Carnal Innocence (Page 13)
Cy Hatinger's palms were sweating. The rest of him wasn't exactly Arrid-dry either, as they said in the commercials. His armpits dripped, despite his conscientious use of Ban Roll-On. He had hair there now, had for the best part of a year. Between his legs, too. The fact both thrilled and embarrassed him.
His sweat was the sweat of youth, clear and mostly inoffensive. It came from a combination of the thick morning heat and his own fear and excitement. What he was doing would bring his father's holy, belt-flashing wrath down on him.
He was going to ask the Longstreets for work. Of course, his father was in jail, and that comforted him some. The fact that it did brought on hot little flashes of guilt that made him sweat more.
Aren't you glad you use Dial? he thought. Don't you wish everybody did?
He didn't know why he was thinking in commercials, unless it was because his mother left the flickering old TV on day and night. For company, she would say, wringing her hands and looking at him dully out of red-rimmed eyes. She cried just about all the time now, and hardly seemed aware of him or Ruthanne at all.
He might come across her sitting on the sagging and faded sofa. Still in her bathrobe in the middle of the day, a basket of laundry at her feet while she sniffled and watched Days of Our Lives. At this point Cy wasn't sure the tears were for herself or in sympathy for the trials and tribulations of the people in that mythical town of Salem.
To Cy the Hortons and the Bradys of Salem were more real than his mother, who wandered the house like a ghost each night while the TV droned on through Leno's monologue or reruns of sitcoms or commercials for gadgets like the Clapper, that magical boon to society that allowed you to turn on lights or turn off TVs and all you had to do was applaud.
It was like congratulating an electrical appliance, and Cy found it creepy.
He could imagine his mother with one, weeping in the front room and clapping her hands together while the lights jumped and the TV flipped on.
"Thank you, thank you," the dusty screen would say. "And for my next number, here's the Reverend Samuel Harris to show all you sinners the way through those gates of paradise."
Oh, yes, his mama was right fond of all those religion programs with their hypnotic-voiced Reverend this or that, shouting down sin and bartering salvation for social security checks.
After he'd come home from fishing with Jim the day before, he'd followed the sound of organ music and hallelujahs through the kitchen and into the front room, where his mother stared glassy-eyed at the screen. It had scared him more than a little, because for a minute-just a minute-the face of the TV preacher had become his father's face, and his father's all-seeing eyes had stared right at him.
"Got hair between your legs and evil thoughts in your mind," his father had accused. "The next step is fornication. Fornication! It's Satan's tool between your legs, boy."
As he walked along the dusty verge of the road, Cy adjusted Satan's tool, which seemed to have shriveled up in memory of his father's voice.
His father couldn't see him, Cy reminded himself, and swiped his forearm over his sweaty brow. He was in jail and would likely stay there for a while. Just like A.J., who had gone from shoplifting packs of cigarettes and Mars Bars to grand theft auto. The minute the cell doors had clanged shut behind his oldest brother, his father had said he'd no longer had a son named Austin Joseph. Now that his father was in the same kind of pickle, Cy wondered if that meant he no longer had a father.
The sweet relief of that possibility had another flash of guilt slicing through his gut.
He wasn't going to think of his father. He was going to think of getting this job. Cy knew his mother would have forbidden him to set foot on Sweetwater. That pale, pasty look would have come over her face-the look she got when his daddy decided she needed punishment.
What sins had his mother committed? Cy asked himself as his hands clenched and unclenched at his sides. What sins that needed to be washed away in her own blood?
And when black eyes or split lips or bruised ribs had saved her from Satan, she would tell the neighbors how she'd fallen. If the sheriff came by, she would get that horrible, terrified smile on her face and insist, over and over, that she'd taken a tumble down the porch steps.
No matter how often or how viciously those thick fists rained down on her, his ma would stay at his daddy's side.
So Cy knew she would have forbidden him to go to Sweetwater. That was why he hadn't told her.
She noticed so little these days, outside her television world and those whining calls to the lawyer, that Cy had had no problem slipping out of the house that morning. He hadn't even hurried down the hardpack, knowing if she looked out and saw him walking down the road, her eyes would flick over him, then flick back to the screen.
After three miles on the hardpack, he'd hit the gravel on Gooseneck Road, and had been lucky enough to catch a ride for two miles with old Hartford Pruett in the cab of his Chevy pick-up. That left a four-mile walk to Sweetwater.
