The Bone Tree (Penn Cage #5) - Greg Iles


SPECIAL AGENT JOHN Kaiser stood at the window of the FBI’s “tactical room” in the River Bend Hotel and stared at the lights of Natchez twinkling high over the dark tide of the Mississippi. After struggling silently with his convictions for more than an hour, he had decided to use the authority granted him under the Patriot Act to take a step that under any other circumstances would have been a violation of the Constitution—the unauthorized invasion of computers belonging to a public newspaper. He had not done this lightly, and Kaiser knew that his wife—an award-winning journalist and combat photographer—would condemn him if she ever learned what he’d done. But by his lights, the deteriorating situation demanded that he cross the Rubicon. And so he’d quietly risen from bed and, without disturbing his wife, slipped down the hall to where two FBI technicians sat behind computers connected by secure satellite to a high-speed data link in Washington.

This is the Deep South, Kaiser reflected, watching the bow lights of a string of barges round the river bend to the north, from Vicksburg, and push slowly southward toward Baton Rouge. The real South. After being stationed in New Orleans for seven years, he’d realized that the Big Easy, while technically a southern city, was in fact an island with a unique identity: a former French possession, deeply Catholic, multiracial, bursting at the seams with joy and pain, corrupt to its decaying marrow. But the farther north you drove out of New Orleans, the deeper you penetrated into the true South, a Protestant land of moral absolutes, Baptist blue laws, tent revivals, fire and brimstone, heaven and hell, good and evil, black and white, and damn little room between.

Natchez on its bluff was a soeurette, a little sister, to New Orleans—not quite as cosmopolitan in this century as it once was, but still an enclave of license and liberality in the hard-shell hinterlands of cotton and soybeans. Yet Natchez had once been the capital of this cotton kingdom, and a hundred years after the Civil War the hatred that simmered in her outlying fields had infected the city, and murder had roamed her streets like a scourge. If you drew a thirty-mile circle around Natchez, it would encompass more than a dozen unsolved murders from the 1960s alone, and twice that number that were officially solved, but begged for deeper investigation.

Kaiser pressed the palm of his hand against the cold windowpane and watched the barge lights through the fog of his breath on the glass. Two days ago, when he’d mobilized a massive FBI corpse-recovery effort here in Concordia Parish, his goals had been to solve some cold case murders and to save the life of a heroic journalist—not to unravel the darkest thread of the Kennedy assassination. But twenty-four hours after his arrival in this embattled parish, that was exactly the position in which he found himself.

Was it possible that a group of long-unsolved race murders in this neglected corner of the South held the key to the biggest cold case in American history? Given what he’d learned in the past twelve hours, it just might be. Texas bordered Louisiana, after all, and in 1963 Dallas had been a fundamentalist redoubt of reactionary political conservatism, seething with rabid Kennedy hatred. More unsettling still, in that era Dallas had been a feudal possession of New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello. For decades, finding a link between Marcello and Dealey Plaza had proved maddeningly elusive. But today new evidence had emerged, revealing a credible plan by the Double Eagle group to assassinate Robert Kennedy in April of 1968 as well as actions by the group’s founder that suggested complicity in the 1963 assassination. Kaiser had long known of a connection between certain Double Eagles and Carlos Marcello. And while he could not explain his certainty, he sensed that the missing links that would tie Marcello to the dead president would soon be within his reach.

Now that Kaiser had authorized an invasion into the computer servers of the Natchez Examiner, his dilemma was how much information to pass up the chain to Washington. In the three months since Hurricane Katrina struck, he had been operating with near-complete autonomy, and he liked it. The breakdown of basic human services in New Orleans—most notably the evaporation of the NOPD—had created a situation of unprecedented chaos on American soil. A veteran of the final phase of the Vietnam War, Kaiser had pushed into that vacuum and deployed Bureau