The Devil's Punchbowl (Penn Cage Series #3)by Greg Iles
As a prosecutor in Houston, Penn Cage sent killers to death row. But as mayor of his hometown - Natchez, Mississippi - Penn will face his most dangerous threat. Urged by old friends to try to restore this fading jewel of the Old South, Penn has ridden into office on a tide of support for change. But in its quest for new jobs and fresh money, Natchez has turned to… See more details below
As a prosecutor in Houston, Penn Cage sent killers to death row. But as mayor of his hometown - Natchez, Mississippi - Penn will face his most dangerous threat. Urged by old friends to try to restore this fading jewel of the Old South, Penn has ridden into office on a tide of support for change. But in its quest for new jobs and fresh money, Natchez has turned to casino gambling, and now five steamboats float on the river beside the old slave market, like props from Gone With the Wind.
But one boat isn't like the others.
Rumor has it that the Magnolia Queen has found a way to pull the big players from Las Vegas to its Mississippi backwater. And with them - on sleek private jets that slip in and out of town like whispers in the night - come pro football players, rap stars, and international gamblers, all sharing an unquenchable taste for one thing: blood sport - and the dark vices that go with it. When a childhood friend of Penn's who brings him evidence of these crimes is brutally murdered, he begins a quest to find the men responsible. But the local authorities have been corrupted by the money and power of his hidden enemy and, with his family's lives at stake, Penn realizes his only allies are those bound to him by blood or honor.
Together they must defeat a killer who has an almost preternatural ability to anticipate - and counter - their every move. Ultimately, victory will depend on a bold stroke that will leave one of Penn's allies dead - and Natchez changed forever.
Read an Excerpt
The Devil’s Punchbowl
Midnight in the garden of the dead.
A silver-white moon hangs high over the mirror-black river and the tired levee, shedding cold light on the Louisiana delta stretching off toward Texas. I stand among the luminous stones on the Mississippi side, shivering like the only living man for miles. At my feet lies a stark slab of granite, and under that stone lies the body of my wife. The monument at its head reads:
SARAH ELIZABETH CAGE
Daughter. Wife. Mother. Teacher.
She is loved.
I haven’t sneaked into the cemetery at midnight to visit my wife’s grave. I’ve come at the urgent request of a friend. But I didn’t come here for the sake of friendship. I came out of guilt. And fear.
The man I’m waiting for is forty-five years old, yet in my mind he will always be nine. That’s when our friendship peaked, during the Apollo 11 moon landing. But you don’t often make friends like those you make as a boy, so the debt is a long one. My guilt is the kind you feel when someone slips away and you don’t do enough to maintain the tie, all the more painful because over the years Tim Jessup managed to get himself into quite a bit of trouble, and after the first eight or nine times, I wasn’t there to get him out of it.
My fear has nothing to do with Tim; he’s merely a messenger, one who may bear tidings I have no wish to hear. News that confirms the rumors being murmured over golf greens at the country club, bellowed between plays beside high school gridirons, and whispered through the hunting camps like a rising breeze before a storm. When Jessup asked to meet me, I resisted. He couldn’t have chosen a worse time to discover a conscience, for me or for the city. Yet in the end I agreed to hear him out. For if the rumors are true—if a uniquely disturbing evil has entered into my town—it was I who opened the door for it. I ran for mayor in a Jeffersonian fit of duty to save my hometown and, in my righteousness, was arrogant enough to believe I could deal with the devil and somehow keep our collective virtue intact. But that, I’m afraid, was wishful thinking.
For months now, a sense of failure has been accreting in my chest like fibrous tissue. I’ve rarely failed at anything, and I have never quit. Most Americans are raised never to give up, and in the South that credo is practically a religion. But two years ago I stood before my wife’s grave with a full heart and the belief that I could by force of will resurrect the idyllic town that had borne me, by closing the racial wounds that had prevented it from becoming the shining beacon I knew it could be, and bringing back the prosperity it deserved. Halfway through my four-year term, I’ve learned that most people don’t want change, even when it’s in their best interest. We pay lip service to ideals, but we live by expediency and by tribal prejudice. Accepting this hypocrisy has nearly broken me.