He'd worked up a powerful thirst by the time he reached the crushed mailbox and splintered pole at the McNair place. He could feel the heat beating up through the soles of his shoes. His throat was dry as a picked bone. Through the morning silence he could hear Jim's daddy singing about the sweet by and by.
The longing rushed through him so fast he could only stand helpless. He knew-because Jim had told him-that his friend had felt his daddy's big, callused hand across his butt. He knew that once when Jim had been four and had wandered off into the swamp, his daddy had found him and had laid a switch across his legs that had made the young Jim dance a jig all the way home.
But Jim's father had never come wheeling down with his fists or locked Jim in his room for two full days with nothing but bread and water. According to him, his daddy had never once, not once, raised a hand to his ma.
And he had seen for himself the way Toby's hand could come down to lay gently, and somehow proudly, on Jim's shoulder. The way they would walk off together with fishing rods over their shoulders. And even though they weren't touching, you could tell they were.
His throat ached miserably, and Cy fought back an urge to walk down the lane to watch Jim and his daddy slap paint on the boards of Miss Edith's place. He knew Toby would turn and smile, his teeth white as the moon against his dark skin-skin scarred by Cy's own father nearly twenty years before.
"Look who's here, Jim," he would say. "Looks to me like that boy's ready to paint. We got us some nice tomato sandwiches for lunch. If you was to pick up a brush and get to work, might be I'd find one for you."
Cy yearned toward the lane. He could almost feel his body lean toward it even as his feet stayed planted on the glass-splattered hardtop.
No son of mine is going to run with niggers. Austin's voice cut through Cy's mind like a rusty blade. If the Lord wanted us to truck with them, he'd've made them white.
But it wasn't that which had Cy turning away from the lane. It was the knowledge that if he spent the morning painting and eating tomato sandwiches with Jim and his daddy, he would never work up the nerve to walk the last mile to Sweetwater.
His faded checked shirt was clinging to his skin by the time he turned through the iron gates. He'd walked nearly eight miles in the steadily spiraling heat, and wished now he'd taken the time for breakfast. His stomach growled ominously one minute, then churned the next, turning his sweat cold with nausea.
Cy took a faded bandanna out of his back pocket and swiped at his face and neck. Maybe it was best he hadn't had that breakfast, because he was pretty sure if there was anything in his stomach, it would be coming up quick. He'd missed supper the night before, too, half sick on his share of a lemon pie he'd gorged on at the fishing hole.
The thought of that lemon pie had his stomach rising. It took two hard swallows to settle it down again. He looked longingly at the cool green grass beyond the line of magnolias. He could just stretch out there a minute, press his hot face into that sweet grass.
But he thought someone might see him, and he'd never get the job.
He put one foot in front of the other.
He'd seen Sweetwater only a time or two before. Sometimes he thought he'd imagined how grand it was, with its white walls and tall, winking windows. But it was never as grand in his imagination as it was in reality. The thought that people lived there, ate and slept there, was an amazement to Cy, who had lived his whole life in a cramped shack with a dirt yard.
Light-headed from heat and hunger, Cy stared at the house as the sun splashed on those white walls and winking windows. Vapors shimmering up from the gravel made it look as though it were underwater. An underwater palace, he thought, and had some vague recollecttion of reading about mermen and mermaids who lived under the sea.
He felt as if he were walking through water. His steps were slow and sluggish and the air he breathed in was like thick, warm liquid that filled up his throat instead of soothing it. A little nervous, he looked down at his feet and wasn't sure if he was relieved or disappointed to see his cracked and dusty shoes instead of a shiny green tail.
The scent of flowers was strong as he rounded the peony bed where his father had recently kicked the shit out of Tucker.
Cy hoped Miss Delia would come to the door. He liked Miss Delia with her wild red hair and colorful jewelry. She'd given him a quarter once just for carrying her bags from the market to her car. And since Miss Delia had thick muscles in her arms, Cy knew she could have carried them herself and saved her quarter.
If she came to the door, she might tell him to come on around back. When he got around to the kitchen, she'd give him a cold glass of lemonade, and maybe a biscuit. Then he would thank her, real polite, and ask her if Lucius Gunn was about, so he could ask the overseer about work.
