Carnal Innocence (Page 16)

Tucker tried the sheriff's office first, but found only Barb Hopkins, the part-time dispatcher, at her little desk in the corner and her six-year-old, Mark, who was playing jailbird in one of the two cells.

"Hey, Tuck." Barb, who'd put on about fifty pounds since she'd graduated with Tucker from Jefferson Davis High, shifted her girth and put down the paperback novel she'd been reading. Her round, jolly face creased into smiles. "We got ourselves some excitement 'round here, don't we?"

"Looks like." Tucker had always had a fondness for Barb, who'd married Lou Hopkins at nineteen and had proceeded to give birth to a boy child every two years thereafter until Mark arrived, at which point she'd told Lou he could either get his dick clipped or take up residence on the sofabed. "Where's the rest of your brood, Barb?"

"Oh, they're running around town, raising hell."

He paused by the cell to look in on the grimy-faced, towheaded Mark. "So, whatcha in for, boy?"

"I kilt 'em." Mark grinned evilly and shook the bars. "I kilt 'em all, but there ain't no jail can hold me."

"I'll bet. We got ourselves a dangerous criminal here, Barb."

"Don't I know it. I come down this morning, and he'd done turned up the heater on the aquarium and fried every living guppy in there. I got a psychopathic fish-murderer on my hands." She dug into the bag of cheese balls on the desk and munched. "So what can I do for you, Tuck?"

"Looking for Burke."

"He deputized a few of the boys, then he and Carl took them out to look for Austin Hatinger. County sheriff come down, too, in his 'copter. We got ourselves a regular manhunt. Wasn't so much him taking a few shots at you and blowing out that Caroline Waverly's windows," Barb said complacently. "But he dented that county deputy's head pretty good, and embarrassed the shit out of the other one. Now Austin's an escaped felon. He's in big trouble."

"The FBI?"

"Oh, Special Agent Suit-and-Tie? Well, he's leaving this business pretty much up to the local boys. Went out with them for form's sake, but he was more interested in his interviews." She took another handful of cheese balls. "I happened to see one of them lists he makes. Looked like he wanted to talk to Vernon Hatinger, Toby March, Darleen Talbot, and Nancy Koons." Barb licked salt off her fingers. "You, too, Tuck."

"Yeah, I figured he'd get around to me again. Can you call Burke up on that thing?" He pointed to her radio. "Find out where he is and if he's got a minute for me?"

"Sure can. They took walkie-talkies." Obligingly, Barb wiped her orange-smeared fingers, fiddled with some dials, cleared her throat, then clicked on her mike. "This is base calling unit one. Base calling unit one. Over." She put her hand over the mike and grinned at Tuck. "That Jed Larsson said how we should use code names like Silver Fox and Big Bear. Ain't he a one?" With a shake of her head she leaned down to the mike again. "Base calling unit one. Burke honey, y'all out there?"

"Unit one, base. Sorry, Barb, had my hands full. Over."

"I got Tucker here in the office, Burke, says he needs to talk to you."

"Well, put him on, then."

Tucker bent down to the mike. "Burke, I got something I need to run by you. Can I come on out?"

There was a sharp whine of feedback, a protesting oath, and a scratching of static. "I'm pretty tied up right now, Tuck, but you can ride on down to where Dog Street Road runs off into Lone Tree. We got a roadblock set up there. Over."

"I'll be right along." He looked doubtfully at the mike. "Ah, over and out."

Barb grinned at him. "If I was you, I'd keep a shotgun across my lap. Austin got himself two Police Specials this morning."

"Yeah, thanks, Barb."

As Tucker walked out, Mark rattled his cage and shouted gleefully: "I kilt 'em. I kilt 'em all!"

Tucker shuddered. He wasn't thinking about fish.

He spotted two 'copters circling on his way out of town. A trio of men spread out like a long V over old Stokey's field. Another group was making a sweep of Charlie O'Hara's catfish farm. Every one of them was armed.

It reminded Tucker miserably of the search for Francie. Before he could prevent it, her dead, white face floated into his mind. On an oath he fumbled for a cassette. It was with relief that he realized he hadn't punched in Tammy Wynette or Loretta Lynn-two of Josie's favorites-but Roy Orbison.

The plaintive, silvery notes of "Crying" calmed him. They weren't out looking for a body, he assured himself. They were just hunting up an idiot. An idiot with a pair of.38s.

