Carnal Innocence (Page 14)

Overnight, a slow, dreary rain had moved in, soaking the thirsty ground. By mid-morning it had moved on sluggishly to Arkansas, having done little more than turn the dirt to a slick mud that would bake dry by afternoon.

Beside the open grave a huddle of people stood, ankle-deep in the tattered fog that was already burning off in the yellow glare of the sun. Some yards away a narrow line of oaks dripped with rain, a distracting monotone that reminded Cy of the rusty faucet in the bathroom that leaked day and night.

Sometimes he would lie in bed at night thinking that steady drip, drip, drip would drive him crazy. Just like that Chinese water torture he had read about. He was Cy Hatinger, Secret Agent, and the water would drip, drip, drip on the center of his forehead, but he would never break, not even if the water wore right through the skin and bone and down to the brain.

No, they would never break him. He was Bond-James Bond. He was Rambo. He was Indiana Jones.

Then he would just be Cy, stuck in his musty-smelling room, and he would get up, stuff a ragged washcloth under the leak so that the drip would muffle to a bearable plop.

This time he didn't try to block out the sound, but concentrated on it instead, using it to turn his mind away from where he was and what he was doing.

The Reverend Slater seemed ancient to Cy, though in truth the good man was not yet sixty. But Cy's young eyes saw only the thin puffs of white hair on a sunburned scalp, the roadmap lines that scored the wind-roughened face, and the loose skin of his throat that hung stringily from bony chin to concave chest.

To Cy's mind the reverend was too old to know much about life. Then again, today was for death, and there he was bound to be an expert.

Reverend Slater's voice rose and ebbed, flowing melodiously over phrases about salvation and eternal life, and that old standard-God's will.

Cy wondered what would happen if he stepped forward and snatched the Bible out of Reverend Slater's hand.

Excuse me, he could say, but that's a big pile of horseshit. God didn't have anything to do with Edda Lou getting all sliced up. How come we have to put it on Him that she's going into the ground today? How come we just shuck it aside as the will of the Lord when we all know it was a man's hand who held the knife?

He was sick of having everything bad put off that way. If the hail came and sliced the young cotton plants to ribbons, it was God's will.

He knew where hail came from, and it all had to do with hot air hitting cold and turning rain into hard little balls of ice. Cy couldn't picture God sitting up there on His golden throne and deciding it was time to pitch hail at Austin Hatinger's pitiful cotton crop.

Just as he couldn't picture God willing that Edda Lou be hacked to pieces and tossed in the pond.

He wanted to say so. The words almost burned on his tongue in their need to be spoken. He knew his mother would only cry harder and groan and sway. Ruthanne would hush him, mortally embarrassed. Vernon would cuff him hard enough to make his ears ring.

Others might just stare at him. They were mostly ladies who had come, wrapped in their black dresses.

Mrs. Fuller and Mrs. Shays, grouped together with Mrs. Larsson and Mrs. Koons. Darleen was there, too, bawling up a storm so that her mama finally stepped forward and took the baby she was clutching.

There were other women, some who had been friends with Edda Lou, most who'd come out of Christian duty. But men were scarce. Sheriff Truesdale was there, holding his wife's hand. The FBI man stood off to the side, his face solemn and his head bent. But Cy knew that his eyes were watching, watching, watching.

"I am the way, the truth, and the light," Slater intoned, and Mavis swayed so violently into her eldest son that Vernon tipped into his wife and sent a domino reaction around the circle of mourners. Everyone jigged and jogged for a moment while the reverend went on, heedless.

"Whosoever believest in Me will enter the Kingdom."

Cy wanted to shout, to shout at all of them that Edda Lou hadn't believed in anything but Edda Lou. That all this praying and carrying on was only making a bad thing worse. But he kept his silence, and he kept his head down because there was one man attending the graveyard service whom he feared more than he feared the reverend's God.

That was his father.

Austin Hatinger stood straight in his shiny Sunday suit, his ankles and wrists shackled, and a glum-faced deputy flanking him at each side.

