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The ShortRead: Greg Iles

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ShortRead of 16 April 2014

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Natchez Burning

Author: Greg Iles

What's the story: Praised by the likes of Stephen King (and he knows a thing or two about words), Greg Iles is the German-born American writer you need on your shelf. Natchez Burning is set to be his thirteenth New York Times best seller.

Penn Cage is facing a son's worst nightmare - having his father stand accused of murder. Worse, each effort to defend the legendary Dr Tom Cage unearths new, shocking secrets, leaving Penn to question whether he ever really knew his father at all. In Natchez, where the past is never truly ‘past’, long-buried secrets turn lethal when exposed to the light of day. For Penn Cage, the cost of solving this case will be no exception.

Release date: Out now

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Extract...

Albert Norris sang a few bars of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Natchez Burnin’” to cover the sounds of the couple making love in the back of his shop. The front door was locked. It was after seven, the streets deserted. But today had been a bad day. Albert had tried to cancel the rendezvous by switching on the light in the side room where he taught piano during the week—he’d even sent a boy to warn the man to stay away from the shop—but the two lovers had ignored his warnings and come anyway. He’d set up their rendezvous a week ago, by sending out a coded message during his gospel radio show, which was his usual method. But lovers who saw each other only twice a month—if they were lucky—weren’t going to be deterred by a warning light in a window, not even if their lives were at risk.

The white woman had arrived first, rapping lightly at the alley door. Albert had tried to run her off—whites were supposed to use the front—but she’d refused to budge. Terrified that a passerby might see her, Albert had let her in. Mary Shivers was a skinny white schoolteacher with more hormones than sense. Even before he could chastise her, he heard his side door open. Moments later, six-foot-three-inch Willie Hooks barged into the store. The big carpenter stuffed five dollars into Albert’s hand, ran to the woman, seized her up in one arm, and carried her to the back of the shop. Albert had followed, desperately trying to explain about the visit he’d gotten from the furious white men that afternoon, but Hooks and the schoolteacher were deaf to all appeals. Three seconds after the door slammed in his face, Albert heard the sounds of people shedding clothes. A moment later, the woman yelped, and then the springs in the old sofa in the back room went to singing.

“Five minutes!” Albert had shouted through the door. “I’m kicking open this door in five minutes. I ain’t dying for you two!”

The couple took no notice.

Albert cursed and walked toward his display window. Third Street looked blessedly empty, but within five seconds Deputy John DeLillo’s cruiser rolled into view, moving at walking speed. Acid flooded Albert’s stomach. He wondered where the schoolteacher had parked her car. Deputy DeLillo was even bigger than Willie Hooks, and he had a fearsome temper. He’d killed at least four black men Albert knew about, and he’d beaten countless others with rods, phone books, and a leather strap spiked with roofing tacks.

Big John’s cruiser stopped in the middle of the street. His big head leaned out of the car to gaze into Albert’s shop window. Albert couldn’t see the deputy’s eyes, thanks to the mirrored sunglasses he wore, but he knew what DeLillo was looking for. Pooky Wilson was the most wanted man in Concordia Parish tonight. Just eighteen, Pooky had gained that dubious distinction by bedding the eighteen-year-old daughter of one of the richest men in the parish. Since he’d worked at Albert’s store for nearly a year, Pooky had naturally run to Albert when he learned that the Klan and the police—often one and the same—were combing the parish for him. Knowing that local “justice” for Pooky would mean a tall tree and a short rope, Albert had hidden the boy in the safe box he’d constructed for illegal whiskey, which he sold on a seasonal basis. For the past two hours, Pooky had been sitting cramped in the shell of a Hammond spinet organ in Albert’s workshop. Positioned against a wall, the A-105 looked like it weighed five hundred pounds, but the hollow housing could hold a full load of moonshine, and even a man in a pinch. There was a trapdoor beneath it for dumping contraband during emergencies (and a hidey-hole dug in the earth below), but since the music store sat up on blocks, Pooky couldn’t use that for escape until after dark.

Albert raised his hand and gave Deputy DeLillo an exaggerated shake of his head, indicating that he’d seen neither hide nor hair of his employee. For a few paralyzed seconds, Albert worried that DeLillo would come inside to question him again, which would lead to the big deputy kicking open the door that separated him from the loudly copulating couple, and then to death for either DeLillo or Willie Hooks. The violent repercussions of Willie killing the deputy were almost unthinkable. Thankfully, after a few awful seconds, Big John waved his mitt and drove on. An invisible band around Albert’s chest loosened, and he remembered to breathe.

He wondered how Pooky was doing. The fool of a boy had been hiding in the Hammond when his girlfriend’s father and a Klansman named Frank Knox had burst into the store, cursing Albert for “fomenting miscegenation” and threatening to kill him if he didn’t produce Pooky Wilson. Albert had summoned all his courage and lied with the sincerity of Lucifer himself; if he hadn’t, both he and Pooky would already be dead.