A little dazed, he found himself on the porch, facing the big carved door with its polished brass knocker. He licked his dry lips, lifted his hand.
The door swung open before he'd reached the knocker. Standing in front of him wasn't Miss Delia but a small, elderly lady who wore orange lipstick and what looked like an eagle feather in her hair. Cy didn't know that the shiny stones around her crepy neck were Russian diamonds. Her feet were bare, and she carried a set of bongos.
"My great-granddaddy on my mama's side was half Chickasaw," Lulu told the gaping Cy. "Might have been a time when my ancestors scalped the hell out of yours."
"Yes'm," Cy said for lack of anything better.
Lulu's orange-slicked mouth curved. "You sure do have a fine head of hair on you, boy." She threw back her head and let out with a screeching warwhoop that had Cy stumbling back.
"I just-I just-I just-" was all Cy managed to get out.
"Cousin Lulu, you're scaring the spit out of that boy." Tucker strolled up to the door, his grin indulgent. "She's only fooling." It took him a moment to place the boy, then most of the grin faded. "What can I do for you, Cy?"
"I... I came down looking for work," he said, then pitched forward in a dead faint.
Something was dripping down Cy's temples as he surfaced. For a horrible moment he thought it was his own blood from where the crazy woman had scalped him. He struggled weakly against the syrupy world of unconsciousness and tried to sit up.
"Just hold on, boy."
It was Miss Delia's voice, and Cy was so relieved to hear it that he nearly floated off again. But she slapped her hand lightly against his cheeks until he opened his eyes.
She was wearing painted wooden earrings in the shape of parrots. Cy watched them swing as she cooled his face with a damp cloth.
"Passed clean out," she told him cheerfully. "Tucker hadn't been quick enough to catch you, you'd've bashed your head good on the porch." Cupping a hand behind his neck, she lifted a glass to his lips. "I was coming down the steps and saw it myself. Don't believe Tucker's moved that fast since his daddy found out he broke one of the panes in the sun room."
From over the back of the sofa Lulu leaned down, nearly into his face. She smelled like a lilac bush, Cy discovered. "Didn't mean to scare you green, boy."
"No, ma'am. I was just... I think I had too much sun is all."
Hearing the mortification in the boy's voice, Tucker stepped forward. "Stop fussing over him. He's not the first one to pass out in this house."
Delia turned to spit at him, but caught the gentle warning in Tucker's eye and understood. "I got work to do. Cousin Lulu, I'd be obliged if you'd come up with me. I'm thinking of changing the curtains in the Rose Room."
"Don't see why." But Lulu was interested enough to tag along.
When they were alone, Tucker sat down on the coffee table. "Cousin Lulu's developed an interest in her Indian heritage."
"Yes, sir." Since Cy felt he'd humiliated himself beyond redemption, he got shakily to his feet. "I guess I'd best get on."
Tucker looked up at the pale face with its two flags of embarrassment riding high on bony cheeks. "You came a long way to talk about work." Best part of ten miles, Tucker thought. Christ in a sidecar, had the boy hoofed it in all this heat? "Why don't you come on back with me to the kitchen? I was about to get some breakfast. You can join me and say your piece."
Cy felt a splinter of hope prick through the haze. "Yes, sir. I'd be obliged."
He did his best not to gawk as he followed Tucker down the hallway with its gleaming floors. There were paintings on the walls, richer, more elegant than anything he'd seen before. He had an urge to touch one but kept his hands close to his sides.
In the kitchen with its rose-colored counters and shiny white tiles, the light was golden and cool.
Cy's stomach juices started churning the minute Tucker opened the door of the Whirlpool refrigerator and revealed shelf after shelf of food. When he took out a platter of ham, Cy's eyes nearly fell out of his head.
"Have a seat while I fry some of this up."
Cy would have eaten it cold. Hell, he'd have eaten it raw, but he choked down the whimper and sat. "Yes, sir."
"I believe we've got some biscuits around here, too. You want coffee or a Coke?"
Cy rubbed his damp hands on his thighs. "A Coke'd be fine, thank you, Mr. Longstreet."
"I expect you can call me Tucker since you fainted on my porch." Tucker popped the top on a chilled sixteen-ounce bottle and set it in front of Cy.
By the time he'd tossed a couple of slices of ham in a skillet, Cy had downed half the bottle. A belch erupted out of him and had his pale face going red as an American Beauty rose.