On the long straight road he could see the barricade five miles before he came to it. It occurred to him that if Austin came tooling down this way in Birdie's Buick, he'd have the same advantage. The wooden blockades were painted bright orange and glowed in the quieting sunlight. Behind them, two county cruisers sat nose to nose like two big black-and-white dogs sniffing each other.

Ranged along the shoulder of the road were Jed Larsson's shiny new Dodge pick-up-between the store and the catfish, Jed was doing real well-Sonny Talbot's truck with its big round lights hooked to the roof like a pair of yellow eyes, Burke's cruiser, and Lou Hopkins's Chevy van.

Lou's van was dusty as an old hound. Someone had scrawled wash me! through the grime on the rear window.

As Tucker slowed, he noted that two county boys stepped forward, rifles oiled and ready. Though he didn't think they'd shoot first and ask questions later, he was grateful when Burke waved them off.

"You got yourself a real operation here, don't you?" Tucker commented as he stepped out.

"County sheriffs spitting fire," Burke muttered. "He didn't like it that the FBI was around to see this screw-up. He thinks Austin's halfway to Mexico by now, but he doesn't want to say so."

Tucker took out his cigarettes, offered one to Burke, then lighted one of his own. "What do you think?"

Burke blew out a long, slow stream of smoke. It had been a hellishly long day, and he was glad to talk to Tucker.

"Seems to me if a man knew the swamps and rivers around here, he could lay low for a good long time. 'Specially if he had a reason to." He eyed Tucker. "We're going to post a couple of uniforms at Sweetwater."

"Shit on that."

"Gotta do it, Tuck. Come on now." He dropped a hand on Tucker's shoulder. "You got women out there."

Tucker looked across to where the long flat gave way to trees, and trees to swamp. "What a fucking mess."

"It is that."

Something in Burke's voice had Tucker looking back at him. "What else is on your mind?"

"Ain't this enough?"

"I've known you too long, son."

Burke glanced behind him, then edged a few more feet away from the county deputies. "Bobby Lee came by the house last night."

"Now, there's news."

Burke looked miserably at Tucker. "He wants to marry Marvella. Got his gumption up and asked to speak to me in private. We went on out on the back porch. Shit, Tuck, it scared me bloodless. I was afraid he was going to tell me he'd gotten her pregnant, then I'd've had to kill him or something." He saw Tucker's grin and answered it weakly. "Yeah, I know, I know. But it's different when it's your little girl. Anyway-" He blew in smoke, chuffed it out. "He didn't get her pregnant. I guess kids're smarter today about being protected and all. I remember driving clear into Greenville to buy rubbers when I was courting Susie." His grin was a little stronger. "Then when we got into the backseat of my daddy's Chevy, I left them in my pocket." The grin faded. "Of course, if I'd have remembered them, we wouldn't have had Marvella."

"What did you tell him, Burke?"

"Shit, what could I tell him?" He rested a hand absently on the butt of his gun. "She's grown up on me. She wants him, and that's that. He's got a decent job at Talbot's, and he's a good boy. He's crazy in love with her, and I've gotta figure he'll do right. But it damn near breaks my heart."

"How'd Susie take it?"

"Cried buckets." On a sigh, Burke tossed down the cigarette and stamped it out. "And when Marvella started in on how they were thinking of moving to Jackson, I thought she'd flood the house. Then she and Marvella cried together awhile. When they dried up, they started talking about bridesmaid's dresses. I left them to it."

"Getting old sucks, huh?"

"That's the truth." But he felt better having gotten it off his chest. "Keep it under your hat for a bit. They're going to break it to the Fullers this evening."

"You got room in your head for something else?"

"It'd be a pure pleasure to push this out for a while."

Tucker leaned back against the hood of Josie's car and told a tale of lipstick and adultery.

"Darleen and Billy T.?" Burke frowned as he thought it through. "I haven't gotten wind of that."

"Ask Susie."

Burke sighed and nodded. "That woman can keep a secret, God knows. She was three months gone with Tommy before she told me. Worried I'd be upset because we were just scraping by. With Marvella being in love with Darleen's brother, I can see how she'd keep it to herself." Thinking, he jingled his keys. "The thing is, Tucker, I can't go up to Billy T. about all this just because Darleen's using the same kind of lipstick as Josie."

"I know you've got a lot going on, Burke. Just figured I should pass it along."