Sadly, the people closest to me saw this coming long ago. My father and my lover at the time tried to save me from myself, but I would not be swayed. The heaviest burden I bear is knowing that my daughter has paid the highest price for my illusions. Two years ago, I imagined I heard my dead wife’s voice urging me onward. Now all I hear is the empty rush of the wind, whispering the lesson so many have learned before me: You can’t go home again.
My watch reads 12:30 a.m. Thirty minutes past the appointed hour, and there’s still no sign of Tim Jessup among the shoulder-high stones between me and Cemetery Road. With a silent farewell to my wife, I turn and slip between the monuments, working my way back up toward Jewish Hill, our rendezvous point. My feet make no sound in the dewy, manicured grass. The names chiseled on these stones I’ve known all my life. They are the town’s history, and mine: Friedler and Jacobs and Dreyfus up on Jewish Hill, whose stones read Bohemia, Bavaria, Alsace; the Knoxes and Henrys and Thornhills in the Protestant sections; and finally the Donnellys and Binellis and O’Banyons back on Catholic Hill. Most of the corpses in this place had white skin when they were alive, but as in life, the truth here is found at the margins. In the areas marked “Colored Ground” on the cemetery map lie the trusted servants and favored slaves who lived at the margins of the white world and earned a patch of hallowed earth in death. Most of these were interred without a marker. You have to go farther down the road, to the national cemetery, to find the graves of truly free black people, many of them soldiers who lie among the twenty-eight hundred unknown Union dead.
Yet this cemetery breathes an older history. Some people buried here were born in the mid-1700s, and if they were resurrected tomorrow, parts of the town would not look much different to them. Infants who died of yellow fever lie beside Spanish dons and forgotten generals, all moldering beneath crying angels and marble saints, while the gnarled oak branches spread ever wider above them, draped with cinematic beards of Spanish moss. Natchez is the oldest city on the Mississippi River, older even than New Orleans, and when you see the dark, tilted gravestones disappearing into the edges of the forest, you know it.
I last came here to view a million dollars in damage wreaked by drunk vandals on the irreplaceable wrought iron and statuary that make this cemetery unique. Now all four gates are chained shut at dusk. Tim Jessup knows that; it’s one reason he chose this trysting place. When Jessup first called, I thought he was proposing the cemetery for his convenience; he works on one of the riverboat casinos at the foot of the bluff—the Magnolia Queen, moored almost directly below Jewish Hill—and midnight marks the end of his shift. But Tim insisted that the cemetery’s isolation was a necessity, for me as much as for him. Swore, in fact, that I could trust neither my own police department nor any official of the city government. He also made me promise not to call his cell phone or his home for any reason. Part of me considers his claims ridiculous, but a warier clump of brain cells knows from experience that corruption can run deep.
I was a lawyer in another life—a prosecutor. I started out wanting to be Atticus Finch and ended up sending sixteen people to death row. Looking back, I’m not sure how that happened. One day, I simply woke up and realized that I had not been divinely ordained to punish the guilty. So I resigned my position with the Houston district attorney’s office and went home to my joyous wife and daughter. Uncertain what to do with my newfound surplus of time (and facing an acute shortage of funds), I began writing about my courtroom experiences and, like a few other lawyers slipstreaming in the wake of John Grisham, found myself selling enough books to place my name on the bestseller lists. We bought a bigger house and moved Annie to an elite prep school. An unfamiliar sense of self-satisfaction began to creep into my life, a feeling that I was one of the chosen, destined for success in whatever field I chose. I had an enviable career, a wonderful family, a few good friends, lots of faithful readers. I was young enough and arrogant enough to believe that I deserved all this, and foolish enough to think it would last.
Then my wife died.
Four months after my father diagnosed Sarah with cancer, we buried her. The shock of losing her almost broke me, and it shattered my four-year-old daughter. In desperation I fled Houston, taking Annie back to the small Mississippi town where I’d been raised, back to the loving arms of my parents. There—here—before I could begin working my way back to earth, I found myself drawn into a thirty-year-old murder case, one that ultimately saved my life and ended four others. That was seven years ago. Annie’s eleven now, and almost the reincarnation of her mother. She’s sleeping at home while a babysitter waits in my living room, and remembering this I decide that Tim Jessup gets exactly five more minutes of my time. If he can’t make his own midnight meeting, he can damn well come to City Hall during business hours, like everybody else.
