivan was silent. Then he leaned back in the metal seat and readopted his lazy, almost insulting tone. 'You see, Cowart, what separates me from you ain't bars and chains and all that shit. It's one simple little detail. I am not afraid of dying. Death, where is your sting, I fear it not. Put me in the chair, shoot me up with a lethal injection, plop me down in front of a firing squad, or stretch me by the neck. Hell, you can throw me to the lions and I'll go along saying my prayers and looking forward to the next world, where I suspect I'll raise as much hell as I have in this one. You know what's strange, Cowart?'

'What?'

'I'm more afraid of living here like some damn beast than dying. I don't want to be poked and prodded by shrinks, argued and discussed by lawyers. Hell, I don't want to be written about by you guys. I just want to move on, you know. Move right on.'

'That's why you fired the attorneys? That's why you're not contesting your conviction?'

He barked a laugh. 'Sure. Hell, Cowart, look at me. What do you see?'

'A killer.'

'Right.' Sullivan smiled. 'That's right. I killed those folks. I'd of killed more if I hadn't been caught. I'd of killed that trooper – man, he was one lucky sonuvabitch all I had was my knife, which I was busy using on that little gal to have some fun. I left my damn gun with my pants, and he got a clean drop on me. Still don't know why he didn't shoot me then and save everybody so damn much trouble. But, hell, he got me fair and square. I can't complain about that. I had my chances. He even read me my rights after he got me cuffed. His voice was cracking and his hands were twitching, and he was more excited than I was, by a long shot. And, anyway, I hear that arresting me gave his career a real boost, and I take some pride in that, yes sir. So, what I got to argue about? Just give some more fucking lawyers more fucking work. Screw 'em. It ain't like life is so great I got a real need to hang around, you know.'

Both men were silent, considering the words which hung in the air inside the cage.

'So, Cowart, you got a question?'

'Yes. Pachoula.'

'Nice town. Been there. Real friendly. But that ain't a question.'

'What happened in Pachoula?'

'You been talking to Robert Earl Ferguson. You gonna do a story about him? My old tier mate?'

'What happened between you two?'

'We got to talking. That's all.'

Blair Sullivan, faint smile flitting about his face, relaxed, toyed with his answers. Cowart wanted to shake the man, rattle the truth out of him. But instead, he kept asking questions. 'What did you talk about?'

'His unfair conviction. You know those cops beat that boy to obtain his confession? Hell, all they had to do for me was buy me a Coca-Cola and I was talking their ears off.'

'What else?'

'We talked about cars. Seems we were partial to similar vehicles.'

'And?'

'Coincidence. We talked a bit about being in the same place at about the same time. A remarkability, that, don't you think?'

'Yes.'

'We talked about that little town and what happened to make it lose its virginity, like.' Again Sullivan grinned. 'I like that. Lose its virginity. Ain't that what happened? To that little girl and to that town.'

'Did you kill that girl? Joanie Shriver. Did you kill her?'

'Did I?' Blair Sullivan rolled his eyes and smiled. 'Now, let me see if I can recollect. You know, Cowart, they all start to bunch together in my memory…'

'Did you?'

'Hell, Cowart. You're starting to sound all frantic and excited the way Bobby Earl did. He got so damn frustrated with my natural recollection process he like to kill me. Now, that's an unusual thing, even for Death Row, don't you think?'

'Did you?'

Blair Sullivan pitched forward in his seat again, dropping the jocular, teasing tones, whispering hoarsely, 'You'd like to know, huh?' He rocked back in the seat, eyeing the reporter. 'Tell me something, Cowart, will you?'

'What?'

'You ever felt the power of life and death in your hands? Did you ever know the sweet feeling of strength, know you control someone else's life or death? Completely. Utterly. All of it. Right there in your hand. You ever felt that, Cowart?'

'No.'

'It's the best drug there is. It's just like shooting electricity into your soul with a needle. There ain't nothing like knowing that someone's life is yours…'

He held up his fist, as if he was holding a fruit. He squeezed the air. The handcuff chain rattled in the metal bracket. 'Let me tell you a few things, Cowart.' He paused, staring at the reporter. 'One: I am filled with power. You may think I am an impotent prisoner, handcuffed and shackled and locked in an eight-by-seven cell each night and day, but I am filled with strength that reaches way beyond those bars, sir. Far beyond. I can touch any soul I want to, just as easy as dialing a telephone. No one is beyond my reach, Cowart. No one.'

He stopped, then asked, 'Got that?'

Cowart nodded.

'Two: I ain't going to tell you if I killed that little girl or not. Hell, if I told you the truth, it would make everything too easy. And how could you believe me, anyway? Especially after all the things the papers have written about me. What sort of credibility do I have? If killing somebody's easy for me, how easy you think is lying?'

Cowart started to speak, but a single glance from Sullivan made him halt, his mouth open.

'You want to know something, Cowart? I quit school in tenth grade, but I never quit learning. I'll bet I'm better read and better educated than you. What do you read? Time and Newsweek. Maybe The New York Times Book Review? Probably Sports Illustrated when you're on the can. But I've read Freud and Jung and kinda prefer the disciple to the master. I've read Shakespeare, Elizabethan poetry and American history, with an emphasis on the Civil War. I like novelists, too, especially ones that are filled with the politics of irony like James Joyce, Faulkner, Conrad, and Orwell. I like to read classics. Little bit of Dickens and Proust. I enjoy Thucydides and reading about the arrogance of the Athenians, and Sophocles because he talks about each and every one of us. Prison's a great place for reading, Cowart. Ain't nobody gonna tell you what to read or not. And you got all the time in the world. I suspect it's a damn sight better than most graduate schools. Of course, this time I don't exactly have all that time, after all, so now I just occupy myself with the Good Book.'

'Hasn't it taught you anything about truth and charity?'

Blair Sullivan screeched a laugh that echoed about the cage. 'I like you, Cowart. You're a funny man. You know what the Bible's all about? It's about cheating and killing and lying and murder and robbery and idolatry and all sorts of things that are right up my alley, so to speak.'

The prisoner stared over at Cowart. He smiled wickedly. 'Okay, Cowart. Let's have some fun.'

'Fun?'

'Yeah.' He giggled and wheezed. 'About seven miles from the spot where little Joanie Shriver was killed, there is an intersection where County Route Fifty intersects with State Route One-Twenty. A hundred yards before that intersection there is a small culvert that runs under the roadway, right near a big old stand of willow trees that kinda droop down and toss a bit of shade on the road on a summer day. If you were to pull over your car at that spot and go down to the right-hand side of that culvert and reach your hand down under the lip where the culvert pipe protrudes out, stick your hand right under whatever greasy old water is flowing through there, you might find something. Something important. Something real interesting.'

'What?'

'Come on, Cowart. You don't expect me to spoil the surprise, do you?'

'Suppose I go and find this something, what then?'

'Then you'll have a real intriguing question to pose to your readers in your articles, Cowart.'

'What question is that?'

'How does Blair Sullivan know how this item got to that location?'

'I…'

'That's the question, isn't it, always? How does he know something? You'll have to figure it out for yourself, Cowart, because you and I ain't gonna talk again. Not at least until I can feel the breath of Mr. Death right behind my neck.'

Blair Sullivan stood up then and suddenly bellowed, 'Sergeant! I'm finished with this pig! Get him outa my sight before I eat his head right off!'

He grinned at Cowart, rattling his chains while the air reverberated with the echo of the murderer's voice and the impatient sound of footsteps hurrying toward the cage.

6. The Culvert

A light breeze out of the south played with the increasing morning heat, sending great gray-white clouds sliding across the rich blue of the Gulf sky and swirling the moist air about him as he crossed the motel's parking lot. Cowart carried a bag with a pair of gardening gloves and a large lantern-flashlight purchased the evening before at a convenience store. He quickstepped toward his car, preoccupied with what he'd heard from the two men on Death Row, confident that he was heading toward a puzzle piece that would complete the picture in his mind. He did not see the detective until he was almost upon him.

Tanny Brown was leaning up against the reporter's car, shading his eyes with his hand, watching him approach.

'In a hurry to get somewhere?' the detective asked.

Cowart stopped in his tracks. 'You've got good sources. I only got in last night.'

Tanny Brown nodded. 'I'll take that as a compliment. Not too much gets by us in a little place like Pachoula.'

'You sure about that?'

The detective refused to rise to the bait. 'Perhaps I'd better not take it as a compliment,' he said slowly. Then he continued. 'How long you planning on staying?'

Cowart hesitated before replying. 'This sounds like a conversation out of some B movie.'

The detective frowned. 'Let me try again. I heard last night that you'd checked into the motel here. Obviously you still have some unanswered questions, otherwise you wouldn't be here.'

'Right.'

'What sort of questions?'

Cowart didn't reply. Instead he watched as the detective shifted about. He had an odd thought: Even though it was bright daylight, the policeman had a way of narrowing the world down, compressing it the way the night does. He could sense a nervousness within him and a small, unsettling vulnerability.

'I thought you'd already made up your mind about Mr. Ferguson and us.'

'You thought wrong.'

The detective smiled, shaking his head slowly, letting Cowart know he recognized this for a lie. 'You're a hard case, aren't you, Mr. Cowart?'

He did not say this angrily or aggressively, but mildly, as if prompted by a bemused curiosity!

'I don't know what you mean, Lieutenant.'

I mean, you got an idea in your head and you aren't gonna let go of it, are you?'

'If you mean have I got some serious doubts about the guilt of Robert Earl Ferguson, well, yes, that's true.'

'Can I ask you a question, Mr. Cowart?'

'Go ahead.'

The detective took a deep breath, then leaned forward, speaking barely above a whisper. 'You've seen him. You've talked to him. You've stood right next to the man and smelled him. Felt him. What do you think he is?'

I don't know.'

'You can't tell me that your skin didn't shrivel up a bit and you didn't feel a little sweat under the arms when you were talking with Mr. Ferguson, can you? That what you'd expect talking to an innocent man?'

'You're talking about impressions, not evidence.'

'That's right. Don't tell me that you don't deal in impressions. Now what do you think he is?'

'I don't know.'

'Hell you don't.'

In that moment, Cowart remembered the tattoos on the pale flesh of Blair Sullivan's arms. Some painstaking artist had constructed a pair of ornate Oriental dragons, one on each forearm, which seemed to slither down across the skin, undulating with each small flex of the man's tendons. The dragons were a faded red and blue ornamented with green scales. Their claws were extended and their jaws gaped open in menace so that when Sullivan reached out his arms to seize something or someone, so did the pair of dragons. He thought, right then, of blurting out Sullivan's name and watching its impact on the detective, but it was too important a clue to waste like that.

The detective stared at the reporter, shifting his weight forward and speaking softly. 'You ever watched a pair of old, mean dogs, Mr. Cowart? You know the way they sort of snuffle about, circling around, measuring each other up? The thing that always made me wonder was how it was those old dogs decided to fight. Sometimes, you know, they get the scent and then just back on down, maybe wag their old tails a bit, and then go on about their business of being a dog, whatever it is. But sometimes, just quick as you know, one dog'll growl and bare those teeth and they all of a sudden start to rip into each other as if their damn lives depended on tearing the other's throat out.' He paused. 'You tell me, Mr. Cowart. Why do those dogs walk away sometimes? And why sometimes do they fight?'

1 don't know.'

'Suppose they can smell something?'

'I guess so.'

Tanny Brown leaned back against the car, lifting his head up into the sunlight, staring up at the clouds that slid past. He directed his words toward the expanse of pale blue. 'You know, when I was a little boy, I thought all white folks were special somehow. It was real easy to think that way. All I had to see was that they always had the good jobs and the big cars and the nice houses. I hated white folks for a long time. Then I got older. Got to go to high school with whites. Went to the army, fought alongside whites. Came back, got my degree in a college with whites. Became a policeman, one of the first black cops on an all-white force. Now we're twenty percent black and rising. Put white folks in jail right alongside black folks. And I learned a little bit more every step of the way. And you know what I learned? That evil is color-blind. It don't make no difference what color you are. If you're a wrong one, you're wrong, black, white, green, yellow, red.'

He looked down out of the sky. 'Now, that's simple, isn't it, Mr. Cowart?'

'Too simple.'

'That must be because I'm a country fellow at heart,' Tanny Brown replied. 'I'm an old dog. And I got the scent.'

The two men stood next to the car, silently staring at each other. Brown seemed to sigh, and he rubbed a large hand through his closely cropped hair. 'I ought to be laughing at all this, you know.'

'What do you mean?'

'You'll figure it out. So where are you going?'

'On a treasure hunt.'

The detective smiled. 'Can I come along? You make it sound like a game, and I could certainly use some childish pleasure, don't you think? Not much easy laughter in being a policeman, just lots of gallows humor. Or do I have to follow you?'

Cowart realized that as much as he wanted to, he would not be able to hide from the policeman. He made the easy decision. 'Jump in,' he said, gesturing toward the passenger seat.

The two men drove in silence for a few miles. Cowart watched the highway wash through the windshield, while the detective stared out at the passing countryside. The quiet seemed uncomfortable, and Cowart shifted about in his seat, trying to stretch his arms out stiffly toward the steering wheel. He was used to rapid assessments about personality and character, and so far Tanny Brown had eluded him. He glanced over at the detective, who seemed to be lost in thought himself. Cowart tried to appraise the man, like an auctioneer before the start of bidding. Despite his musculature and imposing size, Brown's modest tan suit hung loosely about his arms and shoulders, as if he'd purposefully had it cut two sizes too large to diminish his physique. Although the day was warming, he wore his red tie tight to the neck of a pale blue button-down shirt. As Cowart stole glances away from the roadway, he watched the detective clean a pair of gold wire-rimmed glasses and put them on, giving him a bookish appearance that again contradicted his bulk. Then Brown took out a small pen and notepad and made some notations swiftly, a motion not unlike a reporter's. After finishing his writing, the detective put away pad, pen, and glasses and continued to stare through the window. He lifted his hand slightly, as if pushing an idea up into the air, and gestured at the passing countryside. 'It was all different ten years ago. And twenty years ago, it was different again.'

'How so?'

'See that gas station? The drive-in, serve-yourself Exxon Mini-Mart with the grocery store and the computer-driven, digital-read-out automatic pumps?'

They swept past the station.

'Sure. What about it?'

'Five years ago, it was a little Dixie Gas, owned by a guy who probably'd been in the Klan in the fifties. A couple of old pumps, a stars-and-bars hanging in the window and a sign that said BAIT 'N AMMO. Hell, the guy was lucky he could spell that much, and he still had to abbreviate one of three words. But he had prime location. Sold it. Made a bundle. Retired to one of these little houses you see growing up around here in developments named Fox Run or Bass Creek or Elysian Fields, I guess.'

The detective laughed to himself. 'I like that. When I retire, it's got to be to some place called the Elysian Fields. Or maybe Valhalla, that's probably more appropriate for a cop, huh? The warriors of modern society. Of course, I'd have to die with my weapon in my hand, right?'

That's right,' Cowart replied. He was tense. The detective seemed to fill the small interior of the car, as if there were more to him than Cowart could see. 'Lots has changed?'

'Look around. The road is good, that means tax dollars. No more mom-and-pops. Now it's all 7-Eleven and Winn-Dixie and Southland Corporation. You want your car lubed, you go to a corporation. You want to see a dentist, you go to a professional association. You want to buy something, you go to a mall. Hell, the quarterback on the high-school football team is a teacher's son and black, and the best wide receiver is a mechanic's boy and white. How about that?'

'Things didn't seem to have changed much where Ferguson's grandmother lives.'

'No, that's right. Old South. Dirt poor. Hot in the summer. Cold in the winter. Wood stove and outdoor plumbing and bare feet kicking at the dust. Not everything has changed, and that's the sort of place that exists to remind us how much more changing we've got to do.'

'Gas stations are one thing,' Cowart said, 'what about attitudes?'

Brown laughed. 'Those change more slowly, don't they? Everybody cheers when that teacher's boy throws the ball and that mechanic's boy catches it for a touchdown. But either of those kids wanted to date the other's sister, well, I think the cheering would stop damn fast. But then, you must know all about that in your business, don't you?'

The reporter nodded, unsure whether he was being teased, insulted, or complimented. They swept past some tract housing being built on a wide field. A yellow bulldozer was uprooting a swath through a green field, turning over a scar of reddish dirt. It made a grinding and digging noise, momentarily filling the car with the sound of machinery working hard. Nearby, a work crew in hard hats and sweat-drenched shirts was stacking lumber and cinder block. In the car, the two men were silent until they cruised past the construction site. Then Cowart asked, 'So, where's Wilcox today?'

'Bruce? Oh, we had a couple of traffic fatalities late last night. I sent him down to officially witness the autopsies. It teaches you a new respect for seat belts and driving around drunk and what happens when you've got construction workers like the ones we just passed getting paid on Thursdays.'

'He needs lessons like that?'

'We all do. Part of growing into the job.'

'Like his temper?'

That's something he will learn to control. Despite his manner, he is a very cautious observer, and astute. You'd be surprised how good he is with evidence and with people. It's not often his temper boils over like that.'

'He should have controlled it with Ferguson.'

'I think you do not yet understand how strung out we all were over what happened to that little girl.'

That's beside the point and you know it.'

'No, that is precisely the point. You just don't want to hear it.'

Cowart was quieted by the detective's admonition. After a moment, however, he started in again. 'You know what will happen when I write that he struck Ferguson?'

'I know what you think will happen.'

'He'll get a new trial.'

'Maybe. I guess, probably.'

'You sound like someone who knows something, who's not talking.'

'No, Mr. Cowart, I sound like someone who understands the system.'

'Well, the system says you can't beat a confession out of a defendant.'

'Is that what we did? I think I told you only that Wilcox slapped Ferguson once or twice. Slapped. Open hand. Hardly more than an attention-getting device. You think getting a confession from a murderer is a tea party, all nice and proper every time? Christ. And anyway, it was almost twenty-four hours later before he confessed. Where's the cause and effect?'

'That's not what Ferguson says.'

'I suppose he says we tortured him all that time.'

'Yes.'

'No food. No drink. No sleep. Constant physical abuse coupled with deprivation and fear. Old tactics, remarkably successful. Been around since the Stone Age. That's what he says?'

'Pretty much. Do you deny it?'

Tanny Brown smiled and nodded. 'Of course. It didn't happen that way. If it had, we'd have damn well gotten a better confession out of that close-mouthed son of a bitch. We'd have found out how he sweet-talked Joanie into that car and where he stashed his clothes and that piece of rug and all the rest of the shit he wouldn't tell us.'

Cowart felt a surge of indecision again. What the policeman said was true.

Brown paused, thinking. Then he added, 'There you go, that'll help your story, won't it? An official denial.'

'Yes.'

'But it won't stop your story?'

'No.'

'Ah, well, I suppose it's much more convenient for you to believe him.'

'I didn't say that.'

'No? What makes his version more plausible than what I told you?'

'I'm not making that judgment.'

'The hell you aren't.' Brown pivoted in his seat and glared at Cowart. 'That's the standard reporter's excuse, isn't it? The "Hey, I just put all the versions out there and let the readers decide whom to believe" speech, right?'

Cowart, unsettled, nodded.

The detective nodded back and returned his gaze out the window.

Cowart fell into a hole of quiet as he steered the car slowly down the roadway. He saw that he was driving past the intersection described by Blair Sullivan. He peered down the roadway, looking for the stand of willow trees.

'What are you looking for?' Brown asked.

'Willow trees and a culvert that runs beneath the road.'

The detective frowned and took a second before replying. 'Right down the road. Slow down, I'll show you.'

He pointed ahead and Matthew Cowart saw the trees and a small dirt space where he could pull over. He parked the car and got out.

'Okay,' said the detective, 'we found the willows. Now what are we looking for?'

'I'm not sure.'

'Mr. Cowart, perhaps if you were a bit more forthcoming…'

'Under the culvert. I was told to look under the culvert.'

'Who told you to look under the culvert, for what?'

The reporter shook his head. 'Not yet. Let's just take a look first.'

The detective snorted, but followed after him.

Matthew Cowart walked to the side of the road and stared down at the edge of the slate-gray, rusted pipe that protruded into a tangle of scrub brush, rock, and moss. It was surrounded by the inevitable array of litter: beer cans, plastic soda bottles, unrecognizable paper wrappings, an old dirty white hightop sneaker, and a rank, half-eaten bucket of fried chicken. A trickle of black dirty water dripped from the end of the metal cylinder. He hesitated, then scrambled down into the damp, thorny undergrowth. The bushes tugged at his clothing and he could feel ooze beneath his feet. The detective followed him without hesitation, instantly ripping and muddying his suit. He paid it no mind.

'Tell me,' the reporter asked, 'is this thing always like this, or…'

'No. When it rains hard, this whole area will fill up, all muck swamp and mud. Takes a day or so to dry out again. Over and over.'

Cowart slid on the gloves. 'Hold the flashlight,' he said.

Gingerly, he got down on his knees and, with the detective balancing next to him, flashing the light beneath the edge of the culvert, the reporter started scraping away built-up dirt and rock.

'Mr. Cowart, do you know what you're doing?'

He didn't answer but continued pulling the debris away, pitching it behind him.

'Perhaps if you told me

He caught a glimpse of something in the light beam. He started to dig harder. The detective saw that he'd seen something and tried to peer down, under the lip, at what it was. Matthew Cowart scratched away some wet leaves and mud. He saw a handle and grasped it. He pulled hard. For an instant there was resistance, as if the earth would not give it up without a struggle, then it came free. He stood up abruptly, turning toward the detective, holding out his hand.

A wild, self-satisfied excitement filled him. 'One knife,' he said slowly.

The detective stared at it.

'One murder weapon, I suspect.'

The four-inch blade and handle of the knife were crusted with rust and dirt. It was black with age and the elements, and for an instant Cowart feared the weapon would disintegrate in his hand.

Tanny Brown looked hard at Matthew Cowart, pulled a clean cloth from a pocket and took the knife by the tip, wrapping it gently. 'I'll take that,' he said firmly.

The detective placed the knife in his suit pocket. 'Not much left of it,' he said slowly, with disappointment. 'We'll run it through the lab, but I wouldn't count on much.' He stared down at the culvert, then up into the sky. 'Step back,' he continued softly. 'Don't touch anything else. There may be something of forensic value, and I don't want it further disturbed.' He fixed Cowart with a long, hard stare. 'If this location relates to a crime, then I want it properly preserved.'

'You know what it relates to,' Cowart replied.

Brown stepped away for an instant, shaking his head. 'You son of a bitch,' he said softly, turning abruptly and scrambling back up the incline toward the reporter's car. He stood for an instant on the roadway, hand clenched, face set. Then, suddenly, with a swiftness that seemed to break the still morning, he kicked at the open car door. The noise of his foot slamming into the metal reverberated amidst the heat and sunlight, fading slowly like a distant shot.

Cowart sat alone in the policeman's office, waiting. He watched through the window as night slid over the town, a sudden surge of darkness that seemed to fight its way out of shadowy corners and from beneath shade trees to take over the atmosphere. It was a wintertime swiftness, with none of the slow lingering daylight of summer.

The day had been spent on edge. He had watched as a team of crimescene technicians had carefully processed the culvert for other evidence. He had watched as they had bagged and tagged all the debris, dirt samples, and some pieces of unrecognizable trash. He knew they would find nothing, but had waited patiently through the search.

By late afternoon, Tanny Brown and he had driven back to the police headquarters, where the detective had put him in the office to await the results of the laboratory examination of the knife. The two men had shared little but silence.

Cowart turned to the wall of the office and gazed at a framed photograph of the detective and his family, standing outside a whitewashed church. A wife and two daughters, one all pigtails and braces with an insouciance that penetrated even the austerity of her Sunday clothes; the other a teenage vixen-in-the-making with smooth skin and a figure pushing hard at the starched white of her blouse. The detective and his wife were smiling calmly at the camera, trying to look comfortable.

He was hit with a sudden twinge. He had thrown out all the pictures of himself with his wife and child after the divorce. Now he wondered why.

He let his eyes wander over the other wall decorations. There was a series of marksmanship plaques for winning the annual county handgun contest. A framed citation from the mayor and city council attesting to his bravery on an obscure occasion. A framed medal, a Bronze Star, along with another citation. Next to it was a picture of a younger, far leaner Tanny Brown in fatigues in Southeast Asia.

The door opened behind him, and Cowart turned. The detective was impassive, his face set.

'Hey,' Cowart said, 'what did you get the medal for?'

'What?'

Cowart gestured at the wall.

'Oh. That. I was a medic. Platoon got caught in an ambush and four guys got dropped out in a paddy. I went out and brought them in, one after the other. It was no big deal except we had a reporter from the Washington Post along with us that day. My lieutenant figured he'd fucked up so bad walking us into the ambush that he better do something, so he made sure I got cited for a medal. Kinda deflected the bad impression the newspaper guy was going to come away with after spending four hours having his ass shot at and his face pushed down in a swamp crawling with leeches. Did you go?'

'No, Cowart said. 'My lottery number was three-twenty. It never came up.'

The detective nodded, gesturing toward a chair. He plumped himself down behind the desk.

'Nothing,' the detective said.

'Fingerprints? Blood? Anything?'

'Not yet. We're going to send it off to the FBI lab and see what they can do. They've got fancier equipment than we do.'

'But nothing.'

'Well, the medical examiner says the blade is the right size to have caused the stab wounds. The deepest wound measured the same distance as the blade of the knife. That's something.'

Cowart pulled out his notepad and started taking notes. 'Can you trace the knife?'

'It's a cheap, typical nineteen-ninety-five, buy-it-in-any-sporting-goods-store-type knife. We'll try, but there's no identifying serial number or manufacturer's mark.' He hesitated and looked hard at Cowart. 'But what's the point?'

'What?'

'You heard me. It's time to stop playing games. Who told you about the knife? Is it the one that killed Joanie Shriver? Talk to me.'

Cowart hesitated.

'You gonna make me read all about it? Or what?' Harsh insistence crawled over the fatigue in his voice.

'I'll tell you one thing: Robert Earl Ferguson didn't tell me where to look for that knife.'

'You're telling me that someone else told you where to find the weapon that may have been used to kill

Joanie Shriver?'

'That's right.'

'You care to share this information?'

Matthew Cowart looked up from his scribblings. 'Tell me one thing first, Lieutenant. If I say who told me about that knife, are you going to reopen the murder investigation? Are you willing to go to the state attorney? To get up in front of the trial judge and say that the case needs to be reopened?'

The detective scowled. 'I can't make a promise like that before I know anything. Come on, Cowart. Tell me.'

Cowart shook his head. 'I just don't know if I can trust you, Lieutenant. It's as simple as that.'

In that moment, Tanny Brown looked like a man primed to explode. I thought you understood one thing,' the detective said, almost whispering.