"Beg pardon," he muttered, and Tucker bit back a chuckle.
"Them bubbles work on a man." As the ham began to sizzle, tormenting Cy with its aroma, Tucker tossed him a cold biscuit. "Sop some of them up with that. I'm going to heat the rest up in this atomic oven. If I can figure it out."
While Tucker pondered over the microwave, Cy devoured the biscuit in two famished bites. Tucker caught the act out of the corner of his eye and decided to add eggs to the ham. The boy was eating like a starved wolf.
The eggs were a little runny in the center and singed on the edges, but Cy's eyes rounded with gratitude when Tucker set the plate in front of him.
As they ate, he studied the boy who was plowing through ham and eggs.
Good-looking kid, Tucker mused. For some reason Cy reminded him of a picture of the apostle John in the family Bible. Young and frail and lit with some inner light. But he was thin as a rail-not just teenage gangly, but painfully thin, his elbow sharp edges, his wrists like sticks. What the hell was that bastard doing? he wondered. Starving his kids into heaven?
Patient, he waited until Cy had mopped up every trace of egg.
"So, you're looking for work," Tucker began, and Cy nodded, his mouth still full. "Anything particular in mind?"
Cy swallowed gamefully. "Yes, sir. Heard you were hiring on for the fields."
"Lucius is pretty much in charge of hiring field hands," Tucker said. "He's gone to Jackson for a day or two."
Cy felt the strength the good food had put back into him waver. He'd come all this way, only to be told to go home and try again.
"Maybe you could tell me if you're hiring."
Tucker knew they were, but there was no way in hell he was putting this pale, hollow-eyed boy with pencil-thin arms out in a cotton field. He started to tell him they had all the hands they needed, but something in those dark, shadowed eyes stopped him.
This was Edda Lou's brother, he reminded himself. Austin's son. The last thing in this world he needed was to hire on a Hatinger. Christ knew, he had no business caring about one. But those eyes stayed steady on his, full of hope and despair and painful youth.
"You know how to ride a tractor?"
The hope began to deepen. "Yes, sir."
"Can you tell the difference between a weed and a pansy?"
"I think so."
"Can you swing a hammer without hitting your thumb?"
Unexpectedly, Cy felt his lips twitch. "Most times."
"What I need is something more than a field hand. I need somebody to keep things up around here. What you might call a man of all work."
"I-I can do anything you want."
Tucker took out a cigarette. "I can give you four an hour," he said, and pretended not to hear Cy's sputter of amazement. "And Delia'd give you your lunch at noon. Or thereabouts. You can take your time eating, but I expect you to watch the clock. I don't pay you for munching on corn bread."
"I won't cheat you, Mr. Longstreet-Mr. Tucker. I swear it."
"No. I don't expect you will." The boy was as unlike the rest of his family as day to night. Tucker had to wonder how such things happened. "You can start now if you want to."
"Sure I can." Cy was already pushing back from the table. "I'll be here every day, first thing. And I can..." He trailed off as he remembered Edda's Lou's funeral the next day. "I-ah-tomorrow..."
"I know." It was all Tucker could think of to say. "You do this little job for me today, then come on back Wednesday, and that'll be fine."
"Yes, sir, I'll be here. I sure will."
"Come on out here." Tucker led him out the door and across the patio, over the green lawn to a shed. After rapping on the side a few times in case any snakes were napping inside, Tucker pulled open the door. Its hinges squeaked like old bones. "I expect you ought to oil those sometime," Tucker said absently.
He was struck with the scent here, the damp richness of peat that brought back memories of his mother turning it into the ground as she planted. What he was looking for was tilted against the shed wall opposite the garden spades and hoes and pruning sheers. Grinning to himself, Tucker dragged out his old ten-speed Schwinn.
Both tires were dead flat, but there was a pump, and there were patches. The chain needed oiling worse than the hinges on the shed door, and the seat had developed a nice coating of mold.
Tucker flicked back the lever of the bell bolted to the handlebars. It jingled. He could see himself flying down the blacktop toward Innocence-he'd driven fast even then-eating up the miles toward cherry Popsicles and fountain Cokes. The sun at his back, and his whole life ahead.
"I want you to clean this up for me."