My heart labors from climbing the nearly vertical face of Jewish Hill, but each breath brings the magical scent of sweet olive, still blooming in mid-October. Under the sweet olive simmers a roux of thicker smells: kudzu and damp humus and something dead in the trees—maybe a gut-shot deer that evaded its shortsighted poacher. When I reach the edge of the table of earth that is Jewish Hill, the land and sky fall away before me with breathtaking suddenness.
The drop to the river is two hundred feet here, down a kudzu-strangled bluff of windblown loess—rich soil made from rock ground fine by glaciers—the foundation of our city. From this height you can look west over endless flatland with almost intoxicating pride, and I think that feeling is what made so many nations try to claim this land. France, Spain, England, the Confederacy: all tried to hold this earth, and all failed as surely as the Natchez Indians before them. A sagging wire bench still stands beneath an American flag at the western rim of the hill, awaiting mourners, lovers, and all the rest who come here; it looks like the best place to spend Tim’s last four minutes.
As I sit, a pair of headlights moves up Cemetery Road like a ship beating against the wind, tacking back and forth across the lane that winds along the edge of the bluff. I stand, but the headlights do not slow, and soon a nondescript pickup truck rattles past the shotgun shacks across the road and vanishes around the next bend, headed toward the Devil’s Punchbowl, a deep defile out in the county where Natchez Trace outlaws once dumped the corpses of their victims.
“That’s it, Timmy,” I say aloud. “Time’s up.”
The wind off the river has finally found its way into my jacket. I’m cold, tired, and ready to go to bed. The next three days will be the busiest of my year as mayor, beginning with a news conference and a helicopter flight in the morning. But after those three days are up…I’m going to make some profound changes in my life.
Rising from the bench, I walk to my right, toward a gentler slope of the hill, where my old Saab waits beyond the cemetery wall. As I bend to slide down the hill, an urgent whisper breaks the silence of the night: “Hey. Dude? Are you up here?”
A shadow is advancing along the rim of Jewish Hill from the interior of the graveyard. From my vantage point, I can see all four entrances to the cemetery, but I’ve seen no headlights and heard no engine. Yet here is Tim Jessup, materializing like one of the ghosts so many people believe haunt this ancient hill. I know it’s Tim because he used to be a junkie, and he still moves like one, with a herky-jerky progress during which his head perpetually jiggers around as though he’s watching for police while his thin legs carry him forward in the hope of finding his next fix.
Jessup claims to be clean now, thanks largely to his new wife, Julia, who was three years behind us in high school. Julia Stanton married the high school quarterback at nineteen and took five years of punishment before forfeiting that particular game. When I heard she was marrying Jessup, I figured she wanted a perfect record of losses. But the word around town is that she’s worked wonders with Tim. She got him a job and has kept him at it for over a year, dealing blackjack on the casino boats, most recently the Magnolia Queen.
“Penn!” Jessup finally calls out loud. “It’s me, man. Come out!”
The gauntness of his face is unmistakable in the moonlight. Though he and I are the same age—born exactly one month apart—he looks ten years older. His skin has the leathery texture of a man who’s worked too many years under the Mississippi sun. Passing him on the street under that sun, I’ve seen more disturbing signs. His graying mustache is streaked yellow from cigarette smoke, and his skin and eyes have the jaundiced cast of those of a man whose liver hasn’t many years left in it.
What bound Jessup and me tightly as boys was that we were both doctors’ sons. We each understood the weight of that special burden, the way preachers’ sons know that emotional topography. Having a physician as a father brings benefits and burdens, but for eldest sons it brings a universal expectation that someday you’ll follow in your father’s footsteps. In the end both Tim and I failed to fulfill this, but in very different ways. Seeing him closer now, turning haplessly in the dark, it’s hard to imagine that we started our lives in almost the same place. That’s probably the root of my guilt: For though Tim Jessup made a lifetime of bad decisions—in full knowledge of the risks—the one that set them all in train could have been, and in fact was, made by many of us. Only luck carried the rest of us through.