'What?'

'That in this town until that man pays, the murder of Joanie Shriver will never be closed.'

'That's the question, isn't it? Who pays?'

'We're all paying. All of us. All the time.' He slammed his fist down hard on the table. The sound echoed in the small room. 'You got something to say, say it!'

Matthew Cowart thought hard about what he knew and what he didn't know and finally replied, 'Blair Sullivan told me where to find that knife.'

The name had the expected impact on the policeman. He looked surprised, then shocked, like a batter expecting a fastball watching a curve dip over the corner of the plate.

'Sullivan? What has he got to do with this?'

'You ought to know. He passed by Pachoula in May 1987, busy killing all sorts of folks.'

I know that, but…'

'And he knew where the knife was.'

Brown stared at him. A few stretched seconds of silence filled the room. 'Did Sullivan say he killed Joanie Shriver?'

'No, he didn't.'

'Did he say Ferguson didn't kill that girl?'

'Not exactly, but

'Did he say anything exactly to contradict the original trial?'

'He knew about the knife.'

'He knew about a knife. We don't know it is the knife, and without any forensics, it's nothing more than a piece of rusted metal. Come on, Cowart, you know Sullivan's stone crazy. Did he give you anything that could even remotely be called evidence?'

Brown's eyes had narrowed. Cowart could see him processing information rapidly, speculating, absorbing, discarding. He thought right then: It's too hard for him. He won't want to consider any possibilities of mistake. He has his killer and he's satisfied.

'Nothing else.'

'Then that's not enough to reopen an investigation that resulted in a conviction.'

'No? Okay. Get ready to read it in the paper. Then we'll see if it's enough.'

The policeman glared at Cowart and pointed at the door. 'Leave, Mr. Cowart. Leave right now. Get in your rental car and go back to the motel. Pack your bags. Drive to the airport. Get on a plane and go back to your city. Don't come back. Understand?'

Cowart bristled. He could feel a surge of his own frustrated anger pushing through him. 'Are you threatening me?'

The detective shook his head. 'No. I'm giving advice.'

'And?'

'Take it.'

Matthew Cowart picked himself out of the chair and gave the detective a long stare. The two men's eyes locked, a visual game of arm wrestling. When the detective finally swerved away, turning his back, Cowart spun about and walked through the door, closed it sharply behind him, and paced briskly through the bright fluorescent lights of the police headquarters, as if pushing a wave in front of him, watching uniformed officers and other detectives step aside. He could sense the pressure of their eyes on his back as he stepped through the corridors, quieting a dozen conversations in his wake. He heard a few words muttered behind him, heard his name spoken several times with distaste. He didn't glance around, didn't alter his step. He rode the elevator alone and walked out through the wide glass doors onto the street. There he turned and looked back up toward the detective's office. For an instant he could see Tanny Brown standing in his window, staring out at him. Again their eyes locked. Matthew Cowart shook his head slightly, just the barest motion from side to side.

He saw the detective wheel aside, disappearing from the window.

Cowart stood rigid for an instant, letting the night envelop him. Then he strode away, walking slowly at first but rapidly gaining momentum and pace until he was marching briskly across the town, the words that would become his story beginning to gather deep within him, parading in military array across his imagination.

7. Words

Returning home, however, a spreading exhaustion forced the living to fade into his notebooks and let the dead take over his imagination.

It was late, well past midnight on a clear Miami night and the sky seemed an endless black painted with great brushstrokes into an infinity of blinking starlight.

He wanted someone to share his impending triumph but realized there was no one. All were gone, stolen by age, divorce, and too many dyings. Especially he wanted his parents, but they were long gone.

His mother had died when he was still a young man. She'd been mousy and quiet, with an athletic, bony thinness that made her embrace hard-edged and brittle, which she'd compensated for with a soft, almost lush voice used to great advantage in storytelling. A product of times that had created her as a housewife and kept her mired there, she'd raised him and his brothers and sisters in an endless cycle of diapers, formula, and teething that had given way to scraped knees and imaginary hurts, homework, basketball practices, and the occasional, inevitable heartbreaks of adolescence.

She'd died swiftly but undramatically at the beginning of her old age. Inoperable colonic cancer. Five weeks, a magical, steady progression from health to death, marked daily by the yellowing of her skin and growing weakness in her voice and walk. His father had died right along with her, which was odd. As Matthew had grown older, he had come to know of his father's boisterous infidelities. They had always been short-lived and poorly concealed. In retrospect they had seemed far less evil than the affair with the newspaper, which had robbed him of time and sapped his enthusiasm for being with his family. So, when his father had followed her funeral with six months of obsessive, endless weeks devoted to work, only to announce at the end that he was taking early retirement, it had surprised all the children.

They had had long conversations on the telephone, questioning his act, wondering what he would do, all alone in a big and now insistently empty, echoing suburban home, surrounded by young families who would find his presence unusual and probably unsettling. Matthew Cowart had been the last of a half-dozen children, grown into teachers, a lawyer, a doctor, an artist, and himself and spread across the states, none close enough to help their father, suddenly old. They had all failed to see the obvious. He'd shot himself on his wedding anniversary.

I should have known, he thought. I should have seen what was coming. His father had called him two nights earlier. They'd talked gingerly, distantly, about news stories and reporting. His father had said, 'Remember: It's not the facts that they want. It's the truth.' He had rarely said that sort of thing to his son before, and when Cowart had tried to get him to continue, he'd gruffly signed off.

The police had found him sitting at his desk, a small revolver in one hand, a bullet wound in his forehead, and her picture in his lap. Cowart had spoken with the detectives afterward, forever a reporter, forcing them to describe the scene with all the small details that, once heard, could never be forgotten, and stripped the dying of all its drama: that his father'd worn old red slippers and a blue business suit and a flowered tie that she'd purchased for him some forgettable Father's Day in the past; that a copy of that day's edition of the paper, red-penciled with notes, had been spread before him on the desk next to a diet soda and a half-eaten cheese sandwich. He'd remembered to write a check to the cleaning lady and left it taped to his antique green-shaded banker's lamp. There had been a half-dozen crumpled papers strewn about his chair, tossed haphazardly aside, all notes started and abandoned, to his children.

The stars blinked above him.

I was the youngest, he thought. The only one to try his profession. I thought it would make us closer. I thought I could do it better. I thought he would be proud. Or jealous.

Instead, he was more remote.

He thought of his mother's smile. His daughter's reminded him of her. And I let my wife take her with hardly a whimper. He felt a sudden dark emptiness at that thought, which was instantly replaced with the nightmare memory of the crime-scene photographs of little Joanie Shriver.

He lowered his head and peered down the street. In the distance, he could see the boulevard glistening with yellow streetlamps and the sweeping headlights of passing cars. He turned away, hearing a siren wailing some way away, and entered his apartment building. He rose in the elevator, stepped across the corridor, and opened the door to his apartment. For an instant, he hesitated in the entranceway, flipping on the lights and peering about himself. He saw a bachelor's disarray, books stuffed into shelves, framed posters on the walls, a desk littered with papers, magazines, and clipped articles. He looked about for something familiar that would tell him he was home. Then he sighed, locked the door behind himself, and went about the business of unpacking and going to bed.

Cowart spent a long week working the telephone, filling in the background for the story. There were brusque calls to the prosecutors who'd convicted Ferguson and didn't want to talk with any reporters. There were longer calls to the men who'd worked the cases against Blair Sullivan. A detective in Pensacola had confirmed Sullivan's presence in Escambia County at the time of Joanie Shriver's murder; a gasoline credit-card receipt from a station near Pachoula was dated the day before the girl was murdered. The prosecutors in Miami showed Cowart the knife that Sullivan had been using when he was arrested; it was a cheap, nondescript four-inch blade, similar but not identical to the one he'd found beneath the culvert.

He had held the knife in his hand and thought: It fits.

Other pieces fell into line.

He spoke at length with officials at Rutgers, obtaining Ferguson's modest grade record. He'd been a steady, insistently indifferent student, one who seemed to possess only meager interest in anything other than completing his courses, which he'd done steadily, if not spectacularly. A proctor in a dorm remembered him as a quiet, unfriendly underclassman, not given to partying or socializing in any distinguishable fashion. A loner, the man had said, who kept primarily to himself and had moved into an apartment shortly after his first year at the university.

Cowart spoke to Ferguson's high-school guidance counselor, who said much the same, though pointed out that in Newark, Ferguson's grades were much higher. Neither man had been able to give him the name of a single real friend of the convicted man.

He began to see Ferguson as a man floating on the fringe of life, unsure of himself, unsure of who he was or where he had been going, a man waiting for something to happen to him, when the worst possible thing had swept him up. He did not see him as much innocent as a victim of his own passivity. A man to be taken advantage of. It helped him to understand what had happened in Pachoula. He thought of the contrast between the two black men at the core of his story: One didn't like pitching and reeling in the back of a bus, the other ran out under fire to help others. One drifted through college, the other became a policeman. Ferguson hadn't had a chance, he thought, when confronted by the force of Tanny Brown's personality.

By the end of the week, a photographer dispatched by the Journal to North Florida had returned. He spread his pictures out on a layout desk before Cowart. There was a full-color shot of Ferguson in his cell, peering out at the camera between the bars. There was a shot of the culvert, other shots of Pachoula, the Shriver house, the school. There was the same picture that Cowart had seen hanging in the elementary school. There was a shot of Tanny Brown and Bruce Wilcox, striding out of the Escambia County homicide offices.

'How'd you get that?' Cowart asked.

'Spent the day staked out, waiting for them. Can't say they were real pleased, either.'

Cowart nodded, glad that he hadn't been there. 'What about Sully?'

'He wouldn't let me shoot him,' the photographer replied. 'But I've got a good shot of him from his trial. Here.' He handed the picture to Cowart.

It was Blair Sullivan marching down a courtroom corridor, shackled hand and foot, braced by two huge detectives. He was sneering at the camera, half-laughing, half-threatening.

'One thing I can't figure,' the photographer said.

'What's that?'

'Well, if you saw that man coming at you out on the street, you sure as hell would run fast the other way. You sure wouldn't get into the car with him. But Ferguson, hell, you know, even when he's staring out at you angry, he still don't look that damn bad, you know. I mean, I could see letting him talk me into a car.'

'You don't know,' Cowart replied. He picked up the picture of Sullivan. 'The man's a psychopathic killer. He could talk you into anything. It's not just that little girl. Think about all the other folks he killed. How about that old couple, after he helped change their tire? They probably thanked him before he killed them. Or the waitress. She went with him, remember? Just looking to have a little good time. Thought she was going to have a party. She didn't make him for a killer. The kid in the convenience store? He had one of those emergency alarm buttons right under the register. But he didn't hit it.'

'Didn't have the chance, I think.' Cowart shrugged.

'Well,' the photographer said, I sure as hell wouldn't get into a car with him.' 'That's right. You'd be dead.'

He commandeered his old desk in a back corner of the newsroom, spreading all his notes out around himself, staring into a computer screen. There was a single moment, when the screen was empty before him, that he felt a quick nervousness. It had been some time since he'd written a news story, and he wondered if the skill had left him. Then he thought, It's all there, and let excitement overcome any doubts. He found himself describing the two men in their cells, the way they had appeared, the way they'd talked. He sketched out what he'd seen of Pachoula, and he outlined the hulking intensity of the one detective and the abrupt anger of the other. The words came easily, steadily. He thought of nothing else.

It took him three days to write the first story, two days to construct the follow. He spent a day polishing, another day writing sidebars. Two days were spent going over it line by line with the city editor. Another day with lawyers, a frustrating word-by-word analysis. He hovered over the layout desk as it was budgeted for the front of the Sunday paper. The main headline was: A CASE OF QUESTIONS. He liked that. The subhead was: TWO MEN, ONE CRIME AND A MURDER THAT NO ONE CAN FORGET. He liked that as well.

He lay sleepless in bed at night, thinking: There it is. I've done it. I've really done it.

On the Saturday before the story was to run, he called Tanny Brown. The detective was home, and the homicide offices wouldn't give Co wart his unlisted telephone number. He told a secretary to have the detective call him back, which the man did an hour later.

'Cowart? Tanny Brown here. I thought we'd finished talking for now.'

'I just wanted to give you a chance to respond to what's going to be in the story.'

'Like your damn photographer gave us a chance?'

'I'm sorry about that.'

'Ambushed us.'

'Sorry.'

Brown paused. 'Well, at least tell me the picture doesn't look too damn bad. We've always got out vanity, you know.'

Cowart could not tell if the detective was joking or not.

'It's not bad,' he said. 'Like something out of Dragnet.'

'Good enough. Now, what do you want?'

'Do you want to respond to the story we're running tomorrow?'

'Tomorrow? I'll be damned. Guess I'll have to get up early and go down to the paper store. Gonna be a big deal?'

'That's right.'

'Front page, huh? Gonna make you a star, right, Cowart? Make you famous?'

'I don't know about that.'

The detective laughed mockingly. 'This is Robert Earl's big shot, right? You think it'll do the trick for him? You think you can walk him off the Row?'

'I don't know. It's a pretty interesting story.'

'I bet.'

'I just wanted to give you the opportunity to respond.'

'You'll tell me what it says now?'

'Yes. That's correct. Now it's written.'

Tanny Brown's voice paused over the telephone line. 'I suppose you got all that stuff about beating him up and that crap? The bit with the gun, right?'

'It says what he contends. It also says what you said.'

'Just not quite as strong, though, huh?'

'No, they have equal weight.'

Brown laughed. 'I bet,' he said.

'So, would you like to comment directly?'

'I like that word, "comment." Says a bunch, doesn't it? Nice and safe. You want me to comment on what it says?' A sharp sarcasm tinged his voice.

'Right. I wanted you to have the opportunity.'

I got it. An opportunity to dig a bigger grave for myself,' the detective said. 'Get myself in more trouble than I'm already going to be in, just because I didn't bullshit you. Sure.' He took a breath and continued, almost sadly. 'I could have stonewalled the whole thing, but I didn't. Is that in your story?'

'Of course.'

Tanny Brown laughed briefly, wryly. 'You know, I know you got an idea what's gonna happen because of all this. But I'll tell you one thing. You're wrong. You're dead wrong.'

'Is that what you want to say?'

'Things never work out as smoothly or as simply as people think. There's always a mess. Always questions. Always doubts.'

'Is that what you want to say?'

'You're wrong. Just wrong.'

'Okay. If that's what you want to say.'

'No, that's what I want you to understand.'

The detective laughed abruptly. 'Still the hard case, ain't you, Cowart? You don't have to answer that. I already know the answer.' He let a beat slip by, then another.

Cowart listened to the deep, angry breathing on the line before Tanny Brown finally spoke, rumbling his words like a distant storm. 'Okay, here's a comment: Go fuck yourself.'

And then he hung up.

8. Another Letter From Death Row

He did not see or speak with Ferguson until the hearing. The same was true for the detectives, who refused to return any of his phone calls in the weeks after the stories ran. His requests for information were handled summarily by prosecutors up in Escambia County, who were scrambling for a strategy. On the other hand, Ferguson's defense attorneys were effusive, calling him almost daily to inform him of developments, filing a barrage of motions in front of the judge who'd presided over Ferguson's murder trial.

When his story had appeared, Cowart had been caught up in a natural momentum created by the allegations he'd printed, like being driven down a street by sweeping sheets of rain. The television and newspaper press inundated the case, crawling with rapacity over all the people, events, and locations that had constituted his tale, retelling it, reforming it in dozens of different yet fundamentally similar ways. To all involved, it had been a story of several fascinations: the tainted confession, the disquieted town still restless from the child's murder, the iron-hard detectives, and ultimately, the awful irony that the one killer could see the other go to the electric chair simply by keeping his mouth shut. This, of course, Blair Sullivan did, summarily refusing all interviews, refusing to speak with reporters, lawyers, police, even a crew from 60 Minutes. He made one call, to Matthew Cowart, perhaps ten days after the articles appeared.

The call was collect. Cowart was at his desk, back in the editorial department, reading the New York Times version of the story (QUESTIONS RAISED IN FLORIDA PANHANDLE MURDER CASE) when the phone rang and the clipped voice of the long-distance operator asked him if he would accept a call from a Mr. Sullivan in Starke, Florida. He was momentarily confused, then electrified. He leaned forward in his seat and heard the familiar soft twang of Sergeant Rogers at the prison.

'Cowart? You there, fella?'

'Hello, Sergeant. Yes?'

'We're bringing in Sully. He wants to talk to y'all.'

'How're things up there?'

The sergeant laughed. 'Hell, I shoulda known better than to let you in here. This place been buzzing like a damn bee's nest since your stories. All of a sudden, everybody on Death Row's calling up every damn reporter in the state, for sure. And every damn reporter is showing up here demanding interviews and tours and every damn thing.' The sergeant's laugh continued to barrel over the telephone line. 'Got this place more excited than the time both the main and the backup generators went out, and all the inmates thought it was the hand of Fate opening the doors for them.'

'I'm sorry if I caused you some trouble…'

'Oh, hell, I don't mind. Takes the edge off the sameness, you know. Of course, likely to be a mite difficult around here when things do settle down. Which they will, sooner or later.'

'How about Ferguson?'

'Bobby Earl? He's so busy giving interviews I think they ought to give him his'n own talk show on late-night TV, like Johnny Carson or that Letterman guy-'

Cowart smiled. 'And Sully?'

There was a pause, then the sergeant spoke softly.

'Won't talk to no one about nothing, no sir. Not just reporters or shrinks. Bobby Earl's attorney been 'round maybe five, six times. Those two detectives from Pachoula came by, but he just laughed at them and spat in their eyes. Subpoenas, threats, promises, whatever, you name it, don't do no good. He don't want to talk, especially about that little gal in Pachoula. He sings some hymns to himself and writes more letters and studies the Bible hard. Keeps asking me what's happening, so I fill him in as best as possible, bring him the papers and the magazines and such. He watches the television each night, so he can see those two detectives call you every name in the book. And then he just laughs it all off.'

'What do you think?'

'I think he's having fun. His own kind of fun.'

'That's scary.'

'I told you about that man.'

'So why does he want to talk to me?'

'I don't know. He just up and asks me this morning if'n I'll put the call through.'

'So put him on.'

The sergeant coughed with concern. 'Ain't that easy. You remember, we like a few precautions moving Mr. Sullivan.'

'Of course. How's he look?'

'He don't look no different from when you saw him, save maybe a bit of excitement about him. Got a little bit of a glow to him, like he's been putting on weight, which he ain't, cause he don't eat much at all. Like I said, I think he's having fun. He's right lively.'

'Uh-huh. Hey, Sergeant, you didn't say what you thought of the story.'

'No? Well, I thought it real interesting.'

'And?'

'Well, Mr. Cowart, I got to say, you hang around prisons long enough, especially Death Row, and you're likely to hear every damn strange story there is.'

Before Cowart could ask another question, he heard loud voices in the background and shuffling sounds by the telephone. The sergeant said, 'He's coming in now.'

'This is a private conversation?' Cowart asked.

'You mean, is this phone bugged? Hell if I know. It's the line we use mainly for lawyers, so I doubt it, 'cause they'd make a helluva stink. Anyway, here he is, just one second, we got to cuff his hands.'

There was a momentary silence. Cowart could hear the sergeant speaking in the background. 'That too tight, Sully?' And he heard the prisoner reply, 'Nah, it's okay.' Then there were some indistinct noises and the sound of a door closing, and finally Blair Sullivan's voice.

'Well, well, well, Mr. Cowart. The world-famous reporter, how yah doing?'

'Fine, Mr. Sullivan.'

'Good. Good. So what d'you think, Cowart? Our boy Bobby Earl gonna walk in the air of freedom? Do you think that god of good fortune's gonna pluck him out from behind these bars, from out of the shadow of death, huh? You think the gears of justice gonna start grinding away on him now?' Sullivan laughed hoarsely.

'I don't know. His attorney has filed a motion for a new trial back in the court that convicted him…'

'You think that's gonna do the trick?'

'We'll see.'

Sullivan coughed. 'That's right, you're right.'

Both men were silent.

After a moment, Cowart asked, 'So, why have you called me?'

'Hang on, Sullivan replied. 'I'm trying to get this damn smoke lit. It's hard. I got to put the phone down.' There was a clunking sound before Cowart heard his voice again. 'Ahh, there we go. You asked?'

'Why'd you call?'

'I just wanted to hear how famous you're getting.'

'What?'

'Why, hell, Cowart, I see your story all over the news. Sure got everybody's attention, didn't you? Just by sticking your hand under a greasy old culvert, right?'

'I guess.'

'Pretty easy way to get famous, huh?'

'That wasn't all there was to it.'

Sullivan spat out another laugh. 'I suppose not. But you sure looked fine answering all those questions on Nightline. Real confident and sure of yourself.'

'You wouldn't talk to them.'

'Nah. I thought I'd let you and Bobby Earl do the talking.' Sullivan hesitated and then whistled. 'Of course, now I noticed that those policemen from Pachoula didn't want to do much talking neither. I think they don't believe Bobby Earl. And they don't believe you. And they sure as hell don't believe me.'

Sullivan burst out with a mocking bray. 'Now, ain't that some pigheadedness! Just goes to show some folks be blind to anything, huh?'

Cowart didn't reply.

'Ain't that a question, Cowart? Didn't I ask you something?' Blair Sullivan whispered harshly.

'Yes,' Cowart replied quickly. 'Some folks are blind to anything.'

The prisoner paused. 'Well, we ought to help the shingles to drop from their eyes, oughtn't we, Mr. Famous Reporter Man? Lead them to the path of enlightenment, what you say?'

'How?' Cowart pitched forward at his desk. He could feel sweat streaking down under his arms, tickling his ribs.

'Now suppose I were to tell you something else. Something real interesting.'

Cowart's hand seized a pencil and he grabbed a stack of blank paper to take notes. 'Like what?'

'I'm thinking. Don't push me.'

'Okay. Take your time.' Here it comes, he thought.

'It would be interesting to know, wouldn't it, how that little girl got into that car, huh? That would pique your interest, wouldn't it, Cowart?'

'Yes. How?'

'Not so fast. I'm still thinking. You got to be cautious with your words these days. Don't want anything misunderstood, if you follow my meaning. Say, do you know it was a lovely day that that poor gal died, wasn't it, Cowart? Did you find out that it was hot but sort of dry at the same time, with a little breeze blowing that cooled things off a bit and with like a great wide big blue sky up above and lots of flowers blooming all about. A real pretty day to die. And imagine how cool and comfortable it must have felt back there in that swamp under all that shade. You think that maybe the man who killed little Joanie – ain't that a sweet name -just lay back afterwards and enjoyed what a fine day it was for just a few minutes? And let the cool shade bring a nice calm to him?'

'How cool was it?'

Blair Sullivan laughed sharply. 'Now how would I know that, Cowart? Really?'

He wheezed in air, whistling on the phone line. 'Think of all the things those two pig cops would like to know. Like clothes and bloodstains and why there warn't no fingerprints and hair and dirt samples and all that stuff.'

'Why?'

'Well,' Sullivan replied breezily, 'I suspect that the killer of little Joanie knew enough to have two sets of clothes with him. So he could take the one set off – that one set that's all covered with blood and shit – and ditch them somewhere. He probably had the sense to keep a couple of extra-big old plastic garbage bags in his car as well, so he could wrap up that bloody clothing so's no one would notice it.'

Cowart's stomach clenched. He remembered a Miami detective telling him of finding spare clothes and a roll of garbage bags in the trunk of Blair Sullivan's car the night he was arrested. He closed his eyes for an instant and asked, 'Where would the killer dump the stuff?'

'Oh, someplace like a Salvation Army depository. You know, there's one at the shopping mall right outside Pensacola. But that's only if it weren't too messy, you know. Or if he really wanted to be careful, he'd maybe toss it in a big old Dempsey Dumpster, like the types they have at the rest areas on the interstate. Like at the Willow Creek exchange. That big one. Gets picked up every week and all that stuff just chucked right in a landfill. Nobody ever looks at what they're throwing out. Buried away under tons of garbage, yes sir. Never find that stuff again.'

'Is that what happened?'

He didn't reply. Instead, Sullivan continued, saying, 'I bet those cops, and you, too, Cowart, and maybe that little girl's grieving momma and poppa, would especially like to know why at all that little girl gets into that car, huh? Isn't that something, after all? Why does it happen, right?'

'Tell me why.'

He hissed over the line. 'God's will, Cowart.'

There was a moment's silence.

'Or maybe the Devil's. You think of that, Cowart? Maybe God was just having a bad day that day, so he let his former number-one executive officer make a bit of mischief, huh?'

Cowart didn't reply. He listened to the whispered words that slid across the phone line, landing heavily in his ear.

'Well, Cowart, I bet that whoever it was talked that little girl into his car, said something like, "Honey, can you give me some directions, please? I'm lost and need to find my way." Now ain't that the Lord's own truth, Cowart? That man there in that car, why I can see him as clear as the hand in front of me. Why he was lost, Cowart. Lost in so many ways. But he found himself that day, didn't he?'

Sullivan inhaled sharply before continuing. 'And when he's got that little gal's attention, what's he gonna say? Maybe he said, "Honey, I'll just give you a lift down to the corner, huh?" Just as easy and natural as you like.'

Sullivan hesitated again. 'Easy and natural, yes sir. Just exactly like a nightmare. No different than exactly what those good folks try to tell those children to look out for and stay clear from.'

He paused, then added breezily, 'Except she didn't, did she?'

'Is that what you said to her?' Cowart asked unsteadily.

'Did I say that's what I said to her? Did I now? No, I only said that's probably what somebody said to her. Somebody who was feeling kind of mean and murderous on that day and was just lucky enough to spot that little gal.'

He laughed again. Then he sneezed.

'Why'd you do it?' Cowart asked abruptly.

'Did I say I did?' Sullivan replied, giggling.

'No. You just tease me with…'

'Well, forgive me for having my fun.'

'Why don't you just tell me the truth? Why don't you just come forward and tell the truth?'

'What, and wreck all my enjoyment? Cowart, you don't know how a man gets his pleasures on Death Row.'

'Will allowing an innocent man to fry…'

'Am I doing that? Why, don't we have a mighty system of criminal justice to take care of those things? Make damn certain no innocent man gets a hot squat?'

'You know what I'm saying.'

'Yes I do,' Sullivan replied softly, menacingly. 'And I don't give a damn.'

'So why have you called me?'

Sullivan paused on the phone line. When his voice returned, it was quiet and deadly. 'Because I wanted you to know how interested I have become in your career, Cowart.'

'That's…'

'Don't interrupt me!' Sullivan bit off his words. 'I have told you that before! When I speak, you damn listen, Mr. Reporter Man. Got that?'

'Yes.'

'Because I wanted to tell you something.'