He listened to the holy word. He watched as the coffin was lowered into its dark, moist home. And he planned.

He heard his wife's long, ululant cry of grief. His eyes flicked up to her face, saw the ravage done by ceaseless tears. And he plotted.

As the last fingers of fog began to burn off the damp grass, he lowered his head. God had provided, he thought. Concentrating, he stared unblinking into the hole dug for his daughter. In reaction his eyes began to tear. Let them think he was weak with grief, he thought. Let them see a weak, helpless man.

He waited, waited through the end of the service, waited, waited while the women moved to his wife to murmur useless words of condolence.

As they began to walk off toward their cars, one of the deputies nudged him. "Hatinger."

"Please." He focused on that hole in the ground and made his voice tremble. "I need to-pray. To pray with my wife."

He could see by the way the deputies shuffled their feet that they had been moved by the service and the women's tears. Masking everything that was in his heart, he lifted his head. All they could see was the shiny-eyed hopelessness of a father with a dead child.

"Please," he repeated. "She was my daughter. My only daughter. It isn't natural for a man to bury his child, is it? You know what he did to her, don't you?" He looked down so they wouldn't see the hate. "I need to comfort my wife. She ain't strong and this is like to kill her. Just let me hold my wife." He held out his hands. "A man's got a right to hold his wife over his daughter's grave, ain't he?"

"Look, I'm sorry-"

"Come on, Lou." The second deputy had a daughter of his own. "Where the hell can he go with his legs shackled? It's only decent to give him a minute with his wife."

Austin stood, his head bowed and glee in his heart as the key turned on the cuffs. "But we're going to have to stand with you," the deputy who was called Lou said grudgingly. "And you only got five minutes."

"God bless you." Out of the corner of his eye Austin saw that Burke was already in his car and pulling away. A few of the other women had scattered off to older graves to pay respects to family that was gone. Austin took a step forward, opening his arms. Blindly, limply, his wife fell into them.

He held her a moment, waiting, watching as the deputies averted their eyes out of embarrassed respect for the grieving. It was human nature to offer privacy to the mourning. The smattering of people still in the cemetery turned away.

Then he moved fast, so fast that Cy, who had never once seen his parents embrace, stumbled back into the wet grass.

Austin shoved his wife hard against the first deputy, tumbling both him and the screaming Mavis into the open grave. As the other deputy reached for his weapon, Austin rammed him hard in the chest, going in headfirst like a battering ram. The grappling for the gun was brief while Lou, down in the grave, fought to free himself of a flailing, hysterical woman.

Austin rapped the side of the gun across the deputy's head, knocking him unconscious, then snatched a wide-eyed Birdie Shays around the throat.

"I'll kill her," Austin shouted, full of the wrath of God. "I'll kill her dead as my girl, you hear me? You throw out your gun and the keys, or I'll blow a hole in her head fit to drive a truck through."

Birdie made piping sounds and pawed ineffectually at his arm. A few feet away, Ruthanne began to cry, certain she would never live down this newest humiliation.

"Where you gonna go?" Lou demanded, hating the fact that he was crouched on a coffin with a sobbing woman clawing up his back. The guys back in the station were going to ride him about this like a conventioneer rides a twenty-dollar whore. "Think it through, Hatinger. Where you gonna go?"

"Where the Lord leads me." And yes, he could feel the strength and heat of that fierce God pumping through him. His eyes shone with it. ' "Master, I will follow Thee!' " he shouted, cutting off Birdie's air. "Ten seconds, then I do her. After that, I'll just fill that hole you're in with lead, and that'll be that."

Swearing and furious, Lou tossed out the keys.

"Your sidearm, too."


"Five seconds." With a jerk of his head, Austin signaled Vernon to unchain him.

"You oughta just kill them, Daddy," Vernon said between his teeth as he turned the key. The idea had blood surging to his face. "Just shoot the Christless bastards and we'll go to Mexico."

"I ain't going nowhere till this is finished."