"Yes, sir." Cy touched a reverent hand to the handlebars. He'd had a bike once, a wobbly second-hander he'd bartered for with a flute he'd carved out of a birch branch. Then one afternoon he'd forgotten and left it in the driveway and his father had crushed it flat with his pick-up.
That'll teach you to put your trust in worldly goods.
"Then I want you to keep it in tune for me," Tucker was saying, and Cy forced himself back. "A good bike's like a good-" Shit, he'd almost said woman.
"Horse. Needs to be ridden well and ridden often. I figure riding this back and forth from your place to here every day ought to do it."
Cy's mouth opened and closed twice. "You want me to ride it?" Cy let his hand fall away from the handlebars. "I don't think I could do that."
"You don't ride a bike?"
"Yes, sir, I can ride one, but... It don't seem right."
"I don't think walking close to twenty miles a day and fainting on my porch is right either." He put his hands on the boy's shoulders. "I've got the bike, I'm not using it. If you're going to work for me, you can't balk on the first thing I ask you."
"No, sir." Cy wet his lips. "If my daddy finds out, he'll be awful mad."
"You look like a smart boy. A smart boy oughta know where he could pull a bike like this off the road someplace close to home, where nobody'd pay much attention to it."
Cy thought of the culvert under Dead Possum Lane where he and Jim used to play soldier. "I guess that's true."
"Fine. Everything you need should be in the shed. Otherwise, ask Delia or me. Mark your time. Payday's on Friday."
Cy watched Tucker's retreating back, then looked down at the dull flecks of blue paint under the grime on the cross bars of the Schwinn.
Three hours later, after he'd finished all the busy work Tucker could think of on such short notice, Cy was cruising down the blacktop. The ten-speed wasn't the slick racing machine it had been in Tucker's day, but for Cy it was a steed, a stallion, a wind-dancing Pegasus.
This time when he got to the lane leading to the McNair place, he turned in. He tilted dangerously on the gravel, muttered "Whoa, boy" to his trusty mount, and managed to keep upright.
He saw Jim and his daddy, each perched on extension ladders that leaned against the side of the house. Fresh blue paint glistened. Halfway down the lane, he couldn't hold back and let out a hoot and a holler.
Jim's paintbrush stopped in midair. "Holy crow, lookit what Cy's got. Where'd you get that?" he shouted. "You steal it or something?"
"Heck, no." He stopped the bike just short of running over some of the petunias-he was a little out of practice. "It's like a loan of transportation." Sliding off, he toed down the kickstand. "I got me a job over to Sweetwater."
"No shit?" Jim said before he remembered his father. His slip earned him a halfhearted bop on the head. "Sorry." But he was still grinning down at Cy. "You working the fields?"
"Nuh-uh. Mr. Tucker said I was going to be his man of all work, and he's paying me four an hour."
"Honest to God. And he said-"
"Hold on. God be patient." Toby shook his head. "You two going to stand around shouting all day? Miz Waverly'll send us packing."
"No, she won't." Amused by the whole scene, Caroline stuck her head out of the window between father and son. "But it seems to me it's a good time to take a break. I've been waiting all day for you to offer me another cup of your wife's lemonade."
"I'd be pleased to. Jim, you go on down. Mind your step." The truth was, Toby wanted to see what was doing himself.
By the time he got down, Jim was already ooing over the Schwinn. Toby went to get the two-gallon cooler while Cy related his adventure.
"Fainted?" Jim said, mightily impressed. "Right there on the porch?"
Caroline stepped through the screen door in time to hear. Her brows drew together. She listened, murmuring an absent thanks to Toby as he handed her a paper cup filled with tart lemonade. Tucker had hired the boy, she thought in amazement. As a-for heaven's sake-man of all work. Chores Tucker was to lazy to do himself, she decided. The child was stick-thin and hollow-eyed. She'd been much the same herself not so long ago, and she felt pangs of empathy and annoyance.
"That boy has no business working," she said under her breath.
"Oh, I expect he'd like some pocket money," Toby said easily.
"He looks like he could use a hot meal more." She started to call out, prepared to fix the child a late lunch herself. "What's his name?"
"He's Cy, Miz Waverly. Cy Hatinger."
Her blood froze. "Hatinger?"
Toby's eyes flicked away from the appalled look in hers. "He ain't nothing like his daddy, Miz Waverly." In an old habit, Toby ran a fingertip down the scar on his cheek. "He's a good boy. Hope you don't think I'm overstepping, but I'm partial to him. He's a good friend to Jim."