'What's that?'

'I wanted to tell you it isn't over. It's just beginning.'

'What do you mean?'

'You figure it out.'

Cowart waited. After a moment, Sullivan said, 'I think we'll talk again some day. I do enjoy our little chats. So much seems to happen after we talk. Oh, one thing.'

'What's that?'

'Did you hear, Florida high court's got my automatic appeal set for their fall term. They sure do like to keep a man waiting. I guess they're thinking maybe I'll change my mind or something. Decide to start playing out my appeals and all. Maybe hire some hotshot like Bobby Earl did and start questioning whether it's constitutional to fry my old sorry tail. I like that. I like their concern for old Sully.'

He paused. 'But we do know one thing, don't we, Mr. Reporter?'

'What's that?'

'That they're damn wrong. I wouldn't change my mind about things if Jesus Hisself came down and asked me nice and personal to.'

Then he hung the telephone up abruptly.

Cowart rose then from his seat. He decided to go to the men's room, where he spent several minutes running cold water over his wrists, trying to control the sudden heat that had overtaken him, and to slow his racing heart.

His ex-wife called him, too, one evening as he was Billing ready to leave work, the day after he had appeared on Nightline.

'Matty?' Sandy said. 'We saw you on the tube.'

Her voice had a sort of girlish excitement about it, which reminded him of the better times, when they'd been young, and their relationship hadn't been burdened. He was surprised to hear from her and pleased at the same time. He felt a sort of false modest delight.

'Hello, Sandy. How're you doing?'

'Oh, fine. Getting fat. Tired all the time. You remember how it was.'

Not really, he thought. He remembered he'd spent most of her pregnancy working fourteen-hour days on the city desk.

'What did you think?'

'It must have been exciting for you. It was a hell of a story.'

'Still is.'

'What's going to happen to those two men?'

'I don't know. I think Ferguson will get a new trial. The other…'

She interrupted. 'He scared me.'

'He's a pretty twisted man.'

'What will happen to him?'

'If he doesn't start filing appeals, the governor will sign a death warrant for him as soon as the state Supreme Court upholds his conviction. There's not much doubt they'll do that.'

'When will that happen?'

'I don't know. The court usually announces its decisions at several times, right up to the New Year. There'll be just a single line in the sheaf of decisions: In Re: The State of Florida versus Blair Sullivan. The judgment and sentence of the trial court is affirmed. It's all pretty bloodless until the governor's order arrives at the prison. You know, lots of papers and signatures and official seals and that sort of stuff, until it falls on somebody actually to have to juice the guy. The guards there call it doing the deathwork.'

'I don't think the world will be a lesser place when he's gone,' Sandy said with a small shudder in her voice.

Cowart didn't reply.

'But if he never owns up to what he did, what will happen to Ferguson?'

'I don't know. The state could try him again. He could get pardoned. He could sit on Death Row. All sorts of strange things can happen.'

'If they execute Sullivan, will anyone ever really know the truth?'

'Know the truth? Hell, I think we know the truth now. The truth is that Ferguson shouldn't be on Death Row. But prove the truth? That's a whole other thing. Real hard.'

'And what will happen to you now?'

'Same old stuff. I'll follow this story to the end. Then write some more editorials until I get old and my teeth fall out and they decide to turn me into glue. That's what they do to old racehorses and editorial writers, you know.'

She laughed. 'Come on. You're going to win a Pulitzer.'

He smiled. 'I doubt it,' he lied.

'Yeah, you will. I can feel it. Then they'll probably put you out to stud.'

'I should be so lucky.'

'You will be. You're going to win one. You deserve to. It was a hell of a story. Just like Pitts and Lee.'

She, too, remembered that story, he realized. 'Yeah. You know what happened to those guys after they got the judge to order up a new trial? They got convicted again, by a racist jury just as damn stupid as the first. It wasn't until the governor pardoned them that they got off Death Row. People forget that. Twelve years it took them.'

'But they got off and that guy won the Pulitzer.'

He laughed. 'Well, that's right.'

'You will, too. Won't take twelve years, either.'

'Well, we'll see.'

'Will you stay with the Journal?'

'No reason to leave.'

'Oh, come on. What if the Times or the Post calls?'

'We'll see.'

They both laughed. After a momentary pause, she said, 'I always knew someday you'd find the right story. I always knew someday you'd do it.'

'What am I supposed to say?'

'Nothing. I just knew you'd do it.'

'What about Becky? Did she stay up to watch me on Nightline?'

Sandy hesitated. 'Well, no. It's much too much past her bedtime

'You could have taped it.'

'And what would she have heard her daddy talk about? About somebody who murdered a little girl? A little girl who got raped and then stabbed, what was it, thirty-six times? And then tossed into a swamp? I didn't think that was too swift an idea.'

She was right, he realized, though he hated the thought. 'Still, I wish she'd seen.'

'It's safe here' Sandy said.

'What?'

'It's safe here. Tampa isn't a big city. I mean, it's big, but not big. It seems to move a little slower. And it's not at all like Miami. It's not all drugs and riots and weird, the way Miami is. She doesn't have to know about little girls that get kidnapped and raped and stabbed to death. Not yet, at least. She can grow up a bit, and be a kid, and not have to worry all the time.'

'You mean you don't have to worry all the time.'

'Well, is that wrong?'

'No.'

'You know what I can never understand? It's why everyone who works at the paper always thinks everything bad just happens to other people.'

'We don't think that.'

'It seems that way.'

He didn't want to argue. 'Well, maybe.'

She forced a laugh. 'I'm sorry if I've rained on your parade. Really, I wanted to call to congratulate you and tell you that I really was proud.'

'Proud but divorced.'

She hesitated. 'Yes. But amicably, I thought.'

'I'm sorry. That was unfair.'

'Okay.'

There was another pause.

'When can we talk about Becky's next visit?'

I don't know. I'll be hung up on this story until there's some sort of resolution. But when, I don't know.'

'I'll call you then.'

'Okay.'

'And congratulations again.'

'Thanks.'

He hung up the telephone and realized that he was sometimes a fool, incapable of saying what he wanted, articulating what he needed. He pounded the desk in frustration. Then he went to the window of his cubicle and looked out over the city. Afternoon traffic was flowing toward the expressway, like so many body nerves pulsating with the desire to head home to family. He felt his solitude surround him. The city seemed baked beneath the hot blue sky, the light-colored buildings reflected the sun's strength. He watched a tangle of cars in an intersection maneuvering like so many aggressive bugs on the earth. It is dangerous, he thought.

It is not safe.

Two motorists had shot it out two days earlier following a fender bender, blazing away in the midst of rush-hour traffic, each armed with nearly identical, expensive nine-millimeter semiautomatics. Neither man had been hurt, but a teenager driving past had taken a ricochet in the lung and remained in critical condition at a local hospital. This was a routine Miami story, a by-product of the heat and conflicting cultures and a populace that seemed to consider handguns an integral part of their culture. He remembered writing almost the same story a half-dozen years earlier. Remembered a dozen more times the story had been written, so frequently that what had been once a front-page story was now six paragraphs on an inside page.

He thought of his daughter and wondered, Why does she need to know? Why does she need to know anything about evil and the awful desires of some men?

He did not know the answer to that question.

There were thick black television cables snaking out the entranceway to the courtroom. Several cameramen were setting up video tape recorders in the hallway, taking their feeds from the single camera allowed in the courtroom. A mix of print and television reporters milled about in the corridor; the television personnel all slightly sharper dressed, better coiffed, and seemingly cleaner than their newspaper competitors, who affected a slightly disheveled appearance to set themselves apart self-righteously.

'Out in force,' said the photographer who walked beside him, fiddling with the lens on his Leica. 'No one wants to miss this dance.'

It was some ten weeks since the stories had appeared. Filings and maneuverings had postponed the hearing twice. Outside the Escambia County courthouse the thick Florida sun was energetically baking the earth. It was cool inside the modern building. Voices carried and echoed off high ceilings so that people spoke mainly in whispers, even when they didn't have to. There was a small sign in gold paint next to the wide brown courtroom doors: CIRCUIT COURT JUDGE HARLEY TRENCH.

'That the guy that called him a wild animal?' the photographer asked.

'You got it.'

'I don't imagine he's going to be too pleased to see all this.' The photographer gestured with his camera toward the crowd of reporters and camera technicians.

'No, wrong. It's an election year. He's gonna love the publicity.'

'But only if he does the right thing.'

'The popular thing.'

'I doubt they're gonna be the same.'

Cowart nodded. I don't think so, either. But you can't tell. I bet he's back in chambers right now calling every local politician between here and the Alabama border, trying to figure out what to do.'

The photographer laughed. 'And they're probably calling every district worker, trying to figure out what to tell him. What d'you think, Matty? You think he'll cut him loose or not?'

'No idea.'

He looked down the corridor and saw a group of jeans-clad young people surrounding an older, short black man, who was wearing a suit. 'Get a shot of them,' he told the photographer. 'They're from the anti-death-penalty group here to make some noise.'

'Where's the Man?'

'Probably somewhere. They're not so organized anymore. They're probably going to be late. Or maybe they went to the wrong place.'

'Got the wrong day, maybe. They were probably here yesterday, got bored and confused, and left.'

The two men laughed.

'It's going to be a zoo,' Cowart said.

The photographer paused in his step. 'Yeah. And there's the tigers, waiting for your tail.'

He gestured and Cowart saw Tanny Brown and Bruce Wilcox slumped up against a wall, trying to stay out of the way of the cameramen.

He hesitated, then said, 'Well, might as well see what's in the tiger's den.' And he walked briskly toward the two men.

Bruce Wilcox pivoted, presenting Cowart with the back of his sportcoat. But Tanny Brown moved away from the wall and nodded in meager greeting. 'Well, Mr. Cowart. You sure have caused some commotion.'

'It happens, Lieutenant.'

'You pleased?'

'I'm just doing my job. Just like you. Just like Wilcox.'

Brown looked past Cowart at the photographer. 'Hey, you! Next time try to get my right profile. Makes me look ten years younger and makes my kids a lot happier to see it. They think I'm getting too old for all this. Like, who needs the aggravation, hey?'

Brown smiled, turned slightly to demonstrate for the photographer, and put his finger on his cheek, pointing.

'See?' he said. 'Much better than that old scowling sneak shot you took.'

'Sorry about that.'

The policeman shrugged. 'Goes with the territory, I guess.'

'How come you wouldn't return my phone calls?' Cowart asked.

'We didn't have nothing more to talk about.'

Cowart shook his head. 'What about Blair Sullivan?'

'He didn't do it' Brown replied.

'How can you be so sure?'

I can't be. Not yet. But it doesn't feel right. That's all.'

'You're wrong,' Cowart said quietly. 'Motive. Opportunity. A well-known predilection. You know the man. You can't see him doing that crime? What about the knife in the culvert?'

The lieutenant shrugged again. 'I can see him doing it. Sure. But that doesn't mean jack shit.'

'Instincts again, Lieutenant?'

Tanny Brown laughed before continuing. 'I am not going to talk to you anymore about the substantive issues of the case,' he said, slipping into the practiced tones of a man who'd testified hundreds of times before hundreds of judges. 'We'll see what goes on in there.' He pointed at the courtroom. 'Afterwards, maybe we'll talk.'

Detective Wilcox stepped around then, staring at Tanny Brown. 'Then you'll talk! Then! I can't believe you're willing to give this bastard the time of day after he hung us out to dry. Made us look like…'

The lieutenant held up his hand. 'Don't say what he made us look like. I'm tired of that.' He turned toward Cowart. 'When this dog and pony show is all over, you get in touch. We'll talk again. But one thing.'

'What's that?'

'You remember the last thing I told you?'

'Sure,' Cowart said. 'You told me to go fuck myself.'

Tanny Brown smiled. 'Well,' he said quietly, 'keep at it.'

The big detective paused, then added, 'Walked right into that one, Mr. Cowart.'

Wilcox snorted a laugh and clapped the bigger man on the back. He made a pistol figure with his forefinger and fist and pointed it at Cowart, firing it slowly, dramatically. 'Zap!' he said. The two detectives then wandered toward the courtroom, leaving Cowart and the photographer hanging in the corridor.

Robert Earl Ferguson strode into the courtroom, flanked by a pair of gray-suited jail guards, wearing a new blue pinstripe suit and carrying a yellow legal pad. Cowart heard another reporter murmur, 'Looks like he's ready for law school,' and watched as Ferguson shook hands with Roy Black and his young assistant, glared once in the direction of Brown and

Wilcox, nodded toward Cowart, and then turned and waited for the judge to arrive.

Within moments, the courtroom was summoned to its feet. judge Harley Trench was a short, rotund man with silver-gray hair and a monk-like bald spot on the crown of his head. He had an instant officiousness to him, a clipped orderliness as he arranged papers swiftly on the bench before him, then looked up at the attorneys, slowly removing a set of wire-rimmed glasses from inside his robes and adjusting them on his nose, giving him the appearance of a fat crow on a high wire.

'All right. Y'all want to get this going?' he said swiftly, gesturing at Roy Black.

The defense attorney rose. He was tall and thin, with hair that curled long over the collar of his shirt. He moved slowly, with exaggerated, theatrical style, gesturing with his arms as he made his points. Cowart thought he would not be likely to get much slack from the short man on the bench, whose frown deepened with each word.

'We're here, your honor, on a motion for a new trial. This motion takes several forms: We contend that there is new exculpatory evidence in the case; we contend that if this new evidence were presented to a jury, they would have no alternative but to return a verdict of not guilty, finding reasonable doubt that Mr. Ferguson killed Joanie Shriver. We also contend that the court erred in its prior ruling on the admissibility of the confession Mr. Ferguson allegedly made.'

The attorney pivoted toward the detectives when he spoke the word 'allegedly,' drawing it out, labeling it with sarcasm.

'Isn't that an issue for the court of appeals?' the judge asked briskly.

'No, sir. Under Rivkind, 320 Florida twelve, 1978, and State of Florida versus Stark, 211 Florida thirteen, 1982, and others, sir, we respectfully submit that it was your honor who was prevented from having all the evidence when you made your ruling…'

'Objection!'

Cowart saw that the assistant state attorney had jumped up. He was a young man, in his late twenties, probably no more than a few years out of law school. He was wearing a three-piece tan suit and spoke in choppy, abrupt sentences. There had been considerable speculation about the fact that he'd been assigned to the case. Given the widespread publicity and interest, it had been assumed that the Escambia County state attorney would argue the matter himself, to give weight to the state's position through prestige. When the young attorney had shown up alone, the veteran reporters had nodded their heads in understanding. His name was Boylan, and he had refused to give Cowart even the time the hearing was supposed to begin.

'Mr. Black implies that the state withheld information. That is categorically untrue. Your honor, this is a matter for the appellate courts to decide.'

'Your honor, if I may finish?'

'Go ahead, Mr. Black. The objection is overruled.'

Boylan sat and Black continued.

'We contend, sir, that the outcome of that hearing would have been different, and that the state, without Mr. Ferguson's alleged confession, would not have been able to continue with their prosecution of the case. At worst, your honor, if the truth had been presented to the jury, Mr. Ferguson's trial attorney would have been able to make a powerful argument to those folks.'

'I understand,' the judge replied, holding up a hand to cut off any further talk by the defense lawyer. 'Mr. Boylan?'

'Your honor, the state contends this is a matter for the appellate courts. As far as new evidence is concerned, sir, statements in a newspaper do not constitute bona fide evidence that a court of law should consider.'

'Why not?' asked the judge abruptly, scowling at the prosecutor. 'What makes those statements any less relevant, if the defense can prove they took place? I don't know how they are going to do that, of course, but why shouldn't they have the opportunity?'

'We contend they are hearsay, your honor, and should be excluded.'

The judge shook his head. 'There are all sorts of exceptions to the hearsay rules, Mr. Boylan. You know that. You were in this court a week ago arguing the opposite.' The judge looked out at the audience. I'll hear the matter, he said abruptly. 'Call your first witness.'

That's it,' Cowart whispered to the photographer.

'What?'

'If he hears it, he's made up his mind.'

The photographer shrugged his shoulders. The court bailiff rose and intoned, 'Detective Bruce Wilcox.'

As Wilcox was being sworn in, the assistant state attorney rose and said, 'Your honor, I see several witnesses present in the courtroom. I believe the witness rule should be invoked.'

The judge nodded and said, 'All witnesses to wait outside.'

Cowart saw Tanny Brown rise and exit the courtroom. His eyes followed the slow path the detective made as he paced down the courtroom. He was followed by a smaller man Cowart recognized as an assistant medical examiner. He spotted, to his surprise, an official from the state prison as well, a man he'd seen on visits to Death Row. When he turned back, he saw the prosecutor pointing at him.

'Isn't Mr. Cowart a witness?'

'Not at this time,' Roy Black replied with a slight smile.

The prosecutor started to say something, then stopped.

The judge leaned forward, his tone brisk and slightly disbelieving. 'You don't intend to call Mr. Cowart to the stand?'

'Not at this time, your honor. Nor do we intend to call Mr. and Mrs. Shriver.'

He gestured toward the front row where the murdered girl's parents sat stoically, trying to look straight ahead, trying to ignore the television cameras that swept in their direction, along with the eyes of each spectator.

The judge shrugged. 'Proceed,' he said.

The defense lawyer walked to a speaking podium and paused before addressing Detective Wilcox, who had settled into the witness chair, pitching forward slightly, hands on the railing, like a man waiting for the start of a stakes race.

For the first few moments, the lawyer merely set the scene. He made the detective describe the circumstances surrounding the arrest of Ferguson. He made the detective concede that Ferguson had gone along without a whimper. He made the detective acknowledge that the only link, initially, to Ferguson was the similarity of the automobile. Then, he finally asked, 'So, he was arrested because of the car?'

'No, sir. He wasn't actually placed under arrest until he confessed to the crime.'

'But that was some time after he was taken into custody? More than twenty-four hours, right?'

'Right.'

'And do you think he thought he could leave at any time during that interrogation?'

'He never asked to leave.'

'Do you think he thought he could?'

I don't know what he was thinking.'

'Let's talk about that interrogation. Do you remember testifying in this courtroom in a hearing such as this three years ago?'

'I do.'

'Do you remember being asked by Mr. Burns: Question: "Did you strike Mr. Ferguson at the time of the confession?" and your reply, "I did not." Now, is that a truthful statement, sir?'

'It is.'

'Are you familiar with a series of articles which appeared in the Miami Journal some weeks back pertaining to this case?'

'I am.'

'Let me read you a paragraph. Quote: "Detectives denied that. Ferguson was beaten in order to obtain a confession. But they did concede that he was 'slapped' by Detective Wilcox at the beginning of the questioning." Are you familiar with that statement, sir, in the newspaper?'

'I am.'

'And is it truthful?'

'It is.'

Roy Black paced about the podium in sudden exasperation. 'Well, which is true?'

Detective Wilcox leaned back, allowing the smallest of grins to penetrate his lips. 'Both statements are true, sir. It is true that at the outset of the interview, I slapped Mr. Ferguson twice. With an open hand. Not hard. It was after he called me a name, and I couldn't control my temper for that one moment, sir. But hours passed before he confessed, sir. Almost an entire day. During that time we made jokes and spoke in friendly fashion. He was given food and rest. He never requested an attorney, nor did he ask to go home. It was my impression, sir, that when he confessed it made him feel much better about what he'd done.'

Detective Wilcox shot a glance at Ferguson, who was scowling, shaking his head, and scribbling on his legal pad. His eyes caught Cowart's for an instant, and he smiled.

Roy Black let fury ride the edges of his questions. 'Now, after you slapped him, Detective, what do you think he thought? Do you think he thought he wasn't under arrest? That he was free to go? Or do you think he thought you were going to beat on him some more?'

'I don't know.'

'Well, how did he act after you slapped him?'

'He grew more respectful. It didn't seem like Ferguson thought it was any big deal.'

'And?'

'And I apologized at the request of my superior officer.'

'Well, I'm sure that looking back from Death Row, that apology made all the difference in the world,' the lawyer said sarcastically.

'Objection!' Boylan stood slowly.

'I'll withdraw the remark,' Black replied.

'Right,' said the judge. 'Precisely.' He glared at the defense attorney.

'No more questions.'

'The state?'

'Yes, your honor. Just one or two. Detective Wilcox, have you had occasion to take other statements from people confessing to crimes?'

'Yes. Many times.'

'How many have been suppressed?'

'None.'

'Objection! Irrelevant!'

'Objection sustained and stricken. Continue, please.'

'Now, just so I can be certain, you say Mr. Ferguson finally confessed some twenty-four hours after being asked to give a statement?'

'Correct.'

'And the alleged slapping, that took place in…'

'Maybe the first five minutes.'

'And were there any other physical threats directed toward Mr. Ferguson?'

'None.'

'Verbal threats?'

'None.'

'Any type of threats?'

'No.'

'Thank you.' The prosecutor sat down. Wilcox rose and walked across the courtroom, adopting a fierce look until he maneuvered past the camera, when he broke into a grin.

Tanny Brown was next to the stand. He sat in the seat quietly, relaxed, with the calm exterior of someone who'd been in the position he occupied many times. Cowart listened carefully as the lieutenant explained the difficulty surrounding the case, and told the judge that the car was the first, and really the only, piece of evidence they had to go on. He described Ferguson as nervous, anxious, evasive when they arrived at his grandmother's shack. He said that Ferguson's movements had been abrupt, furtive, and that he had refused to explain why he was so busy washing out his car, or to explain satisfactorily where the missing section of car rug was. He said that this physical nervousness led him to suspect that Ferguson was concealing information. He then conceded that Ferguson was slapped twice. Nothing more.

His words echoed his partner's. 'Detective Wilcox struck the subject twice, with an open hand. Not hard. He was more respectful afterwards. But I personally apologized to the suspect, and I insisted that Detective Wilcox do the same.'

'And what was the effect of those apologies?'

'He seemed to relax. It did not seem that Mr. Ferguson thought being slapped was much of a big deal.'

'I'm sure. It's a bigger deal now, right, Lieutenant?'

Tanny Brown paused before answering the exasperated question. 'That is correct, Counselor. It is a much bigger deal now.'

'And of course, you never pulled a handgun during that interrogation and pointed it at my client?'

'No, sir.'

'You never pulled the trigger on an empty cylinder and told him to confess?'

'No, sir.'

'You never threatened him with his life?'

'No, sir.'

'As far as you're concerned, the statement he gave was entirely voluntary?'

'Correct.'

'Stand up, please, Lieutenant.'

'Sir?'

'Stand up and step down.'

Tanny Brown did what was requested. The defense attorney walked over and seized a chair from behind his table.

The prosecutor rose. 'Your honor, I fail to see the point of this demonstration.'

The judge leaned over. 'Mr. Black?'

'If your honor will indulge me just this once…'

The judge glanced toward the television camera, which had pivoted, following the detective. 'All right. But get on with it.'

'Stand there, Lieutenant.'

Tanny Brown stood easily in the center of the room, his hands clasped behind him, waiting.

Black turned toward Ferguson and nodded.

The prisoner then stood up and swiftly walked out from behind the defense table. For an instant, he stood next to the lieutenant, just long enough to allow the difference in the sizes between the two men to be seen. Then he sat in the chair. The effect was immediate; it seemed that Tanny Brown dwarfed the smaller man.

'Now, when he sat there like that, handcuffed and alone, you don't think he feared for his life?'

'No.'

'No? Thank you. Please return to your seat.'

Cowart smiled. A bit of theater just for the press, he thought. That was the footage that would make all the evening newscasts, the hulking detective perched over the slight, smaller man. It wouldn't have any impact on the judge's decision, but he recognized that Roy Black was playing to more audiences than the one.

'Let's move on to something else, Lieutenant.'

'Fine.'

'Do you recall an occasion where you were presented with a knife that was discovered beneath a rain culvert some three or four miles from the scene of the crime?'

'Yes.'

'How did you get that knife?'

'Mr. Cowart of the Miami Journal found it.'

'And what did an examination of that knife reveal?'

'The blade length matched some of the deep cuts in the deceased.'

'Anything else?'

'Yes. A microscopic analysis of the blade and handle showed small particles of blood residue.'

Cowart sat up straight. This was something new.

'And what were the results of those examinations?'

'The blood grouping matched that of the deceased.'

'Who performed these tests?'

'The FBI labs.'

'And what conclusion did you reach?'

'That the knife may have been the murder weapon.'

Cowart scribbled frantically. The other reporters did the same.

'Whose knife was it, Lieutenant?'

'We cannot tell. There were no fingerprints on it, nor were there any identifying marks.'

'Well, how did the reporter know where to locate it?'

'I have no idea.'

'Do you know a man named Blair Sullivan?'

'Yes. He's a mass murderer.'

'Was he ever a suspect in this case?'

'No.'

'Is he now?'

'No.'

'But was he in Escambia County at the time of Joanie Shriver's murder?'

Tanny Brown hesitated, then replied, 'Yes.'

'Do you know that Mr. Sullivan told Mr. Cowart where to find that knife?'

'I read that in a newspaper article. But I don't know that. I have no control over what appears in the press.'

'Absolutely. Have you attempted to interview Mr. Sullivan, in connection with this case?'

'Yes. He refuses to cooperate.'

'Just exactly how did he refuse to cooperate?'

'He laughed at us and wouldn't give a statement.'

'Well, precisely what did he say when he wouldn't give you a statement? And how did it happen?'

Tanny Brown gritted his teeth and glared at the attorney.

'I believe there's a question pending, Lieutenant.'

'We confronted him in his cell at the state prison in Starke. We, that's Detective Wilcox and myself, told him why we were there and we informed him of his rights. He exposed his backside to us, and then he said, "I refuse to answer your questions on the grounds that my replies might tend to incriminate me." '

The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.'

'Yes, sir.'

'How many times did he repeat it?'

I don't know. At least a dozen.'

'And did he say these words in a normal tone of voice?'

Tanny Brown shifted in the witness seat, displaying discomfort for the first time. Matthew Cowart watched him closely. He could see the detective struggling inwardly.

'No, sir. Not in a normal tone of voice.'

Then how, please, Lieutenant?'

Tanny Brown scowled. 'He was singing. First in a singsong, nursery rhyme kind of tone. Then blasting it out at the top of his lungs as we left the prison.'

'Singing?'

'That's right,' Brown replied slowly, angrily. 'And laughing.'

"Thank you, Lieutenant.'

When the large man stepped down from the stand, his hands were clenched and all in the courtroom could see the ridges in his neck muscles made by anger. But the image that remained in the tight air of the hearing was of the killer in his cell, singing his refusal like a caged mockingbird.