Lou popped up, hoping to get off one shot, then ducked down again as a piece of sod two inches away was sheared off by a.38 slug.

"Fucking crazy if he thinks I'm going to end up with a hole in my head." Lou tossed the gun out.

Austin shoved the babbling Birdie toward the grave, where she teetered on the edge for a moment, her eyes wide with dreadful concentration, her arms stretched like a diver preparing for a double gainer. She landed spread-eagle on Lou.

By the time everyone had sorted themselves out, Austin Hatinger was gone, driving off in Birdie Shays's Buick. He was carrying two Police Specials and a gutful of hate.

Jim March stood patiently in the hallway, whistling tunelessly through his teeth and waiting for Caroline to come back down so he could ask her if she wanted the braces on her back porch fixed when the painting was done.

His daddy had run into town for a few supplies, and Jim had opted to stay behind. He was supposed to be painting, but he'd noticed the sag and give in the old porch, and thought his daddy would be pleased if the inquiry led to more work.

Caroline had called down to him to come on in when he'd knocked. He'd been careful to wipe his feet. His mama was a fiend about foot wiping and hand washing. Every few whistles he'd edge his paint-splattered Keds a little farther down the hall. He knew the violin was in the parlor, because he'd seen it through the window. Jim wanted a closer look, the same way he might have wanted one if he'd spotted a brand new Wilson ball glove through Larsson's display window.

He reached the parlor doorway, casual like, he thought. And there it was. He shot a quick glance over his shoulder toward the stairs, then made his dash. He was just going to take one little look, was all, he told himself. One peek, then he'd be back in the hallway lickity-split.

He'd been thinking about that violin ever since Caroline had played it the day before. Jim had never heard music like it, not in all his born days. It made him wonder if there was something special about this violin, something different from the old fiddle Rupert Johnson would sometimes saw on summer nights.

Jim fumbled with the catches on the side, then lifted the top. When he saw it, nestled there against coal-black velvet, it was different. Oh, it seemed to be the same shape and size as old Rupert's, but it was shiny as a new penny. And when Jim worked up the nerve to touch it, its glossy surface was smooth as silk. Or what he imagined silk would be.

Forgetting his vow to take one quick peek, he gently brushed a thumb over the strings.

Caroline heard the telltale open chord when she reached the bottom of the steps. Her first reaction was of irritation. No one touched her instrument. No one. She tuned and polished it herself, often to the amusement of whatever orchestra she was playing with.

Luis had complained more than once that she spent more time stroking the violin than stroking him. That had made her feel guilty-until she'd discovered he'd been doing quite a bit of extracurricular stroking himself.

She strode toward the parlor, the lecture already heating her tongue. Then she stopped. Jim was kneeling beside the violin case, and his thumb brushed carefully across the strings, as gently as if he were stroking the cheek of an infant. But it was his face that stopped Caroline from speaking the sharp words. He looked as though he'd just discovered some marvelous secret. His smile stretched across his face, not in glee but in profound joy. His eyes shone with it.

"Jim," she said quietly, and he jerked to his feet like a puppet on a string. His eyes widened until Caroline was all but sure they were going to swallow the rest of his face.

"I-I-I was just looking. I beg pardon, Miz Caroline, I know I wasn't supposed to. Don't fire my daddy."

"It's all right," she said, and it was. Wouldn't Luis be surprised, she thought, that it was all right with her if a young black boy handled her violin? She'd never allowed Luis to do more than breathe on it.

"You don't have to pay me for the work or nothing," he barreled on. "I know I shouldn'ta done it."

"I said it's all right, Jim." When she touched a hand to his shoulder, the calm amusement in her voice finally reached his rattled brain.

"You ain't mad?"

"No, but it would have been better if you'd asked to see it."

Of course, if he had, she would have said no. Then she would have missed that glimpse of sheer pleasure. The same pleasure she remembered feeling herself, once upon a time.

"Yes, ma'am, I apologize. I sure do. Had no right coming into your parlor like this." Hardly able to believe his good luck, he started backing out. "I was coming in to ask if you wanted that back porch braced, then I just..." It occurred to him he'd be smarter to leave well enough alone.