With a sigh of resignation, I step from behind the gravestone and call toward the river, “Tim? Hey, Tim. It’s Penn.”
Jessup whips his head around, and his right hand darts toward his pocket. For a panicked second I fear he’s going to pull a pistol, but then he recognizes me, and his eyes widen with relief.
“Man!” he says with a grin. “At first I thought you’d chickened out. I mean, shit.”
As he shakes my hand, I marvel that at forty-five Jessup still sounds like a strung-out hippie. “You’re the one who’s late, aren’t you?”
He nods more times than necessary, a man who’ll do anything to keep from being still. How does this guy deal blackjack all night?
“I couldn’t rush off the boat,” he explains. “I think they’re watching me. I mean, they’re always watching us. Everybody. But I think maybe they suspect something.”
I want to ask whom he’s talking about, but I assume he’ll get to that. “I didn’t see your car. Where’d you come from?”
A cagey smile splits the weathered face. “I got ways, man. You got to be careful dealing with this class of people. Predators, I kid you not. They sense a threat, they react—bam!” Tim claps his hands together. “Pure instinct. Like sharks in the water.” He glances back toward town. “In fact, we ought to get behind some cover now.” He gestures toward the three-foot-high masonry walls that enclose a nearby family plot. “Just like high school, man. Remember smoking grass behind these walls? Sitting down so the cops couldn’t see the glow of the roach?”
I never got high with Tim during high school, but I see no reason to break whatever flow keeps him calm and talking. The sooner he tells me what he came to say, the sooner I can get out of here.
He vaults the wall with surprising agility, and I step over it after him, recalling with a chill the one memory of this place that I associate with Tim. Late one Halloween night a half dozen boys tossed our banana bikes over the wall and rode wildly through the narrow lanes, laughing hysterically until a pack of wild dogs chased us up into the oak trees near the third gate. Does Tim remember that?
With a last anxious look up Cemetery Road, he sits on the damp ground and leans against the mossy bricks in a corner where two walls meet. I sit against the adjacent wall, facing him at a right angle, my running shoes almost touching his weathered Sperrys. Only now do I realize that he must have changed clothes after work. The dealer’s uniform he usually wears on duty has been replaced by black jeans and a gray T-shirt.
“Couldn’t come out here dressed for work,” he says, as though reading my mind. What he actually read, I realize, was my appraising glance. Clearly, all the drugs he’s ingested over the years haven’t yet ruined what always was a sharp mind.
I decide to dispense with small talk. “You said some pretty scary things on the phone. Scary enough to bring me out here at this hour.”
He nods, digging in his pocket for something that turns out to be a bent cigarette. “Can’t risk lighting it,” he says, putting it between his lips, “but it’s good to know I got it for the ride home.” He grins once more before putting on a serious face. “So, what had you heard before I called?”
I don’t want to repeat anything Tim hasn’t already heard or seen himself. “Vague rumors. Celebrities flying in to gamble, in and out fast. Pro athletes, rappers, like that. People who wouldn’t normally come here.”
“You hear about the dogfighting?”
My hope that the rumors are false is sinking fast. “I’ve heard there’s some of that going on. But it was hard to credit. I mean, I can see some rednecks down in the bottoms doing it, or out in the parishes across the river, but not high rollers and celebrities.”
Tim sucks in his bottom lip. “What else?”
This time I don’t answer. I’ve heard other rumors—that prostitution and hard drugs are flourishing around the gambling trade, for example—but these plagues have been with us always. “Look, I don’t want to speculate about things I don’t know to be true.”
“You sound like a fucking politician, man.”
I suppose that’s what I’ve become, but I feel more like an attorney sifting the truth from an unreliable client’s story. “Why don’t you just tell me what you know? Then I’ll tell you how that fits with what I’ve heard.”
Looking more anxious by the second, Jessup gives in to his nicotine urge at last. He produces a Bic lighter, which he flicks into flame and touches to the end of the cigarette, drawing air through the paper tube like someone sucking on a three-foot bong. He holds in the smoke for an alarming amount of time, then speaks as he exhales. “You hear I got a kid now? A son.”