The assistant medical examiner testified swiftly, buttressing the details about the knife that Brown had already outlined. Then it was Ferguson's turn. Cowart noted the confident way the convicted man walked across the courtroom, taking his seat, hunching over slightly, as if leaning toward the questions from his attorney. Ferguson used a small voice, answering briskly but quietly, as if trying to diminish his presence on the stand. He was unhurried and articulate.

Well coached, Cowart thought.

He remembered the description of Ferguson at his trial, eyes shifting about as if searching for a place to hide from the facts that tumbled from the witnesses' mouths.

Not this time, Cowart realized. He scribbled a note in his pad to remind himself later to draw the distinction.

He listened as Black efficiently led Ferguson through the now-familiar tale of the coerced confession. Ferguson told again of being hit, of being threatened with the gun. Then he described being placed in his cell on Death Row, and of the eventual arrival of Blair Sullivan in the cell next to him.

'And what did Mr. Sullivan tell you?'

'Objection. Hearsay.' The prosecutor's voice was firm and smug. 'He can only say what he said or what he did.'

'Sustained.'

'All right,' Black answered smoothly. 'Did you have a conversation with Mr. Sullivan?'

'Yes.'

'And what was the result of that conversation?'

I grew enraged and tried to attack him. We were moved to different sections of the prison.'

'And what action did you take because of that conversation?'

I wrote to Mr. Cowart of the Miami Journal'

'And what did you ultimately tell him?'

'I told him that Blair Sullivan killed Joanie Shriver.'

'Objection!'

'On what grounds?'

The judge held up his hand. 'I'll hear this. It's why we're here.' He nodded toward the defense attorney.

Black paused, slightly openmouthed for an instant, as if assessing the wind currents in the courtroom, almost as if he could sense or smell the way things were going for him.

I have no further questions at this time.'

The young prosecutor jumped to the podium, clearly enraged. 'What proof have you that this story took place?'

'None. I only know that Mr. Cowart talked to Mr. Sullivan and then went and discovered the knife.'

'Do you expect this court to believe that a man would confess murder to you in a prison cell?'

'It's happened many times before.'

'That's not responsive.'

'I don't expect anything.'

'When you confessed to the murder of Joanie Shriver, you were telling the truth then, right?'

'No.'

'But you were under oath, correct?'

'Yes.'

'And you're facing the death penalty for that crime, right?'

'Yes.'

'And you would lie to save your skin, wouldn't you?'

When this question quivered in the air, Cowart saw Ferguson glance quickly toward Black. He could just see the defense attorney's face crease into a slight, knowing smile, and see him nod his head imperceptibly toward the man on the stand.

They knew this was coming, he thought.

Ferguson took a deep breath on the stand.

'You would lie, to save your life, wouldn't you, Mr. Ferguson?' the prosecutor asked sharply, once again.

'Yes,' Ferguson replied slowly. 'I would.'

'Thank you,' Boylan said, picking up a sheaf of papers.

'But I'm not' Ferguson added just as the prosecutor started to turn toward his seat, forcing the man to arrest his motion awkwardly.

'You're not lying now?'

That's correct.'

'Even though your life depends upon it?'

'My life depends upon the truth, Mr. Boylan, Ferguson replied. The prosecutor started angrily, as if to launch himself at the prisoner, only to catch himself at the last moment. 'Sure it does,' he said sarcastically. 'No more questions.'

There was a momentary pause while Ferguson resumed his seat at the defense table.

'Anything else, Mr. Black?' the judge asked.

'Yes, sir. One last witness. We would call Mr. Norman Sims to the stand.'

Within a few moments, a smallish, sandy-haired man, wearing glasses and an ill-fitting brown suit, walked through the court and took the witness stand. Black almost jumped to the podium.

'Mr. Sims, will you identify yourself for the court, please?'

'My name is Norman Sims. I'm an assistant superintendent at the state prison at Starke.'

'And what are your duties there?'

The man hesitated. He had a slow, mildly accented voice. 'You want me to say everything I got to do?'

Black shook his head. 'I'm sorry, Mr. Sims. Let me put it to you this way: does your job include reviewing and censoring the mail that comes to and from Death Row inmates?'

'I don't like that word…'

'Censor?'

'Right. I inspect the mail, sir. Occasionally, we have reason to intercept something. Usually it's contraband. I don't stop nobody from writing whatever they want to.'

'But in the case of Mr. Blair Sullivan…'

'That's a special case, sir.'

'What is it he does?'

'He writes obscene letters to the families of his victims.'

'What do you do with these letters?'

'Well, in each case, sir, I have tried to contact the family members they are addressed to. Then I inform them of the letters and ask whether they want to see it or not. I try to let them know what's in it. Most don't want to see 'em.'

'Very good. Admirable, even. Does Mr. Sullivan know you intercept his mail?'

'I don't know. Probably. He seems to know just about every damn thing going on in the prison. Sorry, your honor.'

The judge nodded, and Black continued. 'Now, did you have occasion to intercept a letter within the past three weeks?'

'I did, sir.'

'To whom was that letter addressed?'

'To a Mr. and Mrs. George Shriver here in Pachoula.'

Black bounced across the court and shoved a sheet of paper toward the witness. Ts this the letter?'

The prison superintendent stared at it for a moment. 'Yes, sir. It has my initials at the top, and a stamp. I wrote a note on it, too, that reflects the conversation I had with the Shrivers. They didn't want to hear none of it, sir, after I told them, general-like, what the letter said.'

Black took the letter, handed it to the court clerk, who marked it as an exhibit, then handed it back to the witness. Black started to ask a question, then cut himself off. He turned from the judge and witness and walked over to the bar, to where the Shrivers were sitting. Cowart heard him whisper, 'Folks, I'm going to have him read the letter. It might be rough. I'm sorry. But if y'all want to leave, then now's the time to do it. I'll see you get your seats back when you want 'em.'

The folksiness of his tone, so alien to the clipped words of his questions, surprised Cowart. He saw Mr. and Mrs. Shriver nod and lean their heads together.

He saw the large man rise then and take his wife by the hand. The courtroom was silent as they walked out. Their footsteps echoed slightly, and the doors creaked shut behind them. Black paused, watching them, then delayed another second or so as the doors swung closed. He nodded his head slightly.

'Mr. Sims, please read the letter.'

The witness coughed and turned toward the judge. 'It's a bit filthy, your honor. I don't know that…'

The judge interrupted. 'Read the letter.'

The witness bent his head slightly and peered down through his glasses. He read in a quick, hurried voice filled with embarrassment, stumbling on the obscenities.

'… Dear Mr. and Mrs. Shriver: I have been wrong not to write you before this, but I have been real busy getting ready to die. I just wanted you to know what a sweet little piece of fuck your little baby was. Dipping a prick in and out of her snatch was like picking cherries on a summer morning. It was just the tastiest bit of fresh new pussy imaginable. The only thing better than fucking her was killing her. Sticking a knife into her ripe skin was kinda like carving up a melon. That's what she was, all right. Like a bit of fruit. Too bad she's all rotten and used up now. She'd be an awful cold and dirty fuck now, right? All green and maggoty from being underground. Too bad. But she sure was tasty while she lasted…' He looked up at the defense attorney. 'It was signed: Your good friend, Blair Sullivan.'

Black looked up at the ceiling, letting the impact of the letter filter through the air. Then he asked, 'He's written to other victims' families?'

'Yes, sir. To just about all the folks of all the people he confessed killing.'

'Does he write regularly?'

'No, sir. Just when he seems to get the urge. Most of the letters are even worse'n this one. He gets even more specific, sometimes.'

I imagine.'

'Yes, sir.'

'No further questions.'

The prosecutor rose slowly. Boylan was shaking his head. 'Now, Mr. Sims, he doesn't say specifically in that letter that he killed Joanie Shriver?'

'No, sir. He says what I read. He says she was tasty, sir. But he doesn't say he killed her, no sir, but it sure seems like that's what he was saying.'

The prosecutor seemed deflated. He started to ask another question, then stopped. 'Nothing further,' he said.

Mr. Sims picked himself up from the witness stand and walked quickly out of the courtroom. There was a minute or two before the Shrivers returned. Cowart saw their eyes were red with tears.

'I'll hear arguments now,' Judge Trench said.

The two attorneys were blissfully brief, which surprised Cowart. They were predictable as well. He tried to take notes, but stared instead at the man and woman fighting tears in the front row. He saw they would not turn and look at Ferguson. Instead, their eyes were locked forward, up on the judge, their backs rigid, their shoulders set, leaning slightly toward him, as if they were fighting the strong winds of a gale.

When the lawyers finished, the judge spoke sharply. 'I'll want to see citations for each position. I'll rule after I review the law. Set this down for a week from now.'

Then he stood abruptly and disappeared through a door toward his chambers.

There was a moment of confusion as the crowd rose. Cowart saw Ferguson shake hands with the attorney and follow the guards through a door in the back of the courtroom leading to a holding cell. Cowart turned and saw the Shrivers surrounded by reporters, struggling to extricate themselves from the narrow aisle of the courtroom, and exit. In the same instant, he saw Roy Black motion to the prosecutor, gesturing at the trouble the couple were having. Mrs. Shriver was holding up her arm, as if she could fend off the questions raining down on her like so many droplets from the sky. He saw George Shriver drape an arm around his wife, his face reddening as he struggled to get past. Boylan reached them after a moment and managed to get them steered around, like a ship changing direction in the high seas, and he led them the other way, heading through the door to the judge's chambers. Cowart heard the photographer at his elbow say, 'I got a shot, don't worry.' Black caught his eye then and surreptitiously made a thumbs-up sign. But Cowart felt first an odd emptiness, followed by a nervousness that contradicted the excitement of the moment.

He heard voices around him: Black was being interviewed by one camera crew, the lawyer bathed in the glare of the minicam. He was saying, '… Of course we thought we made our point there. You can't help but see there's all sorts of questions still floating about this case. I don't know why the state won't understand that…'

At the same moment, a few feet away, Boylan was replying to another camera, glowing with the same intensity in the same light. 'It's our position that the right man is sitting on Death Row for a terrible crime. We intend to adhere to that position. Even if the judge were to grant Mr. Ferguson a new trial, we believe there's more than sufficient evidence to convict him once again.'

A reporter's voice called out, 'Even without a confession?'

'Absolutely,' the lawyer replied. Someone laughed, but as Boylan pivoted, glaring, they stopped.

'How come your boss didn't come down and argue this motion? How come they sent you? You weren't on the original prosecuting team. How come you?' 'It just fell to me,' he explained without explaining. Roy Black answered the same question ten feet away. 'Because elected officials don't like coming into courtrooms and getting their heads beat in. They could smell it was a loser right from the start. And, boys, you can quote me.' Suddenly a camera with its unyielding light swung at Cowart, and he heard a question thrust his way. 'Cowart? This was your story. What did you think of the hearing? How about that letter?'

He stumbled for something clever or glib to say, finally shaking his head. 'Come on, Matt,' someone shouted. 'Give us a break.' But he pushed past. 'Touchy,' someone said.

Cowart paced down the corridor and rode an escalator to the vestibule. He hurried through the doors to the courthouse and stopped on the steps. He could feel the heat surrounding him. There was a solid breeze and above him the wind tugged at a triptych of flags: county, state, and national. They made a snapping sound, cracking like gunshots with each renewed blow from the air. He saw Tanny Brown standing across the street staring at him. The detective simply frowned, then slid behind the wheel of a car. Cowart watched him pull slowly into traffic and disappear.

One week later, the judge issued a written statement ordering a new trial for Robert Earl Ferguson. There was nothing in it describing him as 'a wild animal.' Nor did it acknowledge the dozens of newspaper editorials that had suggested Ferguson be granted a new trial -including those papers circulating in Escambia County. The judge also ordered that the statement that Ferguson had made to detectives be suppressed. In an in-chambers motion, Roy Black requested Ferguson be released on bail. This was granted. A coalition of anti-death-penalty groups provided the money. Cowart learned later that it was fronted to them by a movie producer who'd purchased the dramatic rights to Robert Earl Ferguson's life story.

9. Death Warrant

Restless time flooded him.

He felt as if his life had become compartmentalized into a series of moments awaiting a signal to return to its normal continuity. He felt an annoying sense of anticipation, a nervous sort of expectation, but of precisely what he could not tell. He went to the prison on the day that Robert Earl Ferguson was released from Death Row in advance of his new trial, postponed by the judge until December. It was the first week in July, and the road to the prison sported makeshift stands selling fireworks, sparklers, flags, and red, white, and blue bunting, which hung limply from the whitewashed board walls. The Florida spring had fiercely fused into summer, the heat pounding on the earth with an endlessly patient fury, drying the dirt into a hard, cracked cement beneath his feet. Sheets of warmth wavered above the ground like hallucinations, surrounding him with a presence as strong as a New England blizzard in winter, and just as hard to maneuver in; the heat seemed to sap energy, ambition, and desire. It was almost as if the soaring temperatures slowed the entire rotation of the world.

A fitful crowd of sweating press waited for Ferguson outside the prison doors. The numbers of people gathered were thickened by members of anti-death-penalty groups, some of whom carried placards welcoming his release, and who had been chanting, 'One, two, three, End the Death Pen-al-ty. Seven, eight nine, End It for All Time' before the prisoner emerged from the prison. They broke into cheers and a smattering of applause when he came through the doors. Ferguson looked up briefly into the pale blue sky before stopping. He stood, flanked by his lanky attorney and his brittle, gray-haired grandmother. She glared at the reporters and cameramen who surged toward them, clinging with both arms to her grandson's elbow. Ferguson made a short speech, perched on the steps of the prison, so that he looked down at the crowd, saying that he believed his case showed both how the system didn't work and how it did. He said he was glad to be free. He said he was going to get a real meal first, fried chicken and greens with an ice-cream sundae with extra chocolate for dessert. He said he had no bitterness, which no one believed. He ended his speech by saying, I just want to thank the Lord for helping to show me the way, thank my attorney, and thank the Miami Journal and Mr. Cowart, because he listened when it seemed no one else would. I wouldn't be standing here before you today if it weren't for him.'

Cowart doubted that this final bit of speechmaking would make any of the nightly newscasts or show up in any of the other newspapers' stories. He smiled.

Reporters started to shoot questions through the heat.

'Are you going back to Pachoula?'

'Yes. That's my only real home.'

'What are your plans?'

'I want to finish school. Maybe go to law school or study criminology. I've got a real good understanding now of criminal law.'

There was laughter.

'What about the trial?'

'What can I say? They say they want to try me again, but 1 don't know how they can. I think I'll be acquitted. I just want to get on with my life, to get out of the public eye, you know. Get sort of anonymous again. It's not that I don't like you folks, but…

There was more laughter. The crowd of reporters seemed to swallow up the slight man, whose head pivoted with each question, so that he was facing directly at the person who asked it. Cowart noted how comfortable Ferguson appeared, handling the questions at the impromptu news conference with humor and ease, obviously enjoying himself.

'Why do you think they're going to prosecute you again?'

'To save face. I think it's the only way they can keep from acknowledging that they tried to execute an innocent man. An innocent black man. They would rather stick to a lie than face the truth.'

'Right on, Brother!' someone called from the group of demonstrators. 'Tell it!'

Another reporter had told Cowart that these same people showed up for every execution, holding candlelight vigils and singing 'We Shall Overcome' and 'I Shall Be Released' right up to the time the warden emerged to announce that the verdict and judgment of the court had been carried out. There was usually a corresponding group of flag-waving fry-'em-all types in jeans, white I-shirts, and pointy-toed cowboy boots, who hooted and hollered and engaged in occasional shoving matches with the anti-death-penalty bunch. They were not present on this day.

Both groups were generally ignored by the press as much as possible.

'What about Blair Sullivan?' a television reporter shouted, thrusting a microphone at Ferguson.

'What about him? I think he's a dangerous, twisted individual.'

'Do you hate him?'

'No. The good Lord instructs me to turn the other cheek. But I got to admit, sometimes it's hard.'

'Do you think he'll confess and save you from the trial?'

'No. The only confessing I think he's planning on doing is when he goes to meet his Maker.'

'Have you talked with him about the murder?' 'He won't talk to anybody. Especially about what he did in Pachoula.'

'What do you think about those detectives?' He hesitated. 'No comment,' he said. Ferguson grinned. 'My attorney told me that if I couldn't say something nice, or something neutral, to say "no comment." There you go.' There was more laughter from the reporters. He smiled nicely. There was a final blurring as cameramen maneuvered for a final shot and soundmen struggled with boom microphones and portable tape machines. The newspaper photographers bounced and weaved about Ferguson, the motordrives on their cameras making a sound like bugs on a still evening. The press surged toward Ferguson a last time, and he raised his hand, making a V-for-victory sign. He was steered into the backseat of a car, waving one last time through the closed window at the last photographers shooting their final pictures. Then the car pulled out, heading down the long access road, the tires kicking up little puffs of dust that hovered above the sticky black macadam highway. It soared past an inmate work crew, marching single file slowly in the heat, sweat glistening off the dark skin of their arms. Sunlight reflected off the shovels and pickaxes they carried on their shoulders as they headed toward their noontime break. The men were singing a work song. Cowart could not make out the words, but the steady rhythms filled him.

He took his daughter to Disney World the following month. They stayed in a room high in the Contemporary Hotel, overlooking the amusement park. Becky had developed a child's expertise about the place, mapping out each day's assault on the rides with the excitement of a successful general anxious to engage a beaten army. He was content to let her create the flow to the day. If she wanted to ride Space

Mountain or Mr. Toad's Wild Ride four or five times in a row, that was fine. When she wanted to eat, he made no adult pretense of nutrition, allowing her to select a dizzying variety of hot dogs, french fries, and cotton candy.

It was too warm to wait in line for rides during the afternoon, so the two of them spent hours in the pool at the hotel, ducking and cavorting about. He would toss her endlessly in the opaque waters, let her ride on his shoulders, swim between his legs. Then, with the meager cooling that slid into the air as the sun dropped, they would get dressed and head back to the park for the fireworks and light shows.

Each night he ended up carrying her, exhausted and fast asleep, back on the monorail to the hotel, up to the room, where he would gently slip her under the covers of her bed and listen to her regular, easy breathing, the child sound blocking all thoughts from his head and giving him a sort of peace.

He had but one nightmare during the time there: A sudden dream-vision of Ferguson and Sullivan forcing him onto a roller coaster ride and seizing his daughter away from him.

He awoke gasping and heard Becky say, 'Daddy?'

'I'm all right, honey. Everything's all right.'

She sighed and rolled over once in bed before tumbling back into sleep.

He remained in the bed, feeling the clammy sheets surround him.

The week had passed with a child's urgency, all rolled together into nonstop activity. When it came time to take her home, he did it slowly, stopping at Water World for a ride on the slide, then pulling off the thruway for hamburgers. He stopped again for ice cream and finally, a fourth time, to find a toy store and buy yet another gift. By the time they reached the expensive Tampa suburb where his ex-wife and her new husband lived, he was barely pushing the car down the streets, his reluctance to part with her lost in the rapid-fire, boundless excitement of his daughter, who pointed out all her friends' houses en route.

There was a long, circular drive in front of his daughter's home. An elderly black man was pushing a lawn mower across the expanse of vivid green lawn. His old truck, a red faded to a rusty brown, was parked to the side. He saw the words NED'S LAWN SERVICE COMPLETE handwritten on the side in white paint. The old man paused just for a moment to wipe his forehead and wave at Becky, who waved eagerly in return. Cowart saw the old man hunch over, bending to the task of trimming the grass to a uniform height. His shirt collar was stained a darker color than his skin.

Cowart looked up at the front door. It was a double width, carved wood. The house itself was a single-story ranch design that seemed to spread out over a small rise. He could see the black screen of an enclosed pool just above the roof line. There was a row of plants in front, trimmed meticulously like makeup carefully applied to a face. Becky bounded from the car and raced through the front door.

He stood for a moment, waiting until Sandy appeared.

She was swollen with pregnancy, moving carefully against the heat and discomfort. She had her arm wrapped around her daughter. 'So, was it a success?'

'We did it all.'

'I expect so. Are you exhausted?'

'A bit.'

'How are things otherwise?'

'Okay.'

'You know, I still worry about you.'

'Well, thanks, but I'm okay. You don't have to.'

'I wish we could talk. Can you come in? Have a cup of coffee? A cold drink?' She smiled. 'I'd like to hear about everything. There's a lot to talk about.'

'Becky can fill you in.'

'That's not what I mean,' she said.

He shook his head. 'Got to get back. I'm late as it is.'

'Tom'll be home in a half hour or so. He'd like to see you. He thought you did a helluva job on those stories.'

He continued to shake his head. 'Tell him thanks. But I've really got to get on the road. It'll be nearly midnight by the time I get back to Miami.'

'I wish -' she started. Then she stopped and said, 'Okay. I'll speak with you soon.'

He nodded. 'Give me a hug, honey.' He got down on his knees and gave his daughter a squeeze. He could feel her energy flow through him for just an instant, all endless enthusiasm. Then she pulled away. 'Bye-bye, Daddy,' she said. Her voice had a small crease in it. He reached out, stroked her cheek once and said, 'Now, don't tell your mother what you've been eating…' He lowered his voice into a stage whisper.'… And don't tell her about all the presents you got. She might be jealous.' Becky smiled and nodded her head up and down vigorously.

Before sliding behind the wheel, he turned and waved in false gaiety at the two of them. He told himself, You play the divorced father well. You've got all the moves down pat.

His fury with himself did not subside for hours.

At the paper, Will Martin tried to get him interested in several editorial crusades, with little success. He found himself daydreaming, anticipating Ferguson's upcoming trial, although he did not expect it ever to occur. As the Florida summer dragged relentlessly into fall with no change in atmosphere or temperature, he decided to go back up to Pachoula and write some sort of story about how the town was reacting to Ferguson's release.

The first call he made from his motel room was to Tanny Brown.

'Lieutenant? Matthew Cowart here. I just wanted to save you the trouble of having to rely on your spies and sources. I'm in town for a couple of days.'

'Can I ask what for?'

'Just to do an update on the Ferguson case. Are you still planning to prosecute?'

The detective laughed. 'That's a decision for the state attorney, not me.'

'Yeah, but he makes the decision with the information you provide him. Has anything new come up?'

'You expect me to tell you if it has?'

'I'm asking.'

'Well, seeing as how Roy Black would tell you anyway, no, nothing new.'

'What about Ferguson. What's he been doing?'

'Why don't you ask him?'

'I'm going to.'

'Well, why don't you go out to his place, then give me a call back.'

Cowart hung up the phone, vaguely impressed with the thought the detective was mocking him. He drove through the pine trees and shadows down the dirt road to Ferguson's grandmother's house, pulling in amidst the few chickens and standing on the packed dirt for a moment. He saw no signs of activity, so he mounted the steps and knocked hard on the wood frame of the door. After a moment, he heard shuffling feet, and the door pitched open a few inches.

'Mrs. Ferguson? It's me, Matthew Cowart, from the Journal'.

The door opened a little wider.

'Whatcha want now?'

'Where's Bobby Earl? I'd like to talk to him.'

'He went back north.'

'What?'

'He went back up to that school in New Jersey.'

'When did he leave?'

'Last week. There warn't nothing here for him, white boy. You know that as well as I do.'

'But what about his trial?'

'He didn't seem too concerned.'

'How can I get in touch with him?'

'He said he'd write when he got settled. That ain't happened yet.'

'Did anything happen here, in Pachoula? Before he left?'

'Not that he talked about. You got any more questions, Mr. Reporter?'

'No.'

Cowart stepped down from the porch and stared up at the house.

That afternoon, he called Roy Black.

'Where's Ferguson?' he demanded.

'In New Jersey. I got an address and phone, if y'all want it.'

'But how can he leave the state? What about the trial, his bail?'

'Judge gave him permission. No big deal. I told him it was better to get back on with his life, and he wanted to go on up and finish school. What's so strange about that? The state has to provide us with any new discovery material, and so far they haven't sent over anything. I don't know what they're gonna do, but I'm not expecting big things from them.'

'You think it's just going to slide?'

'Maybe. Go ask the detectives.'

Twill.'

'You got to understand, Mr. Cowart, how little those prosecutors want to get up and have their heads bashed in at trial. Public humiliation ain't high on the list for elected officials, you know. I suspect they'd find it a lot easier just to let a little bit of time flow by, so's people's memories get a bit hazy about the whole thing. Then get up and drop the charges at some cozy, little old conference back in the judge's chambers. Blame the whole failure on him for suppressing that statement. He'll turn right around and say it was the state's fault. And mostly the whole thing will dump on those two cops. Simple as that. End of story. That ain't so surprising now, is it? You've seen things just float on out of the criminal justice system before with nary a whimper?'

'From Death Row to zero?'

'You got it. Happens. Not too frequent, of course, but happens. Nothing here that I haven't seen or heard before.'

'Just pick up life, after a three-year hiatus?'

'Right again. Everything back to nice and quiet normal. Excepting of course one thing.'

'What's that?'

'That little girl is still dead.'

He called Tanny Brown.

'Ferguson's gone back to New Jersey. Did you know that?'

'It wasn't too much of a secret. The local paper did a story on his leaving. Said he wanted to continue his education. Told the paper he didn't think he could get a job here in Pachoula because of the way people looked at him. I don't know about that. I don't know if he even tried. Anyway, he left. I think he just wanted to get out of town before somebody did something to him.'

'Like who?'

'I don't really know. Some people were upset when he was released. Of course, some others weren't. Small town, you know. People divided. Most folks were pretty confused.'

'Who was upset?'

Tanny Brown paused before replying. 'I was upset. That's enough.'

'So, what happens now?'

'What do you expect to happen?'

Cowart didn't have an answer for that.

He did not write the story he intended. Instead, he went back to the editorial board and worked hard on upcoming local elections. He spent hours interviewing candidates, reading position papers, and debating with the other members of the board what the newspaper's positions should be. The atmosphere was heady, collegial. The wonderful perversities of local

South Florida politics, where issues like making English the official county language, or democracy in Cuba, or firearms control, provided infinite distractions. After the elections, he launched another series of editorials on water management throughout the Florida Keys. This required him to occupy his time with budget projections and ecological statements. His desk grew cluttered with sheets of paper, all covered with endless tables and charts. He had an odd thought, a pun: There's safety in numbers.

The first week in December, at a hearing before Judge Trench, the state dropped first-degree-murder charges against Robert Earl Ferguson. They complained to a small gathering of reporters that without the confession, there was little hard evidence to go on. There was a lot of posturing by both prosecutors and the defense team about how important the system was, and how no single case was more important than the rules of law that governed them all.

Tanny Brown and Bruce Wilcox were absent from the hearing.

I don't really want to talk about it right now,' Brown said when Cowart went to see him. Wilcox said, 'Jesus, I barely touched the man. Jesus. If I'd really hit him, you think he'd have no marks? You think he'd still be standing? Hell, I'd a ripped his head off. Damn.'