Caroline struggled with her conscience. He was a child, after all. She had no business having this urge to shout him off her land only because he carried the Hatinger name. And Hatinger blood.
The bike's bell jingled as Cy and Jim took turns ringing it.
The sins of the fathers. That had been Austin's quote. And his threat. She didn't believe it, not when she looked out at the thin-faced boy who smiled like a dreamy angel.
His head came up, not like an angel's but like a wolfs-fast and wary. "Ma'am?"
"I was about to fix myself some lunch. Would you like some?"
"No, ma'am, thank you, ma'am. I had me some breakfast down to Sweetwater. Mr. Tucker, he fixed me up ham and eggs himself."
"He... I see." But she didn't see at all. Beside her, Toby let out a bellow of laughter.
"Tuck cooked, you ate, and you're still standing? Boy, you must have a cast-iron stomach."
"He cooked it good. He has this microwave. He put biscuits in and quick as you blink they came out again steaming." Revving up, Cy went on about how he was going to get lunch fixed for him every day by Miss Delia, and about the loan of the bike, and how Mr. Tucker had given him two dollars in advance already.
"And he said I should spend it as I pleased-as was a man's privilege with his first pay-long as it wasn't on whiskey and women." He flushed a little and shot a look at Caroline. "He was only kidding."
Caroline smiled. "I'm sure you're right."
Cy thought she was the prettiest female he'd ever seen. He was afraid if he kept looking at her, his old tool of Satan would start to twitch. So he looked at the ground. "I'm awful sorry about how my daddy shot out your windows."
Caroline hated to see his thin shoulders go tense that way. "They're all fixed now, Cy."
"Yes'm." He was going to say something, maybe offer her the two dollars for the damage, but he heard the car. Seconds before any of the others heard the sound of the engine slowing, the whisper of gravel under tires, he turned. "It's that FBI man," Cy said, his voice expressionless.
They all watched in silence as Matthew Burns drove up and stopped at the end of the lane.
He wasn't terribly pleased to come across the crowd. He'd hoped to find her alone so that they could have a leisurely chat. But he fixed a pleasant enough smile on his face as he stepped from the car.
"Good afternoon, Caroline."
"Hello, Matthew. What can I do for you?"
"Nothing official. I had an hour free, and thought I'd drop by to see how you were."
"I'm fine." But she knew that wouldn't be enough. "Would you like some iced tea?"
"That would be wonderful." He stopped by the bike where Cy had his eyes planted firmly on the ground. "You're the young Hatinger boy, correct?"
"Yessir." Cy remembered Burns coming out to the house, trying to get some sense out of Ma while she wept into her apron. "I'd best be getting home."
"Come on, Jim. Let's get back to work."
"I wish you'd take a longer break, Toby. It's so hot."
"Toby?" Matthew's gaze sharpened on the broad-shouldered black man. "Toby March?"
Muscles tensed, Toby nodded. "That's right."
"Coincidentally, your name's on my list to be interviewed. That scar on your face. Hatinger gave that to you?"
"Matthew," Caroline said, appalled, her gaze locking on Cy's face.
"I gotta go," Cy said again, quickly. "Maybe I'll see you tomorrow, Jim." He hopped on the bike and pedaled furiously.
"Matthew, did you have to do that with the child here?"
Burns spread his hands. "In a town like this, I'm sure the boy knows already. Now, Mr. March, if you have a moment."
"Jim, you go on around and scrape that window trim."
"Do as I say."
Head down, shoulders slumped, Jim obeyed.
"You wanted to ask me a question, Mr. Burns."
"Agent Burns. Yes. About your scar."
"I've had it going on twenty years, from when Austin Hatinger come down on me for being a thief." Toby bent to lift an unopened bucket of paint and turned it back and forth in his broad hands.
"He accused you of stealing."
"He said I took some rope from his place. But I never took nothing wasn't mine in my life."
"And there've been hard feelings between you since."
Toby continued to shift the can. Caroline could hear the paint slop gently inside. "We ain't been what you'd call neighborly."
Burns took a pad out of his pocket. "Sheriff Truesdale has a report of a cross-burning on your lawn some six months ago. According to your statement, you believed Austin Hatinger and his son, Vernon, were responsible."