Burke gave a grunt of assent. They would lose the light soon, and God knew where Austin had gone to ground. "I'll talk to Susie tonight. If it turns out Billy T.'s been seeing Darleen on the sly, I'll make some time to feel him out."

"Appreciate it." But now that his duty was done, Tucker figured he would do some feeling out of his own.

The next morning, strung out after barely five hours' sleep, Burke was spooning up corn flakes, worrying about having an armed escapee in his territory-they'd found the Buick ditched out on Cottonseed Road, and nobody was thinking Austin was in Mexico now. On top of that, there was the issue of whether he'd have to rent a tuxedo to give his daughter away.

Susie was already on the phone with Happy Fuller, and the two of them were mapping out wedding plans with the intensity and guile of generals mounting a major campaign.

He was wondering how long the county sheriff would be on his back, when the screams and crashes from next door had him jumping to his feet.

Holy Christ, he thought, how could he have forgotten about the Talbots? By the time Susie came rushing in, Burke was already clearing the fence that separated the yards.

"You've killed him! You've killed him!" Darleen screamed. She was backed into a corner of the small, jumbled kitchen, pulling her hair. The elastic bodice of her shortie nightgown was drawn down, cupped beneath one white, jiggling breast.

Burke looked politely away from that to the overturned table, the splattered remains of soggy cereal, and the prone figure of Billy T. Bonny, who lay facedown in a pool of grits.

Burke shook his head and looked at Junior Talbot standing over Billy T. with a cast-iron skillet in his hand.

"I sure hope you didn't kill him, Junior."

"Don't figure I did." Junior put the skillet down calmly enough. "Only whacked him once."

"Well, let's take a look." Burke bent down while Darleen continued to scream and yank at her hair. In the playpen, Scooter was raising the roof. "Just knocked him cold," Burke said, taking in the sizable lump coming up on the back of Billy T.'s head. "Should probably get him over to Doc's, though."

"I'll help you haul him."

Still crouched, Burke glanced up. "You want to tell me what went on here, Junior?"

"Well..." Junior righted a chair. "Seems I forgot to tell Darleen something. When I came on back, I saw that Billy T. there had snuck into the kitchen and was forcing himself on my wife." He shot Darleen a look that shut off her wailing like a finger on a switch. "Ain't that right, Darleen?"

"I..." She sniffled, and her eyes darted from Burke to Billy T. and back to Junior. "That's right. I-he was on me so quick, I didn't know what to do. Then Junior came back, and..."

"You go on and see to the baby," Junior said quietly. He reached over with that same unruffled calm and pulled the pink rayon over her breast. "You don't have to worry about Billy T. bothering you again."

She swallowed and her head bobbed twice. "Yes, Junior."

She rushed out and in a moment the baby's wails turned to hiccoughing sobs. Junior looked back at Billy T. He was beginning to stir a little.

"A man has to protect what's his, don't he, Sheriff?"

Burke hooked his arms under Billy T.'s. "I expect he does, Junior. Let's haul him out to my car."

Cy was happy. It shamed him a little to be so happy when his sister had just been put in the ground and the whole town was whispering about his father. But he couldn't help it.

It was almost enough just to be out of the house where his mother was sprawled, glassy-eyed with whatever pills Doc had given her, watching the Today show.

But it was better than just getting out of the house, better than walking away from the police car that sat in the yard waiting to see if his daddy would try to come home. Cy was going to work. And he was going in style.

His shoes kicked up dust and his lips whistled a tune. The prospect of walking and biking ten miles didn't daunt him in the least. He was embarking on the Cy Hatinger Freedom Fund. The fund that was going to buy his way out of Innocence on his eighteenth birthday.

The four years stretched painfully long, but not as hopeless as they had been before he'd become a man of all work.

He like the title, and imagined himself with one of those business cards, like that Bible salesman from Vicksburg had given his mother last April. It would read:

Cyrus Hatinger

Man Of All Work

• • •

No job too big

No job too small

Yessir, he was on his way. By the time he was eighteen, he'd have saved enough to buy himself a ticket to Jackson. Maybe even New Orleans. Shitfire! He could go clean to California if he'd a mind to.

Humming "California, Here I Come," he veered off the hardpack to cross the edge of Toby March's east field. He wondered if Jim would be over at Miss Waverly's painting, and if he'd have time to scoot by and say hey.

He crossed Little Hope stream, which was hardly more than a piss trickle at this time of year, and followed it down to the culvert.