He drove through a humid evening, past the school, past the willow where Joanie Shriver had stepped out of the world. He stopped at the fork in the road, staring for an instant down the route the killer had taken before turning toward the Shriver house. He pulled in front and spotted George Shriver cutting a hedge with a gas-powered trimmer. The big man's body was wreathed in sweat when Cowart approached. He stopped, shutting down the motor, breathing in harsh gasps of air as the reporter stood by, notepad and pen poised.

'We heard,' he said softly. 'Tanny Brown called us, said it was official now. Of course, it didn't come as no surprise or anything. Yes sir, we knew it was going to happen. Tanny Brown once told us that it was all so fragile. That's the word I can't forget. I guess it just couldn't hold together no more, not after you started to look at it.'

Cowart stood before the red-faced man uncomfortably. 'Do you still think Ferguson killed your daughter? What about Sullivan? What about that letter he sent?'

'I don't know nothing anymore about it. I suspect it's as confused for the missus and me as it is for everyone else. But in my heart, you know, I still think he did it. I can't ever erase the way he looked at his trial, you know. I just can't forget that.'

Mrs. Shriver brought out a glass of ice water for her husband. She looked up at Cowart with a sort of curiosity in her eyes that was ridged with anger.

'What I can't understand,' she said, 'is why we had to go through all this again. First you, then the other television and print folks. It was like she got killed all over again. And again and again. It got so's I couldn't turn on the television for fear that I might see her picture there again and again. It wasn't like people wouldn't let us forget. We didn't want to forget. But it got all caught up in something that I didn't understand. Like what became important was what that man Ferguson said and what that man Sullivan said and what they did and all that. Not that what was really important was that my little girl was stolen. And that was a hurt, you know, Mr. Cowart? That hurt and kept hurting so much.'

The woman was crying as she spoke, but the tears didn't mar the clarity of her voice.

George Shriver took a deep breath and a long pull from his water. 'Of course, we don't blame you, Mr. Cowart.' He paused. 'Well, hell, maybe we do a bit. Can't help but think something wrong has happened somewhere. Not your fault, I guess. Not your fault at all. Fragile, like I said. Fragile, and it all fell apart.'

The big man took his wife's hand and, together, leaving the lawn mower and Matthew Cowart standing in the front yard, they retreated into the darkness of their home.

When he spoke with Ferguson, he was overwhelmed by the elation in the man's voice. It made it seem to the reporter that he was standing close by, not talking over some distance on a telephone.

'I can't thank you enough, Mr. Cowart. It wouldn't of happened without your help.'

'Yes, it would have, sooner or later.'

'No, sir. You were the person who got it all moving. I'd still be on the Row if not for you.'

'What are you going to do now?'

'I have plans, Mr. Cowart. Plans to make something of my life. Finish school. Make a career. Yes sir.' Ferguson paused, then added, 'I feel like I'm free to do anything now.'

Cowart remembered the phrase from somewhere but could not place it. Instead, he asked, 'How're your classes going?'

'I've learned a lot,' Ferguson said. He laughed briefly. 'I feel like I know a whole lot more than I did before. Yes sir. Everything's different now. It's been some education.'

'Are you going to stay up in Newark?'

'I'm not sure about that. This place is colder even than I remember it, Mr. Cowart. I think I should head back south.'

'Pachoula?'

Ferguson hesitated before replying. 'Well, I doubt it. That place didn't make me feel altogether welcome after I got off the Row. People'd stare. I could hear talk behind my back. Lot of pointing. Couldn't go to the local convenience store without finding a patrol car waiting for me when I came out. It was like they were watching me, knowing I'd do something. Took my granny to services on Sunday, folks' heads would turn when we walked through the door. Went down looking for a job, but every place I went it seemed like the job had just been filled a couple minutes before I got there, made no difference if the boss was black or white. They all just looked at me like I was some sort of evil thing walking about in their midst that they couldn't do nothing about. That was wrong, sir. Real wrong. And there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it. But Florida's a big place, Mr. Cowart. Why, just the other day a church in Ocala asked me to come give a talk on my experiences. And they weren't the first. So there's plenty of places that don't think I'm some sort of mad dog. Just Pachoula, maybe. And that won't change as long as that Tanny Brown's there.'

'Will you stay in touch?'

'Why, of course,' Ferguson replied.

In late January, almost a year after he'd received the letter from Robert Earl Ferguson, Matthew Cowart won a Florida Press Association award for his stories. This prize was swiftly followed by awards from the Penny-Missouri School of Journalism and an Ernie Pyle Award from Scripps-Howard.

At the same time, the Florida Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and sentence of Blair Sullivan. He got another collect phone call.

'Cowart? You there?'

'I'm here, Mr. Sullivan.'

'You hear about that court decision?'

'Yes. What are you going to do? All you got to do is talk to one attorney. Why not call Roy Black, huh?'

'Mr. Cowart, d'you think I'm a man with no convictions?' he laughed. 'That's a pun. A man of no conscience? That's another joke. What makes you think I ain't going to stick to what I said?'

I don't know. Maybe I think life is worth living.'

'You ain't had my life.'

'That's true.'

'And you ain't got my future. You probably think I ain't got much future. But you're gonna be surprised.'

'I'm waiting.'

'You want to know something, Mr. Cowart? The really funny thing is, I'm having a good time.'

'I'm glad to hear it.'

'You know another thing, Mr. Cowart? We're gonna talk again. When it gets close.'

'Have you been told anything about when?'

'No. Can't imagine what's taking the governor so long.'

'Do you really want to die, Mr. Sullivan?'

'I got plans, Mr. Cowart. Big plans. Death is just a little part of them. I'll call you again.'

He hung up and Matthew Cowart stifled a shiver. He thought it was like speaking with a corpse.

On the first of April, Matthew Cowart was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished local news reporting.

In the old days of wire machines that clattered and clanged out news stories in an endless flow of words, there was a sort of ritual gathering on the day the awards were to be announced, waiting for the winners' names to move on the wires. The Associated Press and United Press International usually competed to see which organization could process the awards announcement quickest and move the story fastest. The old wire machines were equipped with bells that would sound when a big story came over the wires, so there was an almost religious pealing when the winners' names were produced. There was a sort of romanticism involved in watching the Teletype crunch out the names as the assembled editors and reporters groaned or cheered. All that had been replaced by instantaneous transmission over computer lines. Now the names appeared on the ubiquitous green screens that dotted the modern newsroom. The cheers and groans were the same, however.

He had been out at a water-management conference that afternoon. When he walked into the newsroom, the entire staff rose up applauding.

A photographer snapped his picture as he was handed a glass of champagne and was pushed toward a computer screen to read the words himself. There were high fives from the managing editor and the city editor, and Will Martin said, I knew it all along.'

He was swamped with congratulatory calls. Roy Black telephoned, as did Robert Earl Ferguson, who spoke for only a few moments. Tanny Brown called and said cryptically, 'Well, I'm glad to see somebody got something out of all this.'

His ex-wife called, crying. I knew you could do it,' she said. He could hear a baby bawling in the background. His daughter squealed with pleasure when she spoke with him, not fully understanding what had happened but delighted nonetheless. He was interviewed on three local television stations and got a call from a literary agent, wondering whether he was interested in writing a book. The producer who'd purchased the rights to Robert Earl Ferguson's life story called, intimating that he should make a deal as well. The man was insistent, talking his way past the telephone receptionist screening the incoming calls, finally getting Matthew Cowart on the line.

'Mr. Cowart? Jeffrey Maynard here. I'm with Instacom Productions. We're very anxious to do a movie based on all the work you've done.'

The producer had a breathless, agitated voice, as if each passing second was filled with lost opportunity and wasted money.

Cowart replied slowly, 'I'm sorry, Mr. Maynard, but…'

'Don't turn me down, Mr. Cowart. How about I fly out to Miami and talk with you? Better yet, you fly here, our nickel, of course.'

'I don't think so…'

'Let me say this, Mr. Cowart. We've spoken to almost all the principals here, and we're real interested in obtaining rights and releases from everyone. We're talking some substantial money here, and maybe the opportunity for you to get out of newspaper work.'

'I don't want to get out of newspaper work.'

'I thought all reporters wanted to do something else.'

'You're mistaken.'

'Still, I'd like to meet. We've met with the others, and we've got all sorts of cooperation on this, and…'

I'll think about it, Mr. Maynard.'

'Will you get back to me?'

'Sure.'

Cowart hung up the telephone with absolutely no intention of doing this. He returned to the excitement that flooded the newsroom, guzzling champagne from a plastic cup, basking in the attention, all confusions and questions crushed under the weight of backslap-ping and congratulations.

But when he went home that night, he was still alone.

He walked into his apartment and thought of Vernon Hawkins living out solitary days with his memories and his cough. The dead detective seemed everywhere in his imagination. He kept trying to force the vision of his friend into some congratulatory pose, insisting to himself that Hawkins would have been the first to call, the first to crack an expensive bottle of champagne. But the image wouldn't stick. He could only remember the old detective lying in bed in his hospital room, muttering through the fog of drugs and oxygen, 'What's the Tenth Rule of the streets, Matty?'

And his reply, 'Christ, Vernon, I don't know. Get some rest.'

'The Tenth Rule is: Things are never what they seem.'

'Vernon, what the hell does that mean?'

'It means I'm losing my head. Get the fucking nurse, not the old one, the young one with the knockers. Tell her I need a shot. Any old shot, doesn't make any difference, as long as she rubs my rear end with an alcohol swab for a couple of minutes before shooting me up.'

He remembered summoning the nurse and watching the old man get a shot, grin wildly, and slip off into a mist of sleep.

But I won, Vernon. I did it, he said to himself. He looked down at the copy of the first edition that he carried under his arm. The picture and story were above the fold: JOURNAL WRITER TAKES PULITZER IN DEATH ROW STORY.

He spent most of the night staring out into the wide black sky, letting euphoria play with doubt, until the excitement of the award simply overcame all anxieties and he drifted off, drugged with his own shot of success.

Two weeks later, while Matthew Cowart was still riding a crest of elation, a second story moved over the electronic wires.

The story said that the governor had signed a death warrant for Blair Sullivan. It set his execution in the electric chair for midnight, seven days from the moment of signing. There was speculation that Sullivan could avoid the chair at any point by opting to file an appeal. The governor acknowledged this fact when he signed the warrant. But there was no immediate response from the prisoner.

One day passed. Then a second, third, and fourth. On the morning of the fifth day of the death warrant, as he sat at his desk, the telephone rang. He seized the receiver eagerly.

It was Sergeant Rogers from the prison.

'Cowart? You there, buddy?'

Yeah, Sergeant. I was expecting to hear from you.'

'Well, things are getting close, ain't they?'

This was a question that really demanded no answer. 'What's with Sullivan?'

'Man, you ever go to the reptile house at the zoo?

Watch those snakes behind those glass windows? They don't move much, except their eyes dart about, watching everything. That's what Sully's like. We're supposed to be watching him, but he's eyeing us like he expects something. This ain't like any Death Watch I ever saw before.'

'What usually happens?'

'Generally speaking, this place starts crawling with lawyers, priests, and demonstrators. Everybody's wired up, racing about to different judges and courts, meeting this, talking about that. Next thing you know, it's time. One thing I'll say about when the state juices you: You don't have to face it alone. There's family and well-wishers and people talking about God and justice and all sorts, until your ears like to fall off. That's normal. But this ain't normal. There ain't nobody inside or outside for Sully. He's just alone. I keep expecting him to explode, he's wrapped so tight.'

'Will he appeal?'

'Says no.'

'What do you think?'

'He's a man of his word.'

'What about everybody else?'

'Well, the consensus here is that he'll break down, maybe on the last day, and ask somebody to file something and get his stay and enjoy his ten years of appeals. Latest odds are ten will get you fifty if he actually goes to the chair. I got some money down on that myself. That's what the governor's man thinks, anyway. Said they just wanted to call the man's bluff. But he's cutting it close, you know. Real fine.'

'Jesus.'

'Yeah. Hearing a lot about Him lately, too.'

'What about the preparations?'

'Well, the chair works fine, we tested it this morning. It'll kill you right quick, no doubt about that. Anyway, he'll get moved into an isolation cell twenty-four hours ahead. He gets to order himself a meal, that's tradition. We don't cut his hair or do any of the other prep work until there's just a couple of hours left. Until then, things stay as normal as we can make them. The other folks on the Row are mighty restless. They don't like to see somebody not fight, you know. When Ferguson walked, it inspired everyone, gave them all like a shot of hope. Now Sully's got them all pretty pissed off and anxious-like. I don't know what'll happen.'

'Sounds like it's tough on you.'

'Sure. But in the end it ain't nothing more than part of the job.'

'Has Sully talked to anyone?'

'No. But that's the reason I'm calling.'

'What?'

'He wants to see you. In person. ASAP.'

'Me?'

'You got it. Wants you to share the nightmare, I'm guessing. He's put you on his witness list.'

'What's that?'

'What d'you think? The invited guests of the state and Blair Sullivan for his own little going-away party.'

'Jesus. He wants me to watch the execution?'

'Yup.'

'Christ! I don't know if…'

'Why don't you ask him yourself? You got to understand, Mr. Cowart, there ain't a lot of time involved here. We're having a nice chat here on the phone, but I think you'd best be calling the airlines for a flight. Get here by this afternoon.'

'Right. Right. I'll get there. Jesus.'

'It was your story, Mr. Cowart. I guess old Sully just wants to see you write the last chapter, huh? Can't say it surprises me.'

Matthew Cowart didn't reply. He hung up the telephone. He stuck his head into Will Martin's office and swiftly explained the unusual summons. 'Go,' the older man said. 'Go, right now. It's a helluva story. Just go.' There was a hurried conversation with the managing editor, and a rushed trip back to his apartment to grab a toothbrush and change of clothes.

He made a noon commuter flight.

It was late afternoon when he reached the prison, driving the rental car hard through a gray, rain-streaked day. The beating noise of the windshield wipers had added urgency to his pace. Sergeant Rogers met him in the administration offices. They shook hands like old teammates at a reunion.

'You made good time, the sergeant said.

'You know, I can feel the craziness. I'm driving along, thinking about every minute, Jesus, every second, and what it means all of a sudden.'

'That's right,' the sergeant nodded. 'There ain't nothing like having a time and date for dying to make little moments right important.'

'Scary.'

'That it is. Like I told you, Mr. Cowart, Death Row gives one an entirely different perspective on living.'

'No demonstrators outside?'

'Not yet. You really got to hate the death penalty to want to walk in the rain for old Sully. I expect they'll show up in a day or so. Weather's supposed to clear tonight.'

'Anyone else here to see him?'

'There's lawyers with papers all ready to file on call -but he ain't called for anyone, excepting you. There's been some detectives here. That pair from Pachoula came down yesterday. He wouldn't talk to them. Couple of FBI men and some guys from Orlando and Gainesville. They all want to know about a bunch of murders they still got floating on their books. He won't talk to them, neither. Just wants to talk to you. Maybe he'll tell you. Sure would help some folks if'n he would. That's what old Ted Bundy did, before he went to the chair. Cleared up a whole lot of mysteries plaguing some folks. I don't know if it counted for much when he got to the other side, but, hell, who knows?'

'Let's go.'

'That's right.'

Sergeant Rogers made a perfunctory check of Matthew Cowart's notepad and briefcase and then led him through the sally ports and metal detectors into the bowels of the prison.

Sullivan was waiting in his cell. The sergeant pulled a chair up outside and gestured for Cowart to sit.

I need privacy,' Sullivan coughed.

Cowart thought he had paled some. His slicked-back hair glistened in the light from a single, wire-covered bulb. Sullivan moved nervously about from wall to wall in the cell, twisting his hands together, his shoulders hunched over.

'I need my privacy,' he repeated.

'Sully, you know there ain't nobody in either cell on right or left. You can talk here,' the sergeant said patiently.

The prisoner smiled, allowing a smile to race across his face.

'They make it like a grave,' he said to Matthew Cowart as the sergeant moved away. 'They make it quiet and still, just so's you start to get used to the idea of living in a coffin.'

He walked to the bars and shook them once. 'Just like a coffin,' he said. 'Nailed shut.'

Blair Sullivan laughed hard, until the sound disintegrated into a wheeze. 'So, Cowart, you're looking mighty prosperous.'

'I'm okay. How can I help you?'

Til get to that, get to that. Give me a moment of pleasure or so. Hey, you heard from our boy, Bobby Earl?'

'When I won the prize, he called with congratulations. But I didn't really talk to him. I gather he's back in college.'

'That right? Somehow, I didn't make him for a real studious type. But hey, maybe college has got some pedal attractions for old Bobby Earl. Real special attractions.'

'What are you saying?'

'Nothing. Nothing. Nothing that you won't need to remember some time later.'

Blair Sullivan tossed back his head and let his body shiver. 'You think it's cold in here, Cowart?'

Cowart could feel sweat running down his ribs. 'No. It's hot.'

Sullivan grinned and coughed out another laugh. 'Ain't that a joke, Cowart? It's getting so I can't tell no more. Can't tell if it's hot or cold. Day or night. Just like a little child, I'm thinking. I guess that's a part of it, the dying. You just naturally head backwards in time.'

He rose and walked to a small sink in the corner of the cell. He ran the single tap for a moment, leaning down and drinking with great gulps. 'And thirsty, too. Keep getting dry in the mouth. Just like something keeps sucking all the moisture right out of me.'

Cowart didn't say anything.

'Of course, I expect when they jolt you the first time with those twenty-five hundred volts, that's thirsty work for all involved.'

Matthew Cowart felt his own throat tighten. 'Are you going to file?'

Sullivan scowled. 'What do you think?'

'I don't.'

He stared at Cowart. 'You got to understand, Cowart, right now I'm feeling more alive than ever.'

'Why do you want to see me?'

'Last will and testament. Dying declaration. Famous last words. How's that sound?'

'Up to you.'

Sullivan made a fist and punched the still air of the cell. 'Do you remember me telling you how far I could reach? Do you remember me saying how puny these walls and bars really are, Cowart? Do you remember me saying that I don't fear death, I welcome it? I think there's gonna be a special place in hell for me, Cowart. I do. And you're gonna help me get there.'

'How?'

'You're gonna do some things for me.'

'What if I don't agree?'

'You will. You can't help it, Cowart. You're in this all the way, ain't you?'

Cowart nodded, wondering what he was agreeing to.

'All right, Cowart. Mr. Famous Reporter Man. I want you to go someplace for me and do some of your special-type reporting. It's a little house. I want you to knock on the door. If there ain't no answer, I want you to go right on in. Don't you mind if the door's locked. Don't you let anything keep you from walking into that house. Got that? I don't care how, but you get inside that house. You keep your eyes open. You take down all the details inside, hear? You interview everybody there…'

Blair Sullivan ladled sarcasm onto the word. He laughed. 'Then you come back and tell me what you found, and I'll tell you a story worth hearing. Blair Sullivan's legacy.'

The killer put his head into his hands and then raised them up over his forehead, pushing back his hair, grinning wildly. 'And that'll be a story worth the knowing, I promise.'

Cowart hesitated. He felt swept up in a sudden darkness.

'Okay, Mr. Cowart,' Sullivan said. 'Ready? I want you to go to number thirteen – nice number, that – Tarpon Drive in Islamorada.'

'That's the Keys. I just came from…

'Just go there! And then come back and tell me what you find. And don't leave nothing out.'

Cowart looked at the prisoner, unsure for an instant. Then the doubt fled and he rose.

'Run, Cowart. Run hard. Run fast. There's not much time.'

Sullivan sat back on his bed. He turned his face away from Cowart but at the same time bellowed out, "Sergeant Rogers! Get this man out of my sight!'

His eyes twitched once toward Cowart. 'Until tomorrow. That'd be day six.'

Cowart nodded and paced swiftly away.

Cowart managed to catch the last flight back to Miami. It was after midnight when he dragged himself into his apartment and threw himself down, still dressed, on his bed. He felt unsettled, filled with an odd stage fright. He thought himself an actor thrust onto a stage in front of an audience but not having been told his lines, his character, or what the name of the play was. He thrust away as much thought as he could and seized a few hours of fitful sleep.

But by eight in the morning, he was driving south toward the Upper Keys, through the clear, rising heat of the morning. There were a few lazy white clouds lost in the sky, gleaming with the early sun. He maneuvered past the commuter traffic clogging South Dixie Highway heading for downtown Miami, racing the opposite way. Miami spread out, changing from a city into strips of low-slung shopping centers with garish signs and empty parking lots. The number of cars diminished as he passed through the suburbs, finally racing past rows of auto dealerships decorated with hundreds of American flags and huge banners announcing cut-rate sales, their polished fleets of vehicles gleaming with reflected light, lined up in anticipation. He could see a pair of silver jet fighters swinging wide through the crystal air, jockeying for a landing at Homestead Air Force Base, the two planes roaring, filling the air with noise but performing like ballet dancers as they swept into their approach only a few feet apart, in tandem.

A few miles farther, he crossed Card Sound Bridge, driving hard toward the Keys. The road sliced through hummocks of mangroves and marshy swamp. He saw a stork's nest on a telephone pole, and as he swept by, a single white bird rose and beat its way across the sky. A wide flat green world surrounded him for the first few miles. Then the land on his left gave way to inlets and finally to miles of Florida bay. A light chop curled the surface of the ripe blue water. He drove on.

The road to the Keys meanders through wetlands and water, occasionally rising up a few feet so that civilization can grasp hold. The rough coral-ridged earth houses marinas and condo developments whenever it gains enough solidity to support construction. It sometimes seems as if the square cinder-block buildings have spawned; a gas station spreads into a convenience store. A I-shirt shop painted bright pink takes root and flowers into a fast-food outlet. A dock gives rise to a restaurant, which hatches a motel across the roadway. Where there is enough land, there are schools and hospitals and trailer parks clinging tightly to the crushed gravel, dirt, and pieces of white shells, bleached by the sun. The ocean is never far, blinking with reflected sunlight, its wide expanse laughing at the puny, tacky efforts of civilization. He pushed past Marathon and the entrance to Pennekamp State Park. At the Whale Harbor marina he saw a huge plastic blue marlin, bigger than any fish that ever cruised the Gulf Stream, which marked the entrance to the sports fishing dock. He drove on past a strip of shops and a supermarket, the white paint on the walls fading in the inexorable hot sun of the Keys.

It was midmorning when he found Tarpon Drive. The street was at the southern tip of the Key, a mile or so before the ocean encroached tightly and made construction impossible. The road spun off to the left, a angle lane of crunching shells cutting between some trailers and small single-story houses. There was a haphazardness to the road, as if the lots were simply carved by convenience. A rusted Volkswagen bus painted in faded ancient-hippie psychedelic style sat on blocks in one front yard. Two children in diapers played in a makeshift sandbox next to it. A single woman wearing tight blue cut-off jeans and a tank top and smoking a cigarette sat on an overturned bait bucket, watching over them. She eyed Matthew Cowart with a practiced toughness. In front of another house there was a boat, with a ragged hole beneath the gunnels, up on sawhorses. Outside a trailer, an elderly couple sat in cheap green-and-white beach chairs underneath a pink umbrella. They didn't move as he rolled past. He put his window down and heard a radio turned up to some talk show. Disembodied voices filled the air with angry tones debating meaningless issues. Bent and twisted television antennas littered the sky. Cowart felt he was entering a sun-baked world of lost hopes and found poverty.

Midway down the street was a single white clapboard church behind a rusty wire fence. There was a large handwritten sign out in the front yard: FIRST KEYS BAPTIST CHURCH. ALL WELCOME TO ENTER AND BE SAVED. He saw that the gate at the street was off its hinge and that the wooden steps leading to the front door were splintered and broken. The doors were padlocked. He drove on, looking for number thirteen. The house was set back thirty yards from the road beneath a gnarled mangrove tree, which cast a variegated shade across the front. It was cinder block, with old jalousie windows, their smoked glass open to catch whatever breezes filtered through the tangle of trees and brush. The shutters on the outside of the house were peeling black paint and a large crucifix was attached to the door. It was a small house, with a pair of propane fuel tanks leaning up against one wall. The yard was dirt and gravel, and dust kicked up about his feet as he walked to the front door. Scratched in the wood of the door were the words JESUS LIVES INSIDE ALL OF US.

He could hear a dog barking in the distance. The mangrove tree moved slightly, finding some small bit of wind chased by the heat. But he felt nothing. He knocked hard. Once, twice, and a third time. There was no answer.

He stepped back and called out, 'Hello! Anyone there?'

He waited for a reply and was met with silence.

He knocked again. Shit! he swore to himself.

Cowart stepped back from the door, peering about. He could see no car, no sign of any life. He tried calling out again. 'Hello? Anyone home?'

But again there was no reply.

He had no plan, no idea what to do.

He walked back to the street and then turned and looked back at the house. What the hell am I doing here? he wondered to himself. What is this all about?

He heard a mild crunching sound up the street and saw that a mailman was getting out of a white jeep. He watched as the man stuck some circulars and letters in first one, then another mailbox. Cowart kept an eye on him as he made his way down the street toward number thirteen.

'How ya doing?' Cowart asked as the man approached.

He was a middle-aged man, wearing the blue-gray shorts and pale blue shirt of the postal service. He sported a long ponytail, which was clipped tightly in back, and a hangdog droopy mustache. He wore dark sunglasses, which hid his eyes.

'Seen better. Seen worse.' He started to paw through his mailbag.

'Who lives here?' Cowart asked.

'Who wants to know?'

'I'm a reporter for the Miami Journal. My name is Cowart.'

'I read your paper,' the postman replied. 'Mostly the sports section, though.'

'Can you help me? I'm trying to find the folks who live here. But there's no answer at the door.'

'No answer, huh? I've never seen them go anywhere.'

'Who?'

Mr. and Mrs. Calhoun. Old Dot and Fred. Usually sitting around reading the Bible and waiting for either the final day of judgment or the Sears catalogue to arrive, generally speaking, Sears seems more dependable.'

'Have they been here long?'

'Maybe six, seven years. Maybe longer. I only been down here that long.'

Cowart remained confused but had another quick question. 'Do they ever get any mail from Starke? From the state prison?'

The mailman dropped his bag down, sighing. 'Sure do. Maybe once a month.'

'Do you know who Blair Sullivan is?'

'Sure,' said the mailman. 'He's gonna take the hot squat. I read it in your paper the other day. This got something to do with him?'

'Maybe. I don't know,' Cowart replied. He stared back at the house as the postman took out a sheaf of circulars and opened the mailbox.

'Uh-oh,' he said.

'What?'

'Mail ain't been picked up.'

The mailman stared across the dusty yard at the house. 'I always hate that. Old folks always get their mail, always, unless something ain't right. I used to deliver on Miami Beach, you know, when I was younger. You always knew what you were going to find when the mail hadn't been picked up.'