“Yeah, I saw him with Julia at the Piggly Wiggly a couple of weeks ago. He’s a great-looking boy.”
Tim’s smile lights up his face. “Just like his mom, man. She’s still a beauty, isn’t she?”
“She is,” I concur, speaking the truth. “So…what are we doing here, Timmy?”
He still doesn’t reply. He takes another long drag, cupping the cigarette like a joint. As I watch him, I realize that his hands are shaking, and not from the cold. His whole body has begun to shiver, and for the first time I worry that he’s started using again.
“It’s not what you think, bro. I’ve just been carrying this stuff around in my head for a while, and sometimes I get the shakes.”
He’s crying, I realize with amazement. He’s wiping tears from his eyes. I squeeze his knee to comfort him.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers. “We’re a long way from Mill Pond Road, aren’t we?”
Mill Pond Road is the street I grew up on. “We sure are. Are you okay?”
He stubs out his cigarette on a gravestone and leans forward, his eyes burning with passion I thought long gone from him. “If I tell you more, there’s no going back. You understand? I tell you what I know, you won’t be able to sleep. I know you. You’ll be like a pit bull yourself. You won’t let it go.”
“Isn’t that why you asked me here?”
Jessup shrugs, his head and hands jittery again. “I’m just telling you, Penn. You want to walk away, do it now. Climb over that wall and slide back down to your car. That’s what a smart man would do.”
I settle against the cold bricks and consider what I’ve heard. This is one of the ways fate comes for you. It can swoop darkly from a cloudless sky like my wife’s cancer; or it can lie waiting in your path, obvious to any eyes willing to see it. But sometimes it’s simply a fork in the road, and rare is the day that a friend stands beside it, offering you the safer path. It’s the oldest human choice: comfortable ignorance or knowledge bought with pain? I can almost hear Tim at his blackjack table on the Magnolia Queen: “Hit or stay, sir?” If only I had a real choice. But because I helped bring the Queen to Natchez, I don’t.
“Let’s hear it, Timmy. I don’t have all night.”
Jessup closes his eyes and crosses himself. “Praise God,” he breathes. “I don’t know what I would have done if you’d walked away. I’m way out on a limb here, man. And I’m totally alone.”
I give him a forced smile. “Let’s hope my added weight doesn’t break it off.”
He takes a long look at me, then shifts his weight to raise one hip and slides something from his back pocket. It looks like a couple of playing cards. He holds them out, palm down, the cards mostly concealed beneath his fingers.
“Pick a card?” I ask.
“They’re not cards. They’re pictures. They’re kind of blurry. Shot with a cell phone.”
With a sigh of resignation I reach out and take them from his hand. I’ve viewed thousands of crime-scene photos in microscopic detail, so I don’t expect to be shocked by whatever Tim Jessup has brought in his back pocket. But when he flicks his lighter into flame and holds it over the first photo, a wasplike buzzing begins in my head, and my stomach does a slow roll.
“I know,” he says quietly. “Keep going. It gets worse.”
Meet the Author
Greg Iles was born in 1960 in Germany, where his father ran the U.S. Embassy medical clinic during the height of the Cold War. After graduating from the University of Mississippi in 1983, he performed for several years with the rock band Frankly Scarlet and is currently a member of the band The Rock Bottom Remainders. His first novel, Spandau Phoenix, a thriller about Nazi war criminal Rudolf Hess, was published in 1993 and became a New York Times bestseller. Iles went on to write numerous bestselling novels, including Third Degree, True Evil, Turning Angel, Blood Memory, The Footprints of God, and 24 Hours (released by Sony Pictures as Trapped, with full screenwriting credit for Iles). He lives in Natchez, Mississippi.
- Natchez, Mississippi
- Date of Birth:
- Place of Birth:
- Stuttgart, Germany
- B.A., University of Mississippi, 1983
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Fast, evil, thrilling and disturbing book that I could not put down. I loved it and hated some of the characters. If you want to see how The Devil lives, you will catch a glimpse of it in this book, in my opinion. The book takes you into the underground of gambling. Disturbing details of dogfighting and violence to women. I thought it was written well and very entertaining. The story will stay with me. What a wonderful mind Greg Iles has!