Something cold and hard flashed into Toby's eyes. "I couldn't prove it. I couldn't prove it when I came out of Larsson's one evening and found the tires on my truck slashed, either. And Vernon Hatinger was standing across the street paring his fingernails with his pocket knife and grinning. Even when Vernon says to me I should be glad it was my tires this time and not my face, I couldn't prove anything. So I just said what I thought. Hatinger didn't like his boy being seen with mine."
"There was an altercation between you and Austin Hatinger a few weeks later, in the hardware store, where he threatened to harm your son if you didn't keep him away from Cy. Is that true?"
"He come in while I was buying some three-penny nails. He said some things."
"Do you recall what things?"
Toby's jaw set. "He said, 'Nigger, keep your little black bastard away from what's mine or I'll peel the skin off him.' I said if he touched my boy, I'd kill him."
The quiet, dispassionate way Toby said it sent a chill racing up Caroline's spine.
"He said some more things, quoting scripture and talking trash about how us 'coons' forgot where was our place. Then he picked up a hammer. We got to fighting there in the store, and somebody took off for the sheriff, I guess, cause he come hauling ass and broke it up."
"And did you say to Hatinger something along the lines of..." He consulted his pad again. " 'You'd be better off worrying about how often that girl of yours is spreading her legs than about Cy fishing with my Jim'?"
"And the girl you were referring to was the now-deceased Edda Lou Hatinger?"
Slowly, Toby set down the paint can. "He was saying things about my family. Shouting filth about my Jim and my little Lucy and my wife. Not a week before that Vernon stopped my wife on the street and told her she'd best keep a closer eye on her boy before he got himself a broken arm or leg. A man don't have to take that from nobody."
"And so you brought up Miss Hatinger's sexual habits."
Toby's skin heated with anger. "I was mad. Maybe I shouldn't've brought in his kin since it was him that riled me."
"But I'm curious how you happen to be acquainted with the deceased's sexual habits."
"Everybody knows it didn't take much to get her on her back." He looked at Caroline with mute apology.
"And do you have personal knowledge of that?"
Now the fury flashed, bright as a sword in his eyes. Frightened by it, Caroline stepped forward to lay a warning hand on his arm.
"I took vows to a woman fifteen years ago," Toby said, clenching his fists. "I've been faithful to her."
"Well, Mr. March, I have a witness who claims you visited Edda Lou Hatinger three or four times in her room at the Innocence Boarding House."
"That's a shit-faced lie. I never been in her room-not when she was there."
"But you were in her room?"
Toby began to feel something very much like a noose tighten around his throat. "Mrs. Koons hired me on to do some work there. I retrimmed the windows in all the rooms. Did some painting, too."
"And when you did your work in Edda Lou's room, you were alone?"
"You were never in the room with her?"
Toby stared at Burns for a slow five seconds. "When she came in, I went out," he said simply. "Now I gotta get my work done and see to my boy."
When Toby stepped off the porch and around the side, Caroline realized she was trembling. "That was horrible."
"I'm sorry, Caroline." Burns put his pad away. "Questioning suspects can be difficult."
"You don't believe he killed that girl because of the hateful things her father did." Though she wanted to shout it, she forced herself to speak quietly. "He's a family man. You only have to see him with his son to understand what kind of person he is."
"Believe me, Caroline, a murderer does not often look like a murderer. Particularly a serial killer. I could give you statistics and psychological patterns that would astonish you."
"Please don't," she said coolly.
"I'm sorry you seem to be dragged into this affair again and again." He smiled. "I'd hoped to come by and spend a quiet hour continuing our conversation of the other day. And of course, I'd hoped to persuade you to play for me."
She took three careful breaths. Perhaps, she thought, he couldn't help being an insensitive, arrogant clod. "I'm sorry, Matthew, I'm taking a rest from performing."
"Oh." His face crumpled in disappointment. "Well, perhaps sometime soon. I'm hoping to have some time at the end of the week. From the little research I've done, I'm told there's an adequate seafood restaurant in Greenville. I'd love to take you."
"Thank you, Matthew, but I'm sticking very close to home for now."
He stiffened a bit at the brush-off. "Pity. Well, the work won't wait, I suppose. I'd best get back." He walked to the car, annoyed but not defeated. "I'll take a raincheck on the iced tea if I may."
The moment his dust had cleared, she went inside. For the first time in days, she picked up her violin and played.