"What made you want to see it?"

Shoot, he thought, she was going to tell his daddy for sure. Then the shit would be in the fire. "It was just... hearing you play it yesterday. I ain't never heard nothing like the way you made that fiddle sing. So I thought... well, I wondered if it was something special."

"It is to me." Thoughtfully, she took the violin from its case, as she had too many times to count. The weight, the shape, the texture, all so familiar. How much she loved it. And how much she hated it. "Have you ever held one?"

Jim swallowed hard. "Well, old Rupert-that's Deputy Johnson's grandpappy-he showed me a couple of tunes on his fiddle. It ain't nearly as pretty as yours. Don't make music the same neither."

She doubted old Rupert owned a Stradivarius. She had an impulse that surprised her. Then she reminded herself that blocking her impulses was what had landed her in that hospital in Toronto. Freeing them had brought her to Innocence, for better or worse.

"Why don't you show me what you can do?" She offered the violin, and Jim immediately put both hands behind his back.

"No'm, I couldn't. Wouldn't be right."

"It's right if I ask you, isn't it?"

She watched the boy's eyes latch on to the violin, saw the war in his face between desire and what he considered propriety. His hands came out slowly to take it.

"Holy crow," he whispered. "It do shine, don't it?"

Silently, she took out the bow, rosined it. "I wasn't very much older than you the first time I played this violin." She thought back, so far back to the night her parents had given it to her. In her dressing room at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, before her first major solo. She'd been sixteen, and had just finished retching- as quietly and discreetly as possible- in the adjoining bath.

Then her parents had come in, her father so full of beaming pride, her mother so full of desperate ambition, that the sickness hadn't had a chance against them.

She'd never been sure if the violin had been a gift or a bribe or a threat. But she hadn't been able to resist it.

What had she played that first time, Caroline wondered, there in the dressing room heavy with the scent of flowers and greasepaint?

Mozart, she remembered, and smiled a little.

"Show me," she said simply, and handed him the bow.

Jim cast his mind around for what might be best. Settling the violin on his shoulder, he eased the bow over the strings in a few testing sweeps, then launched into "Salty Dog."

By the time he'd finished, the dazed look had left his eyes and a grin was splitting his face. He knew he'd never sounded better, and caught up in the music he flowed into "Casey Jones."

Caroline sat on the arm of the chair and watched. Oh, there were a few wrong notes, and his technique could use a little polishing. But she was impressed, not only with his playing, which was clever and bright, but with the look in his eye, the look that told her he was playing for pleasure.

That was something that had been denied her- and that she had denied herself- for nearly twenty-five years.

Jim came back to himself and cleared his throat. The music was still dancing and swaying inside his head, and his fingers vibrated with it. But he was afraid he was pushing his luck.

"That's just some stuff old Rupert showed me. It's nothing like what you played. That was... holy, I guess."

She had to smile. "I think we can make a bargain, Jim."


"You show me how to play what old Rupert showed you-"

His eyes bulged out of his head. "You want me to show you how to play those tunes?"

"That's right, and in return I'll show you how to play others."

"Like what you was playing yesterday?"

"Yes, like that."

He knew his hands were sweating and made himself give her back the violin before he smudged it and ruined everything. "I'd have to ask my daddy."

"I'll ask him." Caroline tilted her head. "If you'd like to."

"I'd like it just fine."

"Then come over here and watch." She remained sitting so he could have a good view of her fingers. "This is called the Minute Waltz. It's by Frederic Chopin."

"Chopin," Jim repeated reverently.

"We won't play it in a minute just yet. It's not a race, it's just for-"


"Yes." She tucked the violin under her chin, relishing that three-letter word. "For fun."

They were well into their first lesson when Deputy Carl Johnson drove by to tell her that Austin Hatinger had escaped.