I bought this book based on Greg Iles being the writer because 24 Hours was definitely a 5 Star read. This book was about corruption in the world of casino riverboats on the Mississippi River. For the most part, this book moved right along and kept your attention. The dog fighting and the cruelty to animals was heartbreaking. I really enjoyed the authors writing style but thought that near the end of the book, he was slow in wrapping up the story. I definitely did not like the ending.
I've been a long time fan of Greg Isles, but this book was a major disappointment. And this is a shame because all the elements of a good book were present, just not developed. To begin with, the storyline just kept going in circles to the extent I felt about 300 pages could be eliminated with no loss to the book. Penn Cage came across as weak and most of the time I felt as though I was reading his rambling confessional which served no purpose. Other characters, such as Walt Garrity and Kelly were strong only to end up as throw aways. The blood and gore of dogfighting was thrown in to sensationalize and added no value to the story. I hope Mr. Isles doesn't go the route of James Patterson and Patricia Cornwell in thinking he needs graphic details to sell his stories. He's a good writer and in the past has presented interesting plots. This one was a stinker.
I purchased the audio CD version of this book and am finding it almost impossible to understand. It is not enjoyable to listen to because I have to strain to understand what is being said. Whether real or made up, the reader's accent is hard to understand and his voice fades away for dramatic affect continuously through the narration, making it necessary to constantly readjust the volume. I would not recommend purchase of this book on CD.
I really enjoyed the first two books in this series; however this one is just over the top is so many ways. The brutal violence to both humans and animals is really hard to take. There are many instances where a quick reference to what's happening would have been sufficient, but the author chooses to go into graphic detail. We get it--the bad guys are REALLY BAD, but a lot of the violence seemed gratuitous and the ending a little unbelievable.
Life is not the wonderful situation we think it is, but this story is much too steeped in the sheer sickness of the human condition and the minds of those that see everything as their own private tool for their own means. The mystery is a bit weak, as there are times when the "heroes" should have met with their timely end, but did not. The issues of the treatment of women and animals is beyond any words for me and I found it totally an attention getter. Much too obvious for such a fine writer as Mr. Iles.
Exciting from cover to cover. No dull spots at all.But not for young readers. Deals with adult topics of torture, rape and extreme cruelty
Greg Isles was recommended to me as one of the best thriller writers of this generation. You have got to be kidding. You have to make the story believable for me to enjoy a thriller. This story has more holes than swiss cheese and more unexplained occurrences than all UFOs and Nessie sightings added together. If this was submitted as an English paper it would get a passing grade of D-, although I would be tempted take out the red Pen with a big F. I have no idea if this is an aberation, but I will never waste my time with another book by this author to find out.
The is one of Greg Iles WORST books yet. It is too long, too ridiculous and too difficult to plod through. As stated before, the audio book version is impossible to understand in several parts. Usually, I enjoy anything read by Dick Hill, but he "over acts" to the point of distraction. Don't waste your time.... you'll feel as though you're trapped in the Devil's Punchbowl.
So far, I'm halfway thru the book and it's definitely not as good as his other books.
? ? Vm. Yibm
I honestly can't get the visions of a the animal torture out of my head. Truly disturbing is an understatement! Beyond that the plot is just a stretch pulling old characters from books 1 and 2.
Love his books
So far i have read the majority of Greg Iles's novels, and he has not disappointed me! People say it is too graphic, i disagree, its just the right amount. it is true to the true evils of human kind and what they are capable of doing. and i read some reviews stating it as fantasy? is it fantasy that Nazis slaughtered people? is it fantasy that a woman can lift a car to save their entrapped child? Ah, well, each to their own. but this book was great, i was hooked into it and it was great. i do agree that the ending dragged on a bit, but other than that it was terrific!
Farmers grow crops and build a house here
This was my first experience with this author and the character. Which I liked immediately. The pacing of the novel never lets up. The characters are all intense and some very evil in deed. This author was recommended by a fellow book group member.