'How many days?'

'Looks like a couple. Oh shit. I hate this,' said the postman.

Cowart started to approach the house again. He walked up to a window and peered in. All he could see was cheap furniture arranged in a small sitting area. There was a colored portrait of Jesus on the wall, with light radiating out of his head. 'Can you see anything over there?' he asked the postman, who had joined him at the front of the house and was staring through another window, shading his eyes against the glare.

'Just an empty bedroom.'

Both men stepped back and Cowart called out, 'Mr. and Mrs. Calhoun! Hello!'

There was still no reply. He went to the front door and put his hand on the doorknob. It turned. He looked over at the postman, who nodded. He opened the door and stepped inside.

The smell hit him immediately.

The postman groaned and put his hand on Cowart's shoulder.

I know what that is,' he said. 'First smelled it in Vietnam. Never forget it.' He paused, then added, 'Listen.'

The smell clogged Cowart's throat and he wanted to choke, as if he was standing in smoke. Then he heard a buzzing noise coming from the back of the house.

The postman stepped back, retreating. 'I'm gonna go call the cops.'

'I'm gonna check,' Cowart said.

'Don't,' the postman said. 'There's no need.'

Cowart shook his head. He stepped forward, the smell and the buzzing noise seeming to gather him in, drawing him toward it. He was aware that the postman had left and he glanced back over his shoulder and saw the man hurrying toward a neighbor's house. Cowart took several more steps into the home. His eyes searched about, grasping at detail, gathering sights that could later be described, taking in the threadbare furnishings, the religious artifacts, and the thick sense that this was the last place on earth. The heat built about him inexorably, joining with the smell, which permeated his clothes, his nostrils, slid into his pores, and tugged firmly at the edges of nausea within him. He moved ahead into the kitchen.

The old man and woman were there.

They had each been tied to a chair, at either end of a linoleum-topped breakfast table. Their arms were pulled back sharply. The woman was naked, the man clothed. They were sitting across from each other, just as if they were sitting down to a meal.

Their throats had been cut.

Black blood was pooled about the base of each chair.

Flies covered each face, beneath tangles of gray hair.

Their heads were bent back, so that lifeless eyes stared at the ceiling.

In the center of the table, a Bible had been opened.

Cowart choked, battling unconsciousness, fear, and fighting to keep his stomach from heaving.

The heat in the room seemed to increase, washing over him in waves of thick, cloying warmth. The sound from the flies filled his ears. He took a single step and craned forward to read the words on the open page. A blood smear marked a single passage.

There be of them, that have left a name behind them, that their praises might be reported. And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them.

He stepped back, eyes wildly searching the room.

He saw a corner door, leading to the outside backyard, with a single chain lock that had been forced. The lock hung uselessly from splintered old wood. His eyes swept back to the old couple in front of him. The woman's flaccid breasts were streaked with brown-black blood. He stepped back fast, first one step, then another, and finally turned and rushed out the front door. He caught his breath, hands on knees, and saw the postman returning from across the street. Cowart felt a dizziness that threatened to drop him to the ground, so he sat abruptly on the front stoop.

The postman called out as he hurried toward Cowart, 'Are they?'

He nodded.

'Jesus,' the man said. 'Is it bad?'

Cowart nodded again.

'Police are on their way.'

'They were killed,' Cowart said quietly.

'Murdered? No shit?'

He bent his head again.

'Jesus,' the postman repeated. 'Why?'

He didn't reply, only shook his head. But inwardly, his mind reeled.

I know, Cowart thought. I know.

I know who they are and I know why they died.

They were the people Blair Sullivan had told him he always wanted to kill. Always. And he'd finally done it, reaching out from behind the bars, past the gates and fences, past the prison walls and barbed wire, just as he promised he could.

Matthew Cowart just did not know how.

10. An Arrangement Reached Upon The Road To Hell

It was late in the morning on the seventh day before Cowart was able to get back to the prison. Time had been trapped by the murder investigation.

He and the postman had waited quietly on the front stoop of the house for a patrol car to arrive. 'This is a helluva thing,' the postman had said. 'And, dammit, I wanted to catch the afternoon tide, pick up some snapper for dinner. Won't get out on the boat now.' He shook his head.

After a few moments, they heard a car come crunching down Tarpon Drive and they looked up to see a single policeman. He parked in front, slowly got out of his green-and-white cruiser, and approached lifter's muscles and dark aviator shades hiding his eyes.

I did,' the postman said. 'But he went inside.' The man jerked a finger toward Cowart.

'Who are you?'

'A reporter for the Miami Journal,' Cowart replied sadly.

'Uh-huh. So what've we got?'

'Two dead people. Murdered.'

The policeman's voice quickened. 'How do you know that?'

'Go look for yourself.'

'Neither of you two move.' The policeman maneuvered past them.

'Where do you think we'd go?' the postman asked quietly. 'Hell, I've been through this a whole lot more times than he has. Hey!' he called after the cop. 'It's just like in the damn movies. Don't touch anything.'

'I know that,' the young policeman said. 'Christ.'

They watched him as he walked carefully into the house.

'I think he's in for the shock of his young career,' Cowart said.

The postman grinned. 'He probably thinks that all there is to this job is chasing speeders heading toward Key West.'

Before Cowart could reply, they heard the cop say, 'Holy shit!' The exclamation had a sudden high pitch to it, like the sound of a surprised gull, cartwheeling into the sky.

There was a momentary pause, then the young policeman came pounding fast through the house. He made it past Cowart and the postman, into the front yard, before he threw up.

'Hey,' the postman said quietly, 'I'll be damned.' He tugged at his ponytail and smiled. 'You said it was bad. Guess you know what the hell you're talking about.'

'Must have been the smell,' Cowart said, watching the young policeman heave.

After a moment, the policeman straightened. His hair was slightly out of place, his face pale. Cowart tossed him a handkerchief. The policeman nodded. 'But, who, why, Jesus

'Who, is Blair Sullivan's mother and stepfather, Cowart said. 'Why, is a whole different question. Now, don't you think you better call this in?'

'No shit?' said the postman. 'Are you kidding me? But isn't he supposed to fry?'

'You got it.'

'Christ. But how come you're here?'

That's a good question, Cowart thought but out loud replied, 'I'm just looking for a story.'

'Guess you got one, the postman said under his breath.

Cowart stood to the side while the crime scene was being processed, watching as technicians worked the entire area, aware that time was sliding out from beneath him. He had managed to call the city desk and inform the city editor of what had taken place. Even for a man accustomed to South Florida's inherent strangeness, the city editor had been surprised.

'What d'you think the governor will do?' he asked. 'Do you think he'll stay the execution?'

'I don't know. Would you?'

'Christ, who knows? When can you get back up there and ask that crazed sonuvabitch what's happening?'

'As soon as I can get out of here.'

But he was forced to wait.

Patience is needed in the processing of a murder location. Little details become magnified. The slightest thing can have importance. It is an exacting task when done by professionals who take pleasure in the painstaking application of science to violence.

Cowart steamed and fretted, thinking of Blair Sullivan waiting in the cell for him. He kept staring at his watch. It wasn't until late in the afternoon that he was finally approached by two Monroe County detectives. The first was a middle-aged man wearing a tan suit streaked with sweat. His partner was a much younger woman with dirty-blonde hair combed back sharply from her face. She wore a mannish, loose-fitting cotton jacket and slacks, which hung from a lean figure. Cowart caught a glimpse of a semiautomatic pistol worn in a shoulder harness beneath the coat. Both wore dark glasses, but the woman took hers off when she stepped up to Cowart, revealing gray eyes that fixed him before she spoke.

'Mr. Cowart? My name is Andrea Shaeffer. I'm a homicide detective. This is my partner, Michael Weiss. We're in charge of the investigation. We'd like to take your statement.' She produced a small notepad and a pen.

Cowart nodded. He pulled out his own notebook, and the woman smiled. 'Yours is bigger than mine' she said.

'What can you tell me about the crime scene?' he asked.

'Are you asking as a reporter?'

'Of course.'

'Well, how about answering our questions first? Then we'll answer some of yours.'

'Mr. Cowart, Detective Weiss said, 'this is a murder investigation. We're not used to having members of the press tell us about crimes before we find out about them. Usually it's the other way around. So why don't you let us know right now why and how you got here in time to discover a pair of bodies.'

'Dead a couple of days,' Cowart said.

Detective Shaeffer nodded. 'Apparently so. But you show up this morning. How come?'

'Blair Sullivan told me to. Yesterday. From his cell on Death Row.'

She wrote it down, but shook her head. I don't get it. Did he know…?'

'I don't know what he knew. He merely insisted I come here.'

'How did he put it?'

'He told me to come down and interview the people in the house. I figured out afterwards who they were. I'm supposed to go back up to the prison right away.' He felt flush with the heat of lost minutes.

'Do you know who killed those people?' she asked.

He hesitated. 'No.'

Not yet, he thought.

'Well, do you think Blair Sullivan knows who killed those people?'

'He might.'

She sighed. 'Mr. Cowart, you're aware how unusual this all is? It would help us if you were a bit more forthcoming.'

Cowart felt Detective Shaeffer's eyes burrowing into him, as if simply by the force of her gaze she could start to probe his memory for answers. He shifted about uncomfortably.

'I have to get back to Starke,' he said. 'Maybe then I can help you.'

She nodded. 'I think one of us should go along. Maybe both of us.'

'He won't talk to you,' Cowart said.

'Really? Why not?'

'He doesn't like policemen.' But Cowart knew that was only an excuse.

By the time he got to the prison, the day had risen hard about him and was creeping toward afternoon. He'd been held up at the house on Tarpon Drive until evening, when the detectives had finally cleared the scene. He'd driven hard and fast back to the Journal newsroom, feeling the grip of time squeeze him as he threw a selection of details into a newspaper story, a hasty compilation of details painted with sensationalism, while the two detectives waited for him in the managing editor's office. They had not wanted to leave him, but they had been unable to make the last flight that night. They'd holed up in a motel not far from his apartment, meeting him shortly after daybreak. In silence they'd ridden the morning commuter flight north. Now, the two Monroe County detectives were in a rental car of their own, following close behind him. The front of the prison had been transformed in the prior twenty-four hours. There were easily two dozen television minivans in the parking lot, their call letters emblazoned on the sides, lots of LIVE EYES and ACTION NEWS TEAMS. Most were equipped with portable satellite transmission capabilities for live, remote shots. Camera crews lounged around, talking, sharing stories, or working over their equipment like soldiers getting ready for a battle. An equal number of reporters and still photographers milled about as well. As promised, the roadway was marked by demonstrators from both camps, who honked and hooted and shouted imprecations at each other.

Cowart parked and tried to slide inconspicuously toward the front of the prison. He was spotted almost immediately and instantly surrounded by cameras. The two detectives worked their way toward the prison, moving on the fringe of the crowd that gathered about him.

He held up his hand. 'Not right now. Just not yet, please.'

'Matt,' cried a television reporter he recognized from Miami. 'Will Sullivan see you? Is he going to tell you what the heck is going on?'

The camera lights blended with fierce sunlight. He tried to shade his eyes. I don't know yet, Tom. Let me find out.'

'Are there any suspects?' the television man persisted.

'I don't know.'

'Is Sullivan going to go through with it now?'

'I don't know. I don't know.'

'What have you been told?'

'Nothing. Not yet. Nothing.'

'Will you tell us when you talk to him?' another voice shouted.

'Sure,' he lied, saying anything to extricate himself.

He was struggling through the crowd toward the front doors. He could see Sergeant Rogers waiting for him.

'Hey, Matty' the television reporter called. 'Did you hear about the governor?'

'What, Tom? No, I haven't.'

'He just had a press conference, saying no stay unless Sullivan files an appeal.'

Cowart nodded and stepped toward the prison door, sweeping under the broad arm of Sergeant Rogers. The two detectives had slid in before him and were striding away from the probing lights of the cameramen.

Rogers whispered in his ear, singing, as he passed, 'You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away…'

'Thanks,' said Cowart sarcastically.

'Things sure are getting interesting,' the sergeant said.

'Maybe for you,' Cowart said under his breath. 'For me, it's getting a little difficult.'

The sergeant laughed. Then he turned to the two detectives. 'You must be Weiss and Shaeffer.' They shook hands. 'Y'all can wait in that office, right in there.'

'Wait?' Weiss said sharply. 'We're here to see Sullivan. Right now.'

The sergeant moved slowly, grasping Cowart by the elbow and steering him toward a sally port. All the time, however, he was shaking his head. 'He don't want to see you.'

'But, Sergeant,' Andrea Shaeffer spoke softly. 'This is a murder investigation.'

I know that,' the sergeant replied.

'Look, dammit, we want to see Sullivan, right now,' Weiss said.

'It don't work that way, Detective. The man's got an official…' he glanced up at a wall clock, shaking his head, 'uh, nine hours and forty-two minutes of life. If'n he don't want to see somebody, hell, I ain't gonna force him. Got that?'

'But…'

'No buts.'

'But he's going to talk to Cowart?' Shaeffer asked.

'That's right. Excuse me, miss, but I don't pretend to understand what Mr. Sullivan's got in mind by all this. But if n you got a complaint or you think maybe he's gonna change his mind, well, you got to talk to the governor's office. Maybe they'll give you some more time. As for us, we got to work with what we got. That means Mr. Cowart and his notebook and tape recorder. Alone.'

The woman nodded. She turned to her partner. 'Get on the horn with the governor's office. See what the hell they say about all this.' She turned to Cowart. 'Mr. Cowart, you've got to do your job, I know, but please, will you ask him if he'll talk with us?'

'I can do that,' Cowart replied.

'And, the detective continued, 'you probably have a pretty good idea what I'd be asking him. Try to get it down on tape.' She opened a briefcase and thrust a half dozen extra cassettes at him. 'I'm not going anywhere. Not until we can talk again.'

The reporter nodded. 1 understand.'

The detective looked over toward the sergeant. 'It always get this weird?' she asked, smiling.

Rogers paused and returned her smile. 'No, ma'am.'

The sergeant looked up at the clock again. 'There's a lot of talking here, but time's wasting.'

Cowart gestured toward the sally port and followed the sergeant into the prison. The two men walked quickly down a long corridor, their feet slapping against the polished linoleum surface. The sergeant was shaking his head.

'What?'

'It's just I don't like all this confusion' the sergeant replied. 'Things should be put in order before dying. Don't like loose ends, no sir.'

'I think that's how he's always meant it to play.'

'I think you're damn right there, Mr. Cowart.'

'Where we going?'

The reporter was being led onto a different wing than he'd been to before.

'Sully's in the isolation cell. It's right close by the chair. Right close to an office with phones and everything, so's if there's a stay, we'll know right fast.'

'How's he doing?'

'See for yourself.' He pointed Cowart toward a solitary holding cell. There was a single chair set outside the bars. He approached alone and found Sullivan lying on a steel bunk, staring at a television screen. His hair had been shaved, so that he looked like a death's head mask. He was surrounded by small cartons overflowing with clothing, books, and papers -his possessions moved from his former cell. The prisoner turned abruptly in the bed, gestured widely toward the single chair, and rolled his feet off the bunk, stretching as if tired. In his hand he clutched a Bible.

'Well, well, Cowart. Took your own sweet time getting back for my party, I see.'

He lit a cigarette and coughed.

'There are two detectives from Monroe County, Mr. Sullivan. They want to see you.'

'Fuck 'em.'

'They want to ask you about the deaths of your mother and stepfather.'

They do? Fuck 'em.'

'They want me to ask you to see them.'

He laughed. 'Well, that makes all the difference in the world, don't it? Fuck 'em again.'

Sullivan got up abruptly. He stared about for an instant, then went to the bars and grasped hold of them, pushing his face against them hard.

'Hey!' he called out. 'What the hell time is it? I need to know, what time is it? Hey, somebody! Hey!'

'There's time,' Cowart said slowly.

Sullivan stepped back, staring angrily toward him. "Sure. Sure.'

The man-shuddered, closed his eyes and took a deep breath. 'You know something, Cowart? You get so you can actually feel all the muscles around and about your heart just getting a little tighter with each second.' 'You could call an attorney.' 'Fuck 'em. You got to play the hand you're dealt.' 'You're not going to…'

'No. Let's get that settled. I may be a bit scared and a bit twitchy, but shit. I know about dying. Yes, sir, it's one thing I know a lot about.'

Blair Sullivan shifted about in the cell, finally sitting on the edge of the bunk and leaning forward. He seemed to relax suddenly, smiling conspiratorially, rubbing his hands together eagerly.

'Tell me about your interviews,' he said, laughing. 'I want to know everything.' Sullivan gestured at the television. 'The damn television and newspapers don't have any real details. It's just a lot of general garbage. I want you to tell me.'

Cowart felt cold. 'Details?'

'That's right. Leave nothing out. Use all those words you're so damn clever with and paint me a real portrait, huh?'

Cowart took a deep breath, thinking, I'm as mad as he is, but he continued. 'They were in the kitchen. They'd been tied up…'

'Good. Good. Tied tight, like hog-tied, or what?'

'No. Just their arms pulled back like this…' He demonstrated.

Sullivan nodded. 'Good. Keep going.'

'Throats cut.'

Sullivan nodded.

'There was blood all over. Your mother was naked. Their heads were back like this…'

'Keep going. Raped?'

'I couldn't tell. There were a lot of flies.'

'I like that. Buzzing around, real noisy?'

'That's right.' Cowart heard the words falling from his mouth, echoing slightly. He thought some other part of him that he'd never known existed had taken over.

'Had they been in pain?' the condemned man asked.

'How would I know?'

'C'mon, Cowart. Did it look like they'd had some time to contemplate their deaths?'

'Yes. They were tied in their chairs. They must have been looking at each other, right up to the time they were killed. One got to watch the other die, I guess, unless there was more than one killer.'

'No, just one,' Sullivan said quietly. He rubbed his arms. They were in the chairs?'

'Right. Tied down.'

'Like me.'

'What?'

'Tied in a chair. And then executed.' He laughed.

Cowart felt the cold abruptly turn to heat. 'There was a Bible.'

'… And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been…'

That's right.'

'Perfect. Just like it was supposed to be.'

Sullivan stood up abruptly, wrapping his arms around himself, hugging himself as if to contain all the feelings that reverberated within him. The muscles on his arms bulged. A vein on his forehead throbbed. His pale face flushed red. He let out a great breath of air.

'I can see it,' the condemned man said. 'I can see it.'

Sullivan raised his arms up in the cell, stretching out. Then he brought them down sharply.

'All right!' he said. 'It's done.' He breathed hard for a few moments, like a runner winded at the end of a race, then looked down at his hands, staring at them as he twisted them into claws. The dragon tattoos on his forearms wrenched with life. He laughed to himself, then turned back to Cowart. 'But now for the little bit extra. The addition that really makes this all worthwhile.'

'What are you talking about?'

Sullivan shook his head. 'Get out that notepad. Get out that tape recorder. It's time to learn about death. I told you. Legacy. Old Sully's last will and testament.'

As Cowart got ready, Sullivan resumed his seat on the edge of the bunk. He smoked slowly, savoring each long drag.

'You ready, Cowart?'

Cowart nodded.

'AH right. All right. Where to start? Well, I'll just start in with the obvious first. Cowart, how many deaths they pinned on me?'

Twelve. Officially.'

'That's right. But we gotta be technical. I been convicted and sentenced to die for those nice folks in Miami, that cute little gal and her boyfriend. That's official-like. And then I confessed to those ten other folks, just to be hospitable, I guess. Those detectives got those stories, all right, so I ain't going into those details right now. And then there's that little gal in Pachoula – number thirteen, right?'

'Right.'

'Well, we're gonna leave her aside for the moment. Let's just go back to twelve as the starting place, okay?'

'Okay. Twelve.'

He let out a long, slow laugh. 'Well, that ain't hardly right. No, sir. Not hardly right at all.'

'How many?'

He grinned. 'I been sitting here, trying to add that total up, Cowart. Adding and adding, trying to come up with a total that's accurate. Don't want to leave any room for discussion, you know.'

'How many?'

'How about thirty-nine folks, Cowart?'

The condemned man leaned back on his seat, rocking slightly. He picked up his legs and wrapped his arms around his knees, continuing to rock.

'Of course, I may have missed one or two. It happens, you know. Sometimes killings just seem the same, don't have that little spark to 'em that makes 'em stand out in your mind.'

Cowart didn't reply.

'Let's start with a little old lady who lived outside New Orleans. Lived alone in an apartment complex for the elderly in a little town called Jefferson. I saw her one afternoon, just walking home alone, just as nice and easy and taking in the day, like it belonged to her. So I followed her. She lived on a street called Lowell Place. I think her name was Eugenie Mae Phillips. I'm trying hard to remember these details, Cowart, because when you go to checking them all out, you'll need something to go on. This'd be about five years ago, in September. After night fell, I jimmied open a sliding door in the back. She had one of those garden-type apartments. Didn't even have a dead bolt on the back. Not a light outside, no nothing. Now why would any damn fool live in one of those? Just likely to get yourself killed, yes sir. There ain't a self-respecting rapist, robber, or killer about who don't see one of those apartments and just give a little jump for joy, 'cause they ain't no trouble at all. She should at least have had some big old vicious black dog. But she didn't. She had a parakeet. A yellow one in a cage. I killed it, too. And that's what happened. Of course, I had me a little fun with her first. She was so scared, hardly made no noise when I stuffed that pillow over her head. I did her, and five others right around there. Just rape and robbery, mainly. She was the only one I killed. Then I moved on. You know, you keep moving, ain't nothing bad gonna happen to you.'

Sullivan paused. 'You should keep that in mind, Cowart. Keep moving. Never sink in and let any roots dig in. You keep going, police don't get a fair shot at you. Hell, I got picked up for vagrancy, trespassing, suspicion of burglary, all sorts of shit. But each time, nobody ever made me. I'd spend a couple of nights in jail. Spent a month in a county lockup in Dothan, Alabama, once. That was a helluva place, Cowart. Cockroaches and rats, and smelled of shit something awful. But nobody ever made me for what I was. How could they? I wasn't nobody important…'

He smiled. 'Or so they thought.'

He hesitated, looking through the iron bars. 'Of course, that ain't the situation now, is it? Right now, Blair Sullivan's a bit more important, ain't he?'

He looked up sharply toward the reporter. 'Ain't he, dammit!'

'Yes.'

'Then say it!'

'A lot more important.'

Sullivan seemed to relax, his voice slowed.

'That's right. That's right.' He shut his eyes for a moment, but when they blinked open, there was a chilling insouciance flickering within them.

'Why, I'm probably the most damn important fellow in the state of Florida right about now, don't ya think, Cowart?'

'Maybe.'

'Why, everyone wants to know what old Sully knows, ain't that true?'

'That's true.'

'You getting the picture now, Cowart?'

'I think so.'

'Damn right. I daresay there's a whole lot of folks gonna be right intrigued…' he stretched the word out, letting it roll around on his tongue like a piece of hard candy'… by what old Sully has to say.'

Cowart nodded.

'Good. Real good. Now, when I moved over to Mobile, I killed a kid in a 7-Eleven. Just a holdup, no big deal. You got any idea how hard it is for the cops to make you on one of those? If nobody sees you go in, nobody sees you come out, why it's just like this little touch of evil lands right there and bingo! Somebody dies. He was a nice kid, too. Begged once or twice. Said, "Take the money. Take the money." Said, "Don't kill me. I'm just working my way through school. Please don't kill me." Of course, I did. Shot him once in the back of the head with a handgun, nice and quick and easy. Got a couple of hundred bucks. Then I took a couple of Twinkies and a soda or two and some chips and left him back behind the counter…'

He paused. Cowart saw a line of sweat on the man's forehead. His voice was quavering with intensity. 'You got any questions, don't hesitate to let me know.'

Cowart choked out, 'Do you have a time, a date, a location?'

'Right, right. I'll work on that. Got to have details.'

Sullivan relaxed, considering, then burst out with a short laugh. 'Hell, I shoulda had a notebook, just like you. I got to rely on what I remember.'

Sullivan leaned back again, setting forth details, places, and names, slowly yet steadily, ransacking his history.

Cowart listened hard, occasionally interjecting a question, trying to gain some further edge to the stories he was hearing. After the first few, the shock wore off. They took on a sort of regular terror, where all the horrors that had once happened to real people were reduced to the memoirs of a condemned man. He sought details from the killer, the accumulation of words draining each event of its passion. They had no substance, almost no connection to the world. That the events he spoke of had actually filled the last moments of once real, breathing humans was somewhere lost, as Blair Sullivan spoke with an ever-increasing, steady, sturdy, unimaginative, and utterly routine evil.

Hours slid by horribly.

Sergeant Rogers brought food. Sullivan waved him away. The traditional last meal – a pan-fried steak with whipped potatoes and apple pie – remained on a tray, congealing. Cowart simply listened.

It was a few minutes after 11 P.M. when Blair Sullivan finished, a pale smile flitting on his face.

That's all thirty-nine,' he said. 'Some story, huh? It may not set a damn record, but it's gonna come damn dose, right?'

He sighed deeply. 'I'd a liked that, you know. The record. What the hell is the record for a fellow like me,

Cowart? You got that little fact at your fingertips? Am I number one, or does that honor go to another?'

He laughed dryly. 'Of course, even if I ain't number one in terms of numbers, why I sure as hell got it over most those other suckers for, what you wanna call it, Cowart? Originality?'

'Mr. Sullivan, there's not much time. If you want to…'

Sullivan stood, suddenly wild-eyed. 'Haven't you paid any attention, boy?'

Cowart raised his hand. 'I just wanted…'

'What you wanted isn't important. What I want, is!'

'Okay.'

Sullivan looked out from between the bars. He breathed deeply and lowered his voice. 'Now it's time for one more story, Cowart. Before I step out of this world. Take that nice fast ride on the state's rocket.'

Cowart felt a terrible dryness within him, as if the heat from the man's words had sucked all the moisture from his body.

'Now, I will tell you the truth about little Joanie Shriver. A dying declaration is what they call it in a court of law. The last words before death. They figure no one would go to the great beyond with a lie staining their lips.'

He laughed out loud. 'That means it's got to be the truth… ' He paused, then added, '… If you can believe it.'

He stared at Cowart. 'Beautiful little Joanie Shriver. Perfect little Joanie.'

'Number forty,' Cowart said.

Blair Sullivan shook his head. 'No.'

He smiled. 'I didn't kill her.'

Cowart's stomach clenched, and he felt a clamminess come over his forehead.

'What?'

'I didn't kill her. I killed all those others. But I didn't kill her. Sure, I was in Escambia County. And sure, if I'd a spotted her, I would have been right tempted to do so. There's no question in my mind, if I had been parked outside her school yard, I would have done exactly what was done to her. I'd have rolled down my window and said, "Come here, little schoolgirl…" That I can promise. But I didn't. No, sir. I am innocent of that crime.'