He remembered how he and Jim had scrawled their names on the rounded concrete in Crayolas. And how, in more recent times, they'd pored over every page of a Playboy magazine Cy had swiped from under his brother A.J.'s mattress.

Those pictures had been something, he remembered. And for Cy, who had never seen a naked female, it had been an awe-inspiring experience. His pecker had gotten hard as a rock. And that night the old tool of Satan had cut loose in his first and fascinating wet dream.

And hadn't his mama been surprised when he'd done the laundry for her?

Grinning a little over the memory-and wondering if he'd have the experience again anytime soon-he slid down the gentle bank of Little Hope and headed into the culvert.

A hand slapped over his mouth, cutting off his cheerful whistle. He didn't try to scream or struggle. He knew that hand, the shape, the texture, even the smell of it. His fear was much too deep, much too hopeless for screams.

"I found your little hole," Austin whispered. "Your den of sin with your filthy book and your nigger writing. You boys come down here to jerk each other off?"

Cy could only shake his head. He grunted when Austin shoved him against the hard, rounded wall of the culvert. He expected the belt to flash, but even as he braced, he saw his father wasn't wearing one.

They take away your belt when they put you in jail, he remembered. Take it away so you can't hang yourself.

He swallowed. His father was crouched over because the culvert was too low to allow him to rise to his full height. But the position didn't diminish him. If anything, it made him seem larger, stronger. With his back rounded, his legs bent and spread, his face and hands blackened with dirt, he looked like something horrible waiting to pounce.

Cy swallowed again, his throat clicking. "They're looking for you, Daddy."

"I know they're looking for me. They ain't found me, have they?"

"No, sir."

"You know why, boy? It's because I got God on my side. Those Christless bastards'll never find me. What we got here's a holy war." He smiled, and Cy felt ice flow into his belly. "They put me in jail, and they left that murdering son of a whore free. She was a whore. Whore of Babylon," he said softly. "Selling herself when she was mine."

Cy didn't know what he was talking about, but nodded. "Yes sir."

"They'll be punished. 'They shall bear the punishment of their iniquity.' " His hands began to clench and unclench slowly. "All of them. Down to the last generation." His eyes cleared and focused on Cy again. "Where'd you get that bike, boy?"

He started to claim it was Jim's, but with his father's eyes on him, feared the lie might burn his tongue off. "It's just loaned to me, is all." He began to shake, knowing there was no choice. "I got me a job. I got work down at Sweetwater."

Austin's eyes went blank as he took a shuffling step forward. Clench, unclench went his big, blackened hands. "You went to that place? That viper's den?"

Cy knew there were worse things than belts. There were fists. Tears sprang to his eyes. "I won't go back, Daddy. I swear. I only thought-" A hand closed over his throat, cutting off words and air.

"Even my son betrays me. Flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone." He tossed Cy aside like a limp sock. The boy's elbows banged painfully on the concrete, but he didn't cry out. For a long time there was only the sound of breathing.

"You will go back," Austin said at length. "You'll go back and you'll watch. You'll tell me what he does, which room he sleeps in. You'll tell me everything you see and hear."

Cy swiped at his eyes. "Yes sir."

"And you'll get me food. Food and water. You bring it here, every morning, every night." He was smiling again when he hunkered down by his son. His breath was bad, foul as a grave. The light seeped through the opening of the culvert hit his irises and turned them almost white. "You don't tell your ma, you don't tell Vernon, you don't tell nobody."

"Yes sir." Cy's head bobbed in desperate agreement. "But Vernon, he'd help you, Daddy. He could get your truck and-"

Austin slapped a hand across Cy's mouth. "I said nobody. They'll be watching Vernon. Watching him day and night because they know he'll stand by me. But you-they won't pay no mind to you. Just remember I'll be watching you. Sometimes I'll be here, waiting. Sometimes I won't. But I'll always be watching you. Understand me? I'll always be watching you, and listening. The Lord will let me see, let me hear. If you make a mistake, His wrath will smite you down, cleave you in two with one mighty blow."

"I'll bring it." Cy's teeth chattered over the words. "I promise. I'll bring it."

He laid his brutal hands on the boy's shoulders. "You tell anyone you seen me, and even God Himself won't save you."