Caroline made up her mind about two things after Carl Johnson had driven off to pass the word at Sweetwater. First, she was going to renew her target practice. And she was going to get herself a dog. Her initial instinct to pack and run had faded almost before it had begun. What had replaced it was an emotion much stronger and deeper. This was her home now, and she intended to protect it.

Following Jim's advice and directions, she headed down Hog Maw Road toward the Fullers'. Jim had told her that Happy Fuller's bitch Princess had had a litter some two months before.

Happy, changed from her funeral dress to her gardening clothes, greeted her with pleasure. Not only was she pleased to be rid of the single remaining pup, she wanted a new ear to listen to all the excitement.

"I've never been more terrified," Happy was saying as she led Caroline around to the backyard, past a gaggle of ceramic geese and a bed of impatiens. "I was standing aways apart, by my mama's grave. She passed in eighty-five from cancer of the ovaries. Wouldn't see the doctor, Mama wouldn't, so it ran through her like Grant took Richmond. Me, I go into Doc Shays and have a pap smear every six months like clockwork."

"I'm sure that's wise."

"Makes no sense to hide from problems." Happy paused in front of a whirligig of a man sawing wood. The air hung so heavy and still, the little man was getting plenty of rest.

"Anyhow," Happy continued, bending to tug out a weed that had dared intrude on her zinnias, "I'm standing by Mama and I hear all this commotion. Shouting and screaming and what all. Turned around just in time to see that deputy from Greenville go tumbling with Mavis into Edda Lou's grave. Then Austin, he takes a vicious swipe at the other deputy- hardly more than a boy that one- and knocks him clean out with his own pistol. I'm thinking to myself, Holy God in heaven, he's going to open up with that gun. But what does he do? He snatches Birdie 'round the throat and orders that deputy- the one down in the grave- to throw out the key for the leg shackles. Now you could hear Mavis wailing and screaming fit to wake the dead. Lordy, there's plenty to wake there in Blessed Peace. And there's poor Birdie, white as a sheet with a gun right to her head. I thought my heart was going to stop on me. Birdie's a dear friend of mine."

"Yes, I know." Caroline had already heard all this from Carl Johnson, but resigned herself that she would hear it again. And again.

"When Austin let loose with a shot, I'm not ashamed to say I dove behind my mama's headstone. It's a good-sized one, though I had to fight with my brother Dick over the price of it. Dick always was a skinflint. Why, he'll squeeze a penny till Lincoln shouts uncle. Then Vernon- who's just as shifty-eyed as his daddy ever was- unlocked those shackles. Next thing you knew, Austin was shoving poor Birdie into that hole right on top of the deputy from Greenville and poor Mavis. All hell broke loose then, let me tell you. Birdie was screeching, Mavis wailing, and that deputy was cussing like a drunk sailor on a two-day leave."

Happy's lips twitched, and she would have bitten back the smile if she hadn't seen answering amusement in Caroline's eyes.

They stared at each other for a moment, struggling for sobriety. Caroline lost first, with a quick snorting laugh she tried to turn into a cough. Then they were laughing, standing in the bright afternoon sun and howling until Happy had to dig for her hankie and wipe her eyes.

"I tell you, Caroline, it was a sight I'll not forget if I live to a hundred. After Austin took off in Birdie's Buick, I ran over. There they were, all tangled in a heap of arms and legs on top of the coffin. And the first thing I thought- God forgive me- was that it all looked like one of those unnatural sex doings you might see on an X-rated video." Her eyes twinkled. "Not that I've ever seen one, mind you."

"No," Caroline said weakly. "Of course not."

"Birdie's skirts were hiked up nearly to her waist. She's a bit on the heavy side, is Birdie, and I do believe she'd knocked the wind right out of that deputy when she landed on him. His face was red as a raddish. And Mavis, why she was hanging on to his legs and shouting about the hand of God."

"Awful," Caroline managed to say, then dissolved into laughter again. "Oh, it's awful."

Happy honked into her hankie and fought back a fresh spray of giggles. "Then that young deputy woke up, while those of us left at the cemetery were trying to haul Birdie and the rest of them out. Poor boy was stumbling around, and by Jesus, if Cy hadn't caught hold of him, he'd've tumbled right in with them. It was better than watching I Love Lucy."