He paused, then repeated, 'Innocent.' 'But the letter 'Anyone can write a letter.' 'And the knife

'Well, you're right about that. That was the knife that killed that poor little girl.' 'But I don't understand

Blair Sullivan grasped his sides. His laughter turned into a solid, hacking cough, echoing in the prison corridor. I have been waiting for this,' he said. I have been so eagerly awaiting the look on your face.'

'I…'

'It is unique, Cowart. You look a bit sick and twisted yourself. Like it's you that's sitting in the chair. Not me. What's going on in there?' Sullivan tapped his forehead.

Cowart closed his mouth and stared at the killer.

'You thought you knew so much, didn't you, Cowart? You thought you were pretty damn smart. And now, Mr. Pulitzer Prize Reporter, let me tell you something: You ain't so smart.'

He continued to laugh and cough.

Tell me,' Cowart said.

Sullivan looked up. Ts there time?'

There's time,' Cowart said between clenched teeth. He watched the man in the cell rise and start to pace about.

I feel cold,' the prisoner said.

'Who killed Joanie Shriver?'

Blair Sullivan stopped and smiled. 'You know, he said.

Cowart felt the floor falling away from beneath his feet. He grasped the chair, his notebook, his pen, trying to steady himself. He watched the capstan on his tape recorder turn, recording the sudden silence.

'Tell me,' he whispered.

Sullivan laughed again. 'You really want to know?'

'Tell me!'

'Okay, Cowart. Imagine two men in adjacent cells on Death Row. One man wants to get out because he took a fall on the shabbiest case any detective ever put together, convicted by a cracker jury that probably believed he was the craziest murdering nigger they'd ever seen. Of course, they were right to convict him. But for all the wrong reasons. This man is filled with impatience and anger. Now the other man knows he's never gonna get out of that date with the electric chair. He may put it off some, but he knows the day's gonna come for him. Ain't no doubt about it. And the thing that bothers him the most is a bit of unfinished hatred. There is something he still wants to get done. Even if he's got to reach out from the very grasp of death to do it. Something real important to him. Something so evil and wrong that there's only one person on this earth he could ask to do it.'

'Who's that?'

'Someone just like him.' Sullivan stared at Cowart, freezing him into the seat. 'Someone just exactly like him.'

Cowart said nothing.

'And so they discover a few coincidences. Like they were in the same place at the same time, driving the same type car. And they get an idea, huh? A real fine idea. The sort of plan that not even the devil's own assistant could think up, I'd wager. The one man who'll never get off the Row will take the other's crime. And then that man, when he gets out, will do that certain something just for his partner. You beginning to see?' Cowart didn't move.

'You see, you dumb son of a bitch! You'd a never believed it if it weren't the way it is. The poor, innocent, unjustly convicted black man. The big victim of racism and prejudice. And the real awful, bad, white guy. Would never have worked the other way around, neither. It weren't so hard to figure out. The main thing was, all I had to do was tell you about that knife and write that letter right at the right moment so's it could be read at that hearing. And the best part was, I got to keep denying the crime. Keep saying I didn't have nothing to do with it. Which was the truth. Best way to make a lie work, Cowart. Just put a little bit of truth into it. You see, I knew if I just confessed, you'd of found some way to prove I didn't do it. But all I had to do was make it look for you and all your buddies on television and in the other papers like I did it. Just make it look that way. Then let nature take over. All I had to do was open the door a little bit…'

He laughed again. 'And Bobby Earl just walked right through that crack. Just as soon as you pulled it wide enough.'

'How can I believe this…'

'Because there's two folks sitting dead in Monroe County. They're numbers forty and forty-one.'

'But why tell me?'

'Well.' Sullivan smiled a final time. 'This isn't exactly part of the bargain I made with Bobby Earl. He thinks the bargain ended when he went down to Tarpon Drive the other day and did my business for me. I gave him life. He gives me death. Nice and simple. Shake hands and walk away. That's what he thinks. But I told you, old Sully's got a long reach…' He laughed harshly. The light from the overhead bulb in the cell glistened off his shaved skull. 'And, you know, Cowart, I ain't the most trustworthy man around.'

Sullivan stood up, stretching his hands wide. 'And this way, maybe I can take him right along with me on the road to hell. Number forty-two. Big joke on him. He'd make a fine traveling companion, so to speak. Traveling right down to hell, all quickstep and double-time.'

Sullivan stopped laughing abruptly. 'You see, ain't that a last little joke? He never thought I'd add this little wrinkle.'

'Suppose I don't believe you?'

Sullivan cackled. 'Someone just like me, Cowart. That's right.' He looked over at the reporter. 'Y'all want proof, huh? What you think old Bobby Earl's been doing all this time, since you set him free?'

'He's been in school, studying. He gives some speeches to church groups…'

'Cowart,' Sullivan burst in, 'you know how silly that sounds? Don't you think Bobby Earl didn't learn nothing in his little experience in our great criminal justice system? You think that boy got no sense at all?'

I don't know…'

'That's right. You don't know. But you better find out. 'Cause I wager there's been a lot of tears shed over what old Bobby Earl's been up to. You just gotta go find out.'

Cowart reeled beneath the assault of words. He struggled, wrestling with unnameable horrors. I need proof,' he repeated lamely.

Sullivan whistled and let his eyes roll up toward the roof of the cell. 'You know, Cowart, you're like one of those old, crazy medieval monks, sitting around all day working out proofs for the existence of God. Can't you tell the truth when you hear it, boy?'

Cowart shook his head.

Sullivan smiled. I didn't think so.'

He paused a moment, savoring, before continuing. 'Well, you see, I ain't dumb, so when we were working out this little arrangement, me and Bobby Earl, I found out a bit more than I used already. I had to have a little extra, just to guarantee that Bobby Earl'd do his part of the bargain. And also just so's I could help you along the path to understanding.'

'What?'

'Well, let's make it an adventure, Cowart. You listen carefully. It weren't only that knife that got hid. Some other things got hid, too…'

He thought for a moment before grinning at the reporter. 'Well, suppose those things are in a real nasty place, yes sir. But you can see them, Cowart. If you got eyes in your ass.' He burst out in a raucous laugh.

I don't understand.'

'You just remember my words exactly when you go back to Pachoula. The route to understanding can be a pretty dirty one.' The harsh sound of the prisoner's voice echoed around Matthew Cowart. He remained frozen, speechless.

'How about it, Cowart? Have I managed to kill Bobby Earl, too?' He leaned forward. 'And what about you, Cowart? Have I killed you?'

Blair Sullivan leaned back sharply. 'That's it,' he said. 'End of story. End of talk. Goodbye, Cowart. It's dying time, and I'll see you in hell.'

The condemned man rose and slowly turned his back on the reporter, folding his arms and staring at the back of the cell, his shoulders shaking with an awful mingling of mirth and terror. Matthew Cowart remained rooted for a few moments, unable to will his limbs to move. He felt suddenly like an old man, as if the weight of what he'd heard was pressing down on his shoulders. His mind was throbbing. His throat was dry. He saw his hand shake slightly as he reached out to pick up his notepad and tape recorder. When he rose, he was unsteady. He took one step, then another, finally stumbling away from the lone man gazing at the wall. At the end of the corridor, he stopped and tried to catch his breath. He felt fevered, nauseous, and fought to contain himself, lifting his head when he heard footsteps. He saw a grim-faced Sergeant Rogers and a squad of strong men at the end of the corridor. They were forming into a tight group. There was a white-collared priest with a line of sweat on his forehead and several prison officials nervously glancing at wristwatches. He looked up and noticed a large electric clock high on the wall. He watched the sweep hand circle inexorably. It read ten minutes before midnight.

11. Panic

He felt himself falling. Tumbling down, head over heels, out of control, into a black hole.

'Mr. Cowart?'

He breathed in hard.

'Mr. Cowart, you okay, boy?'

He crashed and felt his body shatter into pieces.

'Hey, Mr. Cowart, you all there?'

Cowart opened his eyes and saw the sturdy, pale visage of Sergeant Rogers.

'You got to take your place now, Mr. Cowart. We ain't waiting on anybody, and all the official witnesses got to be seated before midnight.'

The sergeant paused, running his big hand through the short brush of his crew cut, a gesture of exhaustion and tension. 'It ain't like some movie show you can come in late on. You okay now?'

Cowart nodded his head.

'It's a tough night for everyone,' the sergeant said. 'You go on in. Right through that door. You'll see a seat in front, right next to a detective from Escambia County. That's where Sully said to put you. He was real specific about that. Can you move? You sure you're okay?'

'I'll make it, Cowart croaked.

'It ain't as bad as you think,' the hulking prison guard said. Then he shook his head. 'Nah, that's not true. It's as bad as can be. If it don't sorta turn your stomach, then you ain't a person. But you'll get through it okay. Right?'

Cowart swallowed. 'I'm okay.'

The prison guard eyed him carefully. 'Sully musta bent your ear something fierce. What'd he tell you all those hours? You look like a man who's seen a ghost.'

I have, thought Cowart. But he replied, 'About death.'

The sergeant snorted. 'He's the one who knows. Gonna see for himself, firsthand, now. You got to move right ahead, Mr. Cowart. Dying time don't wait for no man.'

Cowart knew what he was talking about and shook his head.

'Oh yes, it does,' he said. 'It bides its time.'

Sergeant Rogers looked at the reporter closely. 'Well, you ain't the one about to take the final walk. You sure you're okay? I don't want nobody passing out in there or making a scene. We got to have our decorum when we juice someone.'

The prison guard tried to smile with his irony.

Cowart took a single, unsteady step toward the execution chamber, then turned and said, 'I'll be okay.'

He wanted to burst into laughter at the depth of the lie he'd just spoken. Okay, he said to himself. I'll be okay. It was as if some foreign voice were speaking inside of him. Sure, no problem. No big deal.

All I've done is set a killer free.

He had a sudden, awful vision of Robert Earl Ferguson standing outside the small house in the Keys, laughing at him, before entering to fulfill his part of the bargain. The sound of the murderer's voice echoed in his head. Then he remembered the eighty-by-ten glossy photographs taken of Joanie Shriver at the swamp where her body had been discovered. He remembered how slick they had felt in his sweaty grasp, as if coated with blood.

I'm dead, he thought again.

But he forced his feet to drag forward. He went through the door at two minutes to twelve.

The first eyes he saw belonged to Bruce Wilcox. The bantam detective was seated in the front row wearing a brightly checked sportcoat that seemed a sick, hilarious contradiction to the dirty business at hand. He smiled grudgingly and nodded his head toward an empty seat beside him. Cowart spun his eyes about rapidly, glancing over the other two dozen or so witnesses sitting on folding chairs in two rows, gazing straight ahead as if trying to fix every detail of the event in their memories. They all seemed waxen, like figurines. No one moved.

A glass partition separated them from the execution chamber, so that it seemed as if they were watching the action on a stage or some oddly three-dimensional television set. Four men were in the chamber: two correction officers in uniform; a third man, the doctor, carrying a small black medical bag; another man in a suit – someone whispered "from the state attorney general's office" – waiting beneath a large electric clock.

He looked at the second hand as it scythed through time.

'Siddown, Cowart, the detective hissed. 'The show's about to start.'

Cowart saw two other reporters from the Tampa Tribune and the St… Petersburg Times. They looked grim but mimicked the detective by motioning him toward his seat, before continuing to scribble details in small notepads. Behind them was a woman from a Miami television station. Her eyes were staring straight ahead at the still-empty chair in the execution chamber. He saw her wind a simple white handkerchief tightly around her fist.

He half-stumbled into the seat waiting for him. The unyielding metal of the chair burned into his back.

'Tough night, huh, Cowart?' the detective whispered.

He didn't answer.

The detective grunted. 'Not as tough as some have it, though.'

'Don't be so sure about that,' Cowart replied under his breath. 'How did you get here?'

'Tanny's got friends. He wanted to see if old Sully would really go through with it. Still don't believe that bullshit you wrote about him being the killer of little Joanie. Tanny said he didn't much know what it would mean if Sullivan doesn't back out. But he thought if he didn't, and I got to see it, well, it might help teach me respect for the system of justice. Tanny is always trying to teach me things. Says it makes a man a better policeman to know what can happen in the end.'

The detective's eyes glistened with a hellish humor.

'Has it?' Cowart asked.

Wilcox shook his head. 'It ain't happened yet. Class is still in session.' He grinned at Cowart. 'You're looking a bit pale. Something on your mind?'

Before Cowart could reply, Wilcox whispered, 'Got any last words? It's midnight.'

They waited a heartbeat or two.

A side door opened and the prison warden stepped through. Blair Sullivan was next, flanked by two guards and trailed by a third. His face was rigid and pale, a corpselike appearance. His whole wiry body seemed smaller and sickly. He wore a simple white shirt buttoned tight to the neck and dark blue trousers. A priest wearing a collar, carrying a Bible and an expression of frustrated dismay, trailed the group. The priest shuffled off to the side of the chamber, pausing only to shrug in the direction of the warden, and cracked open the Good Book. He started reading quietly to himself. Cowart saw Sullivan's eyes widen when he spotted the chair. They swung abruptly to a telephone on the wall, and for the briefest moment his knees seemed to lose some strength, and he tottered. But he regained control almost instantly and the moment of hesitation was lost. It was the first time he'd seen Sullivan act in any way vaguely human, Cowart thought. Then things started to happen swiftly, with the herky-jerkiness of a silent movie.

Sullivan was steered into the seat and two guards dropped to their knees and started fastening leg and arm braces. Brown leather straps were tightened around Sullivan's chest, bunching up his white shirt. One guard attached an electrode to the prisoner's leg. Another swooped behind the chair and seized a cap, ready to bring it down over Sullivan's head.

The warden stepped forward and started reading from the black-bordered death warrant signed by the governor of Florida. Each syllable pricked Cowart's fear, as if they were being read for him. The warden hurried his words, then took a deep breath and tried to slow his pace down. His voice seemed oddly tinny and distant. There were speakers built into the walls and microphones hidden in the death chamber.

The warden finished reading. For an instant, he stared at the sheet of paper as if searching for something else to read. Then he looked up and peered at Sullivan. 'Any last words?' he asked quietly.

'Fuck you. Let 'er rip,' Sullivan said. His voice quavered uncharacteristically.

The warden gestured with his right hand, the one that held the curled-up warrant, toward the guard standing behind the chair, who abruptly brought the black leather shroud cap and face mask down over the prisoner's head. The guard then attached a large electrical conductor to the cap. Sullivan squirmed then, an abrupt thrust against the bonds that held him. Cowart saw the dragon tattoos on the man's arms spring to life as the muscles beneath the skin twitched and strained. The tendons on his neck tightened like ropes pulled taut by a sudden great wind. Sullivan was shouting something but the words were muffled by a leather chin strap and tongue pad that had been forced between his teeth. The words became inarticulate grunts and moans, rising and falling in panic pitch. In the witness room there was no noise except for the slow in and out of tortured breathing. Cowart saw the warden nod almost imperceptibly toward a partition in the rear of the death chamber. There was a small slit there, and for an instant, he saw a pair of eyes.

The executioner's eyes.

They stared out at the man in the chair, then they disappeared.

There was a thunking sound.

Someone gasped. Another person coughed hard. There were a few whispered expletives. The lights dimmed momentarily. Then silence regained the room.

Cowart thought he could not breathe. It was as if some hand had encircled his chest and squeezed all the air from within him. He watched motionless as the color of Sullivan's fists changed from pink to white to gray.

The warden nodded again toward the rear partition.

A distant generator whine buzzed and shook the small space. A faint odor of burnt flesh crept into his nostrils and filled his stomach with renewed nausea.

There was another fracture in time as the physician waited for the 2,500 volts to slide from the dead man's body. Then he stepped forward, removing a stethoscope from his black bag.

And it was done. Cowart watched the people in the execution chamber as they circled around Sullivan's body, slumped in the polished oaken chair. It was as if they were stage players ready to break down a set after the final performance of some failed show. He and the other official witnesses stared, trying to catch a glimpse of the dead man's face as he was shifted from the killing seat into a black rubber body bag. But Sullivan was zipped away too quickly for anyone to see if his eyeballs had exploded or his skin had been scorched red and black. The body was hustled back through the side door on a gurney. It should be terrible, he thought, but it was simply routine. Perhaps that was the most terrifying aspect of it. He had witnessed- the factorylike processing of evil. Death canned and bottled and delivered with all the drama of the morning milk.

'Scratch one bad guy,' Wilcox said. All the jocularity had fled from his voice, replaced with a barren satisfaction. 'It's all over…' The detective glanced at Cowart.'… Except for the shouting.'

He walked through the prison corridors with the rest of the official witnesses toward where the other members of the press contingent and the demonstrators had crowded. He could see the artificial light of the television cameras flooding the vestibule, giving it a forced otherwordly glow. The polished floor glistened; the whitewashed walls seemed to vibrate with light. A bank of microphones was arranged behind a makeshift podium. He tried to sidle to the side of the room, edging toward the door, as the warden approached the gathering, holding up his hand to cut off questions, but there were no shadows to hide in.

'I'll read a short statement,' the warden said. His voice creaked with the strain of the events. 'Then I'll answer your questions. Then the pool reporters will brief you.'

He gave the official time of death as 12:08 A.M. The warden droned that a representative from the state attorney general's office had been present when Sullivan had been prepared for execution and during the procedure, to make certain that there was no controversy over the events – that no one would come forward later and claim that Sullivan had been denied his rights, had been taunted or beaten – as they had more than a dozen years earlier when the state had renewed the death penalty by executing a somewhat pathetic drifter named John Spenkelink. He said that Sullivan had refused a final plea to file an appeal, right outside the execution chamber door. He quoted the dead man's final words as 'Obscenity you. Let 'er rip.'

The still photographers' cameras made a whirring, clicking noise like some flight of mechanical birds taking wing en masse.

The warden then gave way to the three pool reporters. Each in turn started reading from their notepads, coolly relating the minute details of the execution. They were all pale, but their voices were steady. The woman from Miami told the crowd that Sullivan's fingers had stiffened, then curled into fists when the first jolt hit him and that his back seemed to arc away from the chair. The reporter from St. Petersburg had noticed the momentary hesitation that had stymied Sullivan for just an instant when he spotted the chair. The reporter from the Tampa Tribune said that Sullivan had glared at the witnesses without compassion, and that he seemed mostly angry as he was strapped in. He had noticed, too, that one of the guards had fumbled with one of the straps around the condemned man's right leg, causing him to have to redo the binding rapidly. The leather had frayed under the shock of the execution, the reporter said, and afterward was almost severed by the force of Sullivan's struggle against the electric current. Twenty-five hundred volts, the reporter reminded the gathering.

Cowart heard another voice at his shoulder. He pivoted and saw the two detectives from Monroe County.

Andrea Shaeffer's voice whispered soothingly. 'What did he tell you, Mr. Cowart? Who killed those people?'

Her gray eyes were fastened onto his, a whole different sort of heat.

'He did,' Cowart replied.

She reached out and grasped his arm. But before the detective could follow up, there was another clamor from the assembly.

'Where's Cowart?'

'Cowart, your turn! What happened?'

Cowart pulled away from the detective and walked unsteadily toward the podium, trying desperately to sort through everything he'd heard. He felt his hand quiver, knew his face was flushed and that sweat ringed his forehead. He pulled a white handkerchief from his pocket and slowly wiped his brow, as if he could wipe away the panic that filled him.

He thought, I have done nothing wrong. I am not the guilty person here. But he didn't believe it. He wanted a moment to think, to figure out what to say, but there was no time. Instead, he grabbed on to the first question he heard.

'Why didn't he file an appeal?' someone yelled.

Cowart took a deep breath and answered, 'He didn't want to sit in prison waiting for the state to come get him. So he went and got the state. It's not that unusual. Others have done it – Texas, North Carolina, Gilmore out in Utah. It's sorta like suicide, only officially sanctioned.'

He saw pens scraping across paper, his words falling onto so many blank pages.

'What did he tell you when you went back there and talked with him?'

Cowart felt pinioned by despair. And then he remembered something Sullivan had told him earlier: If you want someone to believe a lie, mix a bit of truth in with it. So he did. The killer's formula: Mix lies and truths.

'He wanted to confess,' Cowart said. 'It was pretty much like Ted Bundy a few years back, when he told investigators about all the crimes he'd committed before going to the chair. 'That's what Sullivan did.'

'Why?'

'How many?'

'Who?'

He held up his hands. 'Guys, give me a break. There's no confirmation on any of this. I don't know for certain if he was telling me the truth or not. He could have been lying…'

'Before going to the chair? C'mon!' someone shouted from the back.

Cowart bristled. 'Hey! I don't know. I'll tell you one thing he told me: He said if killing people wasn't so hard for him, how hard did I think lying would be?'

There was a lull as people scribbled his words.

'Look,' Cowart said, 'if I tell you that Blair Sullivan confessed to the murder of Joe Blow and there was no such murder, or someone else got charged with the crime, or maybe Joe Blow's body's never been found, then, hell, we've got a mess. I'll tell you this. He confessed to multiple homicides…'

'How many?'

'As many as forty.'

The number electrified the crowd. There were more shouted questions, the lights seemed to redouble in intensity.

'Where?'

'In Florida, Louisiana, and Alabama. There were some other crimes as well, rapes, robberies.'

'How long?'

'He'd been doing them for months. Maybe years.'

'What about the murders in Monroe County? His mother and stepfather? What did he tell you about them?'

Cowart breathed slowly. 'He hired someone to do those crimes. At least, that's what he said.'

Cowart's eyes swept over to where Shaeffer stood. He saw her stiffen and lean her head toward her partner. Weiss was red-faced. Cowart turned away swiftly.

'Hired who?'

'I don't know,' Cowart said. 'He wouldn't tell me.'

The first lie.

'Come on! He must have told you something or somebody.'

'He wouldn't get that specific'

The first lie bred another.

'You mean he tells you he's the person who arranged a double homicide and you didn't ask him how he managed it?'

'I did. He wouldn't say.'

'Well, how did he contact the killer? His phone privileges were monitored. His mail was censored. He's been in isolation on Death Row. How did he do it?' This question was greeted with some buttressing cheers. It came from one of the pool reporters, who was shaking his head as he asked it.

'He implied he set it up through some sort of informal prison grapevine.'

Not exactly a lie, Cowart thought. An oblique truth.

'You're holding back!' someone shouted.

He shook his head.

'Details!' someone called out.

He held up his arms.

'You're gonna put it all in the Journal tomorrow, right?'

Resentment, jealousy, like the lights, flowed over him. He realized that any of the others would have sold their souls to be in his position. They all knew something had happened and hated not knowing precisely what. Information is the currency of journalism, and he was foreclosing on their estate. He knew no one in that room would ever forgive him – if the truth ever came out.

'I don't know what I'm going to do,' he pleaded. 'I haven't had a chance to sort through anything. I've got hours of tape to go through. Give me a break.'

'Was he crazy?'

'He was a psychopath. He had his own agenda.'

That was certainly the truth. And then the question he dreaded.

'What did he tell you about Joanie Shriver? Did he finally confess to her murder?'

Cowart realized that he could simply say yes and be done with it. Destroy the tapes. Live with his memory. Instead, he stumbled and landed somewhere between truth and fiction.

'She was part of the confession,' he said.

'He killed her?'

'He told me exactly how it was done. He knew all the details that only the killer would know.'

'Why won't you say yes or no?'

Cowart tried not to squirm. 'Guys. Sullivan was a special case. He didn't put things in yes-and-no terms. Didn't deal in absolutes, not even during his confession.'

'What did he say about Ferguson?'

Cowart took a deep breath. 'He had nothing but hatred for Ferguson.'

'Is he connected to all this?'

'It was my impression that Sullivan would have killed Ferguson, too, if he'd had the chance. If he could have made the arrangements, I think he would have put Ferguson on his list.'

He exhaled slowly. He could see the interest in the room shifting back to Sullivan. By assigning Ferguson to the list of potential victims, he'd managed to give him a different status than he deserved.

'Will you provide us with a transcript of what he did say?'

He shook his head. 'I'm not a pool reporter.'

The questions increased in anger.

'What are you going to do now? Gonna write a book?'

'Why won't you share it?'

'What, you think you're gonna win another Pulitzer?'

He shook his head.

Not that, he thought. He doubted he would have the one he had won much longer. A prize? I'll be lucky if my prize is to live through all this.

He raised his hand. 'I wish I could say that the execution tonight put an end to Blair Sullivan's story, guys. But it didn't. There's a bunch of loose ends that have to be tied up. There are detectives waiting to talk to me. I've got my own damn deadlines to meet. I'm sorry, but that's it. No more.'

He walked away from the podium, followed by cameras, shouted questions, and growing dread. He felt hands grasping at him, but he pushed through the crowd, reached the prison doors, and passed through into the deep black of the hours after midnight. An anti-death-penalty group, holding candles and placards and singing hymns, was gathered by the road. The pitch of their voices washed around him, tugging him like a blustery wind, away from the prison. 'What a friend we have in Jesus…' One of the group, a college coed wearing a hooded sweatshirt that made her seem like some odd Inquisition priest, screamed at him, her words cutting bladelike across the gentle rhythms of the hymn, 'Ghoul! Killer!' But he sidestepped past her words, heading toward his car.

He was fumbling for his keys when Andrea Shaeffer caught up with him. 'I need to talk to you,' she said.

'I can't talk. Not now.'

She grabbed him by the shirt, suddenly pulling him toward her. 'Why the hell not? What's going on, Cowart? Yesterday was no good. Today was no good. Tonight's no good. When are you going to level with us?'

'Look,' he cried. 'They're dead, dammit! They were old and he hated them and they got killed and there's not a damn thing anyone can do about that now! You don't have to have an answer right now. It can wait until the morning. No one else is dying tonight!'

The detective started to say something, then paused. She fixed him with a single, long, fierce glance, shut her mouth and set her jaw. Then she poked him three times in the chest with her index finger, hard, before stepping aside so that he could get into the car.

'In the morning,' she said.

'Yes.'

'Where?'

'Miami. My office.'

I'll be there. You be sure you're there as well.'

She stepped back from the car, menace creeping into her tone.

'Yes, dammit, yes. Miami.'

Shaeffer made a small sweeping motion with her hand, as if reluctantly granting permission for him to depart. But her eyes were filled with suspicion, narrowed to pinpoints.

He jumped behind the wheel and thrust the keys into the ignition, slamming the door. The engine fired and he snatched at the gearshift, put the car in gear, and pulled back.