It took Cy almost an hour to bike to Sweetwater. A quarter of the way there he had to stop and toss up his breakfast. When he was empty, he rinsed off his clammy face with the stingy water of the Little Hope. Because his legs were shaking, he had to ride slow or risk a spill. Every few minutes he looked uneasily over his shoulder, almost certain he would see his father behind him, smiling that smile and snapping the belt they'd taken away from him at the county jail.

When he got to Sweetwater, he saw Tucker was on the side terrace, going through the morning mail. Cy parked the bike with deliberate movements.

"Morning, Cy."

"Mr. Tucker." His voice sounded rusty and he coughed to clear it. "I'm sorry about being late. I was-"

"You're calling your own hours, Cy." Tucker glanced absently at a stock report and set it aside. "We got no time clock here."

"Yes sir. If you'll tell me where to start, I'll get right on it."

"Don't rush me," Tucker said pleasantly, and tossed a scrap of bacon to the ever-hopeful Buster. "Had breakfast?"

Cy thought about what he'd lost on the side of the road. His stomach twisted evilly. "Yes sir."

"Then you can come on up here while I finish mine. Then we'll see what's to do."

Reluctantly, Cy climbed the three rounded stairs that led to the terrace. Buster looked up, thumped his tail once in reflex, then burped.

"He's thrilled to have company," Tucker said dryly. He tossed one of Josie's catalogues aside and smiled up at the boy. "Since you're so all-fired-what the hell'd you do to yourself?"

"Sir?" Panic shot into his voice. "I didn't do nothing."

"Hell, boy, your elbows are all scraped to shit." He took Cy's arm, turned it. Blood was still seeping slowly, and there was a scattering of nasty-looking grit in the cuts.

"I just took a spill, is all."

Tucker's eyes narrowed. "Did Vernon do it?" He'd had a few scrapes with Vernon himself, and was well aware the man wouldn't think anything of laying into the boy.

Like father, like son.

"No, sir." Cy felt a rush of relief that at least he could tell the truth. "I swear Vernon didn't touch me. He gets mad sometimes, but I can stay out of his way until he forgets about it. It's not like Daddy-" He broke off, flushing in mortification. "It wasn't Vernon. I just took a spill, is all."

Tucker's brow had lifted during the babbling explanation. There was no use pressing the boy or adding to his embarrassment by making him admit his father and brother used him for a punching bag. "Well, slow down. You go on in, tell Delia to clean you up."

"I don't-"

"Boy." Tucker leaned back. "One of the privileges of being an employer is to give orders. You go on in, get cleaned up, and take a Coke out of the refrigerator. When you come back, I'll have figured out how you're earning your keep today."

"Yes sir." Flooded with guilt, Cy rose. He walked into the house with a heavy heart.

Tucker frowned after him. The boy looked like hell, and that was the truth. But who could blame him? Tucker tossed another scrap of bacon to the dog and figured he'd keep Cy busy enough to ease his mind.

By the time the sun was blazing toward noon, Tucker had Cy occupied on the lawn tractor. Word of the Talbot affair had already raced through town, and thanks to Delia's hotline to Earleen, had reached Sweetwater while Billy T.'s bandages were still fresh.

Like good, hand-dipped ice cream, the story came in several varieties and was consumed with relish. But with the connection between Darleen and Billy T. confirmed, Tucker was interested in only one story.

Junior had found his wife wrapped around Billy T. Bonny on the kitchen table. Billy T. had ended up with a goose egg on the back of his head, and no charges were being filed on either side.

Until something came along to nudge it aside, it would be Innocence's hot news item.

He took the afternoon to think it through, then had a piece of Delia's banana cream pie and thought some more. It was, after all, a matter of principle. A man could walk away from a lot of things, but he didn't get far walking away from his principles.

He bribed Delia for the use of her car with the promise of a new pair of earrings and a full tank of gas. He drove past Caroline's lane, wondering if he could talk her into a movie that night. Half a mile down, where Old Cypress Road crossed Longstreet, he parked.

To get from town to his house, or from his house to town, Billy T. would have to drive by that spot. As far as Tucker knew, Billy T. hadn't missed an evening at McGreedy's since he could hold a pool cue.

Tucker pulled out a cigarette and settled in to wait.

He was sitting on the hood of Delia's car, thinking about lighting a second one, when he saw Caroline being pulled along by the puppy on a red leash.

She nearly stopped her forward progress, and her fruitless attempts to teach the pup to heel, because she thought she caught a flash of annoyance in Tucker's eyes.