As the bedsprings sang in the back of the store, Albert prayed as he never had before. He prayed that the Klan hadn’t stationed anybody outside to watch his store. He prayed that Willie and the schoolteacher would finish soon, would get away clean, and that darkness would fall. Anything less meant the end for all of them, except maybe the white woman.

The sofa springs groaned at about E above middle C, so Albert tuned his voice to their accompaniment. “There was two hundred folks a-dancin’,” he belted as he negotiated his way through the pianos in the display room, “laughin’, singin’ to beat the band.” He’d already run out of verses, so he’d taken to making up his own, describing the tragic fire that would likely have killed him, had he not been away in the navy. “Yeah, there was two hundred souls a-dancin’, lawd—laughin’, singin’ to beat the band.” Entering his workshop, he sat beside the Hammond organ, picked up a tonewheel, and pretended to work on it. “Two hundred souls on fire, locked indoors by the devil’s hand.”

After a quick look back at the display window, he tapped on the Hammond and said, “How you doin’ in there, Pook?” “Not good. I’m ’bout to pee in my pants, Mr. Albert.”

“You got to hold it, boy. And don’t even think about lifting that trapdoor. Somebody outside might see your water hit the ground.” “I can’t breathe, neither. I don’t like small spaces. Can’t you let me out for a minute? It feels like a coffin in here.”

“There’s plenty of air in there. That small space is the only thing that’s gonna keep you out of a coffin tonight.”

Albert heard a ripping sound. Then part of the grille cover beneath the organ’s keyboard was pulled back, and an eye appeared in the hole. It looked like the eye of a catfish gasping in the bottom of a boat.

“Quit tearing that cloth!” Albert snapped.

The eye vanished, and two dark fingers took its place. “Hold my hand, Mr. Albert. Just for a minute.”

With a lump in his throat, Albert reached out and hooked his forefinger in Pooky’s. The boy hung on like Albert was the only thing still tying him to the earth.

“Is there somebody else in the store?” Pooky asked.

“Willie Hooks. He’ll be gone soon. Listen, now. When it gets dark, I’m gonna turn on the lights in the display room and start playing piano. That’ll draw any eyes watching the place. Once I get goin’ good, open that trapdoor and drop down to the hole. If the coast looks clear, make your way two blocks over to Widow Nichols’s house. She’ll hide you in her attic till tomorrow. When I think the time is right, I’ll pick you up in my panel truck and carry you to the train station at Brookhaven. From there, it’s the Illinois Central straight up to Chicago. You got that?”

“I guess so. What I’m ’posed to use for money? Man can’t ride the train for free.”

Albert leaned over and slid five twenty-dollar bills under the bottom of the organ.

“Tuck that in your pants. That foldin’ money’s gonna get you started in Chi-town.”

Pooky whistled in amazement inside the organ box. “Can we really make it, Mr. Albert? Them fellas mean to lynch me for sure.” “We’ll make it. But we wouldn’t even be in this mess if you’d listened to me. I told you that girl was just trying to prove something to her daddy, messing with you.”

Pooky whimpered like a frightened dog. “I can’t he’p it, Mr. Albert. I love Katy. She loves me, too.”

The boy sounded like he was barely holding himself together. Albert shook his head, then got up and returned to the display room, once more belting the blues like a bored man working alone.

He’d met Howlin’ Wolf back in ’55, at Haney’s Big House up the street, back when the Wolf was playing the chitlin circuit. Wolf’s keyboard man had been sick, so Haney called Albert down from his store to fill in. Albert had met most of the great ones that way, over the years. They’d all swung through Ferriday at one time or another, since it lay so close to the Mississippi River and Highway 61. Ray Charles, Little Walter, B.B., even Muddy himself. White boys, too. Albert had taught Jerry Lee Lewis more than a few licks on piano. Some of the black acts had tried to lure Albert onto the road with them, but Albert had learned one true thing by watching musicians pass through his store: the road broke a man down fast—especially a black man.

The white woman screamed in the back. Albert prayed nobody was walking through the alley. Willie was working her hard. Mary Shivers had been married five years and had two kids, but that wasn’t enough to keep her at home. Two months ago, she’d struck up a conversation with Willie while he was working on a house next door. Next thing you know, Willie was asking Albert to set up a meeting somewhere. That was the way it went, most times. The black half of the couple would ask Albert to set something up. Might be the man, might be the woman. A few times over the years, a particularly bold white woman had set up a rendezvous in the store, whispering over the sheet music for some hymn or other she was buying. Albert had reluctantly accommodated most of them. That was what a businessman did, after all. Filled a need. Supplied a demand. And Lord knew there was demand for a place where black and white could meet away from prying eyes.