Caroline had a picture of Ricky Ricardo doing a headfirst dive into a grave. Luuu-cy, I'm home! She sat down on the little stone wall by the impatiens and hugged her sides.

With a sigh, Happy sat beside her. "Oh, my, I'm glad I got that out. Birdie'd never forgive me for laughing."

"It's terrible. Gruesome."

That added another five minutes to their fight for composure.

"Well now." Breath hitching a bit, Happy put away her hankie. "Let me call that damn dog. While you're looking him over, I'll go get us something cold. Princess! Princess, you get on over here and bring that mutt with you. Only got the one left," Happy said conversationally, "and you're welcome to him. Can't tell you nothing about the father, as Princess ain't too particular. Going to have her spayed this time. Meant to before."

Caroline saw a big, yellow-haired dog, thick-bodied, weary-faced, come ambling across the yard. Running circles around her was a good-sized puppy of the same color. Every few seconds he made a dash under her for one of the floppy tits. Princess, who had obviously had enough of motherhood, would shift cagily away.

"Here now." Happy clapped her hands. At the sound, the pup gave up his quest for mother's milk and cheerfully gamboled over. "You're a useless little cuss, aren't you?"

The pup yipped in agreement, wagging his tail so fast and hard his hind end nearly met his nose.

"I'll leave you to get acquainted." Happy rose. "I'll fetch us some iced tea."

Caroline eyed the pup with a good deal of doubt. Certainly he was cute, and it was sweet the way he plopped his big front paws on her knees. But she was after a guard dog, not a pet. It certainly wouldn't do for her to develop a fondness for an animal she would have to give away in a few months.

And though he was already good-sized, he was hardly fierce-looking with his dopey long ears and lolling tongue. His mother stood nearly as tall as Caroline's waist, but she wondered how long it would take for the son to grow that high.

It was a mistake, she decided. She should have asked for the nearest pound and gone in to liberate some fang-dripping Doberman she could keep chained near the back door.

But the pup's fur was soft and warm. While she frowned over him, he licked her hand and swiped his tail so hard, he tumbled off his perch, then set to chasing it.

Once he'd gotten a good bite of it, he yelped, then raced back to her, his big brown eyes full of wonder and doggy chagrin.

"Dummy," she muttered, and picked him up to cuddle. Ah, hell, she thought as he slobbered all over her cheek and throat.

When Happy came out with the iced tea, Caroline had already named him Useless. She decided he'd look very dapper in a red collar.

She bought him one at Larsson's, and added a ten-pound bag of puppy food, a leash, a plastic dish with two bowls, and a flowered cushion which would serve as a dog bed.

He howled in her car the entire time she was in the store. She looked out once to see he'd propped his feet up on the dash and was staring at her with accusation and terror in his big brown eyes. The minute she got back in the car he scrambled into her lap.

After a short battle of wills, Caroline left him curled there for the drive home.

"You're not going to do me a damn bit of good," she said as the pup let out a shuddering sigh of contentment. "I can see that already. I know what the problem is. I always wanted a puppy when I was a little girl. We couldn't have one. Dog hairs in the parlor and piddles on the rug. Then, by the time I was eight, I was already traveling on and off during the summer. So, of course, a pet was out of the question."

She stroked him as she drove, enjoying the warm lump of him on her lap. "The thing is, I'm not going to be here for more than another month or two, so it's not really fair for us to develop a close relationship. Not that we can't be friends," she continued when Useless propped his head in the crook of her elbow and looked up soulfully. "I mean, it's certainly all right to have a little affection, some respect, even some mutual enjoyment for as long as it lasts. Just as long as we both know..." He cuddled against her breast and licked her chin.


By the time she turned in her drive, she was already in love and berating herself for it.

It didn't help to see Tucker sitting on her front porch steps with a bottle of wine beside him and a spray of yellow roses across his lap.