Then he was smiling. "Honey," he called out, "where's that dog taking you?"

"We're going for a walk." She was panting a bit by the time she reached the car. Tail wriggling, Useless leapt up to nip at Tucker's ankles.

"This ain't the city." He leaned over enough to scratch the dog's head as Useless hopped on his hind legs. "Around here you just turn 'em loose in the yard."

"I'm trying to teach him to mind the leash."

To show the futility of that, Useless swiveled around and gnawed at it.

"He seems to mind it plenty." He smiled. "You look tired, Caro. Rough night?"

"Well, the puppy cried a lot." And even when he'd settled, she'd had a hard time sleeping, thinking that Austin Hatinger might come rapping at her door.

"Cardboard box and a windup alarm clock."

"I beg your pardon?"

"He's missing his mama. You put him in a box, maybe with that cushion you bought, and tuck an alarm clock in with him. It's like a heartbeat. Lulls them off to sleep."

"Oh." She thought it over and decided not to mention that he'd lulled off just fine when she'd cuddled him into bed with her. "I'll have to give that a try. What are you doing standing on the side of the road?"

"I'm sitting," he corrected her. "Just passing the time."

"It's an odd place to pass it. They haven't caught Hatinger yet, have they?"

"Not so I've heard."

"Tucker, Susie was by earlier and she mentioned Vernon Hatinger. She said he was as bad as his father."

Idly, Tucker snapped his fingers to entertain Useless. "More like he's working up to it, I'd say."

"She said he was always looking to pick a fight, and-"

"Picked a few with me," Tucker interrupted, reminiscing. "Kicked my ass, I'm sorry to say. Then Dwayne kicked his." He grinned, remembering how Dwayne had been before the bottle had taken such a choke hold. "I never could seem to put on muscle as a boy. Even working in the field, I ended up with toothpick arms. But Dwayne, he hulked right up. Used those arms to quarterback on the football team and set all the girls to swooning after him. After Vernon tried to pound some righteousness into my face, Dwayne pounded some sin into his." He let out a long, satisfied breath. "Sin sure as hell won that day."

"I'm sure that's a touching story of male bonding, but my point is, you don't have just Austin to worry about, but Vernon as well."

"There isn't much point worrying about either one of them."

"Why?" she burst out. "Because your big brother will beat them up for you?"

"These days he's too busy beating up himself." He cast a look down Old Cypress Road and saw the telltale plume of gravel dust and the gleam of Billy T.'s souped-up Thunderbird. "It might be best if you walked on back, put this out of your mind. Maybe I'll stop in later and see how that painting's going."

"What is it?" She'd seen that look in his eyes before. When he'd been sprawled on top of her while glass was shattering. When he'd asked her if she had a gun. This man wouldn't need his big brother or anyone else to fight his battles. She heard the roar of Billy T.'s Glasspacks and turned. "What is it, Tucker?"

"Nothing to concern you. Go on home, Caroline." He slid off the hood just as Billy T. screamed to a stop.

She gathered up the puppy and stood her ground.

"Hey, Fucker... I mean Tucker." Billy T. grinned around a toothpick at his own witticism. He wasn't in a sunny mood. His head still ached, and his pride had suffered a more serious blow than his skull. He was in a kick-ass frame of mind.

"Billy T." Hands snug in his pockets, Tucker strolled across the road. "Heard you had a little incident this morning."

His eyes slitted. "What the fuck's it to you?"

"Just making conversation. You know, as it happens, I was just sitting here waiting for you to come along."

"That so?"

"Yeah." Out of the corner of his eye Tucker saw that Caroline had crossed the road as well. Though she stood several feet back, it annoyed the hell out of him. "A little something I'd like to clear up. If you've got the time."

Before Billy T. realized the intention, Tucker had reached in and snatched the keys from the ignition. People often forgot he could move faster than a crawl.

"Or if you don't," Tucker added complacently.

"Shit for brains." Billy T. shoved the door open. "I guess you're hoping for another black eye."

"Well, we'll talk about that. Caroline, if you come a step closer, I'm going to be mighty unhappy with you."

Billy T. slanted Caroline a leer, letting his gaze crawl up her legs, slide over her belly and breasts. "Leave her be, Tuck. Maybe after I've finished smearing you over the road, she'd like to come on and have a peer with a real man."

That brought her chin up. "The only thing I see out here are a couple of sulky schoolboys. Tucker, I don't know what's gotten into you, but I'd like you to drive me home. Right now."