Albert had set up a couple of places where couples could meet discreetly, far away from his shop. But if the white half of the couple had a legitimate interest in music—and enough ready cash— he occasionally allowed a hasty rendezvous in the back of the store. He’d got the idea for using his radio show to set up the meetings from his stint in the navy. He’d only been a cook—that’s about all they’d let you be in World War II, if you were black—but a white officer had told him how the Brits had used simple codes during music programs to send messages out to French Resistance agents in the field. They’d play a certain song, or quote a piece of poetry, and different groups would know what the signal meant.

Blow up this railroad bridge, or shoot that German officer. Using his Sunday gospel show, Albert had found it easy to send coded messages to the couples waiting to hear their meeting times. And since whites could tune in to his gospel show as easily as blacks, the system was just about perfect. Each person in an illicit couple had a particular song, and each knew the song of his or her partner. As disc jockey of his own show, Albert could say something like “Next Sunday at seven o’clock, I’m gonna be playing a one-two punch with ‘Steal Away to Jesus,’ by the Mighty Clouds of Joy, followed by ‘He Cares for Me,’ by the Dixie Hummingbirds. Lord, you can’t beat that.” And they would know.

Simple.

The rhythm of the sofa springs picked up, then stopped suddenly as Willie cried “Jesus!” with a sinner’s fervor. A moment later, the floorboards creaked under Willie’s two hundred and thirty pounds. Albert didn’t know how that skinny schoolteacher could take what Willie gave her, but that was another thing he’d learned over the years: the size of a woman on the outside didn’t mean nothing; it was how much hunger she had on the inside that made her what she was between the sheets. Some of the white women he’d seen come through his store had a desperate hunger that nothing would ever fill.

Albert heard shuffling, then the door opened. Willie Hooks stood there wiping sweat from his forehead with his shirtsleeve. The schoolteacher looked like she’d just run a mile to catch a bus and got run over by it instead. Dazed, she slowly buttoned up her dress with no regard for Albert’s presence or what he might see.

“This is the last time,” Albert said. “For a long time, anyway. And you be damn careful when you go. Big John’s cruising around out there, and half the Klan is hunting for Pooky Wilson.”

“Big John Law,” Hooks said with venom. “What’s Pooky done?” “Don’t you worry ’bout that.”

“Is that why you sent that little boy to warn me off?” Willie asked, his voice a full octave lower than Albert’s. “Why you had that warning light on? ’Cause of Big John?”

“I’ll tell you why I sent that boy. Two white men busted up in here today, and one was screaming bloody murder. Screaming ’bout his daughter goin’ with a nigger boy.”

“What white men?” Willie asked, interested. “Brody Royal, for one.”

Willie blinked in disbelief. “That fine girl he got is doin’ Pooky Wilson?”

The schoolteacher elbowed Willie in the ribs.

Hooks didn’t flinch. “That skinny little bass player with the crooked back?”

Pooky Wilson had severe scoliosis, but Katy Royal didn’t seem to mind. “You forget you ever heard that,” Albert said. “You, too,” he added, glaring at the white woman, who under any other circumstances could have had him jailed for backtalk.

“I ain’t scared of Brody Royal,” Willie said. “That rich bastard.” Albert gave Willie a measuring glance. “No? Well, the man with

Brody was Frank Knox.” Willie froze.

“You ain’t talking so big now, are you?” Albert asked.

“Shit. You let Mr. Frank’s little girl come up in here to meet somebody?”

Albert stamped his foot in disgust. “I look retarded to you, boy? Frank Knox ain’t got no little girl. He was just here to make the point. Now, you get the hell out of my place. You got to find some other place to get your corn ground.”

The schoolteacher moaned, sounding more like a feral cat than a human being.

Willie looked at her with frank desire. “Well, if this is the last time for a while . . .”

She opened her mouth and started unbuttoning her dress, but Albert shoved Willie toward the side door. “Get out! And don’t come back. Anybody stops you, tell ’em you moved some pianos for me. I’ll take care of getting missy out of here.”

Hooks laughed and plodded to the side door. “How about a hit of lightnin’ for the road, Mr. Albert?”

“I got no whiskey for the likes of you!” He turned back to the woman as Willie cursed and vanished through the door.

The schoolteacher’s dress was buttoned now. She looked primly up at him. “You know a lot about a lot of people, don’t you?”

“Reckon I would,” Albert said, “’cep’ I got a bad memory. Real bad. Forget a face soon as I see it.”

“That’s good,” said Mary Shivers. “We’ll all live longer that way.”

She started to follow Willie through the side door, but Albert blocked her path and motioned for her to leave by the front. “Pick up some music from the rack on your way out. God help you if you can’t lie, but I imagine you’re pretty good at it.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Mary Shivers obeyed.

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