But as he retreated, the headlights swept over the mocking red check of Detective Wilcox's sportcoat. He stood in the roadway, his arms crossed, watching Cowart closely, blocking the reporter's path. He shook his head with exaggerated slowness, made his fist into a pistol and fired it at him. Then he stepped aside to let him pass.

The reporter looked away. He no longer cared where he headed, as long as it was someplace else. He punched hard on the gas, swinging the wheel toward the exit gate, and drove hard into the dark. The night chased after him.

TWO. The Churchgoer

There may come a day I will dance on your grave;

But if unable to dance, I will crawl across it. If unable to dance, I will crawl.

THE GRATEFUL DEAD 'Hell in a Bucket'

12. The Police Lieutenant's Sleeplessness

'Oh, Jesus, sweet Jesus, why, Lord, why?' she cried. Her voice rose and rattled the walls of the small trailer, shaking the knicknacks and bric-a-brac that decorated the fake wood-paneled walls, penetrating the thick heat that lingered in the darkness outside, oblivious of the midnight hour. Every few seconds, the red-and-blue strobe lights of the police cruisers parked in a semicircle outside struck the back wall of the cramped room and illuminated a carved crucifix that hung next to a framed blessing cut from a newspaper. The Bashing lights seemed to mark the steady progression of seconds.

'Why, Lord?' the woman sobbed again.

That's a question He never seems eager to answer, Tanny Brown thought cynically. Especially in trailer parks.

He put his hand to his head for just an instant, Irving to will some quiet into the world around him. Remarkably, after cutting loose with one last howl, the woman's voice drained away.

He turned toward her. She had curled up in a corner, lifting her feet from the floor, childlike, and tucking them beneath her. She seemed a preposterous killer, with stringy, unkempt brown hair, and a lean, skeletal figure. One eye was blackened and her thin wrist was wrapped in an elastic bandage. She was wearing a tattered pink housecoat, and the pushed-up sleeves revealed new purple-blue bruises on her arms. He made a mental note of these. He saw nicotine stains on her fingers as she lifted her hands to her face and gently patted the tears that flowed freely down her cheeks. When she looked at the moisture on her fingers, the look on her face made him think she expected to find blood.

Tanny Brown stared at the woman, letting the sudden quiet calm the air. She's old, he thought, and almost instantly corrected himself: She's younger than I am. Years had been beaten into her, aging her far more swiftly than the passing of time.

He motioned toward one of the uniformed officers hanging in the rear of the trailer, behind a kitchen partition.

'Fred,' he said quietly, 'got a cigarette for Missus Collins?'

The officer stepped forward, offering the woman his pack. She reached out while mumbling, 'I'm trying to quit.'

Brown leaned across and lit the cigarette for her. 'Now, Missus Collins, take it slowly and tell me what happened when Buck came here after the late shift.'

There came a popping sound from outside and a small explosion of light. Dammit, he thought, as he saw the woman's eyes go panicky.

'It's just a police photographer, ma'am. Now, how about a glass of water?'

'I could use something stronger,' she replied, hands shaking as she lifted the cigarette to her lips and took a long drag, which ended in a brief spasm of coughing.

'A glass of water, Fred.' As the man brought the drink, Brown heard voices outside. He rose abruptly. 'Ma'am, you just get ahold of yourself. I'll be right back.'

'You ain't gonna leave me?' She seemed abruptly terrified.

'No, just got to check on the work outside. Fred, you stay here.'

He wished Wilcox were with him as he looked down at the woman's eyes fluttering about the room, on the verge of breaking down and wailing again. His partner would know instinctively how to reassure her. Bruce had a way with the poor fringe folks that they were forever dealing with, especially the white ones. They were his people. He had grown up in a world not too far removed from this one. He knew beatings, cruelty, and the acid taste of trailer-park hopes. He could sit across from a woman like this and hold her hand and have her spilling the entire incident out within seconds. Tanny Brown sighed, feeling awkward and out of place. He did not want to be there, trapped amidst the silver bullet-like shapes of the airstreams.

He stepped from the trailer and watched as the police photographer angled about, looking for another shot of a dark shape sprawled on the thin grass and packed dirt outside the trailer. Several other policemen were measuring the location. A few others were holding back the other inhabitants of the trailer park, who craned forward with curiosity, trying to catch a glimpse of the woman's late and estranged husband. Brown walked over and stared down at the face of the man on the ground. His eyes were open, fixed in a grotesque mask that mingled surprise and death, staring at the night sky. A huge splotch of blood remained where his chest should have been. The blood had settled in a halo about his head and shoulders. On the ground, where the impact from the shotgun blast had tossed them, were a half-empty bottle of scotch and a cheap handgun. A couple of crime-scene men laughed, and he turned toward them.

'A joke?'

'Quickie divorce proceedings,' said one man, bending over and bagging the bottle of scotch. 'Better than Tijuana or Vegas.'

'Guess old Buck here figured he could wallop his woman whether they were married or not. Turns out he was wrong,' another technician whispered. There was another small burst of laughter.

'Hey,' Brown said brusquely. 'You guys got opinions, keep ' em down. At least until we clear the location.'

'Sure,' said the photographer as he popped another picture. 'Wouldn't want to hurt the guy's feelings.'

Brown bit back a smile of his own, a look which the other policemen caught. He waved at the men working the body in mock disgust, and that made them grin, as they continued to move about the scene.

He'd seen plenty of death: car wrecks, murder victims, men shot in war, heart attacks, and hunting accidents.

Tanny Brown remembered his aged grandmother laid out in an open casket, her dark skin stretched brittle, like the crust of an overdone bird, her hands folded neatly on her chest as if in prayer. The church had seemed a great, hollow place filled with weeping. He recalled the tightness in his throat caused by the starched white collar of his new and only dress shirt. He had been no more than six and what he remembered most was the sturdy sensation of his father's hand on his shoulder, part direction, part reassurance, guiding him past the casket. Whispered words: 'Say goodbye to Granmaw, quick now, child, she's on her way to a better place and movin' fast now, so say it fast while she can still hear you.'

He smiled. For years he had thought the dead could hear you, as if they were only napping. He wondered at how powerful a father's words can be. He remembered being overseas and zipping the bodies of men he'd known equally briefly and intimately into black rubber bags. At first he would always try to say something, some words of comfort, as if to steady their trip to death. But as the numbers grew and his frustration and exhaustion spiraled, he took to simply thinking a few phrases and finally, when his own tour dwindled to weeks and days, he gave up even that, performing his job with bitter silence.

He looked down at his watch. Midnight. They're walking into the room. He pictured the nervous sweat on the lip of the warden, the ashen faces of the official witnesses, a slight hesitation, then the hurried motions of the escort party as they pulled the straps tight around Sullivan's wrists and ankles.

He waited one minute.

First jolt now, he thought.

One more minute.

Second jolt.

He imagined the doctor approaching the body. He would bend down with his stethoscope, listening for the heart. Then he would raise his head and say, 'The man is dead,' and glance down at his own watch. The warden would step forward and face the official observers and he, too, would speak by ritual. 'The judgment and sentence of the Circuit Court of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit of the State of Florida has been carried out according to law. Now God rest his soul.'

He shook his head. No rest for that soul, he thought.

And none for mine, either.

He walked back into the trailer. The woman had quieted completely.

'Now, Missus Collins, you want to tell me what happened? You want to wait for your attorney? Or you want to talk now, get this straightened out?'

The woman's voice was barely more than a whimper. He called me, you know, from that damn Sportman's Club, where he went after getting off work at the plant. Said he weren't gonna let me do this to him. Said he was gonna take care of me without no judge and divorce lawyers, no-sir.'

'Did he tell you he had a weapon?'

'Yes, sir, Mr. Brown, he did. Said he had his brother's gun and he was damn straight gonna use it this time on me.'

'This time?'

'He came over on Sunday, not so drunk that he was falling down, but plenty liquored up, and shot out the lights outside. Laughing and calling me names. Then he started to whale on me, yessir. My biggest, he's only eleven, got his arm busted trying to pull him off. I thought he'd kill us all. I was so scared; that's why I sent the kids off'n to their cuzzin's. Put all three of 'em on the bus this morning.'

The woman picked up a small fake-leather photo album from a side table. She opened it up and thrust it across at Tanny Brown. He saw three well-scrubbed faces, school pictures.

'They're good kids,' she said. 'I'm glad they weren't here for this.'

He nodded. 'Why didn't you call the police on Sunday?'

'Wouldn't do no good. I even had a judge's order telling him to stay away, but it didn't do no good. Nothing did no good when he'd been drinking. Except maybe that shotgun.'

Her upper lip started to quiver and tears began to well up again in the corners of her eyes.

'Oh, Jesus, sweet Jesus,' she whimpered.

'The shotgun? Where'd you get the shotgun?'

I went over to Pensacola, to the Sears there, after they fixed me up at the clinic. I still got Buck's Sears card, so I charged it. I was so scared, Mr. Brown. And when I heard that old pickup of his pull up, I knew he meant to do me, I knew it.'

The woman started to cry again.

'Did you see the gun in his hand before you shot?'

I don't know. It was dark and I was so scared.

Tanny Brown spoke quietly but firmly. He kept the photo album with the children's pictures in his hands.

'Now think hard, Missus Collins. What did you see…?' The police lieutenant looked over at the uniformed officer, who nodded his head in comprehension. 'Now, you wouldn't have shot unless you saw him' raise that gun right at you, right?'

The woman stared at him quizzically.

'You wouldn't have shot unless you were in fear for your life, right?'

'Right, she replied slowly.

'Not unless you knew deadly force was the only available recourse left to you, right?'

A slow understanding seemed to fall on the woman's face, even though Brown knew she hadn't understood half the words he'd used in his question.

'Well,' she said softly, 'I could see he raised something right at me…'

'And you knew he had the gun and he had threatened you and shot at you before…'

'That's right, Mr. Brown. I was in fear.'

'And there was no place for you to run and hide?'

The woman gestured widely. 'Where you gonna hide in here? Got no recourse at all.'

Brown nodded his head and looked again at the children's pictures.

'Three kids? All his?'

'No, sir. Buck weren't their daddy, and he never liked ' em much. Guess they reminded him of my other husband. But they're fine kids, Mr. Brown. Fine kids.'

'Where's their real daddy?'

The woman shrugged, a movement that spoke volumes about trailer parks and bruises.

'Said he was going to Louisiana, try and get work on the oil rigs. But that's nearly seven years ago. Now, he's just gone. We weren't husband and wife official, nohow.'

Tanny Brown was about to ask another question when he heard a bellow of rage from outside. Sudden voices were raised and he heard policemen shouting to each other. The woman on the couch gasped, shrinking down to the floor. 'That's his brother. I know it. He'll kill me, Lord, I know.'

'No, he won't,' Brown said quietly. He handed the woman back the portraits of her children. She clutched the leather photo album tightly. Then he motioned for the uniformed officer to stand by the door as he returned outside.

From the doorway, he saw two other uniforms trying to restrain a large, enraged man who struggled hard against their hold. The crime-scene technicians had scattered. The man roared, tugging and jerking, pulling the officers toward the body.

'Buck, Buck! Jesus, Buck, I can't believe it! Jesus, lemme go! Lemme go! I'll kill the bitch, kill her!'

He surged forward dragging the officers. Two more policemen jumped in his path to try and slow his progress. One cop fell to the ground, cursing. The crowd of people started to catcall and yell, their voices adding to the man's fury.

'I'll kill the bitch, dammit!'

He screamed with red-streaked rage. His contorted face was caught in the flashing strobe lights of the police cruisers, illuminating his anger. He kicked at one of the policemen struggling to hold him, his foot landing on the officer's shin. The man yelped and fell aside, grabbing at his leg.

Tanny Brown stepped from the trailer's front stoop and walked toward the dead man's brother. He put himself directly in the man's vision.

'Shut up!' he shouted.

The wild man stared at him, hesitating momentarily in his push forward. Then he lurched again. I'll kill the bitch,' he screamed.

'That your brother?' Brown shouted.

The man twisted in the grasp of the policemen. 'She killed Buck, now I mean to do her. Bitch! You're dead!' he cried, directing his yell past Brown.

'Is that your brother?' Brown asked again, slightly quieter.

'You're dead, bitch! Dead!' the man snarled. 'Who's asking? Who're you, nigger?'

The racial epithet stung him, but he didn't move. He considered stepping up and feeding the man his fist, but then decided against it. The man had to be stupid to call him a name, but probably wasn't so stupid he wouldn't file a complaint. A brief vision of a stack of paperwork jumped into his sight like a mirage.

One of the officers trying to hold the man back freed his nightstick. Brown shook his head and stepped up so that his face was only a few inches away from the dead man's brother.

'I'm police Lieutenant Theodore Brown, asshole, and I'm gonna get pissed in one more second, and you don't want to have me on your case, asshole.'

The man hesitated. 'She killed him, the bitch.'

'You already said that.'

'What you gonna do about it?'

Tanny Brown ignored the question. 'That your gun?' he asked.

'Yeah, mine. He got it from me earlier.'

'Your gun? Your brother?'

'Yeah. You gonna arrest the bitch, or am I gonna have to kill her?'

The man's struggles had slowed, but his voice had gathered an angry, challenging edge.

'You knew he was gonna come over here?'

He told everyone at the bar.'

'What was the gun for?'

'He was just gonna scare her a little, like he did the other night.'

Brown turned and saw the uniformed officer standing in the light thrown from the trailer door, and the woman cowering behind the policeman. He turned back to the enraged man, who was standing still now, waiting, his arms still clasped by two officers.

The police lieutenant walked over to the dead man's body and looked down at it. Under his voice, he whispered, 'Can you hear me? You ain't worth the trouble.' Then he looked back at the brother.

'You gonna do something, or what?' the man demanded.

Tanny Brown smiled. 'Sure,' he said.

He turned to one of the crime-scene technicians. 'Tom, go get Missus Collins' shotgun.' The man went over to a cruiser and returned with the gun. Brown took the shotgun and jacked the pump action a single time, chambering a fresh round.

He looked over at the dead man's brother and smiled again. 'Give the shotgun back to Missus Collins,' he said loudly. He stared over at the man. 'Fred?' he called out in a loud voice. 'Officer Davis, you write Missus Collins up one of those tickets for dumping refuse without a permit. Pay a fifty-buck fine. And you call sanitation and tell them to come pick up this trash.' He pointed at the body at his feet.

'Hey,' said the man.

'That's right. Give her a ticket for shooting this piece of crap and dumping him out here.'

'Hey,' the man said again.

'Tell Missus Collins she dumps any more trash bodies in her front yard, it's gonna cost her fifty bucks every time.'

He aimed his index finger at the dead man's brother. 'Like this one here. Tell her she's got my permission to blow this sorry asshole's head off. But it's gonna cost her another fifty.'

'You can't do that,' the man said. His arms had dropped to his sides.

'You don't think so?' Brown said. He walked back to the man and shouted in his face. 'You don't think so?'

'Hey, Tanny!' cried one of the uniformed officers. I got fifty I can lend her.'

There was a burst of laughter from some of the other policemen.

'Sure,' came another voice. 'Hell, we can take up a collection. Cover her until she blows away all the assholes.'

'Put me in for ten, said one policeman, rubbing his shin.

'Hey,' said the man.

'Hey, what?' Tanny Brown demanded.

'You can't.'

'Watch what I can do,' the lieutenant said quietly. 'Arrest this man.'

'Hey!' the man said again as one of the officers slapped handcuffs around his wrists.

'Criminal trespass. Obstruction. Battery on a police officer. Harassment. And let's see, how about conspiracy to commit murder? That's for giving his damn dumb drunk brother a gun.'

'You can't,' the man said again. His voice had lost its rage.

'Those are all felonies, asshole. I'll bet you don't have a damn permit for that gun, either. And let's add driving under the influence.'

'Hey, I ain't drunk.'

Tanny Brown stared at the man. 'Take a good look,' he said quietly. 'You ever see this face again, and it's gonna be real trouble. Got that?'

'You can't do this.'

'Take him in,' Brown said to the uniformed officers. Show him a bit of country hospitality.'

'A pleasure,' murmured the man who had been kicked. He jerked the handcuffed man around savagely.

'Take it easy,' Brown said. The uniformed officer stared at the lieutenant. 'Okay, Brown added, smiling. 'Not too damn easy.' He whispered one more command. 'And make sure the bastard gets put in a cell with the biggest, meanest, rasty-ass black folks we've got in stir. Maybe they can teach him not to call people names.

Two of the officers burst into brief laughter.

Tanny Brown turned his back on the protesting man being dragged toward a squad car, walked back to the trailer, and spoke quietly to the woman cowering inside.

'Missus Collins, we got to go to the police station. We're gonna read you your rights down there. Then I want you to call up that attorney, have him come help you out. You got that?'

She nodded. 'I need to call my kids.'

'There'll be time for that.'

He turned to the uniformed officer. 'You get one of the female officers out here quick to transport her. See that she gets something to eat on the way.'

'What charge?' the policeman asked.

Tanny Brown turned, staring out at the sprawled lump that remained in the yard. 'How about discharging a firearm within town limits? That'll hold things until I talk to the state attorney.'

He went back outside and stood next to the body.

Stupid, he thought. So stupid.

He glanced down at his watch. A lot of dying tonight, he thought.

He looked at the dead man's eyes. The face faded, pushed out of the way by his memory of his first look at Joanie Shriver's body stretched out in the center of an embarrassed, angry group of searchers. They were standing at the edge of the swamp, beads of dirty-brown water and strands of green muck clinging to their boots and waders. He remembered wanting to touch her, to cover her, and forcing himself not to, steeling himself to the sturdy, official processing of violence.

He swallowed back the vision. It was all my fault, he thought. I will set it right. I will not lose that one.

Tanny Brown, struggling with visions of death, moved off slowly toward his squad car, believing nothing had ended that night. Not even the life demanded by the state.

It was hurrying toward dawn when Bruce Wilcox called. The first insinuations of light were cheating the darkness out of the trees and sky, giving the world edges and shapes.

Brown had spent the remainder of the night in taking a confession from Mrs. Collins; two hours of quiet, bitter history of sexual abuse and beatings, which had been, more or less, what he'd anticipated. The stories are always the same, he'd thought, only the victims change. He had then argued with a gruff assistant state attorney, irritated at being awakened, and negotiated with a divorce lawyer suddenly in over his head. Self-defense, he had insisted to the prosecutor, who had wanted her charged with second-degree murder. They had finally compromised on manslaughter, with the understanding that if there had been a crime committed that night, it paled in comparison to the crimes inflicted upon the woman.

Exhaustion curled around him, like his fingers gripping the pen as he signed the last of his reports, when the phone on his desk buzzed.

'Yes?'

'Tanny? It's Bruce. Scratch one mass murderer. He went through with it.'

'I'll be damned. What happened?'

'He basically told everyone to go fuck themselves and sat in the chair.'

'Jesus.' Brown realized his fatigue had dissipated.

'Yeah. Old Sully was one evil motherfucker right to the end. But that wasn't what was so damn interesting.'

Tanny Brown could hear the excitement in his partner's voice, a childish enthusiasm that flew in the face of the hour and the awfulness of everything that had happened.

Okay,' he asked. 'What's so interesting?'

'Our boy Cowart. Man, he spent all day squirreled away with that creep, all alone, listening to the bastard confess to maybe forty murders. All over Florida, Louisiana, and Alabama. A regular one-man crime wave. Anyway, our boy Cowart comes out of this little tea-and-sympathy session all shaky pale. He just about lost it when his fellow vultures turned the heat on him.

They were whaling on him with questions something fierce. It reminded me of wrestling matches, you know, where you know you're outclassed, and you keep trying one move after another, and the opponent has got all the answers, counters everything, until you know you got no chance and you're just in it until the whistle blows. Hurting more and more.'

'That is interesting.'

'Yeah. And after he got tired of letting his buddies in the press chew him over and spit him out, he took off like the devil was nipping at his heels.'

'Where'd he go?'

'Back to Miami. At least, that's what he said he was gonna do. Hell, I don't know for sure. He's supposed to meet those detectives from Monroe County later today. They weren't none too pleased with our boy Cowart, either. He knows something about those deaths down there that he ain't saying.'

'How do you know that?'

'Well, hell, Tanny. I'm just guessing. But the man looked like he was pretty seasick with all he'd heard. And I don't think he told the half of it.'

Brown sat back, listening to the excited tones in his partner's voice. It was easy for him to picture the reporter squirming under the pressure of information. Sometimes, he thought, there are things we don't want to learn. His mind calculated rapidly, like doing sums.

'Bruce, you know what I think?'

'Bet it's the same thing I'm thinking.'

I bet Cowart got told something he didn't want to hear. Something that screwed around with the way he had it all figured out.'

'Life ain't quite so neat and tidy, sometimes, is it, boss?'

'Not at all.'

'Well, it wouldn't have fazed that cold-hearted bastard to listen to someone tell him about any bunch of murders, no matter how many. I mean, just about everybody had Sully figured for more than he'd owned up to, so that weren't no great surprise…' Wilcox began, only to be interrupted, the thought finished by Brown.

'There's only one murder that means anything to him.'

'That's for damn sure.'

And only one murder that means anything to me, Tanny Brown thought.

He drove through the weak dawn light slowly, his mind churning with questions. He spotted the paper boy on his bicycle zigzagging up the street, and he pulled in behind him. The boy turned at the sound of the car, recognized the detective and waved before rising up on his pedals and racing ahead. Brown watched him maneuver amidst the wan morning shadows that blurred the edges of the neighborhood, making it appear like a photograph slightly out of focus. He pulled into his driveway and looked about for an instant. The detective saw modern security: measured rows of clean stucco and cinder-block houses painted in shiny white or quiet pastels, all marked with well-trimmed shrubs and bushes, green lawns, and late-model cars parked in the driveways. A simple, middle-class existence. Every house within a ten-block neighborhood planned by a single contracting company, designed to create a community both unique and uniform at the same time. No Old South here. Some doctors, some lawyers, and what was once the working class, policemen, like himself. Black and white. Just modern America moving forward. He looked down at his hands. Soft, he thought. A desk man's hands. Not like my father's. He glanced at his thickening middle. Christ, he thought, I belong here.

Inside the house, he hung his shoulder holster on a hood next to two book bags stuffed with notebooks and loose-leaf papers. He removed the pistol and, as was his habit, first checked the chambers. It was a.357 magnum with a short barrel, loaded with wadcutters.

He hefted the pistol in his hand and reminded himself to book some time at the department's shooting range. He realized it had been months since his last practice session. He opened a drawer and found a trigger lock, which he slid around the firing mechanism. He put the gun in the drawer and reached down to remove his backup pistol from his ankle holster.

He could smell bacon frying in the kitchen and he walked that way, past Danish furniture and framed prints. He stood for a moment in the doorway to the kitchen watching his father, who was bent over the stove, cracking eggs into a skillet.

'Hello, old man,' he said quietly.

His father didn't move but cursed once as some bacon grease splattered onto his hand.

'I said, good morning, old man.'

His father turned slowly. 'I didn't hear you come in,' he said, smiling.

Tanny Brown grinned a greeting. His father didn't hear much anymore. He went over and put an arm around the man's wide shoulders. He could feel the old man's bones beneath the thin cotton of his faded work shirt. He gave his father a small squeeze, thinking how skinny he'd become, how fragile he felt, as if he would break under the pressure of his son's hug. He felt a shadow of sadness inside, remembering a time when he thought there was nothing those arms couldn't lift and hold, now realizing there was little they could. All that strength robbed by disease. He thought, You grow up angry and pushing for that day when you're stronger and tougher than your father, but when it comes it makes you embarrassed and uncomfortable.

'You're up early,' the son said as he released his grip.

His father shrugged. He hardly slept anymore, Brown knew. A combination of pain and stubbornness.

'And what you calling me "old man" for? I ain't so damn old. Still whup you if I had to.'

'You probably could,' Brown replied, smiling. This was a lie both enjoyed.

'Sure could' insisted his father.

'The girls up yet?'

'Nah. I heard some shifting about. Maybe the bacon smell will wake 'em. But they're soft and young and don't like getting up none. If your mama was still with us, she'd see they got up right and smart first cock crow, yessir. It'd be them in here fryin' this bacon. Making biscuits, maybe.'

Brown shook his head. 'If their mama was still here, she'd tell them to sleep in and get their beauty rest. She'd let them miss the school bus and take them herself.'

Both men laughed and nodded their heads in agreement. Brown recognized that his father's complaints were mainly fiction; the old man doted on his granddaughters shamelessly.

His father turned back to the stove. 'I'll fix you some eggs. Musta been a tough night?'

'Wife shot her ex-husband when he came looking for her with a handgun, Dad. It wasn't anything unique or special. Just mighty sad and bloody.'

Sit down. You're probably beat. Why can't you work regular hours?'

'Death doesn't work regular hours, so neither do I.'

'I suppose that's your excuse for missing services this past Sunday. And the Sunday before that, too.'

Well…'he started.

'Your momma would whip you good if she were alive today. Hell, son, then she'd whip me good for letting you miss services. It ain't right, you know.'

No. I'll be there Sunday. I'll try.'

His father scrambled the eggs in a bowl. 'I hate all this new stuff you got in here. Like this damn electric stove thing. Nuclear food cooker, whatever the hell it is.'

Microwave.'

'Well, it don't work.'

"No, you don't know how to work it. There's a difference,'

His father was grinning. Brown knew the old man felt a contradictory superiority, having grown up in a world of icehouses and outhouses, well water and wood stoves, having made his life out of an old, familiar world, and finally, been taken in his old age into a home that seemed to him closer to a rocket ship than a house. All the gadgets of middle class amused his father, who saw most of them as useless.

'Well, I don't see what the hell good it's for anyway, 'cept maybe for thawing stuff out.'

He thought his father correct on that score.

He watched as the old man's gnarled hands swiftly dished the omelet into the skillet and tossed the eggs, folding them expertly. It was remarkable, the son thought. Arthritis had stolen so much of his mobility; old age, much of his sight and hearing; a bout with heart disease had sapped most of his strength, leaving him gaunt with skin that used to burst with muscles now sagging from his arms. But the old tanner's dexterity had never left him. He could still take a knife and slice an apple into equal pieces, take a pencil and draw a perfectly straight line. Only now it hurt him to do so.

'Here you go. Should taste good.'

'Aren't you gonna join me?'

'Nah. I'll just make enough for the girls. Me, just a bit of coffee and some bread.' The old man looked down at his chest. 'It doesn't take a lot to keep me going. Couple a sticks on the fire, that's all.'

The old man slid slowly, in obvious discomfort, into a chair. The son pretended not to notice.

'Damn old bones'

'What?'

'Nothing.'

They sat in silence for a moment.

'Theodore,' his father said quietly, 'how come you never think of finding a new wife?'

The son shook his head. 'Never find another like Lizzie,' he said.

'How you know if you don't look?'