Billy T. grinned and flipped away the toothpick. "Got you pussy-whipped already? Getting your plookie regular, Tuck?"

Outraged, Caroline stepped forward, only to be brought up short by the arm Tucker shot out.

"Now, that's no way to talk about a lady, Billy T., but we'll get to that in a minute. I figured we should have a word about my car."

"Heard your car was down in Jackson getting the pleats ironed out of it."

"You heard correctly. You and me, we never got along too well. And I don't figure we'll get along in the future, but I just can't let what you did to my car go by."

Billy T. snorted and spat. "Way I heard it, you wrecked that car."

"Yeah, after you snuck into Sweetwater like a polecat and diddled with it." Tucker knew Billy T.'s brain wasn't his strong point, and lied with clear eyes. "Darleen let on how you poked those holes in the lines. Guess that wasn't very loyal of her, after you gave her Josie's lipstick."

"She's nothing but a lying slut."

"That may be, but I reckon she's telling the truth about this."

Billy T. swung back the hair that fell across his forehead. "And what if she is? You can't prove it." His lips stretched over his teeth in a sneer. "I can stand right here and tell you that I done it. I walked right down your fancy lane and poked holes in your fancy car. Darleen was feeling blue about your breaking Edda Lou's heart, so I did it to make her feel better. And because I hate your ever-fucking guts. But you ain't going to prove it."

As if considering, Tucker took out a cigarette. "You may have a point there, but that doesn't mean you're going to get off clean." He broke off the tip of the cigarette, lighted it. Caroline took a step back. She recognized that tone, and that look. "It occurred to me that maybe somebody in my family might have taken my car out that morning. Maybe one of them who doesn't handle the wheel as well as I do. You know, Billy T., that just pisses me off."

"You want to do something about it?"

Tucker studied the tip of his cigarette. "I guess I do. I gotta say I don't care for the idea of getting my face pounded on again."

"You always was a chickenshit." Grinning, Billy T. spread his arms. "Go ahead, take your best shot."

"Well, since you put it that way." Tucker kicked him squarely in the crotch.

Billy T. doubled over and a sound escaped him like air coming out of a pressure cooker. Still clutching himself, he went down on the side of the road. When Tucker crouched down and took a firm hold on his bruised genitals, Billy T.'s eyes rolled back in his head.

"Don't pass out, boy, not until I finish what I've got to say. You may start thinking again once your nuts slide down from your throat, and I want you to think about this. Listening?"

"Ga" was about the only sound Billy T. could make.

"Good. You know who holds the note on your family's land? Payment's been late three months running. I'd sure feel bad if I had to foreclose. And that cotton gin where you occasionally find the time to put in a few hours a week? By coincidence, it so happens I own that, too. Now, you want to have a reprisal against me, I guess I can't stop you. But you'll lose your land, and your job, and as God is my witness, I'll do my best to turn you into a soprano while I'm at it." He bore down with his fingers to make his point. All Billy T. could do was moan and roll into a ball. "I was mighty fond of that car," Tucker said with a sigh. "And as it turns out, I'm fond of this lady here that you insulted. So, don't mess with me again, Billy T. I'm not a skinny ten-year-old anymore."

"Leave me alone," Billy T. managed to get out. "You broke something. You broke my works."

"Don't worry, they'll bounce back. That's why they call them balls." When he rose, Tucker noticed that Caroline had dropped the pup, who was now relieving himself on Billy T.'s shoes. He grinned, but gathered the dog up. "Now, that's adding insult to injury."

He turned to where Caroline was standing on the edge of the road, mouth agape, eyes wide. Tucker hitched the pup under his arm. "Come on, sugar. I'll give you that ride home now."

"You're just going to leave him there?" She craned her neck as Tucker pulled her to the Oldsmobile.

"That's the plan. I was thinking we could go take in a movie tonight."

"A movie," she said blankly. "Tucker, I just stood there and watched you kick that man in the..."

"We call them privates in polite company. Scoot on over, unless you want to drive."

Rubbing a hand to her temple, she did. "But that's fighting dirty, isn't it?"

"All fighting's dirty, Caroline, which is why I dearly love to avoid it." He leaned over to give her a quick kiss before starting the engine. In an absent move, he tossed Billy T.'s keys across the road. "Now, about that movie?"

Caroline let out a long breath. "What